Don’t be apathetic. Don’t be a Do-Nothing. Let’s believe.
I recently read the classic Rules for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky. Alinsky led a fascinating life, and published this book in 1971, a year before his death. The book contains timeless practical guidance for anyone who wants to organize a movement, a group of people. But what struck me was that though the book was written 40 years ago, the description of America – the political landscape and the mindset of her society – as it was then is an almost perfect fit for Malaysia in 2011. Reading it the first time was quite a spooky experience, as Alinsky’s words repeatedly hit home.
I would recommend all of you to go and get the book and read it for yourself, but I know many of you won’t, hence this post. This is not a book review, nor is it a post on its own. I will reproduce portions of the book that are most relevant to Malaysia in 2011. I have intentionally left out what the book is really about – the practical rules and tips for organizing movements. I have attempted to keep my own comments to a minimum, as the post is long enough without them.
The state of Malaysian society
Let’s start off with Alinsky’s description of society, as it was then:
Today’s generation is desperately trying to make some sense out of their lives and out of the world. Most of them are products of the middle class. They have rejected their materialistic backgrounds, the goal of a well-paid job, suburban home, automobile, country club membership, first-class travel, status, security, and everything that meant success to their parents. They have had it.
They have seen the almost unbelievable idiocy of our political leadership – in the past political leaders, ranging from the mayors to governors to the White House, were regarded with respect and almost reverence; today they are viewed with contempt. This negativism now extends to all institutions, from the police and the courts to “the system” itself. We are living in a world of mass media which daily exposes society’s innate hypocrisy, its contradictions and the apparent failure of almost every facet of our social and political life.
The search for freedom does not seem to have any road or destination. The young are inundated with a barrage of information and facts so overwhelming that the world has come to seem an utter bedlam, which has them spinning in a frenzy, looking for what man has always looked for from the beginning of time, a way of life that has some meaning or sense. A way of life means a certain degree of order where things have some relationship and can be pieced together into a system that at least provides some clues to what life is about.”
The middle classes are numb, bewildered, scared into silence. They don’t know what, if anything, they can do. 
Malaysian youth (generally, 18-35 year olds) fit the description of that first paragraph, especially urbanites. The second paragraph applies to almost all Malaysians – what does the average Malaysian think of our politicians? And isn’t it true that our negativism extends to our institutions, including the police and the courts? As I have written, our institutions have repeatedly failed us. And if Alinsky thought that 1970s America was inundated with information, he had no idea what Malaysia in 2011 would be like. We have vastly contradictory sources of information, and are constantly force-fed facts, half-truths, and blatant lies. Cover-ups and distraction tactics are an everyday occurrence, and the next “controversy” is only ever a couple of days away. Our heads spin.
But we should not ignore the system.
There are no rules for revolution any more than there are rules for love or rules for happiness, but there are rules for radicals who want to change their world; there are certain central concepts of action in human politics that operate regardless of the scene or the time. These rules make the difference between being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one.
As an organizer, I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be – it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.
Working in the system. I’ve recently alluded to it. So did Tricia Yeoh.
Let us in the name of radical pragmatism not forget that in our system with all its repressions we can still speak out and denounce the administration, attack its policies, work to build an opposition political base. True, there is government harassment, but there still is that relative freedom to fight. I can attack my government, try to organize to change it. […] Let’s keep some perspective. [xxi]
Sure, our mainstream media is severely controlled and biased on any issue that is remotely important, but we have the internet with its many sources of balanced views, including this most awesome blawg. These views are not censored. The platform is there if you want to make your views heard; the information is available if you want to be informed. Perspective.
The stirrings of a revolution
Many Malaysian “activists” I speak to go through a constant cycle of encouragement and disheartenment. They are encouraged whenever a “big event” takes place successfully, and disheartened when people then seem reluctant to play an active role. “When I speak to my friends, they have a lot of complain about the government, but they don’t want to come for UndiMsia! meetings.” Don’t be disheartened, it doesn’t mean that Malaysians don’t want change. Here’s why.
Dostoevski said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution. [xix]
It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation. [There must be] if not a passion for change, at least a passive, affirmative, non-challenging climate.
A reformation means that masses of our people have reached the point of disillusionment with past ways and values. They don’t know what will work but they do know that the prevailing system is self-defeating, frustrating, and hopeless. They won’t act for change but won’t strongly oppose those who do. The time is then ripe for revolution.
Malaysians are passionate for change. But many more fall into the passive category Alinsky describes. They are disillusioned. They do not know what to do. They don’t want to actively participate in movements for change, but they do not oppose those who do. So those who are actively trying to agitate and organize to bring about change, take heart, Malaysia is ripe for revolution.
Alinsky constantly reminds his readers not to be disheartened, or to lose faith in their core beliefs and goals. The powers-that-be will always try to distract or instill fear to push down dissent; to stifle voices calling out for change.
