TODAY forty years ago, an Universiti Malaya undergraduate named Hishamudin Rais quietly slipped out of the campus in Pantai and a police cordon to start a long trip to, eventually, self-exile in London.
The police was at the door of Malaysia's oldest university to arrest student leaders who had organised and taken part in protests linked to poverty in Baling, Kedah, as a result of falling rubber prices.
There was no Internet, no handphones and pay phones were few and far in between, but news of a farmers' protest had touched off similar protests by students and lecturers in Kuala Lumpur.
Hishamudin was one of them; the others included Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Datuk Ibrahim Ali. Hishamudin managed to escape with his passport, while the other two were held under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
More importantly, no one in the ruling government then said good riddance to Hishamudin when he ended up in London.
Hishammuddin finally returned to Malaysia in 1994, then under the rule of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who, ironically, was the Education Minister in 1974. The activist was allowed back without facing any charges and was even given a Malaysian passport.
Today, Youth and Sports Minister and Umno Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin took a different tack when responding to news that activist Ali Abd Jalil was issued an asylum card in Sweden, where he has fled to escape sedition charges.
"Good riddance. Don't ever come back," the minister posted in his Twitter micro-blogging account, together with a picture of Ali's asylum card.
It is most likely that Ali will not return to Malaysian to face charges of sedition for allegedly posting insults to Malaysian royalty in his Facebook account. After all, his Malaysian passport has also been revoked.
Is this how Malaysia treats its sons and daughters these days? Do we have a government that believes critics and dissenters have no place in society, and no reason to even hear out those whose only offence is penning their thoughts in their Facebook accounts?
It will take a court of law to decide Ali's guilt or innocence for the charges against him, but is there a need to shut the door in his face? Is this Malaysia for all or just those who are on one side of the fence?
Forty years ago, Dr Mahathir, as the then Education Minister, took it upon himself to dare the protesting university students to show proof that anyone had died of starvation in Baling.
Dr Mahathir decided to talk to them rather than allow immediate action against the students.
Today, one would expect a lot more from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's government – a government that is more open and engaging as he has done since taking power in 2009.
One would expect this government to be cognisant that there are more tools and avenues of expression. That dissent and criticism are only to be expected from a wider pool of citizens. And what is needed is more dialogue and understanding.
One certainly would not expect the Cabinet's youngest minister, an urbane and sophisticated Western-educated man, to even utter such dismissive words to a citizen of Malaysia.
This country belongs to all Malaysians, be they critics or sycophants. – The Malaysian Insider