Utusan and racially charged headlines are by now commonplace. So is their speedy response to any attack – particularly pungent whenever it comes from a prominent Malay like Azran Osman Rani. For the communitarian purist, the biggest threat to the vision of a singularly authentic Malay voice comes not from the non-Malays already situated outside its strictly guarded communal boundaries, but those who lurk within – those who cannot be wished away by an appeal to some natural and irreconcilable difference. Defiance from non-Malays is to be expected in the cultural wars that Utusan and co. wish to propagate – defiance from the outside pose no existential threat to their regressive rendition of Malayness. But defiance from the inside, if left unchecked, can dethrone ethno-conservatism as the default home of Malay political identity.

It is in this context that the conservative ideologues have devised a number of strategic scripts to purge the Malay who speaks out of tune – so that if he speaks, he speaks from the outside. It is a play restaged time and again to not unsuccessful effect on some of the intended audiences. I will suggest below an unremarkable mindset shift that Malays need to take in order to render the script impotent. But let us first quickly confront some of these purging narratives – most recently unleashed in the attack against Azran.

The master narrative is the idea that Malays who criticise Utusan, the NEP or any of these postulated sacred cows of Malay ethno-conservatism are arrogant ingrates. “Tidakkah Azran terfikir lesen yang dikeluarkan kerajaan kepada Air Asia adalah kerana pada peringkat awalnya syarikat penerbangan itu dimiliki orang Melayu?” Taking this to its logical conclusion means that since every Malay alive or unborn is in some way a child of Ketuanan Melayu and its attendant privileges, then there will never be a time when Malays can chastise the system or a another Malay on these terms. It is a senseless and endless loop – an infinite postponement of the renegotiation of the norm. It cannot stand scrutiny.

Secondly, even if we accept the premise that every Malay has inadvertently benefitted from the shortcomings of a system propped up by the Utusans and Perkasas of the world, it does not follow that he must bat for that team. Since I had no say in the cards I was dealt, my conscience cannot be held hostage to the fact that I get access to this housing discount or that Bumi unit trust. In fact, even if as an individual I choose to capitalise on this privileged access, I still reserve my right to question the morality of the system or the immoderations of its ardent apologists. If all it takes to silence man is to point out the benefits he has derived, there can be no critique of capitalism so long as you have a penny in your pocket. There would be no such thing as a male feminist. And only blacks would have fought slavery. Again, this cannot stand scrutiny.

And in any case, isn’t the justification for preferential treatment that there are systemic imbalances which will otherwise place Malays in an unfairly weakened position? Notwithstanding the validity of this justification, it is incongruent to demand I be grateful to a series of measures supposedly meant to tilt the scales back to natural balance anyway.  

None of my points above are original or anything more than the inevitable conclusions of basic reason. But despite its fatal logical contradictions, the conservative ideology maintains pull even among Malays otherwise predisposed to progressive persuasions by playing the guilt card – trying to convince us that somehow the progressive point of view is not representative of the larger community. That the progressives are somehow not Malay enough and hence have less credibility to speak for and from the community, unless they fall in line. Paraphrasing quotes I have heard far too often, “You must remember, not all Malays are like you – they are not ready for liberal-liberal ni…” (implying of course, that “most Malays are not like you”)

These are tropes brandished with alarming frequency. It is an erstwhile effective, if blatantly desperate, move to dismiss and delegitimize any reformist voice from within the community. As we have seen, the conservative ideologues almost certainly cannot win the logical battle – but they can win the sociological one. They want to convince us that somehow having a moral argument is not enough, not relevant. That while it may seem only sensible to appeal for a more magnanimous and civil political posture, it is ultimately treasonous because, well, most Malays aren’t like you – so be grateful and hold your tongue, or prepare for the purge.

In a time when communal identities remain cherished even for the most cosmopolitan of Malays, the cost of insubordination can seem too large, making it all too tempting to pass this buck to the next generation. “Perhaps when the collective is more ready for change. Perhaps when there are more Malays like you”.

What this temptation overlooks is that there are probably already many “Malays like you”. I want to be careful about using election trends to make sweeping claims about why people vote the way they do, but surely there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that Malays who reject an excessively belligerent pro-Malay posture are not a tiny minority. And even if there remain many Malays who gravitate to the conservative narrative, it is no reason to stay silent when the proponents flaunt their excesses.

