Change Doesn’t Have to Take 400 Years to Happen

By Farish A. Noor

The electoral victory of Barack Obama as the new President of the United States of America is long overdue, and many of us are thankful for it. No, its not because the rest of us are racists who hate white men; and no, its not because we are captive to the essentialised idea that black Americans are all victims and are necessarily good and innocent, in toto. Its simply because change is refreshing and we believe that change is good and healthy for the nation and humanity in general.

I recall taking a flight from Frankfurt to Kuala Lumpur once, when the pilot spoke to the passengers before take off. Suddenly there was a collective gasp of surprise when we realised that our pilot was a woman! I was suddenly gripped by an overwhelming sense of relief and curious pride, for somewhere in my settled conscience the idea had been sedimented that all pilots (like all doctors, scientists and Presidents) had to be male. Throughout the flight I had to resist the temptation of bursting into the cockpit to congratulate her, and to tell her how proud I was to be flying in a plane piloted by a woman for a change. (Though of course because I am Muslim I would have been arrested immediately and handcuffed for fear of being a terrorist!)

That’s how change happens. It takes us by surprise and in a second its over and the historical moment has passed. But it requires that one vital element that makes change possible in the first place: human agency. There would not have been a woman pilot on my flight if this woman had not pursued her ambition to become a pilot relentlessly, never giving up on her dream despite the obstacles she may or may not have faced.

I am only raising this point now as I have noticed a rather disturbing, and potentially dangerous, narrative that has and is being spun in the wake of Obama’s victory. This is the narrative that the change that has come to the United States is due to the long historically determined and linear process of evolution; that we are told takes time, time and more time. We are fed the line that “Of course America has finally changed because it took four hundred years for black Americans to rise to where they are today.”

This sort of non-historical nonsense is served to us warmed up as a pseudo-scientific account of how and why historical progression needs to follow its own appointed destiny, and work within a fixed template that is set and determined in all cases. But this, the historian would like to add, is also utter nonsense.

The French lived under centuries of feudal rule by despotic Kings and Emperors like other Europeans, and for centuries they tried again and again to release themselves from the yoke of feudal domination. Until the time came when contingent historical factors occasioned a radical opening that allowed for revolutionary change at last. Likewise black Americans have been struggling against racism as soon as they were enslaved and brought to America in chains, and it wasn’t just yesterday that they realised that one of them could run for President.

For this reason we should not see Obama’s victory as a sudden and novel development of American society, but rather as one of those openings that allow for rupture from continuity and the historical progression of the same. Historical moments like these are always contingent, radical and unexpected, but they happen because there are human beings who exercise their free will and agency to will and fight for change; rather than to sit by and let history takes its course. History may always be a repetition of sameness, but historical moments take place when that sameness is challenged and successfully ruptured.

Therefore let us not swallow the silly argument that just because it took Americans 400 years to elect a black man as President every other country on the planet needs to wait 400 years before we can do the same too. No, change does not take 400 years to happen. In countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and others, change has been on the boil for some time now and there is ample evidence that the old crumbling structures of governments and institutionalised power are falling apart. Will Malaysians have to wait 400 years before they see a woman as Prime Minister? Or a Malaysian-minded Prime Minister who breaks away from the outdated structures of racialised politics? Will countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, India also have to wait 400 years before we see real change?

The narrative of history threads together elements of the same and the familiar to form a story that is consistent and intelligible, but the historian will tell you that history is replete with contingencies and ironies that broke the mould of the past and charted a new course for the future. For that reason, America’s success and Obama’s success should inspire us not to repeat history, but to go against it. Obama’s struggle against the tide of time makes him a man of our times; and let us hope that for so many other countries in Asia that same untimeliness will prevail as well. We can start by exercising our will for change, and by saying ‘No, we will not wait four hundred years before we dream of a better world today.’

  1. #1 by All For The Road on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 6:51 am

    Can Malaysians do another Obama in the next GE? One wonders! There are so many obstacles, primary of which is : we have to CHANGE the Constitution! Is it possible? Wishful thinking!

