The cost of invading privacy

18 Feb 09 : 2.30PM By Dr Farish A Noor

ONCE again, privacy – or the invasion of privacy, to be precise – has become
the subject of debate in Malaysian politics. Behind the morality and
moralising that we hear from certain conservative quarters lies something
more insidious, which is the call for conformity and total obedience to a
narrow definition of what constitutes a right model for living.

We must remember that submitting to the demands of moralists in this
instance would be to concede defeat before the struggle has even begun. For
what Malaysia needs now more than ever is a New Politics for a New Malaysia,
where the privacy, individualism and identity of all citizens are protected
and upheld as the foundation of citizenship.

Living in a plural democracy means accepting, celebrating and being
comfortable with difference. This includes differences in lifestyles,
beliefs, gender orientations and the choices we make when we love, pray,
play and work. Hence, this sudden outburst of moral outrage over the private
lives of politicians is just the tip of an even more dangerous iceberg: for
it implies that all of us have to deny our privacy, individualism and
identities to fit into a homogenous mould.

That is why fighting for a New Politics in Malaysia has to begin with the
premise that we are different and unique, and that each individual is
entitled to the privacy of his or her beliefs, thoughts and lifestyle.

The failure of political parties

I was asked in 2008 why I did not join any political party or run as an
independent candidate in the general election. My reply then, as now, is
simple: “Would any political party in Malaysia accept me as a candidate if
I – in my private capacity – defend the freedom of religion and freedom to
convert; defend the freedom of choice in love; defend the freedom to be
gay?” The answer then, as now, is sadly no.

Here then lies the fundamental hurdle that we need to cross before we even
begin to imagine of a New Politics in Malaysia. When will we Malaysians –
citizens and political parties alike – accept the fact that each one of us,
including our elected representatives, has the right to hold on to these
private beliefs with strong and sincere personal conviction?

Had I joined any political party and won a seat, I would defend the values
mentioned above with all my commitment and conviction, for they are the
fundamental core beliefs that make me who I am. I am a secular democrat who
believes in the freedom of religion, the freedom of choice in love, and the
right to one’s natural sexual orientation. I cannot, and should not, be
asked to deny or alter these beliefs merely for the sake of conforming to
party-political directives. Should I do so, then I would be lying to myself,
and that is where hypocrisy in politics begins.

The present attack on the private lives of politicians is thus the first
step in the process of eroding these wider rights and liberties. If we fall
into the trap of accepting that no citizen has the right to differ in their
lifestyle choices and private activities, we open the way for an even more
dangerous form of totalitarian politics that will ultimately reduce us to
drones devoid of identity and individualism.

Therefore for the sake of the greater struggle to reform the politics of
Malaysia, and to bring about a New Politics for the Malaysia of today, let
us reject these calls for conformity from the start.

We strive for a new Malaysia with a New Politics that will take us away from
the bad old days of mindless conformism and hypocritical values. We need a
new commitment to a citizenship that is based on the sacrosanct worth of
privacy and individualism.

And that is why right now is the time to defend the principle of privacy at
all costs. Failure to do so would mean that all the effort of March 2008
would have been for nothing.
Dr Farish A Noor is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, NTU, Singapore and affiliated professor at
Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia. He is also the co-founder of
The Other Malaysia website, where this article also appears.

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