If there is such a thing as a collective consciousness, it is not a pre-existing beast grounded in some unchangeable communal DNA. It is a fluid consciousness that is constantly in play, constantly being made and re-made by the members of that community themselves. The most important hurdle to overcome is the first one: the mindset shift that will establish the right to play – that one who is liberal or progressive is a rightful member of this Malay community, speaking from within the community and not outside it. The rest of the battle should prove easier.

(An edited version of this post appeared in the Star’s iPad edition, 17 November 2011)

The Government’s latest move to allow students already studying Science and Mathematics in English to continue doing so appears to have done little to silence the pro-PPSMI lobby.

At the risk of simplifying the debate, it seems that one side tends to underscore the significance of English as a medium of knowledge, while the other doubts that very premise, quoting cases in Europe and Asia, whilst dabbling in a fair bit of linguistic nationalism.

I will, for the most part, avoid here, these well-trodden paths. Not because I do not recognise the force of some of the arguments, but because there remains something to be said about practicality and priority.

I’m willing to concede that PPSMI proponents have the country’s best interests at heart, even if some could do better at demonstrating an awareness of the world outside their upper middle class bubble. But I digress. A couple of years on the fringes of the political and policy sphere have made it vividly clear to me that an idea is only good inasmuch as it is implementable. It matters little that a policy is well intentioned if those intentions are not translated on the ground.

Consider the collective exasperation of my generation when critiques of policies like the NEP or ISA are brushed aside by invoking various incarnations of “the policy is good; the problem is implementation”. At some point, conceptual and practical dimensions meet such that it becomes disingenuous to hide behind the ‘spirit’ of an idea if its consequences are deemed undesirable. The same standards apply in this case.

So what of the consequences of the policy? Research by at least three bodies do not lend credence to those who base their support on the notion that PPSMI improves students’ grasp of Science, Mathematics or English across the board. The findings of Permuafakatan Badan Ilmiah Nasional (PEMBINA), Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 2007) – all of which are in the public domain – collectively reveal a dip in student performance and interest in the three subjects during the years that PPSMI was in practice, especially amongst students from rural and low-income communities.

PPSMI fans know these studies well. Faced with the data, the onus is on them to demonstrate that the policy’s shortcomings are easily reversible with better implementation. Instead, “choice” is the wonderfully ethereal trope now employed, i.e. schools should decide for themselves if they want the “PPSMI option”. Suddenly, it is not so much about the efficacy of the idea, but about the rights of parents to decide what’s good for their children.

Nevermind the data. Nevermind that the Ministry has undertaken painstaking research, considered the national education objectives and engaged with the civil service responsible for the workings of the policy. Nevermind that “choice” is, in more ways than one, an asymmetrical resource constrained by expectations and biases. Let’s undercut all that by invoking the sentiment that surely parents must know better than the State. Cue the small government mantra. Great.

Except even here, the idea is woefully thin on detail. Let’s take just one example. Proponents of this ‘compromise’ offer little elaboration on how exactly the “PPSMI option” would work well in a system where too few teachers were able to properly implement PPSMI to begin with. Was this not precisely a problem contributing to the policy’s underwhelming results?

PAGE’s memo to the Prime Minister addresses this major roadblock in a comically cursory manner. It remarks, “teachers fluent in English can easily be transferred, at low cost, to schools offering the PPSMI option”. How convenient.

Pardon my indulging in speculation. Presumably PAGE believes all English-speaking Science and Mathematics teachers would readily flock to the SK Bukit Damansaras and SK Seri Hartamases of Malaysia. Presumably they would do this because teachers don’t have families or commitments of their own and make no bonds with local schools and communities to which they may have contributed for years. And because the requirements of schools that already struggle with teacher retention don’t stand up against the wishes of a section of society.

Two things have humbled me in my recent work at a non-profit aiming to eradicate education inequity: the massive structural and systemic challenges faced by young Malaysians from difficult socio-economic backgrounds – many in their teens cannot read or write – and the unwavering passion of teachers to transform these students’ life trajectories.

And through conversations with teachers, it is apparent that a central issue is the lack of interest amongst students stemming from a general worldview that under-privileges education. Teaching Science and Mathematics in English will do nothing to address this problem; if anything data suggests it has served to exacerbate it.  

So I ask, when you demand for the system to accommodate PPSMI, what are you essentially saying to those at the short end of education inequity whose voices are almost always marginalised? That their problems are irrelevant? That they must bear the generational sacrifice just so the upper middle class with cosmopolitan status ideals gets its way – the upper middle class possessing cultural and financial resources to learn English terminologies of Science and Mathematics with relatively little marginal effort anyway? You ask these for a policy whose practicality and instrumentality remain dubious at best?

