Monday, August 29, 2005

36] Merdeka! Are we totally free?

Merdeka! But are we totally free?
Azly Rahman
Aug 29, 05 12:44pm


Let me share my thoughts on independence and social contract by first quoting excerpts from a poem by the American poet Emma Lazarus, and next from the Enlightenment thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" (The New Colossus by Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in the New York).

"Nations, like men, are teachable only in their youth, with age they become incorrigible. Once customs have been established and prejudices rooted, reform is a dangerous and fruitless enterprise, a people cannot bear to see its evils touched, even if only to be eradicated, it is like a stupid, pusillanimous invalid who trembles at the sight of a physician" (Rousseau in The Social Contract).

The excerpts above inspire my essay on the meaning of social contract.

Let us go back to our history and listen attentively to the idea of the formation of Malaysia. We must revise our understanding of social contract that we derive from state-authored textbooks, written by the intelligentsia; knowledge that has since formed the perception of policy makers. What revisions do we need to make to our social contract, if we are to be independent?

"Our ideology"

The validity of an argument has its birth and death. It’s life-line is determined by the historical moment and essentially by the historical-materialistic condition of existence. Ideas become bankrupt, designed to collapse under their own internal weight of contradiction. Ideas that once ‘moved nations’ may also mark their end of history. The post-independence argument that formed the New Economic Policy (NEP) is one such collapsing argument.

Human beings with ideological and constitutive interests craft arguments in favour of this or that political-economic advantage. Those arguments become a basis for this and that contract/compact/covenant or even law enforced with iron hands. In our history, the British-colonialist produced argument on the issue of ‘social contract’ that has become an emerging issue as Malaysia celebrates her 48th birthday on Wednesday.

Let us revisit this argument.

What did the British Empire still want when it granted Malaya independence on a silver platter? What ideological paradigm was transplanted into the consciousness of the people and the political-economic landscape of Malaya when the Reid Commission laid out its arguments for the protection of the rights of this or that person and how did this benefit the British in the overall scheme of neo-colonialism? What character of neo-colonialism was about to take shape as the ‘newly-Independent’ Malaysia struggled with an identity crisis of deciding who owned the land and who should be considered second-class citizens?

These are difficult questions that are surfacing in a newer light. These are haunting us - the new generations of ‘hyphenated’ Malaysians. But I think there are answers to these questions and they must be crafted differently and require a re-interpretation of history.

Let us reconstruct our understanding of social contract so that it may become real to the lived experience of the working class multi-cultural poor and those marginalised and yearning to be free.

I am inspired by Rousseau’s notion of social contract: 'How to find a form of association which will defend the person and the goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with others, obeys no one but himself, and remains as free as before. This is the fundamental problem to which the social contract holds the solution."

"Newly-branded arguments"

History, said Hannah Arendt, does not necessarily mean progress. Malaysia’s history cannot be equated with the progress of arguments that are taught by her imperialist masters and race theoreticians. If this is the notion of progress we are embracing, we are actually accentuating the haze of totalitarianism. To package and market these argument anew is failure to analyse it historically using the tools of what I call, ‘post-structuralist dialogical materialism’.

To let the story of this nation called Malaysia continue, let us abandon the race-based definition of citizenship and ownership of national wealth, definitions derived from race theorist produced by the process of ‘othering’, or ‘we versus them’. We must not be afraid to even reinterpret the spirit of the constitution and call upon constitutional conventions to amend parts of it that no longer suit our generation that continues to evolve as Malaysians. This is the essence of creativity and problem-solving in a nation that is complex and in constant cultural flux.

This will make our nation stronger and its citizens wiser. We will no longer need a keris-based argument.

The history of the American Constitution, saw amendments to make it relevant to the changing times and fundamentally to make it closer to the meaning of America as a land of immigrants. In spite of its shortcomings, America has constantly renewed the spirit of multi-culturalism.

If we are to also renew our understanding of multi-culturalism, think of the following proposition. In Malaysia, are we not all immigrants and time travelers that are being tested based on how we treat each other in non-discriminatory terms irrespective of race, colour, creed, and national origin? Is this not what all religions profess too?

The gradual migration of the Malays, Chinese, Indians and other peoples of varied linguistic stock (yet with similar DNA make-up) to Tanah Melayu, illustrate phases of historical moments in the epic of British colonialism. The great epic of Pax Brittanica is one which tells the story of a world dominated by an empire that controlled the means of production, and thereby controlled the means of mental production and hence, the production of the ideology called ‘colonialism’.

It is a story of the economic drafting of ‘indentured servants’ forced to enrich the British Empire and how the ideology of imperialism bred class antagonism cleverly masked in the name of race and ethnic politics. One needs to read the history of slavery and civil rights movement in America in order to understand how we are evolving and how race is not a specific and isolated moment in Malaysian history, but a global and historical phenomena in the development of the cultural logic of late, middle, and early capitalism.