  2. #2 by kftang on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 7:03 am

    In Bolehland, is the impossible POSSIBLE in doing another Barack Obama? One has to be realistic and pragmatic that it’s the never…..never…..never in the wildest dream. 400 years from now? Bet to my last ringgit, not even 400 centuries from now!

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 8:36 am

    In fact in America it did not take 400 years for change. It was only 53 yrs ago (a period approximating our nation’s independence) on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a black woman (Rosa Parks) had difficulty sitting in a bus – she was required to give up her seat in the bus for a white passenger for reasons of white supremacy – whilst today 50 yrs thence a Black man could now sit in the White house!

    We can’t just look at the American experience and get inspired. If we do get a change, it might well likelier be an Ulama than an Obama as the nation’s leader!

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 9:01 am

    Admittedly, political tsunamy of 8th March indicates there are on the ground certain impact facors favoring change, for examples:

    · Growing concern and broad social consensus on the necessity to rid the nation of the scourge of corruption and restore accountability/good governance;

    · Growing role and commitment of civil society actors in public political affairs e.g. community groups, interest groups, human rights organisations, religious groups, etc.

    · Higher freedom of expression from wider Internet access and usage buttressed by MSC Bill of Guarantee and presence of the alternative online bulletin to counter lack of press freedom and MSM propaganda.

    Equally, there are strong countervailing reactionary forces against change, for examples:

    · the patronage-oriented political culture at national and regional levels buttressed by an ubiquitous and subterranean feudal culture;

    · the struture of political parties based on race & religion which encourage political aspirants to play sucesfuly the race an d relighious card;

    · piratisation of public asets under euphemism of privatization of public enterprises (during TDM’s time) has broadened the practice of rich corporate and economic interest groups deploying their funds to suport in election s tatus quo to maintain their control through politicians public institutions to favour private appropriation.

    · the compromsing of the judiciary by the Executive (since TDM’s time) making the arbiter of all disputes suspect in its political neutrality.

    Under our system of one man one vote the majority population is the key : whether they are susceptible to attitude and minset change.

    For 40 years they are taught that they are held back by culture from competing favourably against other races, hence meritocracy is denigrated and NEP/NDP made the mantra and sacred cow. BN/UMNO politicians continue to fuel this insecurity to pose as their champions to maintain power.

    The perception of self efficacy ie ability to deal with both emotion of insecurity and situation of threat by others is an important variable whether the emotion appeal messages based on race and religion by politicians will continue to be successful.

    It will be the variable to determine which – the first or second set of factors above stated – will prevail.

    For change, this perception of insecurity/inefficiency must first change.

    It is a question of how long that happens before our oil runs out and the forces of Globalisation push us further into economic/social back waters….

  5. #5 by paul on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 9:05 am

    There’s something that we should learn – do things the way we are. Doesn’t mean when USA have Obama as her next president, should we have the same? Guys, when we sent an astrounout to space, you objected. Waste of peoples’ money. I sincerely think you are jumping too fast ……… what is your say when
    Singapore says ONLY Chinese will be their PM?

    Sorry for not supporting your rubbish.

  6. #6 by jus legitimum on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 9:06 am

    The ex President of Taiwan has been arrested for corruption and money laundrying.Just ponder if this country were to be run by a similar government like the one in Taiwan,I do not know how many top government officials including those out of office would be put behind bar.Instead the useless government arrest the wrong but good people like RPK,TK,Tony Pua and many others.They should earn the respect of the people including foreigners by learning from the Taiwan government to take action on all the corrupt officials including those who are no longer in power.

  7. #7 by taiking on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 9:22 am

    As with any progression, the first step is always hard and long. Subsequent ones would be easier and faster. And the pace would gather as one accumulates experience and builds up confidence.

    America took 400 years to select a black president. A strong black leader. Give him a term to show his capability and the world will immediately see two things. First, a black can deliver just as well as a white. Second, America did not fall apart and collapse just because a black is leading it.