Until and unless PAGE and its supporters offer specifics about how the “PPSMI option” can be implemented well under current circumstances and in such a way that these concerns are averted, I’m afraid the questions will remain.

(an edited version of this post is published on Malaysiakini.com)

I imagine many email inboxes, browser pages, Facebook walls and Twitter timelines have been saturated with reports, commentaries and counter-commentaries about all things Bersih.

From the right and proper role of the police force, to legal and philosophical assertions about freedom of assembly, to whether Bersih represents a genuine desire for electoral reforms or simply a political ploy to serve partisan interests, little of the discourse-space has been left untouched.

Where I lean on some of the matters above are implied throughout this piece. In any case, this humble contribution to the conversation surrounding Bersih stems from a profound sense of futility that the entire episode has visited upon the BN and UMNO transformation promise.

From March 2008 onwards, numerous tropes were repeatedly employed by party and government to portray an urgent desire to reform, transform; to berubah or rebah after a period of muhasabah. And despite far too many speeches and remarks about transformation being peppered with generalities, concrete measures have been taken across the different spheres where improvements are meant to occur.

The current administration’s affinity with acronyms is accompanied by well-publicised substantive reforms to economic and social policy. Reforms within the party – which is my chief subject here – should not go unnoticed either.

Amendments to UMNO’s constitution now allow for greater right of suffrage and there are recurring “grassroots”-targeted welfare events and other services – job fairs, scholarships and health programs are not without visibly positive consequences for the general public.

That’s all well and good. But as the Bersih affair so conclusively exposed, the initiatives above have not been supplemented by a realignment of UMNO’s ideological stance on democratic rights – where dissent is tolerated as a permanent feature of a functional political landscape.

Ever faithful to the traditional, reactionary, belligerent, fear mongering script, UMNO also appears unable to resist concocting racial and religious hazards where none exist. Seemingly caught in a time warp, whenever challenged on so-called “soft issues” – things that go beyond dollars and cents – UMNO’s responses bespeak a rather unidimensional comprehension of politics, even if that outdated comprehension gets played out in new media (in an increasingly vulgar manner too).

Dare I say, if the party’s transformation, supposedly towards inclusiveness, and away from traditional comfort zones – the move that UMNO leaders are so keen to proclaim at every juncture these days – is limited to walkabouts, driving into towns in more modest cars, and welfare-themed programs, then I’m sorry, but this is no renaissance. For all the talk of a Model Politik Baru that does not rely on a “politics of development” to woo voters, UMNO still defines much of its success or failure along those very lines; its raison d’etre and its case for being a party of the future remain terribly impoverished.

Now, this is not to say that employment, wages, security and peace are not important to the electorate. But if politics is a game of numbers, it is also the art of nuance, and UMNO would be grossly mistaken if it think those aforementioned issues monopolise bottomline considerations via a simplistic, unchanging algorithm.

After all, in an increasingly open market, relying almost exclusively on development, welfare and some ill-defined affability with the common folk as one’s long-term strategy is inherently risky. For there is no reason another party cannot administer those services just as well if not better, especially when the incumbent’s track record is pretty chequered if we’re brutally honest.

Under such circumstances, the game-changing element lies in displaying thought leadership and remaining in touch with the future rather than haunted by the past. Specifically here, it is about upholding principles of justice, liberty, fairness and democracy as the cornerstone of one’s political struggles, rather than deluding oneself by intimating that these are irritating concepts noone but Bangsar-ites will ever care about.

Sadly, UMNO and BN are simply not showing up to these ideational skirmishes for the future. Instead, they remain in the past; upon encounter, they pack up their gear and do their business on the old grounds of fear, repression and denial, surrendering all initiative to Pakatan without the latter having to do much at all.

The transformation agenda thus remains, paradoxically, ideologically regressive, if not vacuous. Sure, there are a few individuals who are the exceptions to the rule, and they retain my greatest admiration for nothing could be harder than trying to absolutely change the mindset of party members with a fundamentally divergent worldview, while still remaining popular and true to one’s conscience. More often than not, something gives.

But perhaps that begins to explain why I wonder if futility will be the defining feature of UMNO’s speculative foray into a transformation phase, ushering not renewal but the final chapters of its long stint in power.

If after the disastrous results of 2008, UMNO’s response is to be more reactionary and reductive when the opponents to whom it lost ground rush to occupy a more progressive plane, perhaps it has really lost the plot. I would be most glad to be proven wrong.

