It is very human for people, fuelled by a complex mix of emotions such as hope, impatience and desire after the 2022 general election, to make demands of the new government.
Some take to ranting and raving, others to calling for resignations of ministers who have been in office only for months. For those for whom the change of government was bitter defeat, rancour and anger may continue to burn in their minds and perhaps their souls.
Returning to the calm wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville whose inspiring views on democracy continue to speak to us across the decades since his classic text Democracy in America was written, I would like to turn the telescope around from merely viewing the ruling government to scrutinise how we, as citizens, must play vital roles in growing a better democracy in our beloved Malaysia.
Referring to the insightful summary by Parker Palmer (American educator, author and activist) of Tocqueville’s ideas on how communities may nurture, grow and maintain a democratic way of living and being, let me try to knit together community responsibilities and current events in Malaysia. Parker Palmer succinctly encapsulates Tocqueville’s classic phrase “habits of the heart” on democratic citizenship in this manner:
“Habits of the heart” (a phrase coined by Alexis de Tocqueville) are deeply ingrained ways of seeing, being and responding to life that involve our minds, our self-images, our concepts of meaning and purpose.
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What are the “habits of the heart” which will make us good citizens? Even as we demand, rightly so, moral standards of our politicians, what demands do we make of ourselves? To answer this compelling yet vexatious question, those of us who are believers may refer to the teachings of all great religions.
But even if we do not subscribe to any religion, our conscience may light the way guided by a moral compass – if we have found that compass and treasure it dearly instead of surreptitiously throwing it away because that compass disturbs our sleep and we need sleep to pursue material wealth energetically.
The essence of Tocqueville’s thesis on democracy is his belief in the need to combine the “spirit of religion” and the “spirit of liberty” but he is neither a fundamentalist nor a religious extremist. Indeed, one of his core ideas is the need to respect and include differences in any polity.
It is his call to honour each human person as mysteriously, even magically “divine” that imbues his ideas with deep compassion. How many of us, caught in the sticky web of ethnic, even clan and tribal arrogance, can practise this kind of humane inclusiveness?
Let me now develop the key ideas on humane and compassionate community-building, which responsible citizens may want to reflect on and discuss among themselves. I owe much to Parker Palmer’s clear outlining of these steps to which I add my own Malaysian aspects. Resonating from Tocqueville’s ideas, Parker’s four ways of being responsible citizens of a democracy speak deeply to me as I expand on them.
Firstly, we must have an understanding that we are all, whatever our race, religion or creed, together in this project of democratic betterment. Individualism, which was a key element of the European Enlightenment, and national superiority, which rears its arrogant head once again in this season of strident, worldwide ethnocentric nationalism, should give way to a concern for others who may seem very different from us but who are in fact very much like us in their humanity. I never tire of quoting John Donne’s well-used “no man is an island”, which catches, in a kernel of timeless truth, our shared welfare.
What does this and what can this inclusive compassion mean for us in Malaysia? I refer to Palmer’s second step which is to hold differences in balance and so be able to accept diversity. It means a sane, logical refusal to be manipulated by some politicians who want us to see other races as always and inevitably out to rob us of our rights. It means the courage, the rationality to say no to a “siege mentality” which can only engender paranoia and make fools of us because we allow ourselves to follow fools and scoundrels who do not have our interests in mind but greedily pursue their own gains.
But as Parker Palmer very insightfully points out, we must not fall into the idealistic excess that returns us to an Edenic paradise where all differences are gone. Instead, we accept and respect differences. Thus, we never vilify others but humbly try to learn from them. Indeed, we welcome differences as beautiful, fascinating patterns in the rich tapestry of life here in this lovely land of many contrasts and many similarities.
Identity politics has operated for millennia worldwide and in Malaysia, it has long been the bane of life. But we can make the “them and us”, which is very much part of human identity cognition, positive rather than negative. How, one may ask? By thinking, feeling and acting in ways that hold in sane, calm patience the tension between the identity we have as members of a certain race and the identities that others have as members of other races.
More importantly, we can do this because we confidently believe that the bedrock of different racial identities is humanity. Here I refer to Palmer’s third step which is “an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways”. I really like Parker Palmer’s next words as he encourages us to “allow contradictions, tensions to expand our hearts”.
Yes, an expansion of the heart, not the cowering constriction of the heart in fear as we hide behind those Big Bosses who want us to suffer relentlessly from unrelieved, racial tension so that they can boss us more effectively. Enough is enough.
Parker’s last or fourth point calls on us not to be mere spectators in the Great Game of politics, especially with regard to corruption. We need to be constantly aware of our rights, not only during general elections but daily. Monitor your Adun (state legislative assembly representative) and your MP.
By the same token, we should monitor ourselves. Speak up in justice and don’t use the backdoor bribery method to get selfish, self-benefiting gains. The onus of fighting corruption falls on all of us. How many of us, after being stopped by a traffic police officer, would say, “Aiyoh. Sorrylah, encik, I tak nampak sign. Tolonglah. Boleh ah?”(Aiyoh. Sorry mister. I didn’t see the sign. Can help? Can ah?) and then try to stuff 50 ringgit into his palm?
