Monday 30 September 2013

PCA, seeking justice through injustice?

The raging debate in the Malaysian Parliament currently is on the amendments to the “Prevention of Crime Act (PCA)”. If approved, it allows for detention without trial for 2 years and could be extended for a further 2 years. Rather draconian. Although there are assurances that it will be carefully enforced and only on “known criminals”, power once given cannot be easily reined in.

Of course there is also the question that if their “crimes are really known”, then such an Act is not necessary as they can be prosecuted under existing laws. By logical extension then, people who will be jailed under this Act are those whose crimes cannot be proven in Courts.

I understand this Act is tempting in the face of rising crimes in the country. But, do we really want to make this sacrifice of freedom, values and beliefs? What defines fairness, right over wrong, the protection of minority views, and the right to be different, if we do not uphold the universal values of “innocence until proven guilty”? Guilt by accusation reminds us of the dark ages, where women were burnt on accusations of witchcrafts.

One of the justifications of this Act is that the police force finds their work difficult, to put accused criminals away, after the abolishment of the Emergency Ordinance and the Internal Security Act. While I sympathized, surely the solution lies in “better policing”. In training, in personnel, in intelligence services, in technology application and so forth. One would assume policing all over the world faces the same challenges. To quote a movie, Touch of Evil (1958), “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state”.

Let us not make the same mistake as in our education policy. Faced with falling quality of our education due to insufficient good teachers, we lowered the passing grades. It is politically expedient. But what are the consequences?

We need to address the root causes of crime. Why and by whom? We need long-term solutions of upgrading the police force. The answer does not lie in lowering the barrier … whether it is passing grades of students or putting accused criminals in jail!

“There is one, and only one, thing in modern society more hideous than crime namely, repressive justice”. Simone Weil

Friday 27 September 2013

Do we care about rising polarization?

Most of us will agree we see rising polarization in recent years, both in Malaysia and around the world. The usual polarizing issues are religion, race, income or wealth, culture and political ideologies.

The manifestation of this division takes many forms. We see civilized political differences like in Western Democracies. An example is the increasingly divisive politics of the democrats and the republicans in the United States.

Others take the extreme form, and the Al Qaeda comes to mind. The burning and bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the war in Syria and Somalia are other examples of extremism.

Many of these polarizing issues become more extreme and appear to correlate with more freedom or democracy. Examples are the Buddhist attack on the Muslim population in Myanmar and the turmoil in Egypt. This is not to suggest that we stop striving for greater freedom. We are reminded of the famous quotation from Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”.

In Malaysia, I believe we are now living in a much more polarized country, in issues of race, religion and politics. The politics of Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat have sharply divided the nation. The “Allah” and forced conversion issues brought religion to the forefront of daily conversations and shows rising intolerance. Perkasa and others have removed any pretension or embarrassment to take extreme and bigoted views on race.

What account for the rise in polarization?

When people are placed in groups, they tend to make decisions and form opinions that are more extreme than their initial views as an individual. Sociologists describe this tendency as “group polarization”.

There are different theories proposed. One school of thought is the desire of individuals for acceptance by the group and they therefore take a position similar to everyone else’s. They are also tempted to be a little more extreme to present themselves as group “leaders”.

Another theory suggests that people become even more convinced of their views as they hear similar and more novel arguments amongst the group members.

Political scientists have also shown that politicians have an incentive to advance and support polarized positions. Besides, elites (whether politicians, businessmen or social figures) when threatened and feeling insecure, will often resort to provocations, name-calling, incitement and false accusations to legitimize their extractive and monopolistic behaviours.

Further, gerrymandering, or the practice of redistricting creates political polarization by making more homogeneous electoral districts.

The fragmented, high-choice media scene (both print and online) has moved contents to one that is more antagonistic and one-sided from more even-toned programming to induce readerships and audiences.

All the reasons above that support the rise of group polarization are further compounded and accelerated by the popular use of the Internet and online networking. Online social media such as Facebook and Twitter encourage people to seek out others who share similar interests, ideas and values.

Studies have found that group discussions, conducted when discussants are in a distributed (cannot see one another) or anonymous (cannot identify one another) environment will lead to even higher levels of group polarization compared to traditional face to face meetings.

What can we do?

The analysis above suggests that the tendency for extremism is real and the causes for polarization are inherent in our behavior. It is now further exaggerated by the popular use of the Internet and online networking media.

If left unchecked, we are heading to the abyss of a divisive society.

I believe people of knowledge, people of moderation and people of goodwill are duty bound to act to try to prevent this calamity.

Society do tend to bend towards the course of fairness, justice and moderation, But they do not bend easily on its own. We need to help it along. It is our human value and responsibility.

Given that the Internet and social media has now become the dominant facilitator of group polarization, we can only begin to help society away from this polarizing trend by also being part of the Internet and social media.

And it is for this that I have decided to begin this blog.