The allegation of a plot to make Christianity the official religion in Malaysia is but the latest indication of a burgeoning and malignant Malay ethnic nationalism.

Whilst the anger towards Utusan is, of course, wholly called for, the problem at hand seems to have roots far deeper than the paper’s offensive, communalist and partisan journalism can account for.

I say this because such a preposterous charge could only have been leveled if it finds home in an antagonistic discourse of fear and ontological segregation. That discourse exists in the contemporary Malay discursive networks, and it appears to me to be fairly developed.

Cast our thoughts back to 2000 and 2001 – the Reformasi juggernaut that had shaped Malay(sian) politics was beginning to stutter – when Suqiu’s 83-point memorandum caused a stir because it appealed for the abolishment of the bumiputera and non-bumiputera distinction.

That the memorandum itself was essentially a list of “appeals” and not tuntutan or demands was lost in the raging debates that followed.

That the subsequent meeting between Umno Youth and Suqiu led to the retraction of seven points considered ‘sensitive’ also seemed to matter little.

The narrative that was to dominate the collective Malay consciousness had been born; at its centre was the idea that non-Malays are now conspiring to encroach upon sacrosanct spaces which were themselves imbued with originary myths.

Survival meant absolutely the defense against the non-Malay who dah melampau. The siege mentality dominated.

Now, sister discourses have, of course, existed in the past. Indeed (Malay) ethnic nationalism in Malaysia has a longer history than its patriotic counterpart.

But I want to suggest that while earlier ethnic nationalisms assumed a chiefly affirmative, economic character, the present manifestation is particularly vicious because it defines success in the regulation of the perpetually devious internal Other.

For all the chest-thumping rhetoric that colours such an ideologically vacuous discourse, the protagonist in this chapter of Malay nationalism is really, the non-Malay.

I hesitate to say whether, taken to its logical conclusion, it desires the demise of the latter, but certainly in continuously reinscribing boundaries between “us” and “them”, the concern is much less about how “we” can better ourselves than about making sure “they” know their place.

The deconstruction of such a paradigm will be tricky; although many Malays are, in various forms, engaged in doing just that.

Counter-narratives that appeal to a more universalist rendering of Islam or a more liberal-cosmopolitan conception of ethnic affiliation do rebel against the reductive absolutisms of Utusan and co.

The difficulty of course, is that fear mongering can be extremely effective – as with all guises of social conservatism, the aforementioned narrative derives its charm from its plea to the lowest common denominator.

It is straightforward, contains no touch of nuance or sophistication and is decidedly urgent: they are out to get us.

But if we know anything about the Malay culture and its customs, it is that deference to leaders still counts for quite a bit. Here, our politicians need to step up.

Rhetoric and policies that encourage cross-ethnic contact, trust and solidarity are anathema to those who wish to tell us that we are essentially separate, and locked in a zero sum battle, with no horizon in sight.

In responses to issues like this one we are debating about, the message from leaders has to be clear and consistent, not one peppered with generalities and exit options both ways – leaders need to demonstrate they stand for something.

For too long, especially when dealing with the issue of ethnic relations, we have been a nation of compromises; surely it is time to supplement our character with some concrete ideals and beliefs.

On the immediate matter at hand, it has been encouraging to note that a number of Umno politicians and Umno-supporting members have at least registered doubt over the allegations, and in some instances, strongly criticized the two bloggers.

The nature of that opposition to the claims is yet unclear. Whether it was motivated by the fact that the unsubstantiated details seemed too dramatic for any part of the story to be true, or whether they genuinely think better of the non-Malays and DAP, for that matter, remains to be seen.

The limitations of Malaysia’s brand of multiculturalism – multiculturalism here defined as management of diversity – are rather alarming. From Siti Inshah’s speech asking for ethnic Chinese and Indian students to return to countries from whence they came, Namewee’s comical reversal of the perverse gratification logic (since it was the Chinese who made Malaysia rich), the cow head protest, to the more recent mockery of the azan, the national identity project remains as elusive as ever.

 

Not that there has been a lack of official national mantras, of which 1Malaysia is just the most recent. It might be of little surprise that they sit uncomfortably alongside pronounced and state-endorsed racial identities that are weaved so profoundly into our canvass of social relations. Despite pretensions to the contrary, there is nothing fundamentally novel or inherently more difficult about Malaysia’s conundrum of diversity management. But the inadequacy of the answers provided by our multiculturalist projects to the question of how national unity and ethno-cultural particularity might co-exist has become too obvious to ignore.

