Hornbill Unleashed

June 11, 2009

ISA and the panopticon: the anatomy of fear

By Sim Kwang Yang

fear460I was a little taken aback when a close and respected friend complimented me on my courage in my writing.

I was surprised, because much as I searched within myself, I felt no courage in me when taking on the most contentious issues and the most powerful politicians of the land.  Then I realise why I don’t feel brave at all.  I don’t have to be brave because I feel no fear, as long as I am careful and fair.

That does not mean I am such a fearless hero.  I too have my phobias.  Being broke is my greatest fear that has pursued me in my entire life.  My other fear is dying slowly a long, debilitating, and painful death, while being broke!

Then I realise we are all moulded by our fears, and we do not know much about our fears.  So I checked up some quick resources on the Internet. One site – about.com:phobia — has this to say:

“Fear is a powerful and primitive human emotion. It alerts us to the presence of danger and was critical in keeping our ancestors alive. Fear can actually be divided into two stages, biochemical and emotional. The biochemical response is universal, while the emotional response is highly individualized.”

Like all psychological mumbo-jumbo, it is not very enlightening.

It was then that the Hornbill Unleashed Admin told me that our blog has been visited by people who are suspected to be cyber storm troopers.  Sometimes, we would get up to 60 hits a day from certain IP addresses.

We discussed why we should deserve such attention.  After all, our blog is not yet three months old.  Perhaps they were giving us warning of their presence.  Perhaps they wanted to instil fear in us.

Again, I feel no fear.  We are an open blog, and anybody in this whole wide world is welcome to read our stuff and leave a comment if they like.

Still, there must be a lot of fearful people out there.

I got an email from a reader, expressing his fear of the unity talk between UMNO and PAS.  The Sarawak Chinese will be finished, he said, if PAS and UMNO form a unity government.  That fear must be quite common among many Chinese in Malaysia and in Sarawak.

My Country, My PeopleAs the great Chinese writer Lim Yu Tang will tell you in his book entitled My Country, My People, the Chinese have always been a fearful people.  They like to frighten themselves by thinking of the worst, without analysing and hoping for the best.

But then, I am not fearful for the future of the Chinese. They are expert survivors under all kinds of circumstances.  They have survived the British and the Japanese; they can survive UMNO and PAS.

Then my neighbourhood DAP man told me he did not want to criticise the government too loudly because he did not want to be arrested under the ISA.  He was being sarcastic of course.  DAP people usually see ISA arrest as a stamp of honour and moral authority.

Then I was reminded of Jeremy Bentham, the great father of modern utilitarianism, social and judicial reformer.  I am thinking of his specially designed prison called “panopticon”.  This is what Wikipedia has to say about the panopticon:

Jeremy Bentham“The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham (Left). The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience.”

“Bentham himself described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

This is the device in which the prisoners think that they are being observed all the time, and frighten themselves into behavior governed by discipline.  Because the prisoners do not actually know that they are being observed, very few guards are needed.  It is a very cheap way of soliciting obedience.  Hence, it is a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind”, as Bentham himself put it.

panopticonThe Panopticon ( Picture right) became all the more famous after the postmodernist philosopher Michael Foucault dissected its anatomy of power in his book Discipline and Punish.

For Foucault, it has become a metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies and its pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, the school, the hospital and the factory have evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon.

According to Foucault, at all levels of modern life, through all our institutions, right down to the individual level of working and domestic life, a web of power is woven around us, scrutinising us, tracking us, dictating norms and rules of acceptable behaviour upon us.

We feel that we are beings watched and monitored, even when we are not, like the prisoners in Bentham’s panopticon.  That fear allows very few people to control us.

One of the instruments of power that controls the Malaysian society is the ISA.  It is one of the most powerful weapons to frighten people into acquiescence to blind brute naked power.

Even though Malaysia will not have enough prisons to hold dissidents if the whole nation rises against the government, but individuals fear of the ISA has allowed a very repressive regime to implement laws and policies that are against the interest of the people.  Like the panopticon, the ISA has enabled a small handful of people to control a large population through mind-control.

Fortunately for Malaysia, since the March 8 general election in 2008, that nameless fear for the ISA is receding, especially among the younger generation.  Likewise, the fear for the police and the many repressive laws in the country is also on the decline, as young activists — led by the example of the indomitable RPK — now choose peaceful civil disobedience rather than slavish acquiescence.

My mind has long ago been liberated by Plato.  I saw through the vacuous falsity of the mind game played by the power structure in Malaysia without ever realising it.  Knowledge can indeed set you free.  I am not courageous, because I feel no fear.  I feel no fear because I know.

I wish you will have no need for courage because the threat is not there at all.  There is no danger in speaking out fairly, courteously, and responsibly, for the good of the people, with no malice in the heart.

