Sunday, April 26, 2009

Where Malaysia is headed (Part 7)

Most people I know blame "most people" for being recalcitrant sticks in the mud.

For example, if I suggest we test out the honor system by leaving a crate of bottled water unattended with a sign that says "Just drop one ringgit in the box, thanks!"... most people will immediately argue that the idea won't work - because "most people" will simply help themselves to a bottle and walk off without paying. Indeed, some people may even decide to cart away the entire crate!

This is why I consciously avoid using the phrase "most people." When you begin to think in terms of "most people" it indicates you're caught up in statistical pseudo-reality; you're approaching life quantitatively rather than qualitatively.

Most people... oops... many of us have heard Benjamin Disraeli's famous quote: "There are essentially three types of lies. Lies, damned lies, and statistics." Statistical thinking implies that the more people believe in something, the more likely it is to come true.

To a certain extent this is demonstrably so. If a vast majority of humans believe the death penalty effectively deters serious crimes, the few voices in the wilderness calling for the abolition of capital punishment will be ignored. Same goes for ridiculously repressive laws like the ISA and archaic statutes outlawing fornication and "sexual acts against the order of nature."

Similarly, when enough of us decide that institutions such as monarchies or secret police agencies have done more harm than good, it's almost certain these institutions will soon be dismantled and relegated to a niche in some museum.

The sultans can make any number of speeches defending their own exalted status. But in a rapidly changing social, cultural and political climate where enough of us have begun to probe beyond the surface of events, what these grand panjandrums say will be subject to intense scrutiny. If their speeches come across as self-serving, insincere or hollow-sounding rhetoric, people will neither be impressed nor swayed - no matter how posh the accent or how expensive the costume. Respect must be earned. It cannot be gained at gunpoint.

The concept of royalty is a carryover from a colonialistic age fast fading. An age when rigid social hierarchies and caste stratifications governed human affairs. 19th-century British colonizers gained a foothold in the Malay states by installing themselves as official advisors (Residents, they were called) to local warlords and thugs they then enthroned as Sultans (an honorific borrowed from the Turks), with whom they had signed mutually beneficial contracts. Thereafter the natives were encouraged to address the White Man as Tuan, thereby according him the same status as their own fake monarchs.

What does "tuan" mean? Is it not a contraction of "Tuhan" - meaning "Lord"? And is it by sheer coincidence that no distinction is made between a celestial and terrestrial lord?

My friend Joe Kidd is a study unto himself. I first encountered him as the lead singer of a popular thrash metal band called Carburetor Dung. Later I discovered Joe Kidd had acquired the stature of a cult leader amongst the hippest segment of disaffected urban youth who had formed themselves into a commune called the Republic of Brickfields. Joe was a pioneer in the Malaysian anarcho-punk underground. He edited and published the first indie zines in circulation, produced an impressive catalog of indie albums, and linked up with a worldwide network of like-minded young people. He approached everything with a refreshing irreverence and began calling everybody "Boss" - whether they were jaga kereta  (car park attendants) or corporate moguls. I was much taken with Joe's egalitarian approach. By tagging everybody "boss" Joe was making a significant statement. Each of us is ultimately his or her own boss.

This is soundly supported by cutting-edge quantum physics which has finally discovered the fractal nature of existence. The center is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere - which means reality is never static. So much for the status quo.

Tuhan - the concept of sovereignty, of lord or ladyship - resides within each of us (at least as an inherent potentiality) - just as the Orang Asli say Tuhan can be found in all lifeforms, animal or vegetable, mineral or devic, human or divine. For anyone to claim a monopoly of exaltedness or divinity is a travesty of natural justice, if not an outright scam.

Thus you will find in Orang Asli communities an unwritten egalitarianism - the basis of democratic governance - wherein even a child is recognized as a future adult and therefore entitled to exercise a certain degree of free will (provided his actions do not seriously endanger himself or others).

Village council in Samoa

The batin  or headman of any village is regarded as a "first among equals" - someone who has accepted responsibility for the overall well-being of his anak buah  or extended family. As such, the batin's residence is often slightly larger than the others, since he may have to convene an occasional assembly of the village elders or entertain visitors from the outside world. But not considerably larger, and rarely so ostentatious as to cause ripples of envy amongst his anak buah  and make them feel inferior.

Village council in Tanzania

In ancient Athens where the notion of democracy is supposed to have first appeared, a deme  constituted the smallest administrative unit. The word deme  or demos  essentially meant a village, and was synonymous with "the people" as in rakyat. Fifty representatives from each of ten tribes were elected to serve for one year as the Council, whose main function was to prepare the agenda for meetings of the Assembly comprising all male Athenian citizens 18 years of age and above (Athenian women enjoyed special status as citizens but were denied political rights).

Despite the gender discrimination and inherent flaws in the system, Athenian democracy flourished for around 200 years - until the rise of Macedonia as a military power - first under Philip and then his famous son, Alexander, from whom our Malay rulers claim descent. Isn't it rather amusing - and also pungently ironic - that the aggressively imperialistic bloodline that destroyed Athenian democracy continues its undemocratic rule via its unlikely descendants in the far-flung Orient?

Meeting of the Perak State Assembly under the Democracy Tree, 3 March 2009
You have a problem with fat cats or what?

"most people
fear most

a mystery
for which
no word
- e.e. cummings

Where Malaysia is headed (Part 8)