Post-publication update by the author:
After the publication of the article, Malaysiakini has contacted me to clarify two issues which I had wrongly stated. Firstly, Ibrahim Ali was seen to be handing out white ang pows since the beginning (justified by reporters from two news agencies who attended the Open House). Secondly, the “deleted” comment criticising Malaysiakini’s journalistic standard was never deleted [see Note 4; Malaysiakini has published three feeds in regards to the same video, the comment only appeared on the first feed (not the second or third feeds) while the commentator believed that there was only a single feed].
These mistakes are mine alone. I must therefore apologise to remain loyal to the politics of gifting: on the first, for being a product of the mainstream media; on the second, for accusing Malaysiakini of censorship. This apology will not diminish the critique but serve as a reminder to our own myopia.
Tan Zi Hao, 9 February 2012.
Amidst Ibrahim Ali’s white-ang-pow-controversy, the recipients involved are dragged into our gaze: they are the elderly – Perkasa’s perfect assets, Malaysiakini’s perfect victims. This article seeks to explore the problematic gift, to draw lessons from this political spectacle, and to explain why Ibrahim Ali must be forgiven even before an apology is made.
Again, we are consumed by the politics of colour – previously by a paradoxical yellow, a colour representing dirty, cheap sensational journalism notwithstanding, which became associated with an opposite bersih or cleanliness; and now, by the red of the ang pow (red packet), by no means lacking in substance, which is a messenger of greetings and a container of currency notes. And it is through this packet where Ibrahim Ali has had his misfit, intentional or accidental; he handed out white instead of red packets to Chinese attendees  at his very own Chinese New Year Open House, thus igniting a public outcry, an addition to his handsome portfolio of controversy.
I believe controversy like this is not trivial but of great concern to the Malaysian public because it occasioned public response, a door to the understanding of the socio-cultural aspect of being ‘Malaysian’ (a national political frame). I also believe that Malaysia as a political entity plays the politics of culture, and if any substantial change occurs, it occurs through cultural instruments  if not through the political system. After all, we are witnessing an epoch of soft power. And when an ang pow could strike such a chord with the Malaysian public, the packet must possess the soft power not to be underestimated. Let us now examine this ‘power’.
Ang pow is short-lived. You receive an ang pow, you take the money, you put the packet aside. You like what lies inside than what appears outside. But the appearance is important to conceal what is contained – the money. Perhaps, the monetary gift is stark materialism, too crude in itself and therefore requires an orthodox cover to obscure its lure. Then, the ang pow becomes almost valueless at post-reception: it is only secretive and decorative, but once the secret (the monetary value) is revealed, the packet is left aside to be disposed of. It is therefore wasteful, but necessary.
The ang pow is also an agent of greetings. If the currency note is received in its naked form, it becomes purely financial and transactional. On the other hand, if it is clothed in customary red, it becomes a greeting and bears an ephemeral value beyond its transactional quality. In the Open House, however, Ibrahim Ali claimed to have run out of ang pow and began to hand out money in white packets, and later, ‘in the nude’.
His action appeared disrespectful to some. The white packet seemed inauspicious, while the money without an orthodox cover seemed like an open public bribery. However, the criticism of Perkasa is just as ‘disrespectful’. I will explain why in the following section. The article will focus on two apparent opposites – actually politically identical – one of Perkasa, the other of Malaysiakini observed through an interview . Anyhow, readers should bear in mind that they are mere convenient subjects of critique. Eventually, this event should come to shed light on our own myopia, a short-sightedness not exclusive to them. Readers should also recognise both organisations as social constructs of our political reality to which we are held liable.
To begin, one must look at the intention of the organiser and the attendees: the organiser wished to gain political mileage before the election and the attendees wished to bring home money along with satisfied stomachs. Unfortunately, the organiser’s intention backfired. And since good intentions usually do not justify their ends if expressed haphazardly, Perkasa has indeed erred due to its insensitivity.