"Economic interest"

It has been almost 50 years since this experiment called ‘Malaysia’ was designed by the long-dead and gone British imperialists. The children and grand-children of those rubber tappers, padi planters, fishermen, petty traders, and tin-miners have all grown up and become classes of people ideologised, hegemonised and subjugated by a modern version of British colonialist divide-and-rule policy – the ideology of the NEP.

The earlier crafters of the neo-colonialist ideology of Malaysian communalism believed that a just social contract is one that protected and promoted the economic interest of each major race separately. It has worked to a certain extent as, for instance, in the creation of a professional bumiputera class and a few millionaires.

But a neo-colonialist ideology creates a neo-colonialist system of production of human beings, materials, and culture based on a pseudo-sophisticated strands of arguments of race theory that is founded upon the structure of hyper-modernity. Are we seeing a bankruptcy of race-based ideology of a post-Reid Commission, post-NEP confusion agenda of neo-colonialist based developmentalism that squeezes the blood, sweat and tears out of the cheap human labour of different colour and national origins?

In this Malaysia in the year 2005, how must we construct a more accurate definition of a native, an immigrant, a first/second/third generation of this or that? Why must we not question history if we are to become new makers of it? Why must we still treat the grandchildren of immigrants as ‘second-class’ citizens? Why must we not accord them with opportunities that resemble equitable/regulative justice? Have not their parents laboured for the prosperity of this nation, a nation that has trumpeted itself the world over as a modern developing state? Have not the children of these serfs and labourers think, act, and feel Malaysian enough to be treated as equals?

Why must we not declare, as the principles of social redistributive justice requires, that we must design a new social contract that will abolish all interpretations of human beings based on racial origin and use the abundant resources we have for the benefit of all - all the children and grandchildren of tine miners, rubber tappers, and padi planters, fishermen who were cleverly divided, conquered, and exploited by the British imperialists?

Or even better, I propose we not only think ourselves no longer, constitutionally as ‘hyphenated-this-or-that-Malaysian’, but reject any form of ethnic-chauvinistic-based politics that are only interested in advancing neo-colonialist ideology we wish to expunge from our consciousness. That will be a good beginning to our new resolution for Merdeka. Lived democracy

"What is independence then?"

I have some thoughts on this.

Independence is not a slogan but an existential state of mind and a condition of ‘lived democracy’, one in which citizens are aware of how oppressive systems are cultivated. We cannot be independent until we arrive at these historical junctures, and until we do the following:

1. Free the human mind from all forms of dogmas, superstitions, mental chains, hegemonic formations, and transitional levels of totalitarianism. Our educational system at all levels must strengthen the scientific and philosophical foundation of its curriculum and practices to effect changes in the higher-order thinking skills of the next generation. We should not tolerate any forms of bigotry, racial chauvinism, and retarded form of democracy in our educational system.

2. Understand the relationship between the ‘self and the system of social relations of production’ and how the self becomes alienated and reduced to labour and appendages and cogs in the wheels of industrial system of production, a system that hides under the name of the corporatist nation and any other term that masks the real exploitation of the human self.

3. Make ourselves aware that our social systems, through the rapid development of technology and its synthesis with local and international predatory culture, have helped create classes of human beings that transforms their bodies into different classes of labour (manual, secretarial, managerial, militarial, intellectual, and capital-owning) that is now shaping the nature of class antagonism locally and globally.

4. Understand how our political, economic, cultural institutions have evolved and are created out of the vestiges of newer forms of colonialism, institutions that are built upon the ideology of race-based interpretations of human and material development that benefit the few who own the means of cultural, material, and intellectual production.

5. Understand how ideologies that oppress humanity works, how prevailing political, economic, cultural ideologies help craft false consciousness and create psychological barriers to the creation of a society that puts the principles of social contract into practice.

6. Be aware of how our physical landscape creates spaces of power and knowledge and alienates us and how huge structural transformations such as the Multimedia Super Corridor create a new form of technological city-scape (technopoles) that benefits local and international real estate profiteers more that they provide more humane living spaces for the poor and the marginalised in an increasingly cybernated society.

7. Be fully aware of the relationship between science, culture, and society and how these interplay with contemporary global challenges and how we clearly or blindly adopt these rapid changes and transform them into our newer shibboleths of developmentalism – one such policy being the National BioTechnology Programme.

8. Put a halt to the systematic stupefication of academicians and students in our public universities by first incorporating Academic Freedom Clauses in their mission statements and next enculturalising intellectualism in these learning environments.

I am not keen on thinking about celebrating Merdeka.

I feel that the indicators of our psychological, economical, political and technological well being, are telling us that there is a rupture in progress - one that is signifying the collapse of an argument taught to us by the British imperialists. The powerful amongst us are now the new imperialists, new mandarins with their own daulat (sovereignty), creating a more sophisticated caste system, and keeping this matrix functioning.

I am more keen on exploring the possibilities of Rousseau’s ideas of ‘social contract’ and crafting a new definition of Malaysian multi-culturalism.

And borrowing the words of Lazarus, let us lift our lamps ‘beside our golden door’.

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