How can we contribute to positive changes in our neighbourhood, our village, even in our religious congregations or the societies we join? However small a grouping of people, the rites of democratic, ethical and just practices should operate.
Not all of us can be or want to be politicians, but each one of us can play a part in these groupings to promote and maintain ethical, harmonious conduct by vigilant critical assessments. We act, we speak up, we no longer remain silent spectators. We will not tolerate racist speeches or racist deeds, whether in cyberspace or in person.
For this to happen, we must have critical discourse. A willingness to listen to diverse viewpoints should begin in schools but should not stop there. Parents and other mentors do help, as it takes a village to raise a child.
Rote learning and the regurgitation of ‘moral’ values – such as was once mandated in the moral education subject in our schools – will not open up the intellectual horizons of young people. Rote learning only breeds submissiveness so that children learn unquestioning apathy early.
When they are adults, they dare not question dictators. Some may not even have the critical acumen to recognise a dictator. I like the way Prof Maznah Mohamad, years ago in Aliran Monthly (2000), describes how such a dictator treats those within his own party who question him: “each eruption of intra-party conflict was resolved through the amassing and concentration of greater power in his hands.” We must teach our young folk to recognise and strongly critique such a megalomaniac.
In whatever season of our life – young, middle-aged or older – we would do well to heed what the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci warns us about hegemony. The hegemonic ideology of those in power will still be there even if there was a proletarian revolution to right the economic division of labour between the worker and the capitalist.
How so? Well, the dominant ideology of institutions like religious institutions, political parties, the mass media and bureaucracy, to name the main ones, will still maintain, even dictate, relations of power and ruling. Herein lies the domain of what Tocqueville calls the “soft despotism” of democracy.
How do we then react? By vigilance and courage. We must not be afraid and so be mere onlookers. As members of religious or political groups, we must be alert, active and not allow human leaders to behave as if they themselves were the Almighty or Tuhan. So too with the mass media and the civil service.
We must not only train our lenses squarely on the powerful, we must also turn our light on those dark, neglected corners of our beloved land where human suffering calls out for help.
I recently read about the hard lives of fishermen in two tiny fishing villages which I, as an urban dweller, know little of. Understandably downbeat about the last general election, these fishermen tell of how most candidates disappear into thin air after winning. Electoral promises evaporate more quickly than hot air. As one 70-year-old fisherman puts it, “We work hard just for enough to eat.”
Perhaps these lovely lines from the poem Three Beserah Fishermen by our national Poet Laureate, Muhammad Haji Salleh, will awaken us to the plight of our fellow countrymen:
three small souls in a frail, old sampan
in the bowl of the sea
between the teeth of the waves….
there was no choice
against the big winds
and the capricious sea.
Yes, there is no choice because these fishermen have to earn a living for wives and families waiting anxiously on land. Can help be given in the form of monsoon subsidies and a reduction in the costs of nets for shrimps?
Their plight reminds me so much of the precarious lives of Irish fishermen captured in John Synge’s marvelous play Riders to The Sea, affirming for me the similarities between people separated by many geographical miles and by different cultures and religions.
Dr Cecilia Chan’s recent Aliran article on dementia in senior citizens speaks to me of the need for compassion for the aged, the disabled (better termed “the differently abled”) in Malaysia. She puts it so very well: “The lens we use shapes how we look at things.” Even with those who seem cut off from us and from the world by dementia, Dr Chan encourages us to see “a shared humanness including spiritual dimensions”.
In his riveting Aliran essay “Anwar’s reforms and Malay support“, Charles Chia reminds us that this is a historic moment, as we have the first prime minister from a multi-racial party. Never mind if some see the “unity government” as a cobbling together of diverse elements. As my entire essay aims to persuade, diversity can be enriching, but we, as citizens or rakyat, should remain vigilant and do our part.
Let us not be mired in the old, tired stereotype that the Malays do not want reform. As Charles Chia puts it: “Reform is not anathema to the Malays. They do not reject reforms per se.” All of us, Malays and ethnic minorities alike, should come together to ask pertinent questions listed by Chia: What type of reform? Who benefits? Which leader to trust?
In rereading old Aliran printed magazines, I came across an interview with Anwar Ibrahim in 2007. His stand on interfaith dialogue, his concern with a more equitable economic distribution of wealth, his care about an independent judiciary were clear even then.
What I especially like is his view on religious belief:
Ultimately the issue of faith is a personal issue, a personal choice. It is very difficult. I am not saying this to appease the non-Muslims. I believe Islam has a lot to offer. But I’m not here to compel… Nobody has the power on earth to influence, to compel in terms of faith.
As with all figures of power – Anwar is no exception – we should observe and monitor each vigilantly. We must, however, be fair and patient and give this new government time to work out a better democratic destiny for Malaysia.
I remain very hopeful and optimistic that with a needs-based, not race-based government, we shall come together to build a better Malaysia under “ketuanan Rakyat” (the People’s supremacy).
Allow me to end with some beautiful lines from yet another national Poet Laureate, Usman Awang, which resound like a prayer for the people of our beloved home:
Beloved land, imbue them with your sacred guidance
their heart is your sky
their blood, your rivers
their breath, your air