The right time to protest


THERE seems to be a new mass protest around the world every week, and the issue of appropriateness and timing repeatedly surfaces.

First, a colleague travelling through Barcelona missed her flight connection because of a rally in support of independence for Catalonia. With traffic paralysed, she tried walking to the airport, and despite finding sympathy from some in the crowd, she missed her flight. Reports suggest that the Catalonian protesters are emulating tactics from Hong Kong, where a few weeks ago flight chaos was caused when the airport itself was occupied. How many protesters considered the possibility that travellers were rushing to see sick or dying loved ones, I wonder.

Diplomatic etiquette would normally prevent strong expressions of opinion on the rights and wrongs of popular movements in other countries and the resulting actions of their governments, even if they might seem heavy-handed. Whatever personal sympathies a politician might have, in our interconnected world, even identifying the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ can be contentious. For political leaders, economic considerations of the constituents who elected them must surely be taken into consideration when expressing a view on a conflict in another place: what was intended to be courageous may turn out to be asinine. In some cases, protests can have a more direct impact on diplomacy: President Pinera of Chile, as chair of Apec 2019, has just cancelled next month’s Apec Leaders’ Week in Santiago.

In theory, individual citizens, businesses, and civil society organisations in a democracy are less constrained from commenting on other countries. However, they will surely be judged for expressing views, and decisions flowing from perceived power imbalances in some relationships can lead to heated disagreement about where the line is drawn. One pertinent example concerns the United States National Basketball Association (NBA), where an initial tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors by a team’s general manager resulted in a backlash in China, followed by subsequent apologies which were then condemned by the US Vice President.

It can be said that anywhere in the world, as history repeatedly shows, when people believe that they are not being given sufficient freedoms, they can be extremely passionate in expressing their views. Disruption to everyday life is, for the protestors, a key ingredient in getting people to notice them and their demands. But in a nod to the balance between the democratic right to protest and the rights of those not protesting, advance notice to the authorities has become commonplace. (Recall also discussions about whether rallies should be in stadiums prior to last year’s election.)

Citing history, many protestors will also argue that eventually, they may be proven right: that future generations will say “we were on the right side of history”. For some young participants, the opportunity of being a part of history brings huge appeal.

It arguably takes more courage for a single protestor to make a stand, and the case of Wong Yan Ke, who unfurled a banner on stage during his convocation ceremony at the University of Malaya generated counter-protests and, for a while, risked his degree itself. People I have spoken to who know the UM VC assure me that he is not a racist, but nonetheless his public speeches have to be evaluated by listeners who come to their own conclusions.

I agree with the notion that having a gathering of a single race does not necessarily result in a racist event. It is the content, not the composition, that matters, and I often point out that generations of the most open-minded and meritorious Malaysians attended a mono-ethnic school: the Malay College Kuala Kangsar.

Further, I also agree that disrupting what is supposed to be a happy and proud day for hundreds of graduates and their families is disrespectful. Some people have concluded that, therefore, students should not even partake in thinking or debating these issues. My conclusion is different: I say that if you want to prevent outbursts taking place at formal ceremonies, then you must give students the freedom to express themselves at other times. Whether you like it or not, young people at university are going to be introduced to new thoughts, daring actions and rebelling against authority. If you close these outlets, then naturally students will resort to other means.

Alas, adult protestors can still be reckless. The silliest scene of protest in recent weeks must be the members of Extinction Rebellion – who argue for climate change action and environmental protection – who stood atop London tube trains (an environmentally friendly mode of transport), thus delaying thousands getting to work. The protestors were duly forcibly dragged down by furious commuters.

Morning rush hour is definitely the wrong time to protest.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.