Malaysia: Why do I care? (Part 2)

By Clive Kessler | February 02, 2012
The Malaysian Insider

FEB 2 — Part 2: The “philosophical” aspect.

Why do I care about Malaysia?

Why do I have ideas and opinions? Why do I voice them? And why do I believe that people might occasionally listen and give some heed when I do?

Half the answer, which I have already provided in sketchy outline, is biographical. It is a matter of, literally, one’s “curriculum vitae”, the “small pathway” of one’s personal, individual life-course.

The other part, which I will now try to suggest in this complementary discussion, is a matter of the attitudes and sensibilities acquired during the course of that life.

It is a matter of how the formative experiences not merely of one’s professional career and trajectory but of life in general have entered into and so shaped one’s thinking and writing, and life’s work, as a scholar.

“In a nutshell”?

How can I suggest these complexities, in part very abstract yet also intensely personal, in a simple direct way to a readership of “Malaysian insiders”?

Not easy, but perhaps it can all be found somewhere in a nutshell, “the world” (or at least my world) “in a grain of sand.”

So, with that intent and strategy, I will draw upon a recent exchange that I had with a most thoughtful “younger” (here meaning younger than me and colleagues of my own generation) Malaysian scholar.

The exchange occurred in the days immediately preceding the January 9 “Judgment Day”, as I was preparing to return to Sydney.

The Malaysian press was then full of reports of attempts to stage a mass opposition mobilisation outside the Jalan Duta courts that morning.

Things, I remarked, seemed to be simply falling apart.

The government seemed committed to a “no-win, lose-lose” position, whether Anwar was convicted or acquitted. The opposition was overplaying its hand, overreaching itself, inviting embarrassment if they could not — improbably so it seemed to me — call out 100,000 people.

“Entropy on all fronts,” I said. Or, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”

Why, I was asked, did I believe the opposition was overreaching, that it could not produce such a huge turnout?

Well, it would be hard at any time, in any circumstances.

Especially these.

This, I said, was not July 9.

People, I thought, felt tired and exhausted, not energised and challenged.

Unlike the July 9 moment — which despite official efforts to characterise it as a merely partisan or sectional exercise, had been anything but that — this occasion, like it or not, was, because it was yet another step in the “exemplary suffering” or “passion” along the Via Dolorosa of Anwar, inherently political.

So, I said, unlike July 9 this is not apolitical, non-partisan, “murni”.

Malaysia, I added, seemed near-broken. Its problem was far bigger than Anwar. It was experiencing, and had been since at least March 2008, a slow, protracted regime crisis.

The governing party machinery, I said, seems broken, cannot be repaired, and cannot be replaced.

Political exhaustion and the defence of democracy

Meanwhile, I fretted about the political tiredness and exhaustion that, as my friend agreed, seemed endemic all around me.

I could not simply accept that passivity as a neutral fact, a reality without its own implications.

“This political exhaustion is not neutral,” I insisted. “It favours some, disables others. Meanwhile, yet again, residual democracy is dying from a lack of defenders. That is why I am continually reminded here these days of the Weimar Republic, and of its collapse between 1928 and 1933”.

A democracy without democrats, a democratic constitutional order without committed and effective democratic constitutionalists, is a worrying thing.

The big problem here, as in Weimar, I added, is that in a maimed, crippled democracy most people no longer care to defend democratic principles. So ground is ceded daily to the “blood and soil” nationalists. That is fatal.

Blood and soil nationalism

“Blood and soil nationalists”? What does that mean?

Just that. It refers to the kind of nationalism that is based upon ideas, or doctrines, of blood and soil. Upon the key belief that the nation is a community created, bound together, and thereafter bounded in its limits by connections of blood and soil, or “Blut und Boden” as the right-wing German nationalists had said.

The basic idea is that the land, any land, is won and held and owned, exclusively, by those who have a certain kind of historical connection to it.

On that basis a nation is a community born of a connection of blood, through descent, from the founding national ancestors, and born too of the blood that those ancestors spilled in making that land theirs, making it the possession and exclusive inheritance of their direct, or “blood”, descendants.

The noted Canadian writer and politician Michael Ignatieff captures this idea, the essential notion of what is known these days as “ethnic” or “descent” nationalism, in his superb book “Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism” (1993).

