Defacing Mubarak | Credit:
Defacing Mubarak | Credit:
Defacing Mubarak | Credit:

[Alternative title: or, Why People in Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Stones (Unless They Intend to Build A New House With Those Stones) ]

Zain Baharuddin replies to Clarissa Lee’s “Is Malaysia a Nation of Cowards?”.  By drawing parallels between these nations, is she suggesting that the people of Malaysia storm the streets of KL in unified protest?

“To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men”

Abraham Lincoln

“A coward is a hero with a wife, kids, and a mortgage.”

Marvin Kitman

Clarissa Lee’s “Is Malaysia a Nation of Cowards?” muses almost enviously upon the recent upheaval in Egypt. In her article, idealist notions of “a fresh new start” and “epistemic shifts and changes” are bandied about like propaganda pamphlets for Your Friendly Neighborhood Socialist Party convention. Admittedly, her stand is (perhaps by intention) not explicitly stated, but by drawing parallels between these nations is she seriously suggesting that the people of Malaysia storm the streets of KL in unified protest? Would you, dear reader, swallow that last delicious spoonful of nasi lemak, grab your Blackberries and your iPhones and sprint from the gerai? Would you put that RM50 Padini shirt back on the rack and rush out the nearest exit to the One Utama parking lot and drive to Dataran Merdeka in the Proton Satria that you are still paying off for?

Egypt Uprising Solidarity Protest | Credit:
Egypt Uprising Solidarity Protest | Credit:

This essay is by no means a personal jab at the author’s ostensibly well-meaning rhetoric, but it is naive to expect the “educated class” of Malaysia to stir up revolution on the scale of that which is currently affecting our Middle Eastern brethren. Doing so would place into jeopardy the socioeconomic support structure (what Ms. Lee perceptively refers to as a quasi welfare state) that the government has, rightly or wrongly, mollycoddled us with for the past 54 years. Our fair nation has grown from tiny acorn to sturdy oak under the care of some visionary leadership, but progress has been halting as of late. Increasingly, mismanagement and money politics have weighed heavy on our shoulders, and some of the more inquisitive ones among us have dug at the roots and found evidence of termites. However, the majority is quite content to accept the status quo, even if (or because?) it means a patient plod down the steps into social instability and economic ruin.

So the question is: what exactly makes us a “nation of cowards”? Despite the earlier allusions to our established dependence on a reliable supply of roti canai and weekly English Premier League broadcasts, it is not this false sense of security that is the main obstacle to full-blooded revolution. Nor is the perfectly reasonable desire to avoid being shot,drenched in tear gas, lightly tickled by high pressure water cannons or run over by wayward security vehicles. What keeps Malaysians indoors is the absence of a truly viable alternative to our current situation.

The comparison I like to bring up whenever I think about our political predicament is Mexico circa the late 1800s. Several decades after Mexican independence, President Porfirio Díaz brought about a golden age of progress by centralizing government and fostering foreign investment. Domestic trade flourished with emphasis on the mining centers of the north and an increasingly mechanized agricultural sector. He almost single-handedly dragged a fractured and torn Mexico by the scruff of the neck out of anarchy into 30 years of peace, stability, and growth. Unfortunately, thirty years with absolute power is thirty years too long, and an undercurrent of corruption, nepotism and blatant violation of civil rights pervaded Díaz’s rule (starting to sound familiar?). The unequal distribution of wealth among the Mexican people became the basis of what would eventually lead to the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

Mexico and Malaysia: Perhaps more in common than just hot weather, spicy food and a love of football | Credit: Zain B.
Mexico and Malaysia: Perhaps more in common than just hot weather, spicy food and a love of football | Credit: Zain B.

Young Francisco Madero, of the liberal intellectual class that Ms. Lee refers to in her article, was the figurehead for the uprising, voicing what so many had left unsaid in during Díaz’s reign (the Porfiriato). Despite being thrown into jail, among other trials and tribulations (though I don’t think he was ever accused of sodomy), Madero rallied the nation by collaborating with and unifying the key opposition lobbies: the hardline conservative but influential National Islamic Party, long time populist masthead DAP, and … ooer, sorry, what I meant was Madero unified the powerful military lobby, the middle-class farmers in the north (led by Pancho Villa), and the poor Southern peasants who were called the Zapatistas, named after the famous revolutionary who fought for their rights – Emiliano Zapata.

