What does it mean to be a “draconian”?
What does this word really mean? It seems to have been bandied about quite freely each time criticism is levelled at the Malaysian Government and some of the laws it advocates.
Does the word mean the laws are outdated, ancient and unsuitable for current times? Or does it refer more specifically to how these laws may be perceived as instruments of cruel and unjust action? After all, "draco" originally refers to dragons of the mean and nasty variety.
Let's assume for a moment that it means both.
Events following the Sept 11 disaster of 2001 have shown that there are certain types of threats to a nation faces that cannot be dealt with under conventional means and laws. Hence the passing of the Patriot Act in October 2001. The significant issue surrounding the Act is the fact that in allows the US Government room to work around the issue of civil liberties under specific circumstances that are adjudged to be dangerous to national security. Who defines what these dangers are? Who judges the level of danger? Who executes the suppression of civil liberties? These are the same questions that Malaysians have been asking of our own Government for more than a decade.
Are we anywhere nearer to answers that are satisfactory? I'm not sure even if enough of us are asking the right questions. Malaysians, on this issue, are divided into two general types: those who care enough to ask and probe, and those who feel that these laws will never have a direct impact of their lives and don't ask.
Admittedly, Malaysia is not the US - we are certainly not a prime target for terrorist agression (though the recent Jemaah Islamiah activity is a cause for concern). The communist threat is long over and our general levels of crime in Malaysia is the envy of Asia. But the debate lies not in how we are similar to other countries that have similarly controversial laws, but how we are truly unique in so many ways.
Malaysia is a developing nation, not only economically but political maturity is also in its developing stages. The issue of race, no matter how we like to claim to be united countrymen, is a divisive issue that many would like to take advantage of. Education levels in many areas of the nation, while improving, is still at a level low enough where indiscriminate use of the freedom of speech can easily incite irrational and sometimes violent behaviour. Certainly, these are not excuses for the existence of our "draconian laws" - but they do explain why some level of social control is still necessary, even if it means using laws that are logically questionable.
Its difficult to defend a set of laws that have the potential for abuse; the perfect law is one which can only be used to serve justice. Laws such as the ISA do not fall under this category. Because of their wide reach and mechanisms of execution, they can be abused, and on the balance of probability, have possibly been used in arguably unjust ways. But there should be an alternative that will protect our nation in cases stemming from the unique characteristics that makes our society ours. What this alternative should be, i won't even begin to speculate. What this alternative should not be is the tolerance of absolute civil liberties because freedom to act, as demonstrated throughout human history, has never translated to acts of absolute civil responsibility.
Published in www.malaysiakini.com