Anyone can get angry. But to rise in anger, it helps to be young. The young constitute the heart of any uprising for two good reasons. They have not yet had time to compromise. Their mobility is still unhampered by the usual constraints, otherwise known as the litany of social security that keeps us locked into the conventional, of job, family, property. The second reason is more interesting. The most important stimulant in the complex mix that instigates a mass movement is hope, not anger. Hope is the positive face of anger.
The first two decades of the 21st century will be remembered as the season of volcanic rage across those parts of the world subdued into stagnation in the name of isms [faith, economic philosophy, patriotism] that were often nothing more than pathetic alibis for authoritarian exploitation by local elites. There is a frisson in the air that is reminiscent of the first half of the 20th century, when there was turbulence against colonial power. This time the post-colonial world is challenging those who have usurped authority and denied their people the essence of ferment: freedom. Freedom is not merely independence from foreign rule. It is, equally, freedom from local dictatorship.
Anger, by its nature, is a spur to violence. Remarkably, today’s young, from Africa to Asia, have understood what Gandhi foresaw more than a century ago, when the thought was too novel to be considered credible: that non-violence is far more dangerous to the establishment than violence. Violence is a tantrum, a surge of passion that serves little except an individual appetite during its momentary flare, and denies a lot beyond. Violence is counter-productive. It frightens the bystander and inhibits the breadth of popular embrace. Violence feeds the trap set by government, which seeks to survive discontent by turning the victim into the culprit.
Non-violence challenges a government, but not the state, which is why institutions committed to the state like a national army, are loath to confront it. Gandhi was a steely visionary: he tested the power of non-violence not against a national army but against colonial military officers and bureaucrats who treated Indians as inferior at best, and contemptible at worst. History is witness not only to the superior idea, but also to the astonishing fact that once the terms of change were negotiated between Indians and the British, they became friends. Non-violence heals the wounds of conquest and repression, even as it dismantles an empire.
The most important stimulant in the complex mix that instigates a mass movement is hope, not anger. Hope is the positive face of anger.
On Saturday 28 April, spring came to Malaysia, as the young emerged from once-static corners of Kuala Lumpur to take the road ahead. Seasons do not change abruptly. Often, they stutter; sometimes, they deceive. Just as there can be a false dawn, there can be a false spring. But there does come a day when fresh grass pushes up from hidden roots, and when all nature, including human nature, can no longer be imprisoned by soulless rationalisation. A spring can even take its cultivators by surprise.
Anwar Ibrahim’s long winter has included many years lost in the solitary confinement of jail, a campaign of mass-media promoted slander that defies the minimal standards of ethics, and the terrifying exile of seeming hopelessness. As a young deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, he was once the nominated heir of the patriarch, Mahathir. He was punished for breaking rank in the cause of his conscience. Conscience is generally dismissed as naiveté, or even arrogance that disrupts the collective effort of governance. Anwar Ibrahim, and his extraordinary, courageous wife Azzizah, paid a terrifying price for dissidence. The extended power of the state tested them with a fire that would have incinerated those of less commitment. If they had any hope, it was faith in the people, and in the promise of unabridged democracy.
It is exhilarating to see fear evaporate; one minute, it is a hovering fog, and an hour later it has dissipated into receding memory. It was a privilege to witness a seminal moment of change, and to do so alongside a principal author of this metamorphosis. It is easy to theorise that change can be postponed but not prevented, but it requires deep levels of conviction to believe this. As, from morning, the citizen began to congregate; as growing groups gathered the momentum of solidarity; as ethnic differences which had been the reference module of the old politics began to visibly melt; as the space on either side filled from street to roof with Malay Muslims, Chinese Christians, Indian Hindus and Muslims, cheering, urging us on; and even when a ham-handed government tried to incite disarray through teargas and swooping helicopters, you knew that this was a day on which another chapter of history had commenced. The young knew that salvation lay in non-violence. They controlled their anger. And Anwar Ibrahim became Anwar, no mere leader up above but a brother in the emerging joint family of a democratic Malaysia.