“Give me liberty or give me death.”
When Patrick Henry, one of America’s founding fathers, spoke these words in his famous speech in 1775, he was talking about going to war with a foreign country in an attempt to gain independence.
The phrase now represents a dichotomy for some: either give us liberty or give us death.
We could see this narrative from a section of people in the days leading up to Istana Negara’s announcement today that there would be no state of emergency.
Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah made no secret of his contempt for those obsessed with politicking, and for those out to disrupt the increasingly difficult fight against Covid-19.
He also made reference to the budget next month – the heart of a proposal to the palace to consider invoking his emergency powers. Any move by a group of MPs to vote down the budget would lead to snap polls.
What has the episode leading up to the Agong’s decision shown?
Instead of being relieved by the pause on politics and power plays in the name of democracy, we heard voices of “freedom” raise the spectre of a takeover by dictatorship.
Who were the people protesting a state of emergency, which would essentially stop elections and suspend the political process in Parliament?
Barring today’s warning by the Agong, an emergency would appear to be the only way to hit the pause button on our raucous politics.
Failing this, millions of people could converge at thousands of voting centres, all because politicians from both sides of the divide believe they have the freedom to switch parties at their whim and fancy.
The movement control order (MCO) was effective in minimising direct physical contact, universally blamed for the spread of Covid-19.
But while it kept people in their homes, it could not stop the political power play in Parliament and, ultimately, the horror of election clusters – all 222 of them.
It is the irony of our times that the greatest threats to life during the pandemic are the things we see as symbols of our freedom.
Even after a general election, there would be no guarantee that MPs from either bloc would remain glued to their seats in the Dewan Rakyat once they were voted in. Nothing would stop them from making the jump if they thought it would be to their benefit because it is their constitutional right to do so.
As for leaders facing multiple corruption charges, it is a right they would be all too happy to utilise in the hope of escaping their predicament, even if it meant forcing a general election in the midst of the most deadly pandemic to be seen in this internet age.
Bringing back the MCO-style lockdown is not an option, either. It might have worked once, but it exposes a double standard: while we deny millions of people the freedom to go about their daily lives and to put food on their tables, we allow a small band of politicians to plot and scheme using the parliamentary process, all in the name of democracy.
The lockdown would not affect white collar workers and the IT-savvy urban populace. It is easy for people like that to ask for another MCO, especially when we have our plastic cards linked to shopping apps, enabling us to buy food with just a swipe of the finger, all from the same armchair from which we criticise others.
But millions of others – the grass cutters, the office cleaners, the factory workers, the car washers, the construction labourers – may not have that luxury.
The only saving grace for them is that they are still allowed to go to work despite the restrictions. But for how long?
If several hands are not raised next month to pass the budget in the Dewan Rakyat, it could force snap polls, and our frontline poster boy Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah and the thousands under his command know all too well what would happen next. A general election infection cluster does not emerge out of nowhere. It would be of our own making. Those who do not believe that should ask a certain Shafie Apdal.
It is the irony of our times that the greatest threats to life during the pandemic are the things we see as symbols of our freedom. A general election, the mobilisation of the entire electorate, is at the top of that list.
If, in the name of health, we can close our most hallowed institutions – our places of education and worship – why are we so riled up about stopping 222 adults from gambling with our health?
Freedom ends at the tip of one’s nose; it doesn’t matter whether we are liberals or conservatives.
It’s time we fought such types of disruptive freedom.
For now, the Agong has spoken in no uncertain terms.
But whether a few former finance ministers will heed his warning remains to be seen.
Yes, give us liberty, but let us stay alive to enjoy it.