 

I want to suggest that this inadequacy is partly explained by a paralyzing fidelity to regimes of cultural authenticity. As our Deputy PM so triumphantly demonstrated, in Malaysia, the equation between the racial and the national is rarely symmetrical. Transparency is a rare commodity in the world of political statements, yet when he remarked that he cannot be “Malaysian first” because “all Malays will shun me and say it’s not proper as Indians will also say they are Indian first”, we saw more than the result of a politician’s shrewd calculations. Most importantly, the remark, in its entirety, exemplified the ambition of maintaining some notion of ethnic authenticity that precludes the embrace of a corrosive hybridized national identity. Now, if Malaysian identity were, as our fourth Prime Minister would like it to be, emphatically and assimilatively mono-cultural (read: Malay), perhaps our dilemma would not be framed this way. I will not venture to explicate the good reasons why we should also reject that vision of the national.

 

This ambition to authenticity is of course not limited to the Malay discursive horizons, although I have intimated elsewhere that there is something profoundly ambivalent about the Malay response. The point here is that if assimilation is not the answer to diversity, neither is reification of boundaries that arises when we treat cultures as separate; when contact and exchange can happily occur in the economic, but rarely cultural, marketplace. Not extensively anyway, lest identities become diluted, polluted – inauthentic.

 

Yet I want to suggest that a bounded notion of culture is precisely the present character of Malaysia’s multiculturalism. It is, in its less anxious moments, a rather passive kind of multiculturalism, which privileges (qualified) tolerance over active cross-cultural engagement. It is content, indeed it requires, that communities be left apart so long as ‘stability’ is maintained. Political parties remain defined along racial and religious lines, children still go to different schools and spokespersons claim to represent entire communities. And when sporting heroes take to court, we cheer as one (but we of course sit separately). When political coalitions hold rallies, their constitutive members applaud as one (but they of course sit separately). This is our “unity in diversity” in action.

 

The equilibrium is then only fleeting, the stability unstable. Under these circumstances, a particular conception of an authentic ethnic identity is produced and reproduced, jealously guarded against inter-penetration from the fellow citizen Other. Symptomatic of the anxieties that characterize the ambition to authenticity, cultures and communal identities become things not to be lived, but to be owned, in an exclusivist terrain of mutual tolerance/ignorance – where you can pray in your language but God help you if you use mine.

 

The optimists among us would quite readily demand we drop the signifier “race” altogether in favour of some kind of rooted cosmopolitanism. Indeed many of us already lead such lives; I know I do now, and now unapologetically. But whilst an abolitionist project should remain in the horizon, I want to suggest the more immediate and practical goal should be to legitimate, then encourage, hybridization and cross-cultural borrowing, even if for the moment they occur mainly in spheres defined as ethnic. Whether it is changes to the education system or sophistication in political rhetoric, communal anxieties must be displaced by an enthusiastic response to the prospect of our identities being more fluid and our experiences more complex than what the narrative of ethnic absolutism can provide us. This brand of diversity means not a plurality of homogenous and distinct cultures, but of cultural fragments which individuals can adopt, appropriate and reconfigure.

 

There is nothing revolutionary or overambitious about this thesis. Despite attempts to essentialize our history, we know it to be nothing if not hybridized. The constitution of contemporary Malayness owes much to its Indian and Nusantara past, the diaspora experiences of ethnic Chinese and Indians are almost by definition creolized, and social practices in East Malaysia evolve over time upon sustained contact with more novel groups or belief systems.

 

Perhaps more pertinently, I am equally confident that hybridization and cross-cultural borrowing are also present in our contemporary, individual realities. But here is the key. Such realities cannot remain inauthentic or impure in the official discursive regimes; they must be recognized and privileged as an expression of the elevated sense of trans-ethnic plurality. Otherwise, a genuine, dare I employ this trope again, authentic, national identity, will be infinitely postponed – reduced to the vacuous rhetorical allure of “unity in diversity” or “1Malaysia” and the ambiguous sight of Malaysians of all races sitting in the same “mamak” stall, but of course, sitting separately.

The circus visits periodically. This year, it swung by for Valentine’s, before its constituent elements returned swiftly to partisan bashing and bureaucratic placidity. Faithful to the out-Islamizing script, political parties and government departments descended upon the Malaysian space – in the deliberative and physical sense – with pronouncements barring Malay-Muslims from celebrating Valentine’s Day and actions that enforced sanctions against the more, I hesitate to say, expressive, forms of the ‘celebration’.

