3 surprising things about Good Friday

1 – Today is Good Friday. To Christians, it’s the most holy day of the religious calendar. But ‘holy’ not in the Golden Lounge sense where there are first-class dudes and everyone else sits in crammed seats. ‘Holy’ not in the Spock sense where only ‘we’ are super-smart and know all the answers. Neither is it the Parliamentary Speaker sense in which ‘we’ have the right to tell everyone how wrong they are and the world has the right to shut up, obey or remain sinful – now wouldn’t that be convenient?

Instead, to be holy means to be set apart to serve; it’s about being called to be a blessing to others as a vocation. Christians are meant to major in compassion and minor in condemnation. Good Friday is about enduring agonising pain for crazy people who will never be good enough.

Give RM50 for orphans? Sure. Give the flesh off my back so the most corrupted UMNO crony can experience a new kind of life? Insane. But that’s what Good Friday is, well, ‘about’. One perfect person suffering out of love for other highly imperfect persons who couldn’t give a damn. One loving person giving himself up so there can be a surprising outcome for a world which has given up on surprises.

2 – Today is Good Friday. It’s the reason why no parent names their son ‘Judas’. But it wasn’t simply a matter of betrayal, no matter what Lady Gaga says. Judas’ problem, much like ours, was about being obsessed with an idea.

Judas was crazy about the kind of victory he believed the Messiah was supposed to bring; he fully believed that God would ‘rescue His people’ but he refused to accept that the divine plan involved humiliatation, suffering and death. No, Judas believed that only a VIOLENT overthrow of the Roman and the ‘false’ Jewish leaders would restore the Jews to their rightful place assigned by God.

And how best to incite such violence, if not by ‘provoking’ an arrest of someone so loved by the rakyat? What better way to spur the trigger-happy revolutionaries to action than by getting the people’s Messiah – welcomed with waving palm branches and cries of joy – handcuffed and roughed up by guards from a despised establishment?

The sad surprise is that Judas, our famous ‘traitor’, never intended to betray anybody. In fact, his agenda was to rejoin the ‘good guys’ once the revolution was won. This is why he kissed the one he betrayed – wouldn’t it have been easier to simply point? This is also why, after Judas realised his plan has gone terribly wrong (and that the Messiah had a VERY different understanding of how God saves the world), he threw away his blood-money in disgust and sorrow.

3 – Today is Good Friday. If you ask me what’s so ‘good’ about it, I’ll say it’s the day that this Jewish guy threw himself on the primed grenades that threatened to blow up the world. It was the day that someone who said (and acted like) he was God in some strange but exact sense, walked onto the Omaha Beach of life, letting himelf be gunned down (again and again and again) so we wouldn’t have to.

You know the funny thing? It was actually the religious and political leaders who took this person down. Not sure why they hated him so much. Maybe it was jealousy, fear or just because they didn’t like his face. Or maybe those in power go berserk when another kind of power emerges in the lives of the people they wish to control? Which is why they must disparage and destroy it.

I’ll repeat it: Good Friday is the day a very good and godly man was tortured and killed by selfish political bullies who, by doing so, played perfectly into the hands of a Higher Loving Power. As Narnia author, C.S. Lewis, said: There is a ‘deeper magic’ at work which the most evil forces in existence cannot deal with if they even knew about it.

I don’t know where MH370 is, but I do know that a deeper magic is available to help the families of the passengers heal and move on with life. I don’t know why Karpal Singh’s car crashed, but I suspect that the author of this deeper magic grieves with his family. I also think that those who would carry on the former DAP Chairman’s vision for justice in the country will do so and, if they search their hearts, find that deeper magic somehow ‘holding’ them closely.

Thank God it’s Good Friday. God loves us more than we know – surprise?

“If God was good and all-powerful, why did He cause/allow the MH370 tragedy”

Got a question recently from one of my good pals the other day. He’s an atheist. He asked me what kind of God would allow a Boeing full of people to disappear, creating pain and heartache for the families. Needless to say, this is a popular question and one of the reasons why many ‘free-thinkers’ view religious faith to be as valid as believing in unicorns.

Many assume that if God cares about us, He wouldn’t let bad things happen to us. The fact that incidents like MH370 occur means either that God doesn’t care or He’s powerless to do anything or, better yet (and how convenient), He doesn’t exist.

I’ll skip to the chase: I don’t believe God caused or willed the MH370 tragedy. I don’t even think He allowed it to happen “for reasons of His own”. This is to take a low view of His kindness and love. God has obviously planned many things but we have no warrant to conclude that everything is divinely pre-set.

God is good and has He’s made some A+ stuff, e.g. the Malaysian Peninsular, Klang river in its original state, metal for our iPhones, and the human freedom to do whatever the hell we want.

God decided that the sun would rise east and set west. He’s also put a moon up there so we save on bulbs. But if Donald Rumsfeld and his golf buddies enjoy lighting up the Iraqi night sky with missiles and bombs, that’s hardly God’s doing.

God loves us. God decided that men and women would have hands that can operate on chicken chops, and legs that work when the lifts don’t. God has even opted that whenever we answer nature’s call, it’s usually pleasurable (instead of the opposite). He also insists that we think before we speak. But if people like the Perkasa leaders and its patrons regularly talk like they arrived in Malaysia before the first bacteria, this is surely not within God’s design.

God is very serious about people forgiving one another, especially those they would never befriend on Facebook. That our species in general has thrashed this mandate is a statement about human nature and the kind of freedom God has granted us to exercise in a manner He hopes we will.

