In contemplating the meaning of Merdeka, one can determine how ‘Merdeka’ we are in two stages. The first stage is to ask how independent are we from the attitudes and ideas of our Colonial Masters. The second stage is to assess how free we are to enjoy our status as a nation free from external influences. At the end of the day, the concept of independence will be meaningless if our national costumes still feature stylized muzzles and handcuffs. If people are not free to suggest new methods of good governance, or to disagree with popular ideas peacefully, the word Merdeka will be yet another soulless repetitive irritating slogan that will permeate the airwaves annually.
Recent events have made me feel as free as a protagonist in a dystopian Orwell Novel set in the 1980’s. I am going to examine a few similarities of our seemingly ‘Merdeka’ nation with Orwell’s fictitious authoritarian state Oceania. Then, I will try to demonstrate that a lot of our paranoid thoughts are inherited from our colonial masters.
George Orwell’s last novel Nineteen Eighty-Four opens with an oppressive regime already in place, complete with Thought-Police and compulsory workout sessions (the Horror!). Admittedly, like many other mad people, I found this book to be prophetic of the dark days ahead and sometimes an exaggerated depiction of a government gone mental.
An Authoritarian Nation
Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in Oceania with a creepy authoritarian government that is headed by the omnipotent all-knowing Big Brother, who is ‘Watching You’ with voyeuristic fervour. Big Brother’s authority is exercised without question. All dissenting voices are met with an unpleasant visit by the Thought Police and silenced with violence.
It is Orwell’s warning against a system that is powerful and unchecked. The banner that a political party labours under – liberal, conservative or religious – will not matter if their authority goes unchecked because the end product will always be oppressive, paranoid politics. A government becomes authoritarian when it is unchecked, without restraint and a lack of accountability. As a representative democracy we elect our peers to govern our nation, and to have effective governance, there must be some sort of authority.
The authoritarian nature of Malaysia’s governance is most evident in how the organs of state and public institutions conduct themselves without feeling the need to be accountable for their actions. We could fault ourselves in realizing that we have been an apathetic society for a long time and so have failed to put our governors under sufficient scrutiny. It is a natural reaction of those wielding power to recognize that there were no real barriers to seizing more power. Therefore, in order to preserve their stronghold, they would want to ensure that there would be no future need to be accountable for anything they did in the past, present or future.
It is interesting to note that some of the laws that exist to cripple voices of dissent were put in place by the British. Both the Sedition Act and Printing Presses and Publication Act were legislated in 1948 to allegedly combat communist activities. These laws have since taken a domestic life of its own after being amended in the true ‘Malaysian’ fashion. Any attempt by the rakyat, the media or political parties to perform their duties in providing a check and balance on the powers that be must be carefully carried out and the results are not often effective.
At the end of the day, it is the unfortunate copulation between the progressively greedy governors and lazy spoon-fed subjects that gives birth to an authoritarian society.
The Phantom Menace
A good solid authoritarian government always has a terrifying mascot of sheer evil to remind the people of the terror that lies beneath. When politicians inform the citizens of impending doom, their stories will be told through a political filter, fuelled with party ideology and personal perception. It is an inherent handicap of all politicians. Oceania’s mascot of untold evil is Emmanuel Goldstein, a sheep-like face which pops up daily to remind the citizens that he is out there, hatching heinous plans to overthrow their peaceful life. He is the primary focal point of Oceania’s hatred, fear and conspiracy theories.
The strange thing about Goldstein is that no one really remembers when he had made his appearance or what is it he did to warrant two solid minutes of daily hatred. He seemed to be this phantom conjured up by the ruling Party of Oceania to unite everyone’s fear, ignorance and confusion in order to justify the oppressive measures taken by the ruling Party.
Malaysia’s fear of the communists predates our Independence. One can safely say that as a Nation, we are more familiar with being afraid of the communists than building a multi-ethnic nation called Malaysia. It is interesting to note that these were movements that were anti-colonial and quite obviously, the British did not have a soft spot for movements like these because the communists threatened the British stronghold on our land. The media was used to demonize the communists and it apparently worked very well. An example is the anti-communist newspaper called New Path News as shown below.
