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.