Drawing especially upon his own long experience of pre- and post-breakdown Yugoslavia, he identifies this kind of nationalism as a type.

It is based upon the idea or dream or fantasy that, in today’s world and under modern conditions, one may yet live entirely among “people of one’s own kind”, unaffected and “undiluted” and “uncontaminated” and hence, above all, “unmastered” by others, by people of different historic, descent-based identities.

And since, this mindset continues, one may reasonably aspire to live a life entirely on one’s own “historic” terms among people of one’s own kind, the determination to do so is legitimate.

This kind of nationalism is simply the determination to actualise that mindset: to enact that script, to make real that determination, to achieve its main end, an exclusive and exclusionary political self-sufficiency.

Under extreme conditions its logical “end-point” is ethnic cleansing. In ethnic cleansing, the immanent core idea becomes explicit, is made quite brutally clear.

Short of that end-point, this attitude and mindset find expression in ideas of a bifurcated citizenry: one dichotomised into two distinct and unequal classes, the one enjoying full rights “as of natural right” and as a “birthright”, the other enjoying less than full rights or formally full-rights, but only conditionally — on condition of not challenging the domination of the majority or questioning the basis of their imposed domination.

For their part, the French “purists” gave expression to these idea in their notion of the pays légal, the legal nation, the fully rights-bearing part of the nation, in contradistinction to those “lesser” citizens who, essentially as some sort of concession, enjoyed less than those full rights.

If not you, me and us then who?

My “young” colleague is, of course, fully aware of all this.

He even writes about these things.

But writing is one thing, acting, and feeling confident of the possibility of acting effectively, is another.

So, yes, a frail and fraught democracy, as in Weimar Germany, may die from a lack of defenders, of those who will publicly uphold democratic principles.

But on what grounds — and an intellectual will always require, even demand, intellectually persuasive and adequate grounds — may one feel confident of one’s entitlement to act in that way, in defence of democratic principles?

For older types, like myself, he said, that was still possible. How lucky we were, he implied. But for him and his peers, there was no longer any such possibility, no such basis of belief, of confident entitlement to action.

Or, as he put it, for himself and his generation of “younger” scholars, “Yes, but with no transcendental language left, what is there to fight over, die for? One can die for God or paradise. But for liberalism?”

Some, I had challenged him, are ready to live, fight and die for the “bangsa”. Others for Islam — or rather for their view of it, and of its preferred future. So, who but us, or rather you all, will uphold democracy?

“You want transcendental?” I continued. “Grow up!” We are, as Weber long ago insisted (I reminded him), in a “no-magic world”, a world without enchantment or mystification, a world where everything supposedly has its mundane explanation: a world, therefore, in which it is always a tough struggle, especially when upholding what we see as decent human values is concerned.

“Legions for Caesar and legions for Pompey, but who shall be for Rome?” So, I reminded my colleague, some public-spirited Romans had asked when Caesar and his legions, violating what we would now term “norms of constitutional propriety”, crossed the Rubicon and began his advance to Rome.

These days there are aplenty in Malaysia those who are for the government and those for the opposition. Is there not, I suggested, also a necessary role for, and an obligation upon, those who would stand, at the level of principle, for the overarching national terms and implied framework (even if at this time it is as much hypothetical or imputed as real) within which the two oppose sides contend?

Somebody, that is, must be prepared to stand for a decent Malaysia, as a nation grounded upon its citizens, all its citizens, impartially and equally.

If not you, me and us then who? Is there someone else who cares about, and for, us and for “our Malaysia”? I see none other.

The game, its future, the nation’s, I warned him, is now going, being left to go, by default.

Yet, to defend it, to see that task as worthwhile and feasible, you want, even after Weber, the “transcendental”? What a luxury.

No more “transcendental” ratification, only the mundane

A transcendental dimension? You want others, like me, to provide it for you, to tell you where to find it?

Who, after all, I have to ask, killed off the “transcendental”? Who did away with your “master narratives”? With their motivating and mobilising power?

It was not me, and those of my inclinations, I must insist, who killed off the “transcendental”, your so-called “master narratives”.

It is you and your intellectual generation, your scholarly associates and their like-minded post-modernist cohort, who did that, and who are now wailing, bemoaning the consequences.