What’s the relevance of all this to MH370? Clearly, the nature of the question – “Why does God let/cause bad things happen?” – is flawed. Bad things, from the lack of parking at 1 Utama to world hunger to MH370, point more to human failure and frailty and less to divine enterprise.

Human freedom is real so there is totally no need to attribute a tragedy like MH370 to the ‘will of God’. To be sure, God has willed MANY things but to say that He wills ALL things (including the exact RM1 chicken that Najib held up during his campaign) is not only weird theology, it’s bad anthropology.

“Okay. Maybe God did not ‘choose’ this tragedy, but He surely could have stopped it, right? Why didn’t He? What specific reasons were on His mind?”

Again, I wonder if that’s even a right question.

Billions of people perform trillions of mistakes or crimes everyday. For some reason, God almost never ‘deletes’ these acts by fiat. And what kind of world would it be if God did that? What kind of world would we have if each time a rude email was to be sent, the ‘Send’ button disappears? Would we really want mosquitoes with insights into the ethical background of their would-be victims prior to biting them? Should all cigarettes and alcohol be enchantingly sucked down to hell next week, since it will clearly prevent so many lung problems and car crashes? In this kind of world, even office meetings could become non-stop fun?

I say and do stupid hurtful things regularly. But instead of frying my brain cells the two micro-moments before I act like an idiot, God usually lets me misbehave, hoping that the repercussions will teach me to act more maturedly. There is no ‘specific reason’ why I am allowed to be rude to those who love me – I am just irresponsibly exercising my freedom.

Human freedom is real and, from the looks of it? It’s irrevocable, too.

Every Chinese New Year hundreds of people die in highway accidents. But instead of cosmically terminating Gong Xi Fa Cai from the world’s collective memory or magically making every Malaysian motorist drive at 10KM per hour, God decides to work through people’s sense of safety, traffic police, warning signs and so on. There is no ‘specific reason’ why a Toyota and a lorry may collide – badly driven vehicles, the laws of physics and poor roads are reasons enough.

Again, there are no ‘specific reasons’ why bad things happen. As if God is the kind of Being who MUST plan out every tragedy for reasons only He can know.

So what happened to MH370? I think the media has given us a HDD load of speculations: cockpit fire, decompression, terrorist, co-pilot scandal, pilot schemes, Asian Bermuda triangle, aliens, government conspiracy, etc. We don’t have to add “God’s mysterious reason” to this list.

Because God’s power, in addition to what He can do, is also witnessed in what He does not do.

If God were to intervene in all risky/dangerous/evil cases, our world may be less painful and vulnerable than it actually is, but it would also be far less beautiful and orderly. It would not be a world worth defending as there really wouldn’t be anything to defend against. It would be a world devoid of that crazy little thing called love, which we only recognise as part and parcel of the ability to choose not to love.

God is love. To love is to make a decision to be exposed to the kind of world we have. To expect miraculous interventions on-demand is another way of asking for a different world, a world without risk, with no freedom; a world without world.

God is love. He’s created people who care for strangers. There is surely something quietly and humbly powerful about a whole nation united in prayer for missing passengers. Doesn’t this give fresh meaning to the phrase ‘God is power’?

Whatever happened or happens to MH370, Malaysians will always need more of a God of strange power and wonderous love. Amin.

Chinese New Year and worlds of pretend

This Friday the Year of the Horse begins and getting an ang pow is the only time people love to see red. These flaming packets, though, come with rules. For example, you never give an ang pow if you’re not married and for those who tied the knot less than a year ago, it’s two packs per pax. It totally isn’t cool to give cheques or coins. Don’t ever give an empty packet; like most symbolic gestures, the thought isn’t the only thing that counts. Don’t ever commit the Ibrahim Ali boo-boo of giving a white packet thus turning a family celebration into a death in the family. Never give ang-pows before the first day of CNY or after the fifteenth day; kick-off begins on the dot and there is no extra time.

Also, always accept the ang pow with two hands; the giver isn’t a TESCO cashier handing you change. Never send or receive electronic ang pows; ‘virtual’ ang pows makes as much sense as virtual air. Finally, no matter how much the Chinese talk about wealth and prosperity, one does not simply give CNY cash to people without the red packet (it’s safer to walk into Mordor naked).

Ang pows, like everything about Chinese New Year, remind us that forms, symbols and rules cannot be ignored. Just because those dancing lions aren’t real, it doesn’t mean they don’t matter for what’s real. Firecrackers, the Mandarin oranges, not sweeping the floor for fifteen days, winning at Black Jack – and even the colour red – they mirror a world (of spirits, of convention, of the virtual) co-existing with our ‘everyday’ world (of cheese-burgers, traffic jams and Windows crashes).

The ‘fiction’ of giving money in a shiny crimson paper envelope upholds our being ‘wrapped up’ in roles and identities not quite our own. This is a game of Pretend at its communal best – it may be ‘fake’ (or so we think), but it still ‘works’.

For isn’t it true that every day we play pretend and it’s not all fun? We pretend to care, to bother, to know, to be thinking. We pretend to be more than we know we’re not. Every hour we struggle with roles like ‘parent’, ‘spouse’, ‘leader’, ‘activist’ – even ‘human’.

What’s more, we also need to be pretended to – life would be unbearable if everyone was completely honest with us. Our world would shatter if people smiled at or greeted us only ‘if they felt like it’. The financial world would collapse if bank brochures told the truth that everybody pretends they don’t already know: that the only thing worse than robbing a bank is starting one (i.e. one makes thievery an anti-social felony, the other makes it a politically protected privilege). The social world would be in disarray if ‘pointless’ statements like “How are you?”, “What’s up?”, “Hi/Bye” (or our all time favourite, “I love you”) were probed too deeply for their essences and sincerity.

