The predictability of politics III: Generational changes and the fear of youth — Farish A. Noor
MAY 8 — “Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigour of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life...
Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.
Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.” — Samuel Ullman
If politics is normative, it is so simply because of its predictability; and by virtue of being predictable, politics never, and should never, surprise us.
Since the dusk of the Roman Empire, generations have lamented the passing of time and have predicted the end of the world, and yet the world endures and we endure with it. There is, I feel, some consolation to be found in the knowledge that with our passing nothing changes — for it is only our blind conceit that befuddles us and convinces us that we are more important than we really are.
My own task as a schoolteacher and a historian by default is one that offers me some safe asylum in the knowledge that things have always been rotten, and will remain so, indefinitely. But in my labour as one who documents the past, I am constantly reminded of the simple truth that nothing really, really, ever changes.
And so we return to Southeast Asia which today seems to be on the verge of fragmenting (yet again). Across the region we see the rise of popular and populist movements in countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and even Singapore. Much of what we have seen thus far has foregrounded that universal actor whose face is recognisable to most of us by now: the angry urban youth.
Yet why is the face of the angry young man/woman so strange to us, for have we not seen this before? Back to the historical cycle we go, and let us remind ourselves of some simple facts:
A peek at Simon Schama’s ’Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution’ is instructive here, for it helps us remember some basic truths that media obfuscation and hyperbole has made us forget.
Most of us, when hearing the phrase ‘French Revolution’ conjure images of ill-dressed sans culottes rampaging through the streets baying for the blood of aristocrats. Anatole France’s novel decries that The Gods Are Athirst, and that the revolutionary razor has to be fed new heads to be lobbed off. In most of the images that we have seen associated with this event, the view we have of the revolutionaries is that they were led by men like Robbespierre, Saint-Just, Danton, Camille Desmoulins. But one fact that many of us are ignorant of, due to the hegemonic power of the cinematic image, is how young they were: Robbespierre was executed in his early 30s, and he was among the eldest among them. Georges Danton, Desmoulins, Louis Antoine Saint-Just and many others were in their 20s, in fact; and even by the standards of the day then, they were young men.
Look all around Asia and what do we see? Were not the revolutions and anti-colonial uprisings that shook the pillars of Western imperialism in the late-19th/20th centuries likewise led by young men and women?
China, India, (later Pakistan), Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaya... the list goes on and on. The nationalists of India and China were mainly young educated urbanites who took up the tools of modernity and turned them against itself, by grafting together the discourses of nation-building and nationalism together. Burma and Indonesia were liberated by youth who were then in their 20s: Have we forgotten that when the nationalists made their Youth Pledge (Sumpah Permuda) most of them were barely out of school themselves?
And closer to home, think of the first generation of proto-Malayan nationalists like Ibrahim Yaakob, Burhanuddin al-Helmy, Ahmad Boestaman and the rest, who were then in their 20s too. (Ahmad Boestaman was in fact in his late teens when he turned to the world of politics and the anti-colonial struggle.)
By today’s standards, these founding fathers and mothers of the nation-states of Asia would fall into the same category as ‘wayward youth’ we have been warned about time and again. Have we forgotten, then, the energy of Youth and the potential they contain, by virtue of their relative distance from the centres of power and their liminality — which ironically makes them more impervious to risk and more open to high-risk activism?
Almost all of the countries of Southeast Asia began on the promising note of new nation-states that promised a place and a role for youth as agents of socio-political and economic change. Almost all of the countries in the region valorised the young for their fighting spirit and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause. So what happened, and why?
The simplest answer that presents itself is this: The younger generation of nationalists and nation-builders grew up, grew old, and grew tired.
My parents’ generation was the one that lived under two flags: that of the Union Jack of the British Empire and that of Malaya’s (later Malaysia’s). As they grew older, that dynamism gave way to cynicism, fear, insecurity, paranoia and resistance to change. As in the film “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962): “Young men make wars and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: Courage and Hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men: Mistrust and caution.”
When, then, did our courage desert us, and when did we become an old nation? When did our region age?