And you now want us “pre-postmodernists” to sympathise with you in your postmodernism-induced predicament, you ask us to comfort you in your “normative bereavement”? To give you some acceptable reason not to give up, some plausible grounds upon which to stand and resist?

True, there was nothing inevitable, or “given” or “privileged” about the Enlightenment and its values. The post-modernists made that point — often, laboriously, ad nauseam.

But they — those values and beliefs and ideals — are, or were, what we had. We had them because those who came before us, and who had fought these same battles in their earlier — perhaps more rudimentary — forms, won some ground.

Valuable ground, with much struggle, and at a price that should not be forgotten or dismissed.

And, in doing so, established those values as the grounds (yes, they were very contingent values!) of our continuing demands: grounds that we might ourselves continue to stand upon and claim; human and humane values that we might still affirm, uphold and also use.

So why trash them?

So my question to that younger post-modernist generation is, and has always been:

Why not make them, despite their acknowledged frailty, your own, why not then demand on that basis that their reach and benefits be extended, that their promise be enlarged, made good and delivered — to you, to your generation, to everybody, including to the billions of humankind who have never heard of the Enlightenment and its values, even to generations still unborn?

And, anyway, what do you have with which to replace the basis of that moral claim, that political demand, that basis of action?

You have nothing else? So why trash what you have and abandon the real leverage that these ideas may still provide?

Why abandon them? Just for personal career advantage, just to “cut a good line” as one “swans one’s way” through our now normatively and ethically eviscerated universities?

Better to hold onto them — to make those grounds and those values and, however limited, that earlier achievement one’s own inheritance and possession — and then to demand that their promise now be made good to those still left out, to those yet to come, and to us.

Said or Arendt?

That, anyway, is the view of those of us who would rather read, and find ever so much more benefit from reading, Hannah Arendt than Edward Said.

The loss of the “transcendental” was a problem that was already faced by her and her friends, her generation, long ago.

When she wrote about the new “Existenz Philosophie” that emerged at mid-century in the wake of historic devastation and desolation, she did not demand — after all that had happened, and following that grim gift of systematic extermination, genocidal annihilation and total warfare! — that history should now benignly give her, or us all, some metaphysically vouchsafed new “transcendental” as the basis for engaging with, and in order to struggle against and within, an unpalatable reality.

Existentialism: one has to have and find within oneself, within one’s own humanity, the courage to face that world and to face, alone and unaided, a bare, bleak universe, if that is what it might prove to be.

Nothing else, nothing more, was guaranteed. So one should not seek such assurances, nor be unduly trusting towards those who would offer them.

For some, like her and us, it is enough to say, as with Martin Luther, here I now find myself, and, even if it is not by my own choice, here, not elsewhere, I must take my stand; I must act, and cannot conscionably act in any other way.

As Hannah Arendt used to say, it was now a time for political thinking in a twisting, broken world: for political thinking on, so to speak, a tortuously winding and perilous staircase in a dilapidated old mansion, rising under precarious conditions, without banisters, without any handrails, without any steadying ethical props or assured structures of normative security. “Thinking without banisters, without handrails,” she called it.

So I ask you. You want, you expect, you need such transcendental guarantees in order to be able to act, even to contemplate acting?

Such transcendental guarantees are a luxury.

Sorry, but you must face and accept the fact that they are unavailable, and also that they are unnecessary.

There is no need for any such transcendentalism. Existentialism will suffice. It will have to. There is, for a certainty, nothing more.

It is enough to say, here I am. Here, and here it is my choice and my responsibility. To act or not to act. And if to act, then how? That is my choice.

That is my burden, since I did not create the terrain of my choosing or the options that it may offer. But it is my choice and therein lies my freedom.

And now Adorno and Benjamin

My colleague replied as best he could:

“Yes, but you have a faith I have lost.”

To which I could only reply:

I am tempted to feel as you do. I know the reasons, the arguments. But I refuse.

It is a matter of attitude and character, even will, not of intellectual argument, proof and conviction. Perhaps that was what Gramsci had in mind when he spoke of the attitude, and necessity, of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.

So I simply refuse. As T.W. Adorno, echoing the doomed writer Walter Benjamin, once urged, we must learn to face despair, desolation, from the standpoint of redemption.

A redemption that we can discern, define, defend — that we ourselves can offer and now make available?