    Resistence and prejudice around the world would quickly dismantle themselves for there is now a real life example for them to study and emulate.

  8. #8 by taiking on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 9:25 am

    Can malaysians obama the umno government?


  9. #9 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 9:26 am

    Well, its true it does not need to take long to change but firstly, 1) how that change will come about and 2) change to what?

    The issue really is weak Malay leadership. Plain and simple. Its not Malay backwardness, its not their dependency or race and religious attitudes. If there is any change, either it will be due to failure of Malay leadership to keep up OR an external influence will force it. Its when the two collide i.e., become uncomplimentary will change come about. The blocks are already in place, the ever elitist nature of Malay leadership, its inability to get ahead of challenges that are coming faster and more furious.

    What when change comes, it will be forced and hence what will it look like? Chaos likely, instability likely. Even if UMNO top leadership will NOT resort to violence when it comes, it is incapable of maintaining discipline to avoid chaos and violence. It just don’t have the skills and ability for it.

    Those taking over must be the one to control change and in that sense the ever more qualified people joining the opposition gives hope that they can. That is the real hope for good change in this country unfortunately flimsy.

  10. #10 by k1980 on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 9:26 am

    No need 400 years one lah. See, the Imperial Japanese army under Yamashita took Malaya and Singapore from the British in just 4 months. Change can come in days if there is the will for it.

  11. #11 by melurian on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 9:49 am

    this is the most silly article, overwhelm coz becoz the pilot is woman …..

    what if the author learned the pilot is 15yr old kid ???? in this modern society, there’s no sense of pride whether the professional is woman, negro as long as they can deliver, simple as that……

    if obama to challenge reagan, clinton (bill), roosevelt where they are not old and din put palin as vp (with snl parody), you think he will win arr. …..

  12. #12 by cintanegara on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 11:26 am

    BG Lee says that Singapore is not ready to have PM other than Chinese? What say you? Unlike in malaysia, the minority races there never question/challenge such statement…

  13. #13 by NewDAP on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 11:56 am

    [The Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya (CIPK) has rejected claims that the Somali Christians are facing persecution.

    Some say they have suffered at the hands of fellow Somalis

    “We are very saddened by these claims because Islam gives people the freedom to choose their faith,” said Sheikh Hassan Omar, a CIPK official.

    “I don’t believe the stories by the Somali Christians that they have faced persecution because they converted to Christianity. These are lies,” Sheikh Omar said. ]

    Is Malaysia Muslim (especially the Malay) having the freedom to choose their faith in Malaysia?
    Is Malaysia Muslim going to face persecution if they converted to Christianity?
    Are Malaysia and Kenya practicing the same Islam?

  14. #14 by frankyapp on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 1:35 pm

    In bolehland,everything is possible.Better still get TDM to do the impossible. Guys,do you remember the ” Sabah Case ” ? TDM amended the constitution and allowed the post of chief minister to be rotated once every two years.Thus enabling two minority chinese based political parties’s presidents becoming chief minister within 5 years.AAB or pm in waiting NR can well amend the federal constitution to make a non-malay becoming malaysia’s first pm. Why wait,just do it and the impossible becomes reality. And Malaysia will create history.A thing we are all proud of.

  15. #15 by k1980 on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 1:44 pm

    frankyapp, wake up… You are still sleepwalking in Oz with Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. Welcome to Malaysia where the color of one’s skin is most important

  16. #16 by frankyapp on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 1:51 pm

    Hey Juslegilimum,did you forget more 40 BN’s Mps/YBs visited Taiwan early september this year ? Why don’t you ask these guys about what they learn while over in Taiwan ? Ask them now .

  17. #17 by frankyapp on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 2:00 pm

    Thank you K1980. I’m awaken now.It’s so funny,i feel like sleeping again in bolehland,cos the dreams are wonderful.

  18. #18 by taiking on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 2:42 pm

    frankyapp asked:

    “Why don’t you ask these guys about what they learn while over in Taiwan ? Ask them now .”

