Privacy and Our Political Culture
By Farish A. Noor
Politics, we must remember, is something that takes place in the
public domain. And it is in that public domain that politicians are
judged for their actions, good and bad, right and wrong. The worth of
a politician and his/her standing depends entirely on his/her conduct
in the execution of the responsibilities that have been entrusted upon
them by the public who voted them into office. And if they fail in the
execution of those duties, then we the public have every justifiable
right to demand an explanation from them. In the final analysis, it is
we the public who determine the fate of the politicians we elect to
represent us, and never vice-versa.
Politics, however, has its limits and the frontier of the political
ends where the private domain begins. Politicians are human beings and
it would be the mistake of the public to assume and expect our
politicians to behave in a manner that is extraordinary by public
standards. For that simple reason the public also has no right to
expect politicians to be and remain politicians every hour, every day
and every year of their lives; for politicians too have every right to
be human and to have the privacy that we expect for ourselves. In the
same way that we hope and wish that our elected representatives will
defend the privacy of our lives, so should we extend that very same
right to them, for they too are ultimately citizens like the rest of
It is therefore sad, to say the least, that the level of Malaysian
politics and political culture has descended to a new low with the
latest revelation of yet another sex scandal that involves a
democratically elected state assemblywoman serving in the state
government of Selangor, Ms Elizabeth Wong. This comes not too long
after another sordid scandal involving another politician – Chua Soi
Lek – who was likewise scandalised by revelations of his private life
being made public. In both cases one can only assume that the
motivation behind this intrusion into the private domain was political
Much has already been written about the two cases and the facts remain
unclear over what actually happened in the case of the unfortunate Ms
Wong, so I will not dwell upon that here.
My contention however is this: When will we Malaysians come to
understand and accept the fact that living in a modern plural
constitutional democracy means having to respect the private space and
private lives of all citizens, be they politicians or shopkeepers?
Political motivations aside, the core of the matter is that another
Malaysian citizen has had her private space intruded into and has been
personally violated in the most abusive and despicable manner. This is
something that no-one should relish, not even for the worst of our
enemies. When it happens to a politician whose commitment to democracy
and human rights is well known to all, then our sense of moral outrage
should be all the greater.
Let us remind ourselves of the simple fact that the private lives of
the victims in question have been without any taint whatsoever. Ms
Wong is an adult woman who is capable of making decisions and choices
of her own, and like any of us she is entitled to live her private
life in the manner she sees fit. No crime has been committed, no
public funds embezzled, no state secrets revealed and no Mongolian
models blown to bits. The pathetic demonstration of moral outrage on
the part of some conservative quarters should therefore be exposed for
what it is: an instance of gross hypocrisy and double-standards at
their most vile.
In the wake of the elections of March 2008, Malaysian society has
demonstrated our desire for change, and for a new politics that befits
and mirrors the new Malaysia we live in. This was the clearest call
ever for a new political culture where feudalism, corruption,
nepotism, hypocrisy and double standards are done away with once and
for all. We are sick and tired of the vacuous moral claims of those
who speak of morality and religion on the one hand, while robbing the
state and eroding our fundamental human rights at the same time.
Defending the private lives and private spaces of our politicians is
therefore part and parcel of the process to regain and defend the
private domain of all Malaysians, where we may live, love, pray, hope
and strive for the betterment of ourselves and the fulfilment of our
destinies in peace. It is that fundamental right that entitles us to
be what we are. No human being should be denied that privacy for the
loss of that privacy entails the loss of something greater: the loss
of the right simply to be what we are. The entire democratic process
and democratic endeavour rests on that.
For now however, it is our moral obligation to rally in support for a
fellow Malaysian whose right to privacy has been violated. Let us not
be indecisive here, for we clearly know who has been the victim. For
those whose lives have been violated thus, one can only imagine the
personal anguish they must be going through.
History books tell us that when King Charles the First faced his
penultimate judgement, he was robbed of all his rights and dignity.
King Charles was known to be a man who stuttered and faltered whenever
he spoke; but at that defining moment of his life when his very
existence was at stake, he delivered what was said to be the most
eloquent speeches he ever gave; which til today ranks as one of the
most beautiful and elegant pieces of prose in the English language.
Each and every one of us will sooner or later face such a defining
moment in our lives, when our mettle will be tested and when we will
finally realise who and what we are and what resources we possess.
Perhaps this is the defining moment for Ms Wong. We hope that she will
meet this challenge with the dignity that she possesses, and emerge
stronger. So chin up, Elizabeth; and keep a smile on your face. Don’t
let the detractors get you down. The struggle for a better Malaysia
has just begun, and there is still a long road ahead.