We’re all in this together. Yet by feigning, we commit ourselves to each other even if we ‘really’ don’t want to. We tell friendly lies, we deceive socially, but in this game of pretend is real solidarity. We help others create fantasies for their world even as we rely on everybody else acting as if they believe what we do. These are the worlds ‘in between’ this one: The mutually constructed yet non-negotiable holograms we need in order to exist socially.

They are pseudo-realities everyone makes and half-breaks every day and moment. They appear through our words, his façades, her cries, their hand-shakes, those emails and everybody’s silences. We survive by pretending and we cannot live if others don’t. Occasionally, our fragile veils are taken off and we detect strange things in others but also – thankfully – the desire to be loved and to contribute despite having had their innermost lives exposed (or status-updated).

Of course the worst kind of feigning – and thus the blackest of realities produced – is by leaders who make it a point to deceive or incite all in order to strip society of its resources and values. This is the most insidious sort of masquerade because it hides the wilful exclusion of others, especially the least of the least. So our dear PM can pretend to care about Chinese and Christians whilst he allows folks like Ibrahim Ali and JAIS to continue being entirely honest about how much they despise the rights of non-Muslims.

Chinese New Year is not only a celebration of a new twelve months under the Lunar calendar, but it can also be a declaration that enjoyable fiction begets new realities. The noise, the food, the colours – they all point to the casting out of evil and the inviting in of the good. It’s a 15-day nation-wide concert to ask the universe to do it again – better this time. Red storm rising, new worlds coming.

Happy Chinese New Year, negara ku.

Yes to Jesus but never no to Najib?

It’s hard to find a Christian in Malaysia nowadays who dares to say (out loud) that the church should have nothing to do with politics. The tide has shifted way too much for that. Still, a nagging problem remains: It’s the almost universally held idea that the church cannot be apolitical yet it must remain non-partisan.

Sure, we can preach and speak up against oppression, non-democracy, injustice, etc. but churches should remain outwardly neutral when it comes to election time. The pulpit is a space to say Yes to Jesus, Paul and Peter but never to say No to Najib, Muhyiddin or Hishamuddin. Church leaders can privately denounce Barisan but can only publicly denounce Bible-burning i.e. they can condemn evil acts but not the specific party which has rendered it fine for certain individuals to commit such evil. Christian NGOs’ do not hesitate to produce petitions about visible acts of injustice but must think thrice about publicly declaring Barisan Nasional itself a corrupt regime.

But isn’t something amiss with all this? Do they not represent a respectable way to say nothing by saying something? Does it not appear as if we’re so issue-focused we’ve become shy to mention the persons ultimately responsible?

To express outrage at corruption, to demand social change and yet to insist that voting for a particular party should be an entirely neutral thing is like a football fan without a favorite team or a marriage where the couple refuses sex. Might as well try to enjoy the Judge Dredd or Die Hard movies sans the ‘oh-so-violent’ parts. Even the stones will cry Get A Life.

Most Christians would probably be more suspicious of this perspective if somehow it wasn’t overtly held by popular Christian leaders like Ng Kam Weng and Bishop Hwa Yung, not to mention the Christan Federation of Malaysia (CFM). Don’t they, in fact, sometimes remind you of parents who condemn smoking but refuse to chuck out the packet of Dunhill’s hidden in their son’s room because they don’t wish to appear anti-commercial?

On the other hand, Goh Keat Peng, Bishop Paul Tan (and, to some extent, DUMC), have more or less cut to the chase and voiced support for Pakatan Rakyat specifically – which leads us to another perspective, suggested by the motto: “To be political is the church’s eternal role, to be partisan is the contingent necessity.”

This alternative view sees partisanship as a necessary add-on role the church has to play as part of and subordinated to its function as ambassadors for Christ. In this sense, the church would never claim that its rules and manifesto are those of a political party but given the urgency of socio-political justice, it has to “throw its lot in” with appropriate parties.

A close analogy would be like being ‘Christian’ yet also ‘Malaysian’ – a Christian in Malaysia simply cannot ‘take off’ her Malaysian-ness and it likely wouldn’t help anyone if she did. Then again, she can combine her Malaysian qualities with the kingdom of God without equating the two OR without entirely approving everything that Malaysia stands for.

Likewise, to put a further theological spin on this, it could be like how Jesus Christ is both the universal representative for humanity (Romans 5:15-19) yet specifically a human male. The fact that Jesus is a man (and not a woman) doesn’t abrogate his Universal New Human status. Similarly, the church taking sides with DAP or PKR (or even PAS) shouldn’t have any bearing on her (ultimate, original) role as God’s critical rep for all forms of human government.

One could argue that, in such dire political times, this view requires further exploration if only to push the church to greater political engagement. Presumably in certain contexts the entire ‘partisan’ debate becomes moot and it really narrows down to whether the church will take radical steps to remove evil or continue hiding beneath a veil of (so-called) neutrality.

Which brings us to our final view, in which one could say that the church is ‘ex-timate’ to political parties.

A quick recap: The familiar option (of being political without being partisan) seeks to maintain the form of the gap between church and politics whilst retaining the practice of active politics. A bolder view redefines the form, bi-furcating the gap into two dimensions and insisting that the church lives in between the tension of the eternal and the temporal.