As Barack Obama said on his campaign trail, “We are the change that we seek”.  If we seek change in Malaysia, we must change ourselves first.

We must exorcise this primordial, nameless, intangible spectre of fear from our soul first.

(SKY can be reached at kenyalang578@hotmail.com )


  1. […] image credit […]

    Pingback by On institutions « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity — June 28, 2010 @ 9:00 AM | Reply

  2. […] and Internal Dissent” by Bunga Pakma, “What is the Meaning of Your Life?” by SKY, and “ISA and the Panopticon: the Anatomy of Fear” by SKY (my favourite essay of the […]

    Pingback by What Difference Can a Year Make? « Hornbill Unleashed — January 4, 2010 @ 12:03 AM | Reply

  3. phobias…

    […] That does not mean I am such a fearless hero.  I too have my phobias.  Being broke is my greatest fear that has pursued me in my entire life… […]…

    Trackback by Fears & Phobias — June 11, 2009 @ 11:19 PM | Reply

  4. Two more ancient Greek stories for you, SKY.

    Diogenes the Dog (the “Cynic”) was asked what was the worst thing in life. To be old, alone, poor, and sick, he replied.

    Then something better. A philosopher, I think Solon, the man who wrote the laws for the Athenians and established equity, on his travels met a tyrant of another Greek city and told him what he thought of him. Grimacing in tyrant-style and growling the tyrant said, “What makes you so bold?” “Old age,” Solon replied.

    What good fortune to reach the point where one would not last a minute in the hands of torturers! We present day people are fond of life. When we’re young it’s too valuable. As we age we come to understand what we can buy with life. If we’re wise the things we aim to buy therewith are exceedingly precious.

    Comment by sebuyau pelanduk — June 11, 2009 @ 8:49 PM | Reply

  5. This was an article I had written prior to 080308:
    “A Malaysian Disease of Fear and Apathy”

    Comment by cruzeiro — June 11, 2009 @ 1:13 PM | Reply

  6. Mr Sim,

    Being mired in hopeless poverty, and having to endure physically crippling ill health in old age, are 2 common fears in a society without a social welfare safety net. I can empathize with you on these fears. Many of us will have to cope with these issues at some point in our lives. Hopefully, not just by our lonely selves. That would be too sad. I enjoyed your article, thank you.

    Comment by clearwater — June 11, 2009 @ 11:10 AM | Reply

  7. Times and again, the popular sign of NO FEAR with brutish eyes stares at me. I hate that symbol, for it reminds me of many fearful images, and it is very pretentious.

    Examining my inner being, or like you said, a mumbo jumbo of psychological term of id, I can’t seem to be able to examine anything at all. Maybe the inner-outer dichotomy is just as vague as the distinction of soul-body relation. Or he will ask “what is being?” And he told us about Angst, the indefinite fear. And the other existentialist maxims.

    I was told Socrates did not afraid of death, having lived an examined life, he embraced a democratic death sentence, what a brilliant soul he was! Why? Did he have any remedy to the everlasting suffering, by living in examination, or there is really nothing to fear for in the ultimate fate of all living beings?

    And Socrates did not afraid of broke, neither, for he was poor all the times. That said, I guess SKY own enough money to fear for!

    And what about that national terrorism of ISA? The name suggest something opposite to fear, but it shackled the public to open-up. Do Malaysians deserve this out of the unfounded (or rather well-founded)Angst? I doubt any member of DAP (to a larger extent, any citizen) is willing to impose that act voluntarily unto themselves, even if it means a stamp of honour.

    Tired of the official terrorism imposed on us, but fight on we must, intelligently.

    Comment by liumx — June 11, 2009 @ 10:33 AM | Reply

  8. This is an excellent piece. Indeed, knowledge will set us free from our fears.

    Utilitarians and Benthamites believe that what the government should do, particularly the laws must be legislated to achieve “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. I personally do not subscribe to that.

    But Bentham was one of the first reformists and a great jurist. When he started to practise law, he immediately observed the dire need to revise the legal system which merely reflects the status quo in England at that time and actually set out his life long conviction and work to reform it.

    Something for our lawyers and judges in Malaysia to think about, especially during this trying time.

    Comment by James K — June 11, 2009 @ 8:50 AM | Reply

  9. Dear SKY,

    Tks for the article.
    Your statement “..I am not courageous, because I feel no fear. I feel no fear because I know.”
    True indeed. Knowledge is might. Alas, some groups of people use might without much knowledge.. thus, we see happening infront of us.
    Take care and keep writing.

    Comment by YeeBody — June 11, 2009 @ 8:28 AM | Reply

  10. Hear, hear! FEAR NOT… for fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy!

    Comment by Antares — June 11, 2009 @ 3:09 AM | Reply

  11. You have now inspired me to read Plato. Thank you.

    Comment by summershere — June 11, 2009 @ 3:08 AM | Reply

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