    I hv the answer. They learned how to be rowdy and fight during meetings. They must have disseminated their knowledge locally by now or at least in seremban.

  19. #19 by dawsheng on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 2:52 pm

    Indeed, change doesn’t have to take 400 years to happen. Change can happen immediately when someone throw shite in your face.

  20. #20 by k1980 on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 3:35 pm

    They also learned to yell “Bl**dy B#st#rd!” at their opponents in Parliament. And worse, the Speaker dared not take action against them because he would lose his plum job if he did so

  21. #21 by messi on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 5:36 pm

    We don’t really need 400 years to change in bolehland. its take another 10 years from now(2018) and all the NEP policies will be abolished due to unable to sustain the huge subsidies to these so call “BUmiputra” and reduce of revenue to Gov due to the following:-

    1) Natural resources drying up.(no petrol income)

    2)No Investor/FDI due to NEP. (who wanted to invest if 30 % equity need to be applied. thus less income tax, job oppurtunity and reduce the revenue to Gov)

    3) Brain drain – Most of the profesional Chinese/Indian will migrate due to the double standard entry requirement to the university and retriction in doing business.All need bumi license thus reducing income to the Gov.

    4) Production of useless graduate due to the double standard entry requirement – The more they produce the more subsidies they need to pay for this graduate and absorb them into the Gov sector. So this approach will eventually burden to the G.

    5) G pay for higher tender cost due to involvement of middle man and corruption.

    To be precise, the G unaware on why they lose out on the 8/3/08 Election. The main cause is not the “Awareness” but due to the production of useless graduate that no having their share from Umno thus voting for opposition.

    If they really talk about “Awareness” to progress for the nation. They should remove those rotten NEP. Can you see any PKR opposition taking about removing the NEP? The answer is no. All Malay need NEP to survive and any new party object to it will not survive in malaysia for the time being.

    Anyway, correction will take place in 10 years time. lets wait till 2018 and malaysia will become a begger and NEP will be a historical event for our country.

    USA is smart to change even accept a black to be the President. Do u think malaysia can accept chinese as PM?

    Can you see Malaysia going to change even with the rotten NEP for the past 50 years? They still talk about the “Ketuanan Melayu” and fair distribution of wealth.

  22. #22 by Loh on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 7:34 pm

    The events that created NEP did not take more than a month. But NEP has been on for 39 years and counting. It was said before the 308 tsunami that NEP would still be around in 2057 when Malaysia has its centennial celebration. The people in power have found NEP indispensable to enrich themselves through corrupt means with impunity when the majority of the population buys the story that NEP was for their good. But the myth is no longer tenable. Would the people be brave enough to denounce NEP?

    Zaid Inrahim called attention to the failure of the concept of Ketuanan Melayu to national progress. For that TDM demonized Zaid for being ungrateful since at one time he benefited from NEP. To TDM, whoever gained any benefit from NEP should be grateful to its existence even though NEP had been exploited to benefit the politicians, including the children of TDM who are said to collectively sit on the board of 200 companies in Malaysia. TDM claims that NEP has benefited all the Malays and hence all the Malays have no right to even suggest for the discontinuation of NEP. As the major contributor to NEP, all Malays should be grateful to TDM. All Malays owe their good lives to TDM.

    NEP can only go away when Malays are willing to face the attack by TDM like he did against Zaid Ibrahim, or when TDM is no longer around. NEP took about one month to be created, it will take TDM’s natural life time for it to end. We hope NEP will end soonest.

  23. #23 by Loh on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 8:12 pm

    ///Former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has shot down suggestions that the March 8 general election signaled the end of race-based politics.

    On the contrary, said Mahathir, if one examines the opposition parties who made big gains in the general election, it would appear that these parties were largely race-based. ///–Malaysiakini

    The political parties in the past 11 elections which made big gains in the general election were race-based so by TDM’s logic raced based politics were relevant. Now opposition made gains in generation election and race-based politics are relevant. When race-based political parties are allowed, raced based political parties will make gains, either in the ruling or the opposition side. Race-based parties will only be irrelevant when they are outlawed. Racial politics are bad for the country but politicians in the ruling parties know only race in politics. Politicians keep race-based politics to remain in power when the country suffers.