With the full force of the nation behind them, these brave and idealistic men overthrew the dictator and worked together to form a fair and balanced administrative committee to oversee what would prove to be the perfect manifestation of democratic ethos and liberty for all. Except that didn’t really happen. What did happen after the violent dethroning of Díaz’s was the inevitable reneging between comrades. The radical agrarian reforms promised to the Zapatistas never materialized. Others among the top brass harbored secret desires to usurp Madero, who had been elected President. Each of the entities represented a specific portion of Mexican society and each had their own agenda. Despite being united in their hatred of Díaz’s autocratic regime, the very foundations of their separate movements were irreconcilably different.

What’s worse is that neither the initial uprising nor the ensuing anarchy was by any means bloodless. The people of Mexico took up arms against government forces. Countless died and countless more were displaced. Madero was eventually assassinated. Zapata was assassinated. Villa was assassinated. Unrest and bloodshed continued, and the successive (and short-lived) presidencies went on, only to be replaced by another dictator later in the century. It would be many years before the violence would die down.

The point of this history lesson, abstruse as it may seem, is, to quote the renowned philosopher Kermit the Frog: “Look before you leap!”. Before we even entertain the idea of collectively revolting against the current administration, it is imperative that we pay heed to what comes next. An uprising that leaves a vacuum of leadership will lead to chaos, but one which places power in the hands of those who cannot wield it properly is just as bad. I am not saying a coalition of opposition forces is doomed to failure. Despite, understandably, having disparate (and often conflicting) underlying objectives and manifestoes, a measure of success may be achieved if they can set aside differences and agree to focus on a common aim that benefits the people. A conglomeration (or a Pakatan, if you will) must be able to viably represent the varying wants and needs of the separate constituencies but it must not place those needs before the overarching ideal, whatever that may be.

Before replacing the existing socioeconomic structure, the people must have assurances as to what will replace it. Clarissa Lee may yet be underestimating the Malaysian people when she labels them “spineless”, “bebal” and “cowardly”. Truth of the matter is, if change is to be had, we want to know who will be the ones to make it. The American colonials had their Founding Fathers, even the Russian proletariat had their Bolsheviks. If we revolt, who do the children of Malaysia have today?

Zain Baharuddin likes crocheting, antique furniture, collecting bottle caps, and watching the footy. He is also a Funkasaurus Rex.

Zain likes crocheting, antique furniture, collecting bottle caps, and watching the footy.

19 replies on “Después de Revolución #LoyarBerkasih”

  1. I agree with msbery.

    msbery on 11 February, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Petronas still have enough money to feed the Malays for another 20 years or so, so no revolt for now

    The rate of poverty in Egypt is so much higher than in Msia.

  2. baDboyzzs – "So who in Malaysia will take part in this so called coming “Egypt styled revolution” against the Rosmah Regime? Your guess is as good as mine"


    Zain Baharuddin – "Would you, dear reader, swallow that last delicious spoonful of nasi lemak, grab your Blackberries and your iPhones and sprint from the gerai? Would you put that RM50 Padini shirt back on the rack and rush out the nearest exit to the One Utama parking lot and drive to Dataran Merdeka in the Proton Satria that you are still paying off for?"

    Sarcasm? I hope you're being ironic because there's nothing to be proud about in being ignorant or lazy or both.

    Malaysia – three words: HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

    Now, where's a human rights lawyer when you need one…

  3. Yes I do agree with him (as in S.H. Alatas) and never once did I not, because he has some pretty valid points to say as to why he even coined the term. What I did not do as well is to provide a nuanced reading of his arguments, which were a lot more nuanced and complex than the way I had appropriated it in my piece. Also, probably not a good idea to respond immediately upon waking before breakfast since, in reading back, I found I lack a measure of coherence. :)

  4. as well, the image that you want keeps screwing up the article, i've tried inserting it many times but to no avail. i'm not sure what's going on because your article is the only one that i have technical difficulties with!

  5. Zain ARRRGGHHHH Seriously it's wordpress. It keeps reverting back to the old coding. I've fixed it so many times that it's driving me crazy.

    will fix it again.

  6. Hello all: great replies, and thanks for the warm welcome!


    I had to sift through your reply a bit, but I would like to apologize about the "bebal" part. However, even if Alatas did originally "coin" the term, you must admit that you seemed to agree with him as evidenced by the paragraph immediately following whence you brought it up.

    I did enjoy the anecdotes you provided in your comment, though, and you do yourself a disservice by saying nothing in your article was original! Piecing together "unoriginal" fragments to form your own picture (whether the picture is right, wrong, skewed or centered) serves its purpose to get other people thinking and writing (like it did for me!).


