Monday, 31 March 2008

Brave new Malaysian identity emerging?

By Dr Azly Rahman | Mar 24, 08 3:49pm

"Our government teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy." -Louis D Brandeis (American Supreme Court Justice, 1856-1941).

I do not wish to remove from my present prison to a prison a little larger. I wish to break all prisons. -Ralph Waldo Emerson, American transcendentalist.

The second wave of Independence, achieved with the storming of the "Bastille that is Putrajaya" in March 2008, in a phenomena called "implo-volution" in which the old regime was crushed by its own weight of contradiction and one whose ruins were charted some fifty years ago, present an interesting possibility. It is that of the ethnogenesis (emerging new culture) of a new Malaysian identity. Political will is complementing this philosophical vision. The Internet is aiding in speeding up the process.

The wave is forcing the various ethnic groups to think of defining itself as a " new nation" when power-sharing of a truly multicultural nature at the state level is becoming a reality. Not only the different ethnic groups are fairly represented in what I call the "yellow" states of "Perak and Selangor" but religious background of the state leaders are also playing a key role in the evolving nature of the leadership.

The yellow states are forging ahead with care – aware of the sensitivities of the different ethnic and religious groups, focusing on the pragmatics and ethics drawn from each cultural tradition. Thus, we saw Penang CM Lim Guan Eng refusing to use thousands of ringgit of state funds to move to a new office, we saw the Kedah chief minister and we saw the continuation of Kelantan chief minister's commitment to the principles of Islam in governing the state with prudence and tolerance.

What is displayed is Confucianist-Taoist ideas and Islamic brand of ethical leadership – two seemingly radical philosophies that actually complement each other. When it comes to statecraft, both are useful in forming as basis for a philosophy of governance that appeals to the Malays and the Chinese. These ideals are no different that the ones taught in Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the cultural philosophy of the natives of Sabah and Sarawak and of the Orang Asli.

The "ethics of authenticity" as philosopher Charles Taylor would put it, is universal enough to be a guiding light of this new nation. Ethics by any name is a system of check and balances of the Evil and the Good within. It is the Middle Path of Inner Statecraft.

Istana Zakaria and pondok Nik Aziz

In speaking of the manifestations of the excesses of greed and the imbalance of evil within, two installations of polar opposites are worth quoting as semiotics of conspicuous consumption, in a country such as Malaysia.

The old and dying regime, Barisan Nasional too consists of Chinese and Malays. But the evolution of racial-politics necessitated the development of a style of leadership that requires extra-ethical means to be employed in order for power to be sustained via the control of wealth and resources. Not only these are controlled but they are displayed conspicuously and of late, with arrogance. This brought about the shocking defeat of the 50-year-old seemingly indestructible machine. The excess of this image of conspicuous consumption is in the Istana Zakaria.

The alter image to Istana Zakaria would probably be the house that Tuan Guru Nik Aziz inhabits. But why do we have these contradictions? How have we come to this historical juncture in which the moral compass of the national leaders are misplaced or even lost and what we are seeing are the consequence of the capitalist system that is rearing its ugly immoral head. We have created monsters out of the freedom we give human beings to profit from the consumerist capitalist system we created out of the fear of socialism and Communism.

Billionaires and multi-millionaires in this nation are creations of a system. They are the products of the evolution of individuals that are installed by the institutions derived from the ideology of uncontrollable free enterprise constantly wanting to be freer and freer. Over a long period of time, the system creates a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. It creates antagonism – of class and the hypermodern caste system. This is the Reaganomics of poverty - a mass deception of the "magic of the marketplace".

As a nation, what do we want to be known as? How do we re-engineer another evolution? How do we maintain a sense of personal freedom in the process of crafting a synthesis of "national identity and freedom?" Will the Internet be the great deconstructor of such an identity, once we forget it?

There are multiple contradictions in these questions. They are worth exploring.

Themes of freedom

I suggest we explore these themes below, either out of your own interest or for your graduate work. I think these are fertile areas of research to help us contribute to the ongoing conversation on the politics of identity.

Human nature and freedom

National Front, Freedom and its problems - based on political economy of identity formation

People's Front and freedom - even more problematic since we have multiple layers of identity, construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of identity.

New bumiputeraism.

Archaeology of identity

Philosophy of beingness

Theology of existence

Sociology of nationhood

Technologies of the mind and body

Education and cultural engineering.

Culture critique and ethnogenesis

Social reproduction and social relations of production

Institutions and installations

Self in society

These I believe are themes we will explore as Malaysia progresses into the age of postmodernity bringing forth the excesses of freedom in a world characterised by the rapidisation of technology and the heightening of chaos and complexity. The question of "freedom" will be more daunting as the politics of identity and the identity of politics become inter-twined.

What does "nation" mean? How must a nation be "free"? What kind of freedom must a nation enjoy and protect? In a consumerist society, how is freedom defined? How do bring the notion of freedom down to the grassroots level of the rakyat—how will we synthesise these notions?

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire would call this synthesis "praxis" in which the subjective and objective aspect of the phenomena under study become synthesised and transformed into action. The stage "cultural action for freedom" is an important aspect of this Malaysian revolution of 2008. How do we turn those at the grassroots level into active participants of the national development agenda? How do we teach them to reject all forms of state propaganda?

Freedom is an elusive concept and has its ambiguities. Mat Rempits think they are free and lead a life of total freedom, but who controls the production and reproduction of Mat Rempits. At another level, the power elites in the government think that they are guardians of Freedom/Merdeka but what is the meaning of freedom when those "corridors" built are institutions that will benefit the few and sell the country to foreign investors - in the name of progress.

Freedom is a prison-house of language

The new state governments in the yellow states (Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor and Kelantan) will need to showcase what freedom means and how the rakyat will benefit, in the most meaningful and tangible ways. What are the benchmarks of social justice and freedom that the rakyat will see in the agenda? How will "standards" of tolerance, justice, and peace be set and achieved - how will these be measured? How will the rakyat be the judge and the ones to decide if these standards are achieved?

We're getting into a serious business of systemic and systematic change here, after the revolution.

Even fundamental is the question: who defines freedom? These themes below need to be explored in order to answer the question of the authorship of the definition of freedom:

Needs versus wants


Radical philosophy

Poverty of culture and culture of poverty

Culture not merely and house we inhabit and the tools we use but both, evolvingly – technology shapes our consciousness.

Where do we go from here – in our exploration of two contradictory terms nationhood and freedom?

Let us discuss this question - as a new nation.

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