    TDM knew and thrived only through racist politics. He even claims himself Malay when his father was an Indian so as to be UMNO member. TDM will use whatever reason to claim that race-based politics is still relevant so that NEP and ISA would remain.

  24. #24 by One4All4One on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 11:06 pm

    Malaysian current political practices and innuendos, socio-cultural-religious setup and historical baggage favour only certain ethnic groups. More so with all the claims to/for special treatments, privileges, supremacist rights, quotas, monopoly and political hegemony ( though denied and dismissed ).

    With such lopsided, discriminatory, race-based, prejudicial and partial administrative and governing policies and preferences, what can one expect? Minority groups suffer in silence and pent-up anger and fear.

    With limited opportunities, the minority groups have no choice but be proactive in their endeavours. In the process they know that the only way out is to work doubly hard and to focus their time, energy and attention on effective and consequential activities, be it economically, educationally, vocationally and even socially. Such is the situation in our dear nation that the cry for justice and equality has become the underlying current among the minority ethnic groups.

    Incidences of racial provocations and events could be culled from local dailies and media. One really needs not go far to witness such unfair treatments and prejudice.

    Luckily here, as in the USA, there are people who are clear minded enough to see and acknowledge such imbalances and practices. These people are the beacons and pillars of strength and hope for the realisation of an impartial and fairer society. Let’s give them all our support and encouragement.

    Unless and until race-based politics and practices are entirely eliminated and banned, a fair and equitable society in Malaysia could not and would not be realised in the foreseeable future.

    Good luck Malaysia!

    The minority groups yearn for equality, fairness, impartiality,

  25. #25 by One4All4One on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 11:12 pm

    The minority groups yearn for equality, fairness and impartiality and hope to see the day when true democracy and meritocracy would prevail…

  26. #26 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 12 November 2008 - 11:21 pm

    1865 – President Abraham Lincoln ( a Caucasian ) freed the black slaves.
    1963 – Clergyman Martin Luther King, Jr. ( a Black ) gave his historical moving speech in ” I have a dream ”
    Between all these years, there were / are a number of prominent Blacks in U.S.A.
    2008 – President Barrack Obama ( a Black Caucasian ) comes into power.

    Change can only happen if the people who wish to change are given the chance to change. If the chance is never given, there will be no change. There is a tsunami election’s results in Malaysia because the Malaysians are giving the politicians the chance to clean up the Barisan Nasional led government which is getting dirtier and dirtier.

  27. #27 by MOJO JOJO on Thursday, 13 November 2008 - 11:56 am

    “PUTRAJAYA, Nov 12 (Bernama) — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said everyone could be Malaysia’s prime minister as long as he is of “Bangsa Malaysia” or Malaysian race and acceptable to all Malaysians, regardless whether he is a Malay or non-Malay…….”

    Why now talking about Bangsa Malaysia? What rubbish was he talking about? I believe all of us here have planted deep inside our heart we are always Bangsa Malaysia..!!! We don’t fill in our nationality in any embarkation forms as China or India or Thailand as our country? Don’t we always state Malaysia as our beloved country..!!! Did he just blaming the rakyat for not being Malaysians enough? If that’s so and why is that so? Who created all this mess? From the day of the creation of bumi and non-bumi status, divide and rule strategy, he should have known what is the outcome gonna be. He is no naive, man..! He was the one who single handedly destroy the spirit of being true Malaysians. Shameless old fool and some more have the cheek to make such a remark…!!!

  28. #28 by frankyapp on Thursday, 13 November 2008 - 1:08 pm

    Don’t talk about change,first change UMNO/BN,then we can talk about any changes for our nation. Seek for solution,the solution is to throw the old junk/BN out when election comes.Let’s be rational,think right and smart.The americans changed from Republican to Democrats every four or eight years. How come we in Malaysia still could not or would not want to change the government after more than 50 years ? Do we have a problem here ? Definately yes but shall we discuss about it ? Why,why,why,tell me why ?????.