The very fact that this righteous fervour is applied selectively – you will not find religious police raiding Sheraton Imperial rooms – and seasonally, exposes the political, publicity and power dynamics imbricated in producing the asymmetrical nature of moral policing in Malaysia. That terrain is well explored by others.

Yet, upon exposing its hypocrisy and classist dimensions, the manner in which moral policing is enforced (in the physical space) may actually appear tolerable to many. If all they are after are couples in parks and cheap hotels on marked days, I am still free to celebrate Valentine’s at a mid-range restaurant, and married couples may still choose to mark the day in a way that is ‘sinful’ for others. (We of course know, unmarried couples do commit this sin of sex but most know enough not to get caught. We’ll leave the married couples that commit the sin of adultery for now). The physical reach of the righteous fervour seems limited. Indeed it is, for now.

But it is the deliberative element, and popular response to it, that are cause for concern, and the principal interest of this piece. Specifically, I want to first suggest the following: the fact that moral policing is even rendered legitimate in the dominant discourse and pervasive in the discursive space, signals an elevation in the regulation of populations and their consciousness. What you can do, perhaps more to the point, what you can think, is absolutely internal to Foucauldian population regulations.

Now, of course these regulations, these biopolitics, are not new – we don’t need the Valentine’s brouhaha to expose what we are subjected to on a daily basis. But everytime the circus comes to town, it represents an opportunity for the population – here, Malay-Muslims – to publicly contest that hegemonic power, if nothing else, to contain it within its hegemonic limitations. (I use the term hegemony here in its proper Gramscian sense, in which persuasive coercion is not absolute and domination never complete).

This containing and contesting exercise in the deliberative space – a constituent part of counter hegemony if we are to stick to Gramsci – is crucially important, even if we can avoid being directly affected by the physical expression of moral policing. For taken to its logical conclusion, the biopolitical project of regulation, in this case, is a project to promote, indeed realize, an essentialist and exclusivist notion of Malayness and Malay identity. It is in these instances of deliberative contest that we see the imagined, idealized, ‘authentic’ Malay in one of its many emergent moments. A Malay(ness) that is rooted firmly in conservative persuasions to the point where a day signifying love is rejected as sinful, alien and haram – regardless of what you may actually do to mark that day. A Malay that obeys a fatwa just because it is a fatwa. A Malay that (of course, selectively) adheres to the simplistic notion that if anything has a potential to be bad, then it must be bad. A Malay that shuns the cosmopolitan allure of borrowing and internalizing other forms of lifestyles in favour of a secure, bounded and exclusive identity. I reiterate, what is the biopolitical project of regulation if not one to place this notion of Malayness as dominant and pervasive, indeed the only one, that passes for Malayness?

Yet in this round of deliberative contest held in conjunction with Valentine’s, the cosmopolitan Malay proves himself/herself handicapped by varying degrees of ambivalence. Nevermind the Malays who think that the State should never sanction ‘skodeng squads’  (loosely translated to peeping toms) to catch immoral couples in the act. Nevermind the Malays who think the State shouldn’t have a say in what consenting adults do. Nevermind the Malays who, although unmarried, mark Valentine’s in a most asexual manner – dinner or an affectionate text (which, incidentally, I may or may not have sent to the girlfriend). Nevermind those.

Instead, let’s just query, how many married Malay couples, who seemingly are at absolutely no risk of committing sin because of Valentine’s, actually spoke out against the mindless drivel that the self-styled moral police were spewing? I dare say not many. Conversely, many cosmopolitan Malays appeared to choose the side of the conservatives and the moral police, defending the notion that we shouldn’t celebrate Valentine’s even if it does not lead to sex. The ironies and internal contradictions of such positions are countless. Many who profess support for the Valentine trap notion as a way of staking claimed to the (aforementioned) secure identity on the cheap, may themselves engage in haram sex on other days.

The dialectic assumes a timeless quality – cosmopolitan hybridity on the one hand, tradition and purity on the other. But it is the response of ambivalence that most fascinates me. (Hypocrisy, as a term, is too strong and analytically vacuous. The term says nothing of the inner struggles that the individual undergoes in arriving at seemingly contradictory positions, nor does it always recognize that however contradictory, the position taken remains genuine inasmuch as it is experienced, believed and made coherent).

