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