Aerie Rahman maps the moral tragedy of political compromise.
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily reflection is occupied with them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.” – Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason
When Najib Razak did an Obama and offered an unclenched fist to Paul Low and P. Waythamoorthy, I suspected that it was the beginning of a tragedy. Of course, I have no idea what the unclenched fist contained, but it was sufficient to induce both individuals who have struggled for a better Malaysia as Transparency International Malaysia and Hindraf leaders to join the BN power structure. One can only guess what Najib Razak offered them.
I decried the appointments. It poured acid to the heartbreak when Malaysia for the 13th time voted for BN to steward this nation. But at that time, it was too early to judge and like most things, I suspended judgment. A little voice in my head tried to assure me that their appointments were a consolation; probably they would be able to “work within the system.”
But einmal ist keinmal. Once is never. People like Saifuddin Abdullah and Khairy Jamaluddin have been appearing as if they were trying to “reform from within” for years but to no avail. The UMNO hardliners seem to have the most clout within the system since they hold the Royal Flush in the game. Paul Low and Waythamoorthy are mere pawns, puppets ventriloquised by UMNO hardliners in a game of perception management.
Saifuddin and Khairy are originally UMNO members to begin with. They believe in whatever UMNO believes in, be it Ketuanan Melayu or parties premised on racial exclusivity. For people like Paul Low and Waythamoorthy, to collude with a coalition that has for years been the antithesis of their ideals – more transparent governance and the upholding of Indian rights – appears unthinkable.
The problem with ‘internal reformation’ goes down to the type of structure that a person will be operating in. People like Marx, Durkheim, and Bourdieu have long argued that structure conditions behaviour and agency. Low and Waythamoorthy in isolation might be fine fellows. But place them in a structure that is known for being apathetic to cruel police abuses and tacitly tolerates corruption and they will turn out no better than any BN member.
The structure established has its own procedures and tricks to inundate the idealistic efforts of Low and Waythamoorthy to reform from within – from voluminous amounts of red tape obfuscating any efforts to downright orders from above to declare to the public that the IPCMC is not needed since the toothless EAIC already exists.
It’s frustrating since Malaysia has voted in the same old structure to be in place, individuals who seemed to try to change the structure from the outside instead joined that decrepit structure, where the architects and engineers is none other than BN. Does the logic go that since BN has been unbeatable, it’s better to join them than try beating them again? Are our principles so malleable that a victory by BN cannot be brushed aside by a steely resolve to continue the struggle for a better Malaysia in our terms, not theirs?
The case of these two individuals jumping into the BN bandwagon by joining the PM’s Department is an important one which is equipped with a moral tale that I shall be sure to tell my kids. You can’t eat principles, most people will say. Better to salvage the twilight of your career in the PM’s Department with a steady income and a fat pension. Can use that to send your kids to university in the UK, right?
But the moral law within me is unable to accept the outright or even tacit collusion with a power structure that has been known to mismanage the affairs of my beloved country. Postmodernist theory might be pervasive in this unforgiving age that we are living in, but I do believe that my moral standards have yet to be blurred. I still feel that I am able to carry on calling what is wrong ‘wrong’ and what is right ‘right’ without any fear or favour. It is then sad that these two fellows have succumbed to the poisonous fruit of power.
Looking at these two appointments, it serves only to demoralise me. At a time when Malaysia needs as many people as possible to help raise consciousness on the wrongs of BN, these leaders made the fatal decision to join Mephistopheles’ cause.
In David Dyzenhaus’s Hard Cases in Wicked Legal Systems, a few judges in Apartheid South Africa maintained their position in the structure, reasoning that they were able to mitigate the harsh effects of Apartheid by resisting wherever they can. But even so, they had to support Apartheid where it matters most and not overhaul the structure so as to avoid removal. This moral compromise is what makes me unable to respect those who, despite having noble intentions, oiled the wheels of Apartheid to prolong the effects of this degenerate structure.
What I see is that a Faustian Bargain has been made. Paul Low and Waythamoorthy lost the values that they once stood for, which is a loss that no amount of power can restore.