The ambivalent Malay comes in many guises. The Malay who despite knowing all that he does about the NEP and race-based affirmative action regardless of income, refrains from criticizing it too strongly, if at all. The Malay who may believe in egalitarianism in all other aspects but makes an exception when it comes to race in Malaysia. The Malay who may have doubts about the salience of the constitutional Malay special position but persists in using it as a fallback. The Malay who may realize, in his/her heart of hearts, how slippery and tenuous the claim to ‘indigenousness’ is as a political justification for differential treatment, yet tries his/her best to make it stick in his/her mind. The Malay who knows that all he wants to do is give his girlfriend a nice gift on Valentine’s, and indeed he might, but stops short of stating definitively that those who say he shouldn’t, are wrong.

I want to finally suggest that such ambivalence characterizes and cripples the Malay cultural and political navigation. The struggle in our contemporary Malay moment is to escape this Ambivalent Trap in which a peculiar kind of “glocalism” is secured by capitulation to traditionalist modes of cognition in the face of contest, by capitulation to that idealized, authentic Malay to counterbalance the transcending effects of cosmopolitanism, lest we ‘stray too far’ from the imagined fixed and secure ‘home’. Might I suggest that to escape the Ambivalent Trap is to free ourselves of the chains that inhibit our contesting of hegemonic biopolitical power as it is applied in the Malay(sian) space – the power that regulates what we can celebrate, do or think – indeed who we can be. How we secure that escape, and the potential gains upon that escape, are my principal occupations for the foreseeable future.

It would be nice to say that the disgrace of the church fire-bombings was matched only by the gratifying feeling of seeing Malaysians unite in condemnation of the attacks. For a while, and against my better judgment, it seemed like such would be the case; the country appeared to be buzzing with post-traumatic-kumbaya-Come-Together-John-Lennon-esque energy. But of course, I wasn’t looking at the right (or the wrong) places.

At least not until a friend on Twitter posted a link to Akhramsyah Sanusi’s blog post, which he insisted everyone should read. In that and the post that followed a day after, Akhram shared with the world his thoughts on the matter – the main two being that the attacks were fair due to the continued denigration of Malays, and that the Government should not have allocated RM500 thousand to the damaged Metro Tabernacle Church. Wow.

Akhramsyah begins his post titled, “Torched Churches… Reaping What Is Sown”, by unashamedly stating that more churches will be attacked until the issue of the usage of the term ‘Allah’ by the Catholic magazine Herald is “resolved to the satisfaction of Muslims in this country”. Talk about holding peace and the law to ransom! But eh, I’ve got bigger rotten fish on Akhram’s heapful plate of tosh to can.

In positioning his rant about Malay-Muslim simmering dissatisfaction, Akhram claims to be merely conveying the “whispered screaming” – rarely do attempts at oxymora prove so uninspiring – of Malays through gossips at kenduris and the protests of Malay-Muslim NGOs, which he argues “formally represent the majority Malay view”. I hate to beat him down over this (or do I?) but how are screams at protests also whispered? Hmm.

Now, whilst I may concede that Malay-Muslims who oppose the usage of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims are far more vocal in expressing their view than those who don’t, Akhram is quite simply wrong to infer that the former also believe the church-torchings to be justified in any way. Despite PAS’s latter pronouncements, I will even say I believe most Malays to at least be leaning towards “‘Allah’-exclusivism”, and that this is one of those unfortunate cases where the country is split down racial/religious lines. But contrary to Akhram’s assertions, I’m equally confident that many Malays are willing to engage in informed discussions and dialogue to better learn about one another’s positions, rather than having to resort to violence or, dare I say, seditious acts – after all, contentious issues such as this often expose the poverty of our knowledge, not its wealth.

Thus, Akhram’s ear for kenduri gossips and affinity to reactionary Malay-Muslim NGOs – the most enthused of which is led by the statesman of our age, Ibrahim Ali – really lend no support to his chief argument that Malay-Muslims are being pushed to violent criminal reaction. Most Malays, as indeed do most Malaysians, respect the existence of other faiths than their own; if Akhram were even a tad responsible, he would have contributed to diffusing the current tension by stressing on that point. Instead, he ultimately blamed the incidents on our nation’s quest for ‘equality’ – because of course, ‘equality’ is the most ridiculous of ideals (?), before peddling fear with doomsday predictions of Malay mobs and violence.

