The predictability of politics, and how we rise and fall — Farish A Noor
'Public thinking was shaken, as if there had been a natural disaster;
Intelligent people became half-wits for the rest of their lives.'
(G. Flaubert, a Sentimental Education.)
I am a school teacher, and I happen to teach politics and comparative political history. Ive also dabbled in the murky domains of religio-political violence, human rights abuses, erasure of history and other sordid subjects that account for my fragile nerves and my suicidal tendencies. But looking at the state of Malaysia today, I cannot help but feel that a sense of deja vu has overcome me, and unmanned my senses. All that I have learned and taught seem to come together in one blurred vision of nations undergoing tumultuous change, and in the midst of this waking dream I see a pattern of predictability etched before my eyes, as if it was a lesson to governments and regimes the world over. How surprising, and yet not so, that despite the differences in language, culture, religion and ethnicity we see around us, the game of politics seems to bear structural similarities the world over...
Act One: The dream of the younger older generation.
I have said this many times before, but it bears repeating again. Age has less to do with bodies and more to do with subjectivities and subject positions.
It seems trite to note that these days we hear again and again that the younger generation are a troubled and troublesome lot; that they are ungrateful; that they do not know what it is to suffer, to labour, to toil; etc. The litany of complaints against the young seem endless, and they invariably emanate from the older ones.
Yet the older generation is, in some respects, younger than the young today. For they were the products of that hopeful age of golden promise, of hope for a new society, for a newly independent nation-state. But in their youth in the 1950s they possessed the naivete of a generation that believed, and had the will to believe; in the promises of politicians, in slogans and banners and flags. They believed, with a simple, childlike faith that I envy, that the blueprints of technocrats and securocrats could be translated from paper to concrete and that with a touch of nationalism here, a pinch of patriotism there, a nation-state could be produced as a bun from an oven.
This was the older generation that was the midwife to the birth of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and a host of other sparkling bright new postcolonial states; fresh-faced and flushed with the confidence of youth.
This was the generation that believed in their politicians, and the constitutions they held in their hands, in the rule of law they vowed to uphold, in the economy they promised to develop and protect.
Today, this older generation is physically older, but in terms of their beliefs they retain some of the faith that many of us have lost.
The younger generation in turn is born into a different age, a different world: They were born into skepticism, into defeat, into disillusionment, into societies where the egalitarianism of the past had given way to the new social-economic hierarchies of the present. As the writer Goenawan Mohamad once wrote in 'Cocktail Parties': "Was this what the revolution was for? To fight against the old masters simply so that we can get into the clubs?" Yes, sadly yes. And having entered the club of the former colonial masters - in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia - we barricaded the doors so that the OKB - Orang Kaya Baru - could keep out the riff raff of the other OKB-wannabes.
In so many countries I have studied - Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, - I have come across the familiar tale of the post-colonial post-revolutionary elite who soon took to the pond of neo-feudalism with such ease as to defy incredulity. Everywhere across Asia we have seen the familiar symptoms of the new rich: The biggest houses, the biggest cars, the most vulgar consumption, accompanied by the most vulgar of company.
The first act closes, and already the nation's imaginary has become a sad, tawdry joke.
Act Two: Regime Maintenance (Or, bring out the thugs and the holy books while youre in the wine cellar please)
Across much of Asia, Asia's postcolonial development has been a textbook case of regime maintenance via the politics of co-optation and patronage.
The primary actor is that once all-inclusive vehicle for the delivery of the nation, the national party and its ruling elite. Oh, how they wax ever so eloquent about their great marches and herculean labours, and how they shroud themselves in the mantle of the national imaginary. Yet the contradictions began to grow, as the 'People's Leader' soon became the 'People's Leader for Life', 'Grand Architect', 'Sole Saviour', etc, etc.
The cult of leadership that has blighted almost every postcolonial Asian state reminds us of the proximity of the past that has never really passed: From the panoptic gaze of the all-seeing Big Brother Suryavarman VII to the stadium-sized portraits of the great leaders of Asia, the logic of excess has taken over; and power (and wealth) need to be demonstrated all the time.
Oh, how the postcolonial state has failed Asians! We took on the trappings of modernity without any of its attendant complications and complexities; and grafted them onto the mindset of the slavish feudal serf instead. Across Asia magic spells are cast via sms and internet; populist elites play roles that overlap the identities of Gods, deities, epic heroes and public servants. Our politics is staged, theatrical and performative, and even the demonstrations we see on TV have become stage-managed events (re: Indonesia, 1974, 1997/98, etc.) Pogroms and the destruction of holy sites (Afghanistan, India, etc) win votes; politicians play the role of the vengeful Rama or the angry Prophet.
