Dr M’s developmentalism vs Malaysia’s post-materialism — Alwyn Lau
JUNE 21 — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s speech at the launch of the Maybank Foundation-Perdana Leadership Foundation essay competition was a good example of how to maintain non-democracy precisely by talking about democracy.
He said the ‘best thing’ about democracy is that voting for a new government is ‘all’ that’s required; what he should’ve said is that it’s the ‘ideal thing’ about democracy, that Malaysia’s election system is messed up and manipulated and therefore some pre-voting activism is required to set things straight.
He said that with democracy, we don’t require violence, revolution, etc; what he didn’t mention were the numerous times the Barisan Nasional government has sought to maintain power precisely through violence, brutality and the threat of disorder in the country.
Psychoanalysts have a term for such talk: inherent transgression. This means that the public official law is always sustained by an obscene underside, a ‘dark’ law. The nice brochure-like image of the country is always upheld and managed by unjust and unspeakable oppression.
The most interesting part of his speech, though, was the bargain he repeated to the Malaysian people. It’s the same trade-off he’s made with Malaysia since the 80s’: You either get ‘freedom’ or progress and prosperity’.
Translated, this means if you want to get or stay rich, make sure BN continues to be in power. But if you want true socio-political change, you’re either not matured enough or you’re asking for trouble. In two words, the good Tun was promoting developmentalism over post-materialism.
Developmentalism — a term popularised by USM Professor Francis Loh — is about my ability to earn and, thus, appeals to my greed and pride.
Post-materialism — something I picked up from Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, Graham Ward — is about my capacity to yearn for more justice in the country, spurring me to make appeals on behalf of those for who may have too much poverty thus not much time for greed and pride.
Developmentalism is about valorizing economic development so everyone can augment their material status and in return ‘forget’ about political injustice — a form of pleasurable distraction. Post-materialism is about looking beyond the material in order not to treat injustice as immaterial.
Developmentalism represents the trade-off the BN government made with the Malaysian middle-class in the late 20th century (“We make you rich; you leave the politics to us”). The sad thing is that it’s quite likely that many Chinese voters bought (pun intended) this arrangement during the 10th General Election of 1999, virtually ignoring the voices of Reformasi sparked by Anwar’s unjust arrest and trial, voting for ‘stability’ instead.
Post-materialism is the early 21st century awakening of all classes to the inhumanity and even illegality of an arrangement whereby a few cronies become super-rich, many folks make enough money to waste too much, most folks go into debt and some folks remain impoverished and others thrown into Kamunting for asking too many questions.
Developmentalism represents BN ‘protection’ against May 13, 1969-like events; post-materialism reflects the civic-minded attack against BN’s extortion.
Developmentalism is about the rights of the rich to erect barricades around their housing areas; post-materialism is about those whose rights are forcibly taken away.
Developmentalism is about mega-malls, macho cars, Big Macs’ and iMacs. Post-materialism is about disabled-friendly facilities at the mall, better public transportation, food for the hungry and social networking to spread the message of justice (i-Politics, if you will).
In developmentalism, the consumers sell votes in return for more warehouse sales. In post-materialism, the people want to buy freedom — of religion, of speech, of organisation, of information — and they’ll pay only with resources, prayers, conversation and votes, not a few nights (or years) imprisoned without trial.
BN won the 2004 election with a nine-goal margin on the basis of developmentalism (among other things, like leashing key opposition leaders, dubious constitutional landscaping, etc.).
In 2008, due to increasing post-materialism (and Facebook), the match went to BN 5-4 but their players (and the management) suffered blooded noses, broken legs, a host of red and yellow cards, and they even lost their favourites status in the Parliamentary Tournament.
Developmentalism uses rhetoric about democracy (especially ‘the best democracy in the world’) as a means to political ends; post-materialism means an end to un-democratic politics. For developmentalists, democracy is a much-touted but never-intended finish line. For post-materialists, democracy is the starting line, the track, the finish line and even the referee.
Developmentalism seeks to depoliticize everything (especially the economy) and thus politicizes the mind of the nation; post-materialism makes problematic whatever is construed as ‘non-political’ or ‘natural’ and thus exposes the mind of the powers that be.
But this is not to say that sometimes the two notions aren’t often confused or mixed. The same citizen who slams the Bersih crackdown may also be the same shopper who secretly (or not so secretly) wishes she could spend like Kimora.
The dude who signs a petition against illegal detentions and pushes his buddies to do the same could be the one and the same fellow who complains about rising food prices right before blowing a few hundred bucks on alcohol, i.e. he whacks ISA but worships XO.
The Kuala Lumpur executive who chides BN for ignoring human rights can, on a daily basis, ignore and revile the presence of Bangladeshi, Indonesian or Nepalese non-executives who wash his car, serve him coffee, cook his restaurant meals (they will also be the first culprits on his mind should his house be broken in).
If we over-eat, if we over-spend and if we overlook those who under-eat and can hardly spend, then we’re in a poor position to demand, let alone create, political transformations.
This could be the biggest lie in developmentalism: That the people can create social change by remaining personally unchanged. The government wants us to believe that real action belongs to the domain of the governing, not the governed.
And especially since the economic booms, privatisations and deregulations of the 80s and 90s (with a few recessions notwithstanding), Malaysians (especially the middle-classes) has been encouraged to focus on making money and leave the realm of politics to BN.
How, then, can post-materialism be nurtured and brought forth? There are quick-fix superficial ways and there are more painful substantial ways.
The low-impact way would be to engage in Robin Sharma-ish meditations on “living in harmony” with the world, buying green products, dropping coins into the donation boxes near the cashier, and sharing FaceBook links on alternative music with “life-changing” messages.
The tougher but more permanent approach would be to design, engineer and implement a reorientation on a personal / communal level what we claim we wish to see on a national level. It could mean deciding once and for all that certain companies or industries should be lobbied against and popularly banned (if we could allow this oxymoron for now).
It could signal prolonged actionable conversations with parties we’ve never spoken to. It certainly means making more moral/ethical demands of our elected representatives, especially those we suspect are behaving like nothing more than technicians (or PR consultants) for the constituency.
It also could mean taking some firm corporate steps towards new priorities or ways of thinking (e.g. “How would we look like if our profit motif was subordinated to social concerns?”) and burning the bridges afterwards (e.g. “No more contracts with XYZ Company until they publicly apologise for bribing their way into previous contracts”).
Post-materialism reflexively reminds the community of its ‘here-ness’ in the world and therefore its belonging in it. It’s new, or least less entrenched than the lies developmentalism has been telling.
It’s also funky and thus may inspire more action than what conventional wisdom has delivered.
Finally, it exudes a spit-shiney cool factor, thus giving something extra for the young in body, mind and heart to live for.
Reflexive, new, funky and cool. Needless to say, there’s nothing to stop post-materialism from being Malaysian as well.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.