No. It is enough to try to see things from the standpoint of a hypothetical, a purely abstractly posited, redemption that one cannot yet grasp or sense.

It is just some “notional” or formal standpoint, as yet outside of history and hence not accessible to us, that may yet enter into and reshape history.

We need to be conscious of, or to leave room in our thinking for, this source of salvation that yet lies beyond human consciousness.

What this means for me. And why

Why do I say, and hold to, this?

Because of a formative Jewish stubbornness and counterfactual optimism, I suppose. That, linked to the radical idea we humans too have a contract with God, and when we think that the contract is being neglected, we have a right to remind God of it, of what is due to us, what we are owed in this world.

It is the legacy or residue of a Jewish childhood that began, temporally, in the midst — yet, spatially, by good fortune on the margins — of the “great devastation” of 1939-1945, and of a moral identity and historical consciousness that took shape on the terrain that was subsequently created by those “world-tearing” events.

But I understand your predicament, I continued.

For myself, sometimes, indeed often, I don’t know what to do about all this, since after all Malaysia is not my country, my problem.

But, putting that complication aside, I come back to the basic existentialist “refusal” that is “the other side” of the demand that history provide us with some “immanent” reason and assured grounds for acting in history. (When it is put in that way, you can see how basically unreasonable, how absurd, that expectation really is …).

That is to say, I can’t and won’t give up, yet.

And, for that reason, I get angry with those — those otherwise very decent well-intentioned Malaysians — who do.

With those who don’t think that Malaysia is yet “over” but who won’t stand up for it, for its basic “conditions of possibility”, for the basic requirements of its national coherence, cohesion and survival.

NGOs, civil society and the defence of democratic principles

And what does “standing up” mean here, standing up for democratic principles?

While I have the greatest respect and admiration for many who labour away, day by day and week by week, in ground-level “NGO activity”, I do not think that that kind activity is enough.

It is not wrong, but by itself it is insufficient.

It is, and has in recent times become, especially “problematic”, as NGO-people and “NGO-speak” like to say, in this age of the crude, rapacious “hijacking” of democratic forms.

Its adequacy, alone, has become questionable now that the whole idea of NGOs and “civil society” has been seized and captured simply as a means to pursue a very different, and far less benign and attractive, kind of action.

When all sorts of pressure groups and so-called “ginger groups” and deceptively presented yet often dubious, “front organisations” — by appropriating the mantle of the socially-oriented and generously inclusive NGOs — now project themselves, and masquerade, as primarily social, and only secondarily, or derivatively, or intermittently political bodies.

Yet these “cuckoos in the nest” of the capacious and unduly “hospitable” idea of civil society and its diverse array of NGOs are essentially and primarily political organisations with political agendas and objectives.

In short they are, to use the technical terminology of political science, “front organisations”.

In sum, the idea of civil society has been appropriated by all sorts of uncivil actors and activities. The opening up of democratic space by the real pioneers of democratic civil action has been captured, for intimidatory purposes, by the most undemocratic of actors and organisations, and for quite anti-democratic purposes.

That is why the public affirmation of democratic principles as an essential political activity, at the explicitly political level, is indispensable.

The lesson of Weimar

People should be very clear. The society of Weimar Germany (and similarly of interwar Austria, notably in Vienna) displayed an unparalleled richness of lively, autonomous and vital “civil society networks”.

Interwar democratic society in those countries had their own cascade of newspapers and magazines, their own vast array of coffee shops and theatres and cabarets, their own art galleries. Everything. The lot.

Nothing like it ever existed before nor has it since then.

Yet the brilliant society of which those organisations were an integral if oppositional part proved unable to resist the advance of a grim, determined and brutal “blood and soil” authoritarianism.

Civil society and its ramifying organisations provided no protection, and in the end could not even defend themselves against the onslaught nor protect themselves from brutalisation, then eradication.

The Junker aristocrats, the great industrialists, the state-identified military, the entrenched middle classes all thought that they could make use of the “blood and soil” rowdies for their own ends yet keep them, and the energy that they generated and unleashed, under control.

They were wrong.

In the end it was the stage-managers of the rowdies who showed who was in charge.

They used the rowdies, and the combination of enthusiasm and intimidation that they could command, to show everybody who, “when the chips were down” — when it came to the ultimate mobilisation, contestation and demonstration of sheer, naked force — was really in control.

