Kopi Kluang: John Rawls, on Malaysia?

This post marks the debut of King Chai’s new monthly column “Kopi Kluang” on the most awesome blawg. To say that the past couple of years has been interesting for King Chai would be an understatement. From being oppressed as part of the UKM4, which led to acquaintance with and submission to His Supreme Eminenceness Lord Bobo, then shufflin’ with the LoyarBurokkers, to movin’ with UndiMsia!, litigating for the abolishment of the UUCA, and even getting a Man of the Year award. Life has certainly changed, but there’s still nothing he enjoys more than secawan Kopi Kluang.

The Malaysian solution in curing the ‘socio-economic injustice’ caused by colonial economic policies pre-Independence through the New Economic Policy (1971-1991) had not worked as well as some thought it should’ve. Perhaps we should consider what John Rawls would say about that. But who is he?

John Bordley Rawls was born on the 21st of February 1921 into a middle-class family. His father was a lawyer, while his mother was an activist. His childhood experience of losing two younger brothers who died after infection from his own diseases, diphtheria and pneumonia, have left a profound impact on him in his way of thinking and understanding the cruelty of “fate.”

Even though he was “lucky” throughout his life, he couldn’t help but to reflect on the injustice that went on around him, such as how his mother would disallow him from befriending an African American kid. Upon his graduation from Princeton University in 1943, at the height of the Second World War, he was enlisted in the army to fight at the Pacific front line. He witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima, which deepened his contempt for the injustice of fate — just because people happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, they had to suffer the terrifying consequences of something which they could not choose for themselves.

These are amongst the experiences that shaped his worldview, and hence set forth the foundation of his theoretical thinking.

After the end of WWII, he went back to Princeton and earned his Ph.D. in 1950, wrote his dissertation on Kantian ethics. After teaching for two years in Princeton, he went to Oxford for his post-doctoral fellowship and upon returning to the US and he landed at Cornell University, then moved to MIT, until finally settling himself at Harvard in 1962 until his death in 2002.

A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls (source: online)

He shot to fame after the publication of his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice in 1971. The socio-political background of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, combined with the bold thesis of his theory, made the study of political philosophy “cool” again and attracted hundreds of critics.

Up until the publication of Rawls’ book, the political philosophy circle was largely stagnant and tended to be very conservative in the prevalent ideals of the time — the dominant thinking in the academic and policy world then was utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is an ideal that upholds whatever that is good for the majority is preferred, and the worth of a policy is then judged by how it can benefit the most number of people. “Producing the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people” was the axiom commonly used to explain utilitarianism (of course it is a lot more complicated than that but we’ll save that for another day).

Rawls challenged this strand of thinking, by seeking to answer these two perennial questions in political philosophy:

  • what is the best form of society; and
  • on what principles does the government of such a society operate?

To answer the first question, Rawls asked us to imagine ourselves to be in an “original position”. It is a moment in time, before we were born, that we are asked to choose and set rules for a society that we want to be born into, at the same time being ignorant of how or what we will be born into — whether we are smart or dumb, whether we are rich or poor, whether we are male or female, whether we are Black or White, etc — what kind of a society would we choose then?

The answer mostly seems to be: a society in which we can live even if we are born into the worst condition — the society that guarantees certain basic rights for the least-advantaged.

Therefore to guarantee the life prospect of the least-advantaged, the “basic structures of the society” must operate on these two principles: Firstly, the Liberty Principle, under which we have access to all the rights we need to pursue whatever we can be, want to be, or turn out to be. The second principle, which is the Difference Principal, has two parts: the first is about equal opportunity, where all these rights must be distributed equally to all, and if not equally distributed, must be to the benefit of the least-advantaged. These two principles made up what he calls the theory of ‘Justice as Fairness’.

By the time Rawls’ book was published, there was an ongoing debate on whether the government should help African Americans to re-integrate into the society. The Democratic governments of Kennedy and Johnson, and even the Republican government of Nixon, were promoting measures that some call “affirmative actions”. Enrolment quota according to race was fixed, and qualification standards were lowered, in order to help the African Americans of that time to get into colleges. These measures served as the reparation for injustices suffered by the African Americans for over a century, and also to actively promote their presence and participation of their basic rights as American citizens.

At least two groups of critics were formed around the contempt for the affirmative action: one that stressed meritocracy (they thought affirmative action degraded the value of education), and another on government interference as encroaching into their personal liberty (they saw affirmative action as violating their freedom and liberty, such as ‘freedom to discriminate’ — as ridiculous as it may sound). Seeing Rawls supply the intellectual heft for affirmative action, they therefore had to refute Rawls’ theory.

Although Rawls never really bothered with debates, his theory had already provided some counter-arguments: first he told the meritocrats that their smartness was the work of luck and chance (being born into well-bred family, parents who valued education, affluent living made concentration in study possible, etc); secondly he saw that is it outright injustice to discriminate on the basis of something that is so morally arbitrary.

John Rawls (1921-2002)

Malaysia too has a history of affirmative action. In 1971, when Rawls published his book, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was started to help reduce the income gap between the Bumiputras and Non-Bumiputras. Quota in higher education, civil services, scholarship was implemented to ensure participation in these areas reflected their special status as Bumiputras and also in proportion to racial balance.

After 30 years of implementation, the NEP has somewhat successfully increased the Bumiputra’s stakes in the economy, even though it benefited mostly the aristocratic and well-to-do Bumiputras — most Bumiputras still live in poverty. And not to forget that the Orang Asli have been almost completely sidelined.

The first part of the New Economic Model (NEM), proposed by the National Economic Advisory Council (NEAC), introduced an Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) to implement a need-based affirmative action for the bottom 40% of the income pyramid rather than the existing race-based affirmative action.

However, the proposal for the establishment of the EOC is seen as a threat by race-based NGOs such as PERKASA to the special privileges of the Bumiputras simply because raced-based affirmative actions have been the basis for the measures taken by the government in respect of those special privileges. Unfortunately, as a result, the proposal for the EOC was scrapped in the second part of the NEM.
There are lessons to be learned from Rawls’ concept of fairness, and his views on socio-economic justice can be used to understand the challenges that we face in Malaysia.

Just a few questions to ponder:

  • Is Rawls’ conception of society reasonable?
  • If not, why?
  • If yes, is it workable in Malaysia?
  • If yes, but not workable in Malaysia, why?

This coming Tuesday (21 February 2012) would be John Rawls’ 91st birthday and many of us from UKM’s school of political science and members of Diskopi would like to hold an informal discussion on his ideals and hopefully dive deeper into the questions posed above.

You are invited to join the discussion on Tuesday (21 February 2012) at DistroBuku (next to the university library) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi at 8.30 pm.


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King Chai is a Chevening Scholar currently pursuing an MSc. in Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Contrary to popular belief, he is still mindlessly a loyal minion of His Supreme Eminenceness Lord Bobo Barnabus, The Wonder Typewriting Monkey, who exists solely in cyberspace and is the simian behind LoyarBurok.com. King Chai is also one of the UKM4 and tweets at @woonkingchai.

Posted on 20 February 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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