Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of debate, discussion and dissent.

— Humbert H Humphrey, former US Vice-President

Dissent essentially engages the act of voicing opposition to policies or programmes offered by the government in power. It is not a platform to condemn or criticise, but dissent is to make sure the government is working responsibly for its people.

Dissent in some countries is frowned upon to the extent that the dissenters are rounded up, tried and punished under the law as persons engaged in treason. The penalties can be severe and punitive making the right to dissent a hazardous enterprise.

Former President Dwight Eisenhower reminded Americans that as descendants of rebels and revolutionaries, it is important to distinguish between honest dissent and subversive disloyalty which has its roots in the freedom and right to information. The British found legal refuge in the Official Secrets Act which has not lost its appeal in her former colonies.

China innovated and reinvented itself when it brought millions out of poverty while continuing to inculcate capitalistic pursuits so that dissent is minimised. In the bargain, as long as people are comfortable with their wealth, dabbling in politics seems futile.

European democracies handle dissent with care and caution because of their human rights conventions which underscore fundamental liberties.

When constitutional issues are brought before the International Court of Justice for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, the enforcement of judgments are at best non-existent.

In the 1980s, Poland’s Solidarity was a broad anti-bureaucratic social movement, using methods of civil resistance to advance the causes of workers’ rights and social change. Government attempts in the early 1980s to destroy the union through the imposition of martial law in Poland and the use of political repression failed. Dissent found expression and created history.

At the far end of the spectrum we have witnessed deadly dissent escalating to violence in Angola, Burundi, the Sudan, Zaire and Sierra Leone, while 2002 witnessed the liberation of East Timor which became the 192nd nation to join the United Nations.

The dissenting Taliban Afghanistan last week chalked up a new form of political supremacy when US forces faced off another Vietnamisation of the war effort. The only difference is that a new form of guerrilla warfare was waged in the Afghan mountains and valleys which left the Soviets vulnerable, and they fled, as did Uncle Sam decades later leaving heavy duty armaments behind for the victor.

Myanmar and Thailand witness another form of dissent which seems dead for the dissenters with one facing an all-powerful military, and the other an equally compelling monarchy where lese majeste is considered a cardinal sin. Malaysia fares much better as far as constitutional protections square off with the section 3 of the Sedition Act which deftly carves out exceptions to the rule.

Political dissent with a powerful Opposition in a parliamentary democracy, as in Malaysia, is always welcome as long as the welfare of the citizens is placed first. The ouster of the eighth prime minister suggests a serious jostling for pre-eminence among a few likely candidates for the top position in government.

The freedom of speech guaranteed in written national constitutions augurs well for dissent which, according to the American activist and historian Howard Zinn, is the highest form of patriotism. Suppressing dissent will lead to a country of fearful citizens, warned the former US President Harry S Truman, an ardent supporter of dissent.

Malaysians’ dissent found loud expression on May 9 2018 when a new regime led by the Opposition defeated the decades-old ruling political party. The manner in which this dissent precipitated is a potent sign of the times when an awakened citizenry casts aside race, region and religion fuelled solely by the race for and the road to rationality.

Dissent in Malaysia has gradually come of age. It’s not deadly or dead, but developing into an instrument that has the tenacity to compel government to deliver. The future looks bright now with a lowered voting age and a proliferating social media.

“The aim of argument, dissent, debate and discussion, should not be victory but progress,” observed the French essayist Joseph Joubert. This is what the young Malaysians are aiming for and hoping to accomplish as long as repression and suppression of rational dissent are kept on a short and tight leash.

History will continue to warn us of the vagaries of human nature in matters relating to politics, law and government. It will get bad before it gets better.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.