Economic growth as cover-up for Malaysia’s void? — Alwyn Lau
JUNE 26 — In the Roman Polanski movie, “Carnage,” two couples attempt to resolve a situation involving their children. What starts out as a relatively ordinary scenario gradually evolves into sharp disagreement, growing resentment and eventually bitter conflict. Worth stressing, though, is the fact that throughout the movie the two couples were doing nothing but circling a traumatic void of suspicion, envy and accusation. That there was a void is clear from the start. That superficial comments and niceties were employed in the work of covering up the void is also clear. What is clearest, though, is the absolute failure to prevent the power of this void from exploding.
A key motif of psychoanalysis is how subjects deal with the agonising ‘monster’ in their lives, how meaning, symbols and fantasies are erected as smoke-screens to prevent the encounter with this terrifying ‘Thing’ lodged deep within. All of us live with a ‘bone in the throat’, something that renders our world awry, twisted and slightly ‘off’. Some issue, topic or event which threatens to make us explode in fits of fury or collapse in bouts of irrationality (or even insanity). It could be a sexual issue, a family problem, a past event, a failed dream, a lost love: We know, yet we choose not to know. We talk, we work, we move, we indulge, we click — we do everything we can to avoid confronting this void in our lives.
As with people, so with countries. Barisan Nasional’s “1 Malaysia” slogan is nothing if not an ideological cover-up for that void at the heart of Malaysia. If we wish to deny (or look past) the problem of racism, corruption, cronyism and bigotry in the country, why, let’s sing a nice song, wave a thousand flags, make a few (broad) promises and repeat a cool-sounding slogan. Hopefully people will forget or be too distracted to ask questions.
However, there is a more subtle cover-up of the trauma at the country’s core, one which even the Opposition is guilty of: That of economic growth. Especially as elections near, everybody who stands to gain from votes will be putting forth that one most effective cover-up of Capitalism itself, the promise of wealth. If we can’t resolve the problem of poverty, of class conflicts, of inequality, of apathy, of environmentalism, of racial disharmony, hey don’t worry, here’s a better GDP. If we face national ‘holes in the ground’, the solution is simple. Let’s build a mall or a condominium to cover it up.
But why not a cultural centre? Or a park? Or a public square? The simple answer is that these are non-profit. And no contractor or property man (or politician, for that matter) is going to risk his bank account and reputation to promote beauty and spaces for the public. Profit is the name of the game.
Yet a deeper symbolism remains. Isn’t the setting aside of a public square an act of keeping open a void in society? Isn’t building a cultural centre a form of uncovering opportunities and spaces for people to express their deepest feelings about the nation? In a word, isn’t it true that businessmen and politicians fear facing up to the abyss, the gap, the split, at the kernel of the community? Isn’t it safer for them, therefore, to plug this hole with profit-making projects which serve no higher purpose than making selected individuals richer and distracting the masses? And hey, as long as the GDP statistics are rising, no one should complain, right?
Slavoj Žižek has pointed out how the Book of Job (in the Bible) was probably the first instance whereby discursive strategies were employed to promote ideology. Job’s friends, in presenting all kinds of explanations for why Job suffered the tragedies he did, were attempting to obscure the trauma of the truth of evil in the world. Job’s disagreement — and God’s eventually vindication and endorsement of his views over that of his friends’ — demonstrated resilience in the face of such tempting illusions of closure. For Job, he refused to look away from the void in his pain. He refused to accept cheap solutions to the problem and ‘causes’ of his suffering.
Just like how Job’s friends sought to cover-up Job’s trauma via inauthentic explanations, could it be that Malaysia’s leaders are always seeking to pull a veil over the abyss within the country via the promise of growth, wealth and prosperity? As if money solves everything? What happens, then, when the tap runs dry? Would Malaysia have the integrity and national strength of pull together, to in fact enjoy ourselves as a nation instead of constantly striving towards a globally indexed statistical target which, in all honesty, can never be met because there will always be another number in the future?
Clearly, this is not at all to argue that economic growth is unimportant. The problem is not economic growth per se but how it’s used as a cloaking device to hide a country’s deeper problems. A simple analogy is how, say, a husband and wife can barely communicate but, hey, as long as we’re making loads of money, why address our inability to see eye to eye? Likewise, why bother truly repairing the decades or centuries of pain within a nation, why bother looking at the void, when there are profits to reap?
At this point, we could ponder: Well, what exactly is Malaysia’s void? I can suggest a few options. But for now, maybe one strategy is worth considering: Let’s stop distracting ourselves. Let’s put aside the allure of the superficial.
If we want to gaze through the traumatic window, we have to stop playing with the pretty curtains, no?
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.