And when co-optation fails, call in the shamans and priests, and witness how so many states - led by ostensibly secular nationalist leaders whose popularity levels were faltering (India, Indira Gandhi; Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) turned to religion and called in the holy men to render sacred what could only be described, in all honestly, as profanely profane regimes in crisis. The rise of sectarian religious violence (South Thailand, Indonesia, 1999-2003) gives a second life to the ailing security industry and keeps the army out of the barracks, as power - forever demonstrated - is applied at the point of a bayonet.
But even then, these violent regimes fail to take note that in their introvertedness and parochialism, they were but pawns in a Cold War not of their own making or choosing; and as that other sordid global drama came to its timely end, so did the bit-parts they played become redundant too. (Eg: Pakistan after the Cold War, Indonesia, Philippines too post-1989)
Act Three: The Infernal Consumers' Paradise of a Capital-Driven Asia.
Ho hum. We are told that Asia is in crisis again. (When was it never in crisis?). But now the bills are mounting and everywhere around us we see this bill being nailed on our respective doors: Decades of top-down social engineering buffered and rendered sweet and pleasing to the eye thanks to capital-driven development has suddenly come to a standstill and guess what? The miracle decades are over, and the foreign capital we thought would rain upon our happy lands has moved to greener (or rather, cheaper) pastures.
The blowback is so typical that one is tempted to suggest it is archetypal: Regimes that have kept themselves in power for so long by buying off potential opposition through modes of co-optation now realise that without that roaring river of capital to irrigate their economies, their capacity to co-opt will be curtailed as well.
What next? In almost every country across Asia, the market-driven dream of paradise on earth was predicated on the belief that universities would produce graduates who would all get jobs and end up being happy, consuming, Middle-class citizens. But when the capital tap is turned off, the dreams run dry.
Decades of rural-to-urban migration has left Asia with scores of megacities and megalopolises, (Surabaya for instance, has grown fifty times its size since 1900 while only 2 percent of Jakarta's population has access to public transport. Cities have become modern hells) and in these cities the young are restless, tired, disillusioned and angry.
Does it come as a surprise to us that one of the last rural revolts was in Java in 1825 (The Diponogero War, 1825-1830)? And even when we look at the insurgencies of the 1960s in Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines let us not forget that these were countryside insurgencies that were hatched in the universities, colleges, courts of the cities. Asia is changing, and it is changing from the metropole outwards (Manila, 1986; Bangkok, 1997; Jakarta, 1998, etc.)
One pattern seems to fit all now: Old regimes, often made up of literally old people (or rather, to be more specific, old men), refuse to budge in the face of rapidly changing social circumstances that their own developmental policies of the 1970s and 1980s have created: New colleges and new universities giving birth to new political subjects and subjectivities who in turn demand new changes. The age gap is the most glaring of all: Indonesia's Golkar is - literally - the oldest party in the country with the most old Members of Parliament. India's government is also made up of old and ageing politicians, at a time when the country's population is younger than ever. Japan and Singapore's ageing populations means that in a decade's time scores of old people will wander about with no families to care for them; and in the meantime the younger generation bite and gnaw at barriers that prevent them from entering the job market, to become stakeholders in a society that calls them lazy instead.
In the midst of this, so many of Asia's capital-driven democracies are witnessing the rise of populist politics where the tools and rituals of democracy are used for the most undemocratic of ends: Feeding anxiety, fueling moral panics (of womens' emancipation, of gays, of apostates, of infidels, etc) and reving the hate machine to the max.
In the midst of this monumental structural-economic crisis, national imaginaries grow more parochial. While Malaysians and Indonesians bicker about domestic issues, we failed to notice that last week the Philippines and China nearly went to war, and that our nation has never been more exposed to uncontrollable and unpredictable external variable factors.
But dont let any of this bother you, for there will always be the populists who will promise you bunny rabbits out of the hat, free fuel, free gas, free water, free freedom too.
How did we get into this state of affairs? Simple enough: in our race for development we turned our eyes to the charms of glass, steel and concrete and measured our national worth in terms of projects and skyscrapers, while neglecting basic economic and political education. We are infants, skating on the thin ice of history, and much of what has come to pass was predictable years ago, had we the eyes to see it.
* Dr Farish A Noor is a Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider