Growing up, I loved reading.
One of my favourite books is 1984, George Orwells masterpiece. In it, the inhabitants of the fictional state of Oceania are constantly under the watchful eye of a totalitarian ruler known as Big Brother.
The inhabitants are kept safe from harm in the surveillance state as long as they obey Big Brother. They have near absolute safety, but no freedom.
Im afraid our obeisance to government in the current age of Covid-19 could be an ominous indicator of an impending world not unlike Orwells oppressive Oceania.
This is because governments the world over have learned a lesson they wont ever forget: At the first sign of danger, people will gladly give up their freedom in exchange for safety, or the perception of safety.
Many democracies, including Malaysia, have instituted nationwide autocratic lockdowns in the belief that itll stem the spread of Covid-19. Although some are unhappy about this, almost everyone agrees it is for our own good.
These governments, including our own, are acting like our all-knowing Big Brother protecting us and ensuring we dont misbehave for our own wellbeing. And Malaysians are showering the government with praise, now that it looks like we have mostly contained the virus.
We attribute our low death rate to swift government action shutting almost everything down and forcing us to stay indoors. But correlation does not mean causation. Obviously our valiant frontliners, rapidly ramped up testing and our good medical facilities have been huge factors in keeping the lid on the virus.
But I have my doubts about the necessity for a national lockdown, given that its impact will be felt for years, and wonder if other means, including specifically targeted lockdowns, would have worked as well, if not better.
The most cited success story is Wuhan, where the Chinese government initiated a lockdown on a scale the world had never seen isolating millions from the world and each other. The method, deployed in conjunction with many others, seems to have worked.
China and the World Health Organization (WHO) peddled its efficacy and in the process set the containment narrative for the world. This spurred many democracies, including Malaysia, to disregard civil liberties and follow Chinas lead.
However, we need to keep in mind that a lockdown is a heavy-handed method, one which would be expected as the method of choice in freedom-starved China rather than in democracies such as the US, Malaysia and much of the world.
One only needs to look towards South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong for a model that has worked tremendously well without having to resort to blunt and undemocratic lockdowns.
Lockdowns, which are the result of an escalation of government powers, have predictably led to many opportunistic governments using the Covid-19 crisis as a tool to strengthen their hold on power and their citizens.
Hungary just passed a Coronavirus Bill which gives their Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to govern unchallenged for as long as he sees fit. It also allows the government to jail for five years those whom it perceives as spreading fake news about the outbreak.
Closer to home, the Philippines has granted President Rodrigo Duterte temporary emergency powers to fight off Covid-19. Theyll be in place for three months but can be extended by Congress. This has set off alarms in the activist and journalist communities there which fear these emergency powers will not be rolled back once the pandemic is over.
Similarly, many countries, including Turkey, Russia, Brazil, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Honduras, are using the Covid-19 panic to muzzle the press and control the spread of information.
Meanwhile in Kenya, more people have died due to the polices brutal enforcement of a nationwide lockdown, (12 deaths) than of Covid-19 (11 deaths) in the first two-weeks of its implementation.
Another alarming development is that the public has welcomed the adoption of movement tracking apps for the purposes of keeping tabs on those with infections and for identifying viral hotspots. Theres another name for this: a mass surveillance tool.
Countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan are already using contact tracing apps that track the movement of their citizens. The US, which has historically been sensitive to privacy concerns, is on the bandwagon as well, with tech giants Google and Apple working on bluetooth-enabled contact tracing capability for Android and iOS.
At home, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has released a Covid-19 contact tracing app of its own, GerakMalaysia. According to them, Since Covid-19 can be easily transmitted by being close to infected individuals, this movement app will be a valuable tool for the ministry of health to protect you and your loved ones.
According to a Malaysian daily, the app requires personal details, including the users full name, MyKad or passport number, residential address and email. Users also have to give permission to track their location at all times via the phones GPS.
Edward Snowden, the erudite NSA whistleblower says: as emergency laws proliferate, as we sacrifice our rights, we also sacrifice our capability to arrest this slide into a less liberal and less free world. Do you truly believe that when the first wave, the second wave, the sixteenth wave of the coronavirus is a long forgotten memory, that these capabilities will not be kept, that these datasets will not be kept?
He adds: these kinds of emergency powers that are born out of crises have a perfect history of abuse. I mean down the board, when you look at these things, the funniest part about it in a dark way is, the emergency never ends it becomes normalised.
Hes right on the money. Malaysia is no stranger to this. The infamous and rightly maligned Internal Security Act (ISA) was the descendent of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance 1948 which was enacted to fight the Malayan Communist Partys insurgency. Introduced in 1960, it continued till 2012 when it was repealed, after years of activism by human rights groups.
The rights groups had argued that the government was using it as a tool to squelch dissent, long after the communists were a non-concern. It was used to imprison and silence government critics including opposition leaders, activists and academicians all without having to legally prosecute them.
So, the million dollar question is: What will the Covid-19 lockdown and the increased surveillance of population movements evolve into in Malaysia? Moving forward, will movement tracking apps become mandatory for the good of all? Will the government revive the Fake News Act, which was repealed by the previous Pakatan Harapan government?
The infringements on our privacy and freedom should raise alarms and stir up heated debates but they havent. Could it be that we are too afraid or too concerned about our safety to care much about our freedom? Or could it be that we feel this is not the right time to debate the freedom issue, as the disease is still a threat?
Will safety against the coronavirus provided by the lockdown make us more susceptible to, and accepting of, the government broadening its powers and its hold on us?
I fear there may be a tendency for our government, and governments of other nations, to adopt some of Chinas strong-arm ways of doing things, especially as we have seen how todays model of democracy the US is faring in the fight to contain Covid-19.
This is why I have a suspicion that, over time, Chinas biggest export in these troubled times will not be Covid-19 but rather a global shift towards suppression of freedom.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
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