    I know this is me being OCD again but

    a)some of the "Diaz"s are still showing as "Daz"

    b)some of the links are not working


    c)my David Villa picture is still gone! I spent a good FIVE minutes on that using MS Paint… please save my beautiful work of art

    I will send you an email as well, not sure if you get comment notifications


  7. Petronas still have enough money to feed the Malays for another 20 years or so, so no revolt for now

    To compare Egypt to Malaysia at this point in time shows an awful lack of common sense & general knowledge

  8. Basking on the euphoria of docile people suddenly springing to life in Egypt, some people here have compared the situation to 1Malaysia, under Rosmah and her band of merry men such as Perkasa Ibrahim, Khir Toyo, HishaKeris, Muh-Brutusdin & nice man Najib.

    Malaysia is of course as different as night & day. 60% of the divided population ( or thereabouts ) have been raised by the paternal Gomen on a diet of soft smelly rice vis a vis powerful smart "enemy" of rich Asian immigrants of more than 54 years crouched at their doorstep.

    So who in Malaysia will take part in this so called coming "Egypt styled revolution" against the Rosmah Regime?

    Your guess is as good as mine

  9. I forget to attach the link below

    Last Sunday, a group of friends and I gathered together to skype in with someone who had recently arrived in the UK from Egypt, where she had lived for the past 1.5 years. More importantly, she speaks the local language and has Egyptian journalists for room-mates. I made some notes of that which I haven't yet gotten around to typing up. I have also suggested to a humanities institute that I work with over here to begin putting up informed views by people who really have a better clue than what the media is feeding the public on what is going on in these two countries.

    Then, we had a full scale lecture given by a graduate student specializing in Middle Eastern history in order to contextualize the entire Tunisian and Egyptian affair for us. You can see the links from the lecture up there.

    We have been oblivious to the fact that there has been tonnes of revolutions going on in the past 3 decades because the media did not focus any attention on them (ideology is important and extremely important in what sort of information you get fed) and also because there was no social media. Also, most countries in the developing world have inadequate access to the internet, a far cry from our Blackberry touting Malaysians.

    I once spoke to a civilization essay contest participant from Nigeria* who told me he had to be very frugal with the way he ration his use of the internet because it's a luxury item over there. This was in the early part of the 21st century. Incidentally, an American who was of Cuban descent was talking about how Cuba had a revolution that few paid attention to because it's leftist and there was always a red scare among the media.

    If you really want to know what goes on in the wider world, I believe it is time to learn to read in other languages. French media has pretty interesting coverage and POVs that you won't get from the Anglo-American media. Inspite of what the Malaysian government says about English, it does not give you access to a lot of important picture about the world. Even the mainly monolingual Americans (though this is changing with a fast-growing chicano/chicana/latino/latina community) have realized that, and their governments spend billions of dollars in training their selected people in critical languages.

    *I, then a physics major, was UM's sole representative because no other students in the humanities/social science either knew about the contest or was interested, even though I did not win.

  10. hello Zain and all,

    I find what you write interesting and I will like to give a considered reply later, as I promise myself to spend the rest of the week catching up with my reading and sleep. :) So what I give here is more of a stream-of-consciousness free-writing that in some ways answer but in other ways do not quite reply to Mr Zain's piece.

    But it is interesting you brought up Mexico as point of analysis, as I've been thinking a lot about the country, living as I do only a short plane-ride away and I hope to visit that country sometime this year if all goes well. It is a complex country and much of the violence it is facing now has less to do with politics but more to do with backlash from the crime-lords who are being turfed out in the drug wars. Such violence is more obvious in some parts of its towns and less so in others. The existence of the country and hoards of those who try to run across the US-Mexican border has also become the reason why an equivalent of the long wall of China has been erected between that country and all the states bordering the latter.

    Interestingly, three years ago, when I was lamenting how Malaysia was becoming gradually despoiled of its rich culture and also about the lack of appreciation of the arts there, my Mexican friend said the exact same thing about his country. He said that Mexico has become a country of bureaucrats, not of the revolutionaries that outsiders like to equate it with. They are aware of their rich past but that heritage is gradually being stripped away from them. But they have a much richer heritage at this point in time than Malaysians do, unfortunately. We only have, as Mr Zain so aptly pointed out, our roti canais, Padinis, and Proton Satrias. I am not part of the BB or Iphone owning crowd since it costs a lot in bills here and I would rather contribute the extra money saved to my travel fund.