This last perspective, however, inscribes the church into and as the tension of politics itself. This is to say that the church remains the external ‘alien’ for all political parties yet also a deep(est) part of them, both supporting and also questioning them, sticking in them from within. Like a bone in the throat, this view seeks to install the people of God right at the heart of the world’s political systems in order to transform them from the inside, absorbing and deflecting the wickedness and selfishness characteristic of worldly governance whilst seeking to ensure that these parties and states continue exemplify Romans 13:1-4 somehow (i.e. this view embodies the paradox of how the authorities both defy, yet are established by, God).

Yet, given the ex-timacy (”external” + “intimacy”) of the church’s position in politics, it then becomes the prerogative of the church to facilitate the downfall of governments which have lost their legitimacy, both in the eyes of God and the people. Exemplary here would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s bold decision to make an attempt on Hitler’s life. Without implying that partaking in an assassination has anything to do with the kingdom of God, Bonhoeffer’s actions demonstrate what it means to think in a multi-dimensional yet not ‘compartmentalised’ manner.

Sometimes divine ‘works of love’ look anything but lovely, especially if real change is aimed at.

To reiterate, under this third perspective, the church is no longer simply a ‘separate’ domain from the world and/or government but is instead its very alien(ated) center. Because the church is God’s community of righteous leadership and true (albeit imperfect) justice and virtue, her embedded-ness within society also underscores her responsibility to aggressively transform the world from within especially when the authorities no longer live up to their calling. We’re the hot seat of the world’s soul.

To be in yet not of the world (John 17:14-16) could signal not simply the straddling of two dimensions (even less should it denote the merely ‘private’ application of Christian discipleship in society, a view usually ignorant of political contexts) but the traumatic effects of one dimension (the kingdom) over the other (the world).

The church, precisely, can be and perform this ordeal and invasion-from-within. Does Malaysia, does Barisan Nasional, need this trauma of, and from, the people of God? Or shall we just watch some football and cheer for no team in particular?

Chinese New Year and the worlds between this one

Getting an ang pow is the only time people love to see red. These flaming packets, though, come with rules that some non-Chinese may not be aware of.

First, some basics:

  • You never give an ang pow if you’re not married and for those who tied the knot less than a year ago, it’s two packs per pax (tough luck, but it’s for the greater good)
  • It totally isn’t cool to give cheques or coins – having to cash the thing really takes the fun out of it and c’mon it’s an envelope, not a purse.
  • Don’t ever give an empty packet; like most symbolic gestures, the thought isn’t the only thing that counts.
  • For the love of snake rice, don’t ever commit the Ibrahim Ali boo-boo of giving a white packet unless you think it’s awesome to tell people “Gong Xi Fa Cai! May your parents die well!”
  • Never give ang-pows before the first day of CNY or after the fifteenth day; kick-off begins on the dot and there is no extra time. Even if you get an ang pow way after the Chap Goh Mei deadline, be smart enough not to brag about it on Facebook.

Then, there is the subtle stuff:

  • Always accept the ang pow with two hands; the giver isn’t some TESCO dude handing you change.
  • Never send or receive electronic ang pows; ‘virtual’ ang pows makes as much sense as virtual air.
  • Finally, no matter how much the Chinese talk about wealth and prosperity, one does not simply give CNY cash to people without the red packet (it’s safer to walk into Mordor naked). “Oh, sorry I don’t have a red packet but, look, here’s RM20, why don’t you take the cash and pass me those pineapple tarts?” – that’s messed up

‘Pointless’ Yet Productive

Ang pows, like everything about Chinese New Year, remind us that forms and rules cannot be ignored. Just because those dancing lions aren’t real, it doesn’t mean they don’t matter for what’s real. Firecrackers, the Mandarin oranges, not sweeping the floor for fifteen days, winning at Black Jack – and even the colour red – they mirror a world (of spirits, of convention, of the virtual) co-existing with our ‘everyday’ world (of cheese-burgers, traffic jams and Windows crashes).

The ‘fiction’ of giving money in a shiny crimson paper envelope upholds our being ‘wrapped up’ in roles and identities not quite our own. This is a game of Pretend at its communal best – it may be ‘fake’ (or so we think), but it still ‘works’.

For isn’t it true that every day we play pretend and it’s not all fun? We pretend to care, to bother, to know, to be thinking. We pretend to be more than we know we’re not. Every hour we struggle with roles like ‘parent’, ‘spouse’, ‘leader’, ‘activist’ – even ‘human’. We’re wearing so many hats we sometimes wear another hat simply to minimize the trauma of hat-wearing.

What’s more, we also need to be pretended to – life would be unbearable if everyone was completely honest with us. Our world would shatter if people smiled at or greeted us only ‘if they felt like it’. The financial world would collapse if bank brochures told the truth that everybody pretends they don’t already know: that the only thing worse than robbing a bank is starting one (i.e. one makes thievery an anti-social felony, the other makes it a politically protected privilege). The social world would be in disarray if ‘pointless’ statements like “How are you?”, “What’s up?”, “Hi/Bye” (or our all time favourite, “I love you”) were probed too deeply for their essences and sincerity.

We’re all in this together. Yet by feigning, we commit ourselves to each other even if we ‘really’ don’t want to. We help others create fantasies for their world even as we rely on everybody else acting as if they believe what we do. These are the worlds ‘in between’ this one: The mutually constructed yet non-negotiable holograms we need in order to exist socially.

