Stomach acids rush up my oesophagus in excited chatter, somewhat annoyingly.
My road to recovery from recurrent reflux is a checklist of bullet points. Was it the apricot I had snacked on? Was I too anxious today? Did I take my medication on time?
It is strange, this feeling of dependency on a host of variables that I have no control over, that I am not the ‘master’ of my body and its destiny.
We instinctively look at vulnerability with disdain. Because whether or not we admit it, vulnerability seems like weakness, and no one likes the idea of being weak (and pathetic).
Yet vulnerability is the story of embodied existence, fragile bodies fraught with risk, illness and heartbreak.
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Vulnerability makes up the precarity of bodies overcrowding Malaysian prisons, exceeding maximum capacities.
Vulnerability surfaces when 122 religious affairs officers hunt down Nur Sajat, dressed in women’s prayer garments, on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
It emerges at the prospect of wading through the flood waters in the country’s impending monsoon season for a snap general election.
It crops up again in bodies marked by Pas president Hadi Awang as “non-Malay”, non-Muslim or non-believers, who are labelled immoral, for purportedly contributing to corruption and misconduct in the country.
Justice – or the simmering possibility that this word calls forth but never quite succeeds in expressing – is somewhat opaque.
As a nation, we overturned a party that had been in power for over 60 years in the historic 2018 general election – a turning point for the nation.
Some of us voted for Pakatan Harapan because we wanted justice – Prime Minister Najib Razak’s removal from power.
The aftermath of PH’s takeover, however, revealed longstanding issues regarding the contentious nature of that elusive concept of justice.
PH bore high ideals for a reformed society, implementing judicial and institutional reforms and attributing weak institutions to the failure of the previous BN government.
But PH’s decision in May-June 2018 to cease subsidy payments to over 70,000 traditional fisherfolk and the rubber price support system for 200,000 rubber smallholders alienated rural Malays. (See Jeyakumar Devaraj’s analysis of PH’s loss of support among the ethnic Malays that contributed to Umno propaganda that PH was ‘anti-Malay’.)
The vulnerability of the poorest 40% of households and the slashing of subsidies without considering the needy complicated the definition of justice, as determined by urban elites, and rendered it fragile.
Religious philosopher John Caputo, in referencing deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, says that while laws are universal and mechanically applied, justice is sensitive to the context of situations. “Laws have to do with the ninety-nine, but justice has to do with the one lost sheep, with the one lost coin, with the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.” Indeed, the widow, the orphan and the stranger suffer the brunt of corrupt regimes.
It was disheartening when defecting MPs staged a political coup to form a backdoor government. In January 2021 they declared a national emergency to suspend Parliament, make rules unilaterally and approve expenditure for public security.
The abuse of state power bears the echo of ‘biopolitics’ – or a modern state’s power over the lives of its citizenry. According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, one form of biopower is the “anatomo-politics of the human body” directed at bodies to maximise their usefulness, docility and capabilities. (See Sharon Bong’s piece on “Feminist futures in the time of emergency“. She discusses the abuse of state power during the pandemic apart from highlighting the frailties of women’s bodies and “non-heteronormative” sexualities.)
The Sheraton Move arrived at the onset of a vulnerable period for the people. As Covid cases skyrocketed, many found themselves adrift amid alienating isolation, uncertainty and the fear of being infected in a nationwide lockdown. Our sanity hung like a delicate thread with rising unemployment and cases of suicide and domestic abuse.
Healthcare workers, the healers in our midst, reckoned with their own mortality and burnout while contending with their patients’ deaths. Hugs and handshakes grew scarce as the risk of infection rose. Masked interactions were devoid of spontaneous warmth and pregnant with miscommunication. Was that a friendly smile or a smirk behind that blue-petalled KF94 mask? Was that cough emitted by your masked colleague in the next cubicle an innocent throat tickle or potential for pollution and contamination?
Vulnerability is a human condition, and that means collective resistance is possible because none are exempt from vulnerability – not even former Prime Minister Najib Razak, now serving a 12-year jail sentence over the misappropriation of RM42m from SRC International, a former 1MDB subsidiary.
With Umno’s push for an early general election during the monsoon season, its vulnerability is showing up like that co-worker who forgot to switch off his microphone or video in a Zoom meeting and took a washroom break.
Look up P Ramakrishnan’s piece on Umno’s tenuous grip on power and the historical damage wrought by the party. Umno has only 37 MPs or 16.7% in the 222-seat Parliament. Perhaps this is good news. The powers that be are not invincible.
Elvin Ong, in his book Opposing Power, says opposition party leaders weigh the costs and benefits of crafting oppositional alliances. Coordinating candidate selection and joint campaigns in opposition alliances produces highly uncertain benefits and incurs costs to parties and leaders.
However, two key variables significantly affect the opposition leaders’ decisions – the perception of the vulnerability of the regime and the perception of mutual dependency for an opposition win.
Ong talks about how the run-up to the 1990, 1999, 2013 and 2018 general elections saw intra-regime defections, economic crises and mass street protests. These were “regime-debilitating events”, exposing the vulnerability of the incumbent Barisan Nasional regime.
Intra-regime fractures triggered defections from Umno like Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s in 1988, Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking from Umno in 1998, and Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s own defection in 2016.
The 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2008 global financial crisis and the 2015 1MDB scandal sparked further vulnerability in the ruling government.
The mass street protests of the Reformasi movement and Bersih dealt another blow to the BN regime.
Opposition party leaders realised they could pursue joint national election campaigns and form pre-electoral alliances with an awareness of mutual dependency between parties.
This awareness complemented the earlier informal rule of using the ethnic composition of an electoral district to predict a party’s popularity in that district.
It took over two decades for cohesive interparty collaboration to become possible with the forging of an opposition alliance that dislodged the BN from power in 2018 after six decades in power.
As voters, our reckoning with mutual dependency and the vulnerability of our social existence calls for our continued participation in the process we call ‘democracy’.
“No justice … seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility,beyond all living present … before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist or other kinds of exterminations,” says Jacques Derrida.
We ponder the memory of those who suffered past injustices – forced disappearances, sudden deaths behind bars, and mysterious murders under suspicious circumstances.
We respond, in the here and now, to the vulnerability of coalitions and, as Malaysians, to our racial and religious prejudices of ‘the other’, and the spectre of a better tomorrow.
We pray for the “possibility of the impossible” – for perfection is impossible. We often seem unable to give a gift without the expectation of some form of return and reward – we expect, for instance, a thank you. Often, we also seem unable to hope for a better future without expecting to be disappointed.
But why not make the leap and give hope a chance, anyway?