That was not what we intended, said the out-manoeuvred aristocrats and grandees, the industrialists and bankers, the polite, well-meaning but complacent middle classes.

Too late. Intended or not, that is what, together, they had all brought on, or by ill-advised hesitation and “democratic insufficiency” allowed to take place.

That is why the public defence, at the political level, of democratic principles is essential.

The cost of the failure to defend them is exorbitant. The choice is fatal.

These days nobody needs, yet again, to find that out for themselves. The lesson is there, readily available from history, “off the shelf”.

Experience, it has been said, is the best of schoolmasters; unfortunately the fees are often punitive. Here one need not pay them oneself. The price has already been paid, and the lesson heavily paid for, by others.

That is what, from the lessons of his own “life-course”, one far from clueless friend of Malaysia now wants to say.

Putting the two together

And what, finally, is the connection between the two parts of this answer to the question why I care about Malaysia.

The answer that I have provided is so much about the past — mine, Malaysia’s, the Enlightenment and its values, Germany’s.

Yet my concern, like that implicit in the challenge that Azrul Mohd Khalib posed to the readers of The Malaysian Insider in his recent column, is focused forward, to the future, not the past.

To think about the future, it is not the gift of prophecy that is necessary, but an active, reflective memory.

“There’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways,” the White Queen remarks in Alice in Wonderland (from “Wool and Water” in Through the Looking Glass).

“It’s a poor sort of memory,” she adds, “that works only backwards”.
* Clive S. Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 2 February 2012 - 6:53 pm

    ///I get angry with those — those otherwise very decent well-intentioned Malaysians — who do./// – Clive Kessler. Though not laudable, the “political tiredness and exhaustion” of many Malaysians is understandable. It is not because they, like your scholarly friend, require a “transcendental dimension” to energise and motivate them out of their political passivity in defense of liberalism and democracy. It is because of their cognizance of certain realities operating here that are difficult, if not slow in the millennial sense,l to change. There are many whose votes support and entrench the incumbent regime – no matter how moribund it is- against change, who can’t even understand English, so how can they grasp the liberal and democratic ideals expressed through this medium?

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 2 February 2012 - 7:08 pm

    22 Years of Mahathirisim have nurtured just as many “Blood and soil nationalists” as liberal democats. A large part of our vote bank is not educated in liberal and democratic tradition. Why many of them have difficuties in even understanding basic English, the medium through which these ideals are transmitted. Liberty fairness and rights of others are not central values; primodial sentiments of race and religion are. To top it all the “I give you financial assistance in exchange for you know what I want” still work (not only in Sibu)! They are fertile ground for “Blood and soil nationalists” to work their divisve politics pitting ethnicities against each other. They will say you are talking nonsense because of Jewish lineage. The very Democracy you fight for contains from its one man one vote premise the very antithesis of government by mob where minorities’ rights are shoved aside by might than right.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 2 February 2012 - 7:19 pm

    If history were any guide, you would surely wonder how a society of Weimar Germany with “unparalleled richness of lively, autonomous and vital “civil society networks” could surrender to Hitler and Nazism. Could intellectuals and defenders of liberty fight Hitler’s brown shirts? Could you reason and persuade a phalanx of brown shirt Rela members or Silat exponent menacing your freedom of expression? Can the civil triumph over the uncivil and the unruly? Can discourse fight brutal force by way of reply? Yes sure over a long period where idea and the pen will prevail over brute force but not immediate, and the immediate is a long one that outlasts any a liberal, natural life. Can you blame the many who are tired for seeking to migrate to your country? Its reality, nothing to do with one’s philosophical outlook, transcendental, existentialist or otherwise!

  4. #4 by monsterball on Thursday, 2 February 2012 - 7:40 pm

    yea….speak till you drop dead…be it an Alien professor or a homeland man.
    Part your thoughts…hopefully to enlighten Malaysians and not jargon to confuse.
    Malaysians have listened enough….waiting for 13th GE…let their votes speak.
    So…speak out and teach us why Najib’s “around the corner” for 13th GE..has no ends?

  5. #5 by monsterball on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 2:37 am

    If UMNO b cares for people with no discrimination… double standards…no caring only if you are UMNO b members and supporters only…no making puppets from minorities….is like a hot day dream…that monkeys and donkies speak like humans.

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