As for the RM500 thousand ‘donation’, he provides a host of reasons as to why he holds it to be “unwise”, all of which do nothing but belie either his prejudices or inanity. He first argues that giving public money implies that the Government is responsible for the attacks. I cannot begin to explain how mindless this is – I suppose by Akhram’s reasoning, monetary contributions to orphans equate taking responsibility for their parents’ deaths. He also presents a puzzling analogy about how faulting the Government for the attacks would be akin to blaming the Kelantan Government for flooding the state – except we don’t. It may be that this is part of Akhram’s grand strategy to design the downfall of Kelantan’s PAS Government by convincing them not to spend any money on flood victims since it wasn’t at fault, but I ain’t betting my not sizeable mortgage on it.

He then proceeds to insult the church’s integrity with a string of allegations and insinuations – first claiming that churches in Malaysia value permits so much that simply relocating it elsewhere would suffice to appease the followers. On this point, would Akhram be as prepared to propose the same measures for a mosque should it meet a similar fate, or is he engaging in reckless intimation of Malaysian Christians? Next, he suggests that the arson attack may have even financially benefited the Church, so as to make any donation from the Government wasteful; Akhram even has the mind to contend that arson may be committed for profit and to gain publicity – how any house of worship would benefit from the latter is beyond me, and to suggest, in the absence of any evidence, Christians would burn their own churches is as vulgar as any remark.

But the pick of the rubbish has to be Akhram’s assertion and that even if the church needed any financial assistance, these should come from the Roman Catholic Church. Nevermind that the Metro Tabernacle Church is a Protestant church, Akhram’s idea of seeking damages from the Vatican makes HINDRAF’s reparation claims from the British Government appear much less absurd. In all these ‘musings’, Akhram exposes himself as the bigoted, narrow-minded halfwit that he is. The gesture of the Prime Minister of this country demonstrating leadership and goodwill at a time of uncertainty is lost on him, neither has he learnt from the past two years that from a political perspective, winning the middle ground is not only right, it also pays.

But of course, responsibility and commitment to a new UMNO, nevermind the Malaysian project, is just not Akhram’s game. You see, Akhram belongs to a section within the Malay community, (and yes, within the party I support and serve, UMNO) whose conception of Malaysia is firmly grounded on a distant past and not on the present and immediate future. For them, Malays can do little wrong because we committed the Original Sacrifice at the birth of this nation, which must perennially hold down our entire national narrative until the end of days; by first allowing citizenship to be granted to then (non-Malay) immigrants, then allowing practice of vernacular cultures and allowing multi-racial representation in Government, the non-Malays must be forever grateful to the Malays – any ‘claims’ can justifiably be met with scorn. For them, it is never about the merit of an argument, nor is it the value of having a vibrant multi-cultural society, nor is it the fact that most non-Malay Malaysians only know this to be their country, much less is it about doing “what’s right” – rather, it is about locking our ethnic dialogue into a timeless logic of mutual distrust, contempt and fear.

The trouble and hurt they cause non-Muslims is palpable; but their chief victims are Malays themselves and the very community they claim to represent. Instead of sowing the seeds of confidence and courage, they bring out the worst in our character and intellect when they suggest it is only fair for Malays to be “lobbing Molotov cocktails at churches indiscriminately” or that the allocation of RM500 thousand to be “a load of nonsense” because, as aforementioned, it may lead to “arson for profit”. As a young Malay-Muslim, after numerous false starts, it is most frustrating to see my community being held back time and again – the old doctrine, the old Dilemma, always reappearing at the moment of its apparent political eclipse.

But persist the community must, despite all the negativity and the put-downs, many of which originate from colonial logic only to be reappropriated by post-Merdeka Malays – the Akhramsyahs of the cyberworld. To be sure, there is a wealth of diversity within the Malay experience and perspective; with it come varying strands in Malay political thought; but many of these have been held ransom to the those resistant to change, who slap labels like “liberal”, “pengkhianat”, or “Melayu murtad” to publicly strip any meaningful sense of Malay-ness from these ideas, at once disarming them.

Few dispute the importance Malay political and ideational contestations have upon the larger polity. The story of this generation’s Malays, and UMNO leaders for that matter, is nothing less than a struggle to unchain the contemporary Malay voice – long silenced to the margins of the community’s political identity, at least within this party. Failure would mean UMNO – win or lose – remaining an intellectual black hole (which would ultimately lead to electoral defeat anyhow), Malays busy entertaining misplaced paranoias and a Malaysian State struggling to perfect its sense of Nationhood. Business as usual, eh? Except our kids might not be as lucky…

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