  29. #29 by Loh on Thursday, 13 November 2008 - 2:33 pm

    TDM said there was no specification in the country that the Prime Minister should only come from among the Malays. He said” But when you talk about having a non-Malay as a PM, you are being racist yourself because you shouldn’t ask the question if one is a Malay or a non-Malay. If he is acceptable to all Malaysians, yes, he can be PM. The specification is that he must be the leader of the majority party. Don’t ask if he is a Malay, Chinese or Indian”—The Star 13 November 2008.

    All application forms used by government departments and ministries ask the question of race about the applicants. That is racist according to TDM. When a person asks about the race of the PM, he wants to know the background of the PM, and he cannot do anything about it. When the government asks about the race of the applicants, the officials concerned make use of the information to decide whether to approve what the applicants applied for. It might be a place for enrolment into as institute of higher education, a scholarship, bursary, student loan, a trading license or a taxi permit. It was racist of the government to ask for the race of the applicants, and race is the factor which government officials base on their discretional decisions. When race is the factor for discount in the price of houses, we see racism to its extreme. NEP is the mother of all racist policies. TDM is the proponent of NEP even after the unjust policy and philosophy as it has been implemented overrun twice its length of time. Yet he has the cheek to say that people are being racist in asking about the race of the PM.

    If TDM is not a racist, then he should ask the government to make an objective assessment whether the stated target of 30% share of corporate equity has been achieved. If he is not a racist, he should tell the government that they should not lie with statistics, and the percentage share should be based on net-worth of the corporate entitles valued at current market prices. It was the objective of getting Malays to own up to the target 30% of corporate share capital that Razak and Hussein governments created corporate-like entities to hold share in trust for the Malays for eventual distribution. Government linked companies are variants to those entities. The net worth of all those entitles whose wealth was held by the government in trust for Malays should be included for the computation of Malays’ share ownership. That 30% target should be made good and any shortfall should be supplemented through public purchase to be financed by Petronas if need be. The government can claim mission accomplished, and the people should be seen to have now level playing field. NEP should cease henceforth.

    Why should TDM do what he was asked above? Because unless he says so, nobody in UMNO will dare to move. We will have to wait for TDM to be gone before NEP stands a chance to disappear. For removing NEP we will have to wish the worst for him. If he would be fair and make fair statments for NEP to be removed, we shall cease to be interested as to when he would be gone.

    TDM erred in claiming that the PM should be accepted by all Malaysians. He and his party only obtained less than 60% of the votes. Is he accepted by all Malaysians? Clearly he was not. Should the PM be the leader of the majority party? We will get a concrete proof that it is not necessary when Anwar or Ku Li becomes the PM in December 2008.

  30. #30 by king cobra on Thursday, 13 November 2008 - 4:13 pm

    It took Americans at least 200 yrs & after changes of at least 44 presidents to see a huge change in American history!!!!!!!

  31. #31 by taiking on Thursday, 13 November 2008 - 6:00 pm

    Call me Prime Minister Taiking.
    For I want to be PM of Malaysia.
    I believe I hv what it takes to be PM.
    I will be fair to all especially the poor and the weak.

  32. #32 by rubini on Friday, 14 November 2008 - 12:00 am

    It will not take 400 years to change in Malaysia. It’s going to take 4 years from now. The people are “All Fired Up” to not only demand changes but MAKE the changes.
    One small leap for Man, but a Giant Leap For Malaysians

  33. #33 by miguelotami on Saturday, 15 November 2008 - 8:07 pm

    Prove Pakatan Rakyat first. Then you can change The Malaysian.

    But the fact is, The Malays will always will dominate this country till dooms day. Its open secret and everybody will have to accept this. Agree or not.

  34. #34 by ktteokt on Sunday, 16 November 2008 - 10:10 am

    Not 400 years or 4000 years but we have to wait for the sun to rise in the WEST to hope for changes!

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