They are pseudo-realities everyone makes and half-breaks every day and moment. They appear through our words, his façades, her cries, their hand-shakes, those emails and everybody’s silences. We survive by pretending and we cannot live if others don’t. Occasionally, our fragile veils are taken off and we detect strange things in others but also – thankfully – the desire to be loved and to contribute despite having had their innermost lives exposed (or status-updated).

Worlds Dark and Divine

Of course the worst kind of feigning – and thus the blackest of realities produced – is by leaders who make it a point to deceive or incite all in order to strip society of its resources and values. This is the most insidious sort of masquerade because it hides the wilful exclusion of others, especially the least of the least.

Thus, Tun Dr Mahathir can pretend to care about the citizenship status of immigrants to Sabah whilst hardly pretending to care about the living conditions of the orang asli and the poorest in that very same state. Our dear PM himself can pretend to care about Chinese and Christians whilst he allows folks like Ibrahim Ali to continue being entirely honest about how much he hates them. The only good news from all this is that the veils can’t hide the darkness anymore. In such a rot, the people are forced to throw off all pretenses, not to mention the gloves (think HINDRAF, BERSIH).

And then there is a more sublime kind of unveiling showing off a better kind of world. It’s the kind that Michelle Ng alluded to in her Feb 5th essay, written in the context of the on-going ‘Allah’ controversy. She, a Christian, declared to her Muslim friends that:

“(Even if) the day comes when Christianity is prohibited in Malaysia, when our churches and bibles are forced to cease to exist, I can assure you that we will still welcome you into our homes with open arms; we will feed you when you’re hungry and we will care for you if need be; and we will pray for you every day.”

That’s our new world right there. An in-breaking imaginary which not only brings hope to the country’s politics but also redefines the political. Ng’s promise to forgive and pray for those who persecute her is undoubtedly too Christian for many Christians; we should only hope it’s not too un-Malaysian for Malaysia. Her remarks proclaim another world so blindingly beautiful that most folks can’t deal with the shock of taking Ng seriously. Maybe this proves that the best kind of world is that which has to remain obscure for now, and presented to us in drama, sign, gesture and spectacle – like a wooden lion turned on by cymbals and drums, suddenly needing to gyrate and eat oranges and lettuce.

Chinese New Year is not only a celebration of a new twelve months under the Lunar calendar, but it can also be a declaration that enjoyable fiction begets new realities. The noise, the food, the colours – they all point to the casting out of evil and the inviting in of the good. It’s a 15-day nation-wide concert to ask the universe to do it again – better this time. Red storm rising, new worlds coming.

Happy Chinese New Year, Malaysia.

Post-Materiality: The antidote for Barisan Nasional’s developmentalism

This sounds a bit corny, but the struggle for the soul of Malaysian political governance may turn on the battle between two notions, one well-known and another increasingly familiar: developmentalism and post-materiality.

Developmentalism is about my ability to earn and thus appeals to my greed and pride. Post-materiality is about my capacity to yearn for more justice in the country, spurring me to make appeals on behalf of those for who may have too much poverty thus not much time for greed and pride. Developmentalism is about encouraging economic development so everyone can augment their material status and in return ‘forget’ about political injustice – a form of pleasurable distraction. Post-materiality is about looking beyond the material in order not to treat injustice as immaterial.

Developmentalism represents the trade-off the Barisan Nasional government made with the Malaysian middle-class in the late 20th century (”We make you rich; you leave the politics to us”). Post-materiality is the early 21st century awakening of all classes to the inhumanity and even illegality of an arrangement whereby a few cronies become super-rich, many folks make enough money to waste too much, most folks go into debt and some folks remain impoverished and others thrown into Kamunting for asking too many questions. Developmentalism represents Barisan ‘protection’ against 5/13/69-like events; post-materiality reflects the civic-minded attack against Barisan’s extortion.

Barisan Nasional won the 2004 elections with a 9-goal margin on the basis of developmentalism (among other things, like leashing key opposition leaders, dubious constitutional landscaping, etc.). In 2008, due to increasing post-materiality (and Facebook), the match went to Barisan 5-4 but their players (and the management) suffered blooded noses, broken legs, a host of red and yellow cards, and they even lost their favourites status in the Parliamentary Tournament.

Developmentalism is about the rights of the rich to erect barricades around their housing areas; post-materiality is about those whose rights are forcibly taken away. Developmentalism is about mega-malls, macho cars, Big Macs’ and i-Macs’. Post-materiality is about disabled-friendly facilities at the mall, better public transportation, food for the hungry and social networking to spread the message of justice (i-Politics, if you will).

In developmentalism, the consumers sell votes in return for more warehouse sales. In post-materiality, the people want to buy freedom – of religion, of speech, of organisation, of information – and they’ll pay only with concern, prayers, conversation, action and votes, not a few nights (or years) imprisoned without trial.

Developmentalism uses rhetoric about democracy (especially ‘the best democracy in the world’) as a means to political ends; post-materiality means an end to un-democratic politics. For developmentalists, democracy is a much-touted but never-intended finish line. For post-materialists, democracy is the starting line, the track, the finish line and even the referee.

Developmentalism seeks to depoliticize everything (especially the economy) and thus politicizes the mind of the nation; post-materiality problematizes whatever is construed as ‘non-political’ or ‘natural’ and thus exposes the mind of the powers that be.