In the midst of the gassing and violence by the Chicago Police and National Guard during the 1968 Democratic Convention many students asked me, “Do you still believe we should try to work inside our system?” […] Many of the tears that were shed in Chicago were not from gas. “Mr. Alinsky, […] the people voted no on Vietnam. Look at that Convention. They’re not paying any attention to the vote. Look at your police and the army. You still want us to work in the system?”
It hurt me to see the American army with drawn bayonets advancing on American boys and girls. But the answer I gave the young radicals seemed to me the only realistic one: “Do one of three things. One, go find a wailing wall and feel sorry for yourselves. Two, go psycho and stated bombing – but this will only swing people to the right. Three, learn a lesson. Go home, organize, build power and at the next convention, you be the delegates.” […]
It is not enough to just elect your candidates. You must keep the pressure on. […] Action comes from keeping the heat on. No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.
Malaysians at the forefront of agitating for social justice and political reform would not be unfamiliar with that feeling that perhaps working within the system is futile. It is not an alien thought to wonder whether our police are on the side of the rakyat, or on the side of their political masters. On 9 July, Malaysians saw (and not for the first time) how our police force, our Federal Reserve Unit, fired tear gas and chemical water at peaceful Malaysians.
Americans are fortunate to have the concept of an American dream or democratic ideal rooted in their psyche, forming the foundations of their society. Malaysians rarely hear the government or media communicating democratic ideals or ideas of social justice – unless of course it suits whatever issue they are trying to lobby support for. Alinsky’s reflection on the democratic ideal is worth reproducing here.
The democratic ideal springs from the idea of liberty, equality, majority rule through free elections, protection of the rights of the minorities, and freedom to subscribe to multiple loyalties in matters of religion, economics, and politics rather than to a total loyalty to the state. […] From the beginning the weakness as well as the strength of the democratic ideal has been the people. People cannot be free unless they are willing to sacrifice some of their interests to guarantee the freedom of others. […]
135 years ago Tocqueville gravely warned that unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the action of governing themselves, self-government would pass from the scene. Citizen participation is the animating spirit and force in a society predicated on voluntarism.
With this in mind, we must always encourage citizen participation in our government. We must push back against the undeniable wave of despondency and hopelessness that has swept across Malaysia in the past couple of decades. Many are unhappy, or sense that things can be better, but have been bullied into believing that nothing can be done about it, or that it is too difficult to change the way things are. The previous generation may have been handicapped by a lack of access to information – all they had was what the government-controlled mainstream media told them – but we do not have that excuse. If you have the knowledge, or access to that knowledge, but choose not to do anything, then this is what Alinsky describes as losing your “identity” as a citizen of democracy:
We are not here concerned with people who profess the democratic faith but yearn for the dark security of dependency where they can be spared the burden of decisions. Reluctant to grow up, or incapable of doing so, they want to remain children and be cared for by others. Those who can, should be encouraged to grow; for the others, the fault lies not in the system by in themselves.
Here we are desperately concerned with the vast mass of our people who, thwarted through lack of interest or opportunity, or both, do not participate in the endless responsibilities of citizenship and are resigned to lives determined by others.
To lose your “identity” as a citizen of democracy is but a step from losing your identity as a person. People react to this frustration by not acting at all. The separation of the people from the routine daily frustrations of citizenship is heartbreak in a democracy. […]
There can be no darker or more devastating tragedy than the death of a man’s faith in himself and in his power to direct his future.
So do something, and don’t allow yourself to be driven to distraction, and driven to inaction.
These Do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change for ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity, and then abstain from and discourage all effective action for change. They are known by their brand, “I agree with your ends but not your means.” […] These Do-Nothings appear publicly as good men, humanitarian, concerned with justice and dignity. In practice they are invidious. They are the ones Edmund Burke referred to when he said, acidly: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” 
People must be reformed – so they cannot be deformed into dependency and driven through desperation to dictatorship and the death of freedom. [189-190]
This is not a call to overthrow the government. This is not a call to back the opposition. This is not about partisan politics. I don’t believe in pledging absolute loyalty to a particular politician or political party. This is about reforming the system, about changing the way our politicians behave. They are supposed to be accountable to us, the rakyat. It may seem a hopeless battle, it may seem an entrenched condition. It is not.
We have forgotten where we came from, we don’t know where we are, and we fear where we may be going. Afraid, we turn from the glorious adventure to a pursuit of an illusionary security in an ordered, stratified, striped society. […] We must believe that it is the darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see it when we believe it. 
Revolution is not about taking to streets, or staging a coup. If you want change, you must first move away from despondency and apathy. Don’t be tricked into becoming the “Do-Nothing” that Alinsky described.
Let’s believe in a better Malaysia. Let’s do something. Let’s move.
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