    Has it ever occur to us as to why so many scholars, in wanting to study the Malay world, flock to Indonesia rather than Malaysia, even though Malaysia is all so much more peaceful, has definitely way better physical infrastructure (having been to Indonesia, I can attest to that), and probably 'less' corruption? Malaysia is also way easier to maneuver around than Indonesia for foreigners. I was told that the National Library has a good collection of Malay classical texts, so why aren't foreign scholars flocking there to look at these mainly neglected texts?

    There are still small pockets of revolutionaries underground all around Mexico. But most have turned to other means of political communication – through art, film and literature.

    I'll like to say more about Mexico but I will leave that for now. I am no expert on the history of this country other than the bits and pieces I have read of its history in relation to the US and much of the most interesting materials (including literatures) of the country are not yet translated from Spanish (a language I tell myself I will learn to understand beyond the Spanish soap opera subtitles for the deaf). Much I know of what goes on right now comes from my interaction with its people and people who are studying the country, so my knowledge is still pretty sketchy. But I do have a big enough picture of different forms of revolutions that had taken place in the past that, while there are many similarities between some of them, each also have their differences and particularities marked by the specificities of their condition. Many revolutions begin with idealism which are led by the intellectual class but many, unfortunately, degenerated, because revolutions, just like any politicsl situation, will also attract those with agenda of their own. Some of course were more capable of dealing with the void left behind because they made sure that they built a strong constitution and strong institutions that will continue on beyond the lifespan of many a strong leader. If we want to pick Mexico, a country that has little historical similarity with Malaysia as a point of comparison, we can also pick France, and of course, the US (though the last country was more of a revolt against a colonizing power). Of course, we can also pick the revolt against the apartheid regime (albeit not in the same level) and also the Algerian uprising that even got turned into a film.

    When Marx wanted to start a revolution for the workers, he did not ask them to start hacking at the factory owners. He wanted them instead to understand the reality of the situation that they are occupying and their place in relation to the larger economics. He obviously did not anticipate the creation of the iron wall of communism many decades later. The reason is because that it is easy to take on the physical aspect of revolution while completely ignoring the mental aspect of it. After all, it's MUCH easier to yell into the loudspeaker demanding for change than to actually change the way you think, you see things, your view life, or even to examine your own values.

    When I ask people to look into the revolution going on in Egypt and Tunisia, all they see is the violence. They did not see the history that had been coming for more than 30 years, before even Mubarak came to power. They did not look into its history of colonization under the British. I recommend reading stories by Nawal El Saadawi if you really wish to understand the politicsl and cultural conditions of Egypt under the current regime's predecessors. By all accounts, Tunisia was a very mild country with minimal (and mostly quiet and underground) activism going on prior to its revolution because it is an even more repressive police state than Malaysia or Singapore.

    In all the revolting that has taken place in Egypt, and DESPITE the looters Egyptian people, especially the young, had tried their best to protect their centuries old heritage, especially their intellectual heritage. I wish people would pay as much attention to the side things going on a they would to all the political 'excitement.'

    I'll write more later, but I need to inform Mr Zain and all his readers that the term 'bebal' was NOT coined by me. It was a term used by Syed Hussein Alatas to talk about the state of Malaysia in the 1970s (mind you, this was at the time when all those plans are being developed to aid the bumiputera poor) under the thumbs of the bureaucrats. I hear that the "Intellectuals in the Developing Societies" or "Intelektual Dalam Masyarakat Membangun" has been republished, so I urged you all to read it, if you have not done so. Nothing I said in that article is theoretically original, as much as I would like it to be. Maybe one day, I'll do a review of that book in relation to more recent relevant works.

    I'll stop here for now as it's time to get up proper.

  11. Dear Derek,

    Can you please tell our Nicol Paul Miranda, aka Errant #LoyarBerkasih writer, than Curator of #LoyarBerkasih is looking for him??

    Many thanks



  12. A very GROUNDED analysis, I would say. Grounded in the sense that it recognises that we do not live in an utopia or a vacuum devoid of any context but sees the reality of the situation. Indeed pricnciple and ideals must come hand-in-hand with policy.

    Interesting that I was having a conversation about something like this with our Nicol Paul Miranda yesterday, hmmm.

    Thanks, Zain!

  13. A great balanced analysis. Attempts at humour are perhaps a little droll but otherwise, a really good read. Title a bit long though.

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