New Path News from 1955 (Translated copy)
It wasn’t only leaflets that were disseminated amongst the Malayans. The British also published an anti-Communist newspaper called New Path News (Sin Lu Pao). The newspaper was first distributed in September 1948. The translated copy of the newspaper depicted above first appeared in Derry’s book … Some of the featured articles are; “Another Communist leader killed,” “Female terrorist killed,” “Anti-bandit statistics for March” and “Shameful affairs in the jungle.”
It seemed to have worked very well on us.
Malaysia’s Red Scare
When the newspapers announced that Bersih T-shirts were found fraternizing with Rashid Mydin T-shirts, the old spectre of 1960’s communism was called out of its retirement to haunt Malaysia in an old Che Guevara shirt. It was madness when the papers were ablaze with the sudden return of ‘The Evil Communist’ despite the Berlin Wall falling in 1989. The 21st Century Communists are very different from those than ran through the jungles, causing tension amongst Malaysians (according to our secondary school textbooks).
Politicized truths have been taught at schools and it gives students a biased opinion without room for thought. A Form 3 Government School Textbook defines Communism as using ‘Kekerasan‘ (brute force) and ‘Kezaliman‘ (cruelty) as a means to achieve their goals. Be it true or untrue, it is an ill-explained manner of Marx’’s brand of Communism and by not specifically pointing out the elements which makes it anti-Islamic or violent, it would lead the reader to ignorantly believe that it is an ideology which is inherently wrong. It did not mention the basic tenets of communism, which was eloquently explained by Friedrich Engels in his tract ‘Principles of Communism’ as ‘Communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.’
A Fascist Government Cherishes the Ignorant, the Suspicious and the Meek
Keeping tight reins on communism and not bothering to demystify the patina of ‘evil’ or ‘ungodliness’ that surround it is a good way of ensuring that the communists and socialists remain a minority in Malaysia. Keeping a group of people under the category of ‘Others’ and then infecting this label with allegations of violence and conspiracy is a most frightening thing to do within a Nation because it would bestow the role of the ‘scapegoat’ on this class of people.
Throwing socialists into detention required a great stretch of common sense, because communists and socialists are not the same thing. However, an authoritative government is very much like a ‘happening’ celebrity where its supporters will always be willing to trust and obey, regardless of how ridiculous the situation is. It is also ironic that whilst the ruling party demonized the Socialists/Communists by pinning allegations of molotovs, subversive teachings and buried parangs, they called to mind Stalin’s paranoid obsessive politics, the period where the Gulags were occupied with a large number of political prisoners.
This red tinted witch-hunt is reminiscent of Senator McCarthy’s nonsensical Red Scare. At the time, being called a communist carried the connotations of a ‘traitor’ or a ‘murderer’. These allegations surfed on a wave of paranoia, fueled by rumours of atomic bombs, nuclear holocausts and the growing notoriety of the Communist leaders.
It is incredibly fortunate that Malaysians do not share the paranoia that plagued the executive throughout the month of July and they stood by the socialists, vigil after vigil, regardless of ideologies. At the end of the day, these ideals do not stand in the way of solidarity amongst Malaysians.
The Great Facade
Although we pride ourselves in being religiously tolerant and our school system has taken great pains in drumming the importance of being ‘ethnically integrated’, our nation still must be on constant guard against Christian proselytizing, sinister Jewish plots, Chinese ‘pendatangs’ and Bibles falling into non-Christian hands. Unfortunately, I have to struggle on a day-to-day basis to grasp the inconsistencies between slogans of unity and harmony, but divisional racist/radical faith-based politics.
To be fair, race and faith-based politics are products of our modern representative democracy which is premised on the idea that in order for the ‘Demos‘ to have any sort of ‘Kratos‘, elected individuals are to represent communities in the governing process. Instead of having elected individuals coming to the table and standing for particular ideals or communities, representative politics have evolved (or devolved) into a bunch of politically motivated adults squabbling for authority under the guise of championing their ‘noble’ cause.
Lip Service in 1984
In the fictitious Orwellian world, there were movements that cropped up all over the world in the 1900’s, all premised on liberating the labourer and to promote social justice.