All this is not to say that sometimes the two notions aren’t often confused or mixed. The same citizen who slams the BERSIH crackdown may also be the same shopper who secretly (or not so secretly) wishes she could spend like Kimora. The dude who signs a petition against illegal detentions and pushes his buddies to do the same could be the one and the same fellow who complains about rising food prices right before blowing a few hundred bucks on alcohol i.e. he whacks ISA but worships XO. The Kuala Lumpur executive who chides Barisan for ignoring human rights can, on a daily basis, ignore and revile the presence of Bangladeshi, Indonesian or Nepalese non-executives who wash his car, serve him coffee, cook his restaurant meals (they will also be the first culprits on his mind should his house be broken in).

If we over-eat, if we over-spend and if we overlook those who under-eat and can hardly spend, then we’re in a poor position to demand, let alone create, political transformations.

This could be the biggest lie in developmentalism: that the people can create social change by remaining personally unchanged. The government wants us to believe that real action belongs to the domain of the governing, not the governed. And especially since the economic booms, privatisations and deregulations of the 80s’ and 90s’ (with a few recessions notwithstanding), Malaysians (especially the middle-classes) have been encouraged to focus on making money and leaving the realm of politics to Barisan.

How then can post-materiality be nurtured and brought forth? There are quick-fix superficial ways and there are more painful substantial ways. The low-impact way would be to engage in Robin Sharma-ish meditations on “living in harmony” with the world, buying green products, dropping coins into the donation boxes near the cashier, and sharing FaceBook links on alternative music with “life-changing” messages.

The tougher but more permanent approach would be to design, engineer and implement a reorientation on a personal / communal level what we claim we wish to see on a national level. It could mean deciding once and for all that certain companies or industries should be lobbied against and popularly banned (if we could allow this oxymoron for now). It could signal prolonged actionable conversations with parties we’ve never spoken to. It certainly means making more moral/ethical demands of our elected representatives, especially those we suspect are behaving like nothing more than technicians (or PR consultants) for the constituency. It also could mean taking some firm corporate steps towards new priorities or ways of thinking (e.g. “How would we look like if our profit motif was subordinated to social concerns?”) and burning the bridges afterwards (e.g. “No more contracts with XYZ Company until they publicly apologise for bribing their way into previous contracts”).

Post-materiality reflexively reminds the community of its ‘here-ness’ in the world and therefore its belonging in it. It is new, or least less entrenched than the lies developmentalism has been telling. It is also funky and thus may inspire more action than what conventional wisdom has delivered. Finally, it exudes a spit-shiny cool factor, thus giving something extra for the young in body, mind and heart to live for.

Reflexive, new, funky and cool. Needless to say, there’s nothing to stop post-materiality from being Malaysian as well.

How Lady Gaga might read BN’s rm 1.4 billion welfare aid

Lady Gaga and Elton John recently produced a song about unexpected encounters. It was part of the sound track for the animated movie Gnomeo & Juliet and goes something like this: “Hello Hello! My My My, What have we here?! What a surprise, what a surprise!”

It’s almost the first thing that came to mind when I saw the government’s allocation of funds for the needy under the 1Malaysia People’s Welfare Programme. This RM1.4 billion distribution will, as we all know, meet with opposing reactions.

Pro-Barisan folk would see this as proof of yet again how much Crew Najib actually cares for the country, how the government is doing its utmost to tackle poverty and inequality, how 1Malaysia isn’t merely fluff, how Barisan is the champion of social justice and so on. The Anti-Barisan group will point to how this is not even 10% of the amount allocated to the PM’s Office, how it’s grossly insufficient, how it’s an obviously pre-election ploy, how it does not address structural injustices in the country and that overall something stinks worse than a particular anus being examined in court.

All this ping-pong-ing is familiar; everyone more or less knows and expects. What very few know of (let alone care about) is how the trajectory of this debate actively assumes one main element – what the government is or isn’t doing – and quietly represses another i.e. how the people (also known as the ’demos’, the root of that famous word I know I don’t need to repeat here) can and should act.

Hello Hello – there could be something unMalaysian here.

Distributing goods to the poor is a noble act and one which any compassionate government cannot ignore; sadly it also could be a way of removing any discussion as to why certain parties have the power to distribute and others merely to receive. Giving money and aid to combat inequality is never a bad thing; it’s however also not the best thing if it further cements the most unequal divide between those who can choose to give or not and those who must rely on such gifts. Challenging the lacklustre (and politically motivated) subsidies by the Federal Government is a necessary dissensus by the Opposition; yet it’s not as powerful as the dissensus which questions why the people need to rely on hand-outs by a faulty and insidious form of representation by a supposed ’elite group’ in the first place.

Najib, as part of his donation speech, said that “The underprivileged represents a large group of the community and without government intervention, they will remain marginalised and we will have failed to uphold social justice” – My my my, what a surprise.

Even more surprising though, is why such a large group are called to accept a system in which they are reduced to the role of passive recipients and rendered (largely) invisible until either an election is forthcoming (which is once in about 3-4 years) or a Tan Sri needs to include more tax-deductible items in their business accounts (which is anytime they don’t have less self-centered things to do with their money, which is rare) or – Hello Hello – until a system emerges in which everybody takes responsibility for each other.

This would be a system in which we have true equality with one another. I mean a kind of equality in which every husband can afford to buy his wife and children a good meal – instead of what we have now where some husbands need to beg to feed their kids whilst others can get their wives diamond rings with price-tags that rival Air-Asia’s quarterly profits.