However, the kind of reproach targeted at Perkasa is worthy of scrutiny. One can identify an interesting ploy: despite the criticism of Perkasa, the attendees – mostly the elderly – were not left unscathed. They were objectified and appropriated in the criticism to give the critics the license to be more punitive towards Perkasa. The critics victimised the elders to make them their political instruments.
The elders who received the money uncritically were also held liable for being a disgrace to the ethnic ‘Chinese’. Their argument is that they should have rejected the money (those not packed as ang pow) to retain self-respect. This is of course an ambiguous argument: what is self-respect when one is directed to commit an action against the will? I shall hold this point in abeyance because I must now provide some examples from Malaysiakini’s interview, with some comments extrapolated from the site, which will demonstrate the points I wish to argue.
In the beginning of the interview, the interviewer (MK) asks the interviewees (A and B) for general opinions. This is then followed by a bombardment of MK’s opinions, before MK poses other questions that seek to reinstate MK’s presumption of Perkasa. Below are selected excerpts translated from the interview on video:
Excerpt 1 [3:11 – 3:16]
MK: How did they (the organiser) persuade you to come? By saying that there is something to eat here and ang pows to be handed out?
To use ‘persuade’ instead of ‘invite’ demonstrates MK’s scepticism – the elders are (already) powerless and gullible.
Excerpt 2 [3:26 – 3:51]
MK: Do you know Perkasa? Perkasa, Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia. Do you know what is Perkasa?
MK: Perkasa is that organisation, it is highly racialised. Do you know that they have said something that have hurt the Chinese…hurt the heart of the Chinese? Do you know?
MK: Do you read about them on news? Do you know the organisation’s Ibrahim Ali?
Here, MK seems to be on a mission to inform A about Perkasa, but with information that is limited and within MK’s preferred perspective. MK’s introduction of Perkasa is composed only of negative comments about the organisation. After an interruption (another individual handing out plain, unpacked money [RM10 note]), MK continues:
Excerpt 3 [4:08 – 4:20]
MK: You didn’t get it (the money) earlier?
A: I got it, I got it.
MK: You got the white packet.
A: Yes, yes.
MK: White is not auspicious.
MK: You don’t mind?
A: They gave ang pow… (inaudible)
“White is not auspicious” is emphasised, as demonstrated with the suffix at the end, “wor” (not transcribed). Again, even if white is perceived as inauspicious, it should be coming from A and not MK. This demonstrates MK’s attempt to influence A. However, without getting any response, MK continues with the close-ended question, “You don’t mind?”. This necessitates a precondition that A has agreed to MK’s “…white is not auspicious”. MK then asks for personal names. And just when you think this is over, MK poses the same questions to A (and B) again:
Excerpt 4 [4:55 – 5:33]
MK: You come here because of the ang pow? You heard there will be ang pow?
A: They asked us to come here to receive ang pow, that’s why we come.
B: The old folks, of course. They are happy.
MK: Are you all happy?
MK: And there’s something to eat?
A: There’s something to eat and there’s ang pow, so we come.
MK: Oh, they didn’t tell you that it is organised by Perkasa?
A: I don’t know.
MK: If you know that Perkasa always hurts the feelings of the Chinese, will you come?
A: (pause) We are all Chinese, we are all the same.
MK: So let’s say if this organisation…
A: (Interrupts) We don’t know much about this.
MK: So you don’t know?
MK knows that A and B are unaware of Perkasa but has not given up. Then, it appears MK intended to provoke them by posing the if questions, but it fails since neither A nor B has any clue about Perkasa (other than the information provided by MK). At this point of time, A and B seem reluctant to respond, perhaps disheartened upon knowing about the MK-version-Perkasa, and with a sense of guilt, felt embarrassed. Or perhaps, they are simply impatient (notice their expressions and the short pause before A responds). Undeniably, MK as a practising journalist, has an agenda at odds with journalism ethics. Later, MK proceeds with another person to pose similar questions.