“The new movements which appeared in the middle years of the century, Ingsoc in Oceania, Neo-Bolshevism in Eurasia, Death-Worship, as it is commonly called, in Eastasia, had the conscious aim of perpetuating unfreedom and inequality. These new movements, of course, grew out of the old ones and tended to keep their names and pay lip-service to their ideology.”
It is quite apparent that these ideals were no longer practiced to achieve freedom or equality, but rather, to reinforce their political stronghold on a nation in the novel.
Paying lip-service to an idea is very much like a little child attempting to dress up as an adult. It is a most superficial exercise by taking the most obvious traits without understanding the meaning behind it and constantly parroting slogans without internalizing the true meaning of the words, such as the word ‘Comrade’ in Orwell’s English Socialist Party. The words were utilized so often without the speaker understanding the true meaning of what it is to be another person’s ‘Comrade’. After all, would you truly rat your ‘Comrade’ out to Big Brother?
Malaysia: The Nation of Soulless Slogans and Ridiculous Repetition
The mindless repetitive slogans of ‘1Malaysia’, ‘Muhibah’, ‘Bertolak-ansur di antara kaum’ have had their meanings beaten out of them by soulless repetition till the words themselves have become hollow. How is it even imaginably possible for us to foster any sort of religious tolerance or understanding if Muslim children are the only ones who must learn their religion at school and they do so away from prying eyes? It is also frightening that it is almost impossible for a subject to be premised on Comparative Religion in this country because the authorities have demonstrated time and time again that they are unable to draw the line between academic thought and proselytizing.
It would be quite difficult to respect and to acknowledge the existence of a different faith if there is no room for discourse within public institutions (particularly Primary and Secondary Schools). The frightening ignorance of other faiths is the root of religious spats, slurs and ridiculous name-calling.
It is also remarkably strange that in a purportedly multi-ethnic society, we have yet to implement an actual blueprint for anthropological studies at a school level; or at least, some method where all cultures can be approached on an academic platform and all people are free to express cultural appreciation in that space. It is insulting that my official documents always contain my ethnicity and it would seem that our documentation is the nation’s last attempt in preserving whatever is left of my culture, since religion and ethnicity has been assimilated into one large monstrous misunderstanding.
Lip service is a tiresome unnecessary insincere method of driving ideas into a citizen and I do hope that actual practical measures will be taken instead of making schoolchildren rattle off things without any meaning to them.
The Future of Big Brother’s Appearance in Malaysia?
At this point in time, I’d like to be optimistic and say that what makes us different from Oceania’s bleak dystopian society is the fact that the people have seen through political smokescreens and misinformation. In the 21st Century, our intimidatingly advanced capitalist market and feudal politics has had a hand at perpetuating disharmony and inequality. There is much talk of keeping eastern ‘values’ and eastern ‘identities’, however it has been stamped out in emulating western sky-scraper projects and Islamization (which is as western as Christianity). This does not leave room for a people of South East Asian descent to grow and to explore un-colonized avenues of identity.
The importance of our Independence lies within our abilities to have autonomy over our own homeland and to carve out an identity as a ‘People’ of Malaysia. Politics that perpetuate disunity are remnants of old British-style attempts to ‘divide and conquer’. Malaysians are beginning to realize that mindsets like these show that we are still not liberated from our old colonial masters. We must realize that we ought to love our neighbours the way we love ourselves. This very same love must be given to those who govern us. We must not despise or revere them because at the end of the day, they are merely mouthpieces of the people in an infant democracy.
Note the sheer irony that I have used a British Imperialist who represented the British Commonwealth in Burma (he was apparently sorry about it later on) to explain to everyone what amounts to an authoritarian oppressive government. I wonder if that is enough evidence to display my mind has been utterly colonized by the British and quite possibly not ‘Merdeka’ just yet.
That being said, Malaysia will not go down the road of Oceania because we have only just begun to embrace our independence of thought and to carve out our own identity as a People. We still cannot feel as disenchanted as the protagonists of Orwell’s novels felt because the future does not lie with another group of people who have not been born.
The future lies with us.