That inertia perhaps intruded the moment we gave in to the charms of ease and comfort, and when we began to long for a life of sedentary peace. We sought comfort in staple truths, simple truths plied to us as homilies and home-spun wisdom. We sought comfort in regularity, regimentation, homogenisation, predictability, in short, in sedimented politics and governance. Genius died along with youth, and with that went bravado, impulse, recklessness too.
I return to Goenawan Muhammad’s question about what the revolution was for: Was it just for this, to get rid of the colonisers so that we could then walk into their clubs?
I raise these questions now simply because there seems to be a universal campaign against Youth at the moment, and this is seen in the barbed editorials and commentaries written about them from Western Europe to East Asia. Youth are described as lazy, angry, violent, destructive. The fear arises from having to recognise an aspect of ourselves that we wish to deny perhaps; the obvious fact that we were young ourselves once.
But this discourse against Youth is located in a specific historical and socio-political-economic context at present, where all across the world we are witnessing the slow erosion of the structures that once supported the mighty columbarium of late industrial capitalism and capital-driven democracy. From India to China, Asia’s development has been market-driven with a market logic even in cases where the states were ostensibly Communist. Urbanisation and mass education has created something on a scale that we have never seen before: Millions upon millions of urbanised educated youth who now feel that their upward social mobility is being blocked by an oligarchy of state and market institutions that brought about socio-economic changes, but could not adapt to those changes fast enough.
The madness in our developmental model is plain for everyone to see: Look at the explosion of the educational sector, with countries offering mass education for everyone, on the unstated premise that degrees will get you jobs and jobs will make you happy. In Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the other countries I do my research in, I am flabbergasted by the sheer scale of the new educational sector. Every time I land in Jakarta or Jogjakarta I count the number of new colleges, universities, tuition centres that have been created, selling education to all on the basis that a degree or diploma will solve the problems of your life.
It cannot be denied that in our region we have indeed seen the rise of successful developmentalist states like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia — But for how long can this development be maintained, and for how long can the market absorb graduates? In the meantime we demean the value of honest labour, and regard labour-intensive industries as a blight from the past. We tell our children (daughters in particular) to ‘marry up’ and never ‘marry down’ with anyone of a lower socio-educational class, and we wonder how and why our societies have grown more hierarchical and fragmented??
The fear of Youth, in my opinion, is therefore really a fear of something far more fundamental: A worry that gnaws at the conscience of economists, politicians and technocrats that there is something not quite right about our educational-developmental model and that sooner than later the social costs of this social engineering experiment will be nailed on our doors. Living as we do in a region that is made up of young countries with youthful populations (Singapore being the exception due to its declining birth rate), Youth is going to be a factor for the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and the rest of ASEAN. In the face of this real socio-economic challenge, talk of ‘ungrateful youth’, ‘boisterous youth’, etc is simply froth that does not illuminate or guide us anyway out of the mess we are in. Unfortunately for the governments of the region, the surplus of youth also means that there is a large and eager vote bank ready to be tapped by political parties and politicians who recognise their power as a tool for socio-political mobilisation.
The political parties of Asia had therefore wise up to this, and recognise that across Asia - particularly in countries like India, China and parts of ASEAN — there are too many established and entrenched political parties whose leaders are two, three or even four decades older than the average new voter. (Calling youth stupid and lazy at a time when they outnumber you is not, perhaps, the smartest of things to do in such cases.)
Asia is therefore on the threshold of something new that it has to face whether it likes it or not: Half a century after decolonisation, that first generation of nation-builders will now have to deal with the second generation that came after, and to accept that youth have something to say and want to be listened too. Failure to engage with youth is not an option, for if history serves us well it would remind us of what happened to the colonial regimes of the 1940s and 50s that failed to listen to the young voices outside the corridors of power then. But for such an engagement to even begin, it has to start from the premise that the young are not strangers to ourselves. They are the point from which we ourselves began from, and the fact that they exist is testimony to the predictability of the cycle of normal, mundane politics.
* Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the Nanyan Technological University, Singapore.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.