Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Let Them Eat Ketupat! Selamat Hari Raya!
Originally posted on 10 January 2009, I'm reposting this mainly because it opens with a nice picture of ketupats... and also because little has changed after seven years!
Life will never again be the same after March 8th, 2008. Not for any of the political parties whose fortunes have seen unprecedented reversals, nor for the quiet-living, tax-paying citizen. And certainly not for those of us who contribute to the nation by writing, reporting, performing on stage, or conjuring images in our studios.
What's so different about life after the political tsunami?
Obviously, the status quo is no longer static. Change is in the air and what seemed like an immovable object (the Umno/BN regime) has now encountered an irresistible force (the rapidly rising tide of an awakened and empowered rakyat).
In the aftermath of the March 8th tsunami, the "immovable" object was seen to have been swept half-a-mile downstream and turned upside down with its backside exposed for all to see and snigger at. Like the "unsinkable" Titanic that ignominiously sank, the "immovable" Umno/BN not only has undeniably been moved, it's in imminent danger of being forcibly removed altogether.
For more than half a century UMNO and its chief concubines MCA and MIC represented the vested interests of the propertied classes: the Malay aristocracy, the upper echelons of well-heeled Malayans and, of course, the foreign industrialists. It was a distinctly rightwing administration whose greatest fear and worst enemy was the bogus bogeyman called Communism. It tolerated a limited amount of pinkness in the form of strictly regulated trade unions and a feeble though stoical socialist party which for years featured the head of an ox against an industrial cog as its symbol (thereby defining itself as the political voice of no-longer-mute beasts of burden).
After the 13 May 1969 coup d'etat which saw the first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman deposed by a military-style National Operations Council led by Abdul Razak bin Haji Hussein, the electoral map was redrawn to ensure that there wasn't the remotest possibility of any opposition party becoming so strong it could serve as a viable alternative to what was now ill-advisedly called Barisan Nasional or the National Front (which immediately brings to mind the British Neo-Nazi Party of the same name).
So it was pretty much business-as-usual for BN for more than four decades. As happened in the United States, business began to merge with politics until the demarcation between public and private interests became invisible. Entrepreneurs and bureaucrats hopped into bed together and gleefully screwed the comatose public for all it was worth.
Mahathir's 22-year reign as prime minister saw the rise of Rupert Murdoch wannabes like Robert Kuok, Ananda Krishnan, Vincent Tan, Yeoh Tiong Lay, Lim Goh Tong and Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary. These card-carrying capitalists were empire-builders driven by their unstoppable ambition to be listed in Forbes Top 100. It's impossible not to tip one's hat in recognition of their vision, perseverance and sheer stamina. Yet they could never have amassed their vast fortunes without becoming intimate buddies with whosoever held the reins of political power.
And, of course, hobnobbing with power has unwholesome ramifications. More often than not. it's well-nigh impossible to draw a line between fair and foul practice. An old Greek saying cynically advises:
If you want to sleep well, make friends with your wife.
If you want to get fat, make friends with your mother-in-law.
If you want to get rich, make friends with the chief of police.
Nor could these go-getters have become billionaires by being overly sensitive to environmental and social issues. Many successful entrepreneurs find it advantageous to their public image to be seen as philanthropists - and many subscribe to "corporate social responsibility" programs whereby a tiny portion of their unimaginable profits is plowed back to the community in various ways.
A giant property consortium turned a verdant valley once populated by an Orang Asli community into a commercial-industrial wasteland. In exchange for their ancestral land each Orang Asli family was given a double-story link house plus a shophouse for them to rent out. A couple dozen kids were offered scholarships to study modern construction methods.
It all made for good PR, no doubt: spending RM335,000 of public funds on a special ceremony officiated by the PM to which all the Orang Asli headmen were invited and treated to one night's stay in a 3-star hotel, with a pair of leather shoes and a smart jacket thrown in. Nevertheless, what the developer had really done was erase the culture and memory of this Orang Asli community. Severed from their emotional links to the land, indigenous people soon cease to exist as such and become assimilated with the dominant culture.
Making a pile of money from ecocide and ethnocide is hardly laudable. I call these ill-gotten gains - like getting rich from turning youngsters into drug addicts and prostitutes. What if you're not directly involved with such unsavory activities - but happen to serve some big-shot wheeler-dealer as, let's say, his legal advisor or advertising and PR consultant? Does that make the money you earn any cleaner?
Looking at it from the strictly professional viewpoint, should a tailor refuse to make a suit for an underworld kingpin with blood on his hands? Should a dentist turn away a sex maniac minister who has been known to commit statutory rape? Not if the dentist happens to be a rapacious former chief minister, I suppose...
It would be practically impossible to do business if value judgments had to be applied to every situation. What if you happen to be chief legal advisor to Umno and have just been roped in to oversee a particularly shady operation? Or if you were a PR consultant whose professional services have been recruited to reverse the negative spin on the PM's public image?
Supposing you were married to a high-powered banker and your hubby was invited to dinner at the finance minister's residence. Would you dress up in all your finery and make small talk with a woman everybody believes is capable of cold-blooded murder?
These are very real dilemmas plaguing a few of my former friends. I say "former" because a couple of them recently dropped me from their guest list as a result of my trenchant political views. It saddens me, to be sure, that in these times of tumultuous sea and sky changes, friends and even families are being split down the middle by polarized political affiliations.
I can imagine a similar situation playing out in America shortly after Bush ordered the bombing of Baghdad. What if you were at a family Christmas dinner and one of your brothers-in-law just happened to be a senior executive at Raytheon Enterprises - one of the top-earning defense contractors in America - and he thought extremely highly of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice? Would you, for the sake of diplomacy, stick to remarks about the weather and concentrate on the food?
Popular legend has it that Marie Antoinette, when informed that the peasants were rioting, wanted to know what it was all about. One of her attendants informed her that it was because the poor could no longer afford to buy bread. "Then let them eat cake!" Marie allegedly responded.*
I can already picture a similar scenario developing in Malaysia as the effects of the financial meltdown and widespread joblessness begin to be felt. As always it's the working class with low cash reserves that feels the pinch first. We're not far from the day half a million hungry poor will be on the streets demanding an increase in their weekly rice ration. And some Toh Puan daintily ensconced in a 26-million-ringgit mansion will turn to her maidservant and huff, "So let them eat ketupat!"
*I plead artistic licence with this well-worn and totally spurious anecdote. Marie Antoinette was much maligned in France simply because she happened to be Austrian. In truth she never actually made such a crass remark. My apologies to the memory of this hapless Hapsburg princess who suffered much and was grievously misunderstood. Reposted 30 August 2011, 28 July 2014 & 15 July 2015]