This would be a system in which charity representatives don’t need to go from restaurant to restaurant asking for donations (and mostly being dissed) because the community would’ve made a decision to include the orphans, the homeless and the physiologically challenged as part of the people and therefore will more than effectively provide for them. This would be a great improvement over a system where people taking care of an abandoned Down’s syndrome girl need to suffer the embarassment of disturbing hungry lunchers digging into their chicken rice in order to ask for donations; God forbid I must endure pictures of cerebral palsy children when a dripping drumstick is four inches away from my lips.

What kind of system would this (for now) imaginary one be? Would it be democracy? I doubt it, but even if it is it would be a very different kind of democracy than what Malaysia has now. Malaysian democracy is about various groups making demands about what they’re not getting, what they don’t have enough of, what other groups are depriving them of, what they should be getting, and so on. All of which gives the lie to ’1Malaysia’ or the idea of being "Malaysian first and something else second". Perhaps being Malaysian should be about transcending race but about including everybody, especially those who are “a part of no part” i.e. we will never be – and should never be – fully “Malaysian” until as a community we take care of the "least" of those among us?

Maybe it’s that we ’normal’ folks don’t truly see the ’abnormal’ folks as part of us, members of the national family. If a boy is spastic this is unfortunate but, well, it’s a fact of life, a social problem – which is another way of saying it’s not our problem. And if it’s not our problem, it will never be a ’political’ problem, a problem which makes demands of the system.

We are not fully Malaysians until there are no more ’homes for the disabled’ because the category of "DISABLED" would be abolished, not for lack of compassion but for lack of classificatory relevance. We are all part of the family. Some can walk faster, hold a pencil more easily or learn more things, but every one of us is one of us.

For this to happen – to return to an earlier theme – the people may have to choose to act instead of choosing other (supposedly more enlightened) people to act on their behalf. True democracy may requires us to gradually problematize the distinction between the governed and the governing, to challenge not simply the motives and amounts of distributions, but the very power to distribute.

Impossible? Lady Gaga doesn’t seem to think so. We can take her words to heart:

“Never gonna find… anything to change my mind?
Famous last lines of a fool.”

Communism, Socialism & Barisan Nasionalism (as I see it)

In Communism, EO6 would be the name of a highway; in Socialism, an affirmative action policy. In Barisan Nasionalism, EO6 is the symbol of both injustice and resistance to it, the creation and yet scourge of the boys in Putrajaya and Bukit Aman.

It’s not enough that six innocent individuals are wrongfully detained, the government has to justify itself by conflating Communism with Socialism. It’s bad enough these good folks are being held in sub-1 star hospitality and forced to be separated from their family and friends against their will. Minister in the PM’s Department Nazri Aziz – instead of promoting justice – has to underscore the injustice his bosses have committed by invoking the absurd boogeyman of Communist insurgents. It would appear, then, that the Federal Government comprehends neither Communism nor Socialism nor, unsurprisngly, the right thing to do.

So I hope the below helps set a few things straight. I don’t want the next government dude making public statements to look stupid because he can’t seem to get his theoretical categories right:

Communism is Marx’s understanding of the next logical stage after Capitalism. Socialism is Lee Kuan Yew’s understanding of every stage in Singapore. Barisan Nasionalism is Mahathir’s understanding of whatever he and his successors are staging in Malaysia.

Communism happens when the means of production are no longer a factor for exploitation by one class of another. Socialism directs the manner, direction and intensity of the means of production to minimize exploitation and promote national growth. Barisan Nasionalism spokesmen often sound mean and meaningless, don’t know what the means of production means and promote demeaning policies.

Communism targets the resolution of the class struggle. Socialism aims for the State doing most of the resolution in a country. Basian Nasionalism hopes to resolve the problems faced by cronies, racists and leaders who don’t like people to wear yellow and march downtown.

Communism is ultimately about self-governance by a nation already sufficient in resources. Socialism is about State-governance to ensure sufficient resources. Barisan Nasionalism is wasting resources producing pointless Facebook pages.

Communism is Capitalism superseded. Socialism is Capitalism weeded. Barisan Nasionalism is just sad.

Communism wants to make everyone rich by instituting that everybody shares equally in the abundance of their resources. Socialism wants to un-make the mega riches of some so more people can have a slightly bigger share. Barisan Nasionalism is about promising a ‘Developed and High-Income Nation’ but making selected filthy rich parties get even filthier, except during election time when it’s time to hand out the rice and poster-sized cheques.

Communism hopes to regulate and equalise a community’s desire so that inequality can be curbed. Socialism uses regulation to directly bring about equality regardless of what people desire. Barisan Nasionalism desires super-expensive towers which are sure to make some people unequally wealthy.

Communism involves a theoretical utopia meant to inspire the oppressed classes towards working together as one. Socialism is about one State enforcing practical conditions such that all classes in the country fall in line, get along and don’t eat each other up. Barisan Nasionalism is hopeless, whether in practice or theory.

In Communism, there is no Right or Left because all would be Good. In Socialism, the State is suspicious of the Right, hence its leaning to the Left. In Barisan Nasionalism it’s all Wrong and the Good is all but Left Out.

Communism is about freedom for all. Socialism restricts the freedom of some so more resources can be freed up for the public. Barisan Nasionalism is about refusing freedom to those they want to scare and using dodgy resources (like tear gas) for their ends.

Communism addresses the alienation inherent in a profit-driven society. Socialism redresses some of the stratification, poverty and moral hazards caused by profit-making. Barisan Nasionalism simply has people with ill-gotten addresses worth more than RM6million.

Communism wants to let profits serve people. Socialism wants to channel profits to some of the poorer people. Barisan Nasionalism wants certain already-rich people to profit even more from bribes, hand-outs and over-priced contracts.