While alternative media such as Malaysiakini has emerged from the rising distrust of mainstream media, here’s what’s fearful about this sort of alternative avenue: upon given allowance, objectivity can be easily abused as shown in the interview and the interpretations of it by commentators . This is the ‘alternative’ advantage – exotic and innocent – and Malaysiakini has bypassed our critical faculty to become a new agent provocateur. A new brand with renewed content, yet a mere duplicate of previous media politics we have come to despise.
Hitherto, Perkasa and Malaysiakini, being all too conscious about their roles and conditions, have relentlessly sought opportune loopholes in the objectified elders. For Perkasa, the elderly being unaware of their past controversies was an advantage. For Malaysiakini, the lack of awareness in the elderly was newsworthy since it exemplified Perkasa’s attempt to buy over a few ‘Chinese’. It then attempted to provoke the elderly by speaking ill of Perkasa, to instill a sense of guilt in them. If we examine the interviewer’s gaze, we can conclude it is provocative, chauvinistic (the emphasis on ‘Chinese-ness’) and oppressive (the assumed gullibility of the elderly). I do not see any difference between this gaze and that of Perkasa.
Despite their opposite agendas, Perkasa and Malaysiakini share the same violence in their ‘gaze’, the way they scrutinise affairs. Limited and myopic, such a way of looking at things has kept (and continue to keep) Malaysians distant from opportunities of learning from one another.
The Malaysian public is witnessing a mediated spectacle through these ‘violent gazes’: the elderly became an easy prey – an instrument for Perkasa to garner non-Bumiputra acceptance, and for Malaysiakini to provoke the viewing public. The elders were entrapped within a political fissure; they did not know about Perkasa or Malaysiakini’s claim that Perkasa is ‘racialised’. They are simply ‘stupid’  and ‘ignorant’ , Perkasa’s perfect assets and Malaysiakini’s perfect victims.
It is a ‘shame’ , some have claimed, to watch the elderly receiving the money mindlessly; shame, too, that the regret is expressed without first understanding the power-relation and participants’ respective political capital taking place in the event. Perkasa was highly aware of their intention, as for the elders – as recipients of ang pow (and food) – they were only unaware of the kind of politics that have come to preoccupy some of us. They should not be castigated for being ‘ignorant’ (here, only presupposed) due to the fact that they do not play the language game some of us do.
Postscript: Politics of Gifting
We must now return to the ang pow, to take inspiration from the politics of gifting, and there is a lot to learn from this form of politics. The reciprocal aspect hinted within the red cultural vector provides a pertinent lesson to our political culture. The giving and receiving of ang pow is itself a form of social exchange, whereby the packet serves as a symbolic bond allowing the givers and the receivers to associate themselves in a common reciprocal platform.
In the politics of gifting, Perkasa was attempting to purchase acceptance through the dispensing of ang pows. In return, the attendees were expected to materialise Perkasa’s unstated aim. However, whether such an exchange was and will be successful and mutually beneficial, must be left to the discretion of the participants involved within the exchange – yes, the discretion is their dignity. And speaking of ‘self-respect’ – what we have witnessed for the past few days have instead been individual critics exterior to this manufactured relationship, being intrusive or ‘disrespectful’, and who have demeaned the politics of gifting by disallowing potential exchange.
Of course, acceptance is not easily bought but earned. One may doubt if Perkasa’s Open House will achieve its aim. But at least, under political pressure, there is the beginning of diplomacy from the perceived ‘extremist’. And this is how the balance of power can be played – through directed political pressure, we can garner positive energy to march towards political maturity .
Another important lesson from the politics of gifting lies in reciprocity and humility. One who first gives will first receive (read: the one who first greets will first receive the ang pow; the one who first gives the ang pow will first receive the greetings); and the one without ego will first give, and thus will first receive. A gift is therefore ‘anti-ego’.
Even though Ibrahim Ali refused to apologise, the critics must forgive him because forgiveness is a gift – remember, those who first give will first receive. This is soft power in practice: forgiveness as a symbolic power. And if such ‘politics of gifting’ could be inculcated in our political culture, the ang pow – red or white – would be worth more than what is contained.