Communism is a worthy and compassionate ideal which went horribly wrong due to the evil of certain leaders. Socialism is no ideal and with good leaders more things are made right. Barisan Nasionalism would only be ideal…if voted out.

So I hope this clears the air for Nazri. Next time he and his buddies shouldn’t fire tear gas in the public square. And they’d better let the six people go home. What does he think the EO6 is – a highway?

I want your sex & politics

What George Michael Can Teach Malaysian Politicians

George Michael, to put it mildly, always has sex on his mind. In 1987 in his hit single I Want Your Sex – a song which was banned in Malaysia for unsurprising reasons – he told the world that:

Sex is natural, sex is good,
Not everybody does it but everybody should,
Sex is natural, sex is fun!
Sex is best when it’s one on one!

Now this is strange. One one hand, he says that sex is ‘natural’, which implies some kind of biological essentialism. On the other hand, he says it’s ‘best’ when it’s one on one which implies some culturally constructed standards to judging what kind of sex is better or worse i.e. sex cannot be entirely natural because in nature there are no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ kind of flowers, is there?

So we’ve got two groups. First are those who see sex as purely natural and biological – the essentialists. The second group views sex as fluid and whatever the world says it is i.e. as socially contingent.

The first group would express surprise at why anyone would question the ingrained natural-ness of sex, as in, isn’t it OBVIOUS that as mammals we were ‘built’ to copulate? The second group would point to things like foreplay, like courtship, like group sex, like dressing for sex, like ‘making love without sex’ (or the opposite, passionless intercourse) and dare the first group to deny that culture is a critical component of sex.

If sex is complicated, politics is worse.

There is a view of politics, the popular one, whereby it’s nothing more than power-plays, manipulative rhetoric, money games and damned lies. Politics here is viewed as entirely contingent upon vested interests, completely without principle and there are in a sense no truly sincere, caring and Other-centered political acts. This is usually the stance taken by those who, for instance, refuse to vote or want to have anything to do with politics and political parties.
 
This first view also hints at why it’s often difficult to get people ‘involved’ in civil activism, political rallies or even voting. These folks believe that politics is nothing but ‘hot air’ i.e. without substance and concerned ultimately about the self-indulgent gratification of individual politicians. Do these people, then, not care about issues like ISA prisoners? I submit that it’s unfair to claim they don’t. I believe they are not indifferent to suffering lives – they are simply indifferent to political channels as a means of dealing with this suffering. If called upon to help, they’d be faster in giving funds to the families of the prisoners than casting a vote against the incumbent government that jailed them.
 
The second view, on the other hand, sees politics as being sustained by genuine principles. Political action is a fight for true justice, real human rights and so on. With the exception of the “other” unjust party, this view sees its members as being involved in something real, something irreducible to pragmatism and partisan strategies. Paradoxically, this view is self-consciously adopted by both civil activists and partisan groups i.e. both sides (even when berating the deceptions and lies of each other) will never cease affirming that they themselves are doing something of true substance, that they represent rock-hard fundamentals of the good and that it’s not crap and turtles ’all the way down’.
 
So here we have it. Politics as sheer contingent, tactical manoeuvring. And politics as a representative of universal absolute truth and goodness. Politics as fancy facade versus politics as firm foundation. (The paradox of Malaysian politics is that almost everyone who cares believes that View #1 is dominant but we tell each other View #2 will win somehow…).

But how about a third view? What if we recognise that in politics, there is a criss-crossing and overlapping between purity of ideals and the contingency of action which gives rise to something BEYOND the first two views? This is to say that the first and second views are always and already tainted and ‘haunted’ by each other and that therefore politics is a continually failed attempt to negotiate this fundamental deadlock. What if politics is just the name for the fracture arising from any attempt to resolve principles to pragmatism? What if the truth of politics is that we are dealing with a domain that is constituted by distortion and failure? That non-resolution of the universal and particular, of Universal Good and Particular Selfishness, not only resides within politics but that politics is this very non-resolution itself?
 
This other way of thinking about politics is helpful in a few ways.
 
One, we can give up the idea of ‘absolute justice’ and anchor political efforts in the act(ion)s of constructing justice. These could involve keeping serious conversations alive about what justice consists of for the community and how best to achieve these i.e. the act of construction always involves “building from scrap” which is a difficult job and hopefully will take away attention from parties constantly playing up their nobility and slamming the failures of their competitors. 
 
Agreeing that the idea of the Good is a radically contingent thing also facilitates discussions on when, for example, street rallies are good, when it should be curtailed and the conditions whereby people can decide. It also helps us to be honest about why secret video-recordings of politicians are bad without entirely removing the need to ’spy’ on conversations which are fostering personal gain at the expense of the community.

All this is another way of saying that if we recognise the futility and pointlessness of debating about ‘fundamentals’ we can get to work on the here and now. If we stop window-dressing party concerns, we can let Yes be Yes and No be No.
 
Secondly, we can be honest that our favoured political parties simply aren’t as non-partisanly pure as they claim i.e. we can drop the facade (of non-partisanship) without fear because we could recognise that there was nothing to hide anyway. This way attention can be put on the issues themselves independently of whether it’s partisan-related or not. This would both relieve and challenge political parties. E.g. Pakatan spokesmen needn’t waste their breath divorcing BERSIH from being linked to their agenda yet at the same time they must take seriously Barisan concerns about the rally and put aside (the usually instant) accusation that it’s nothing but party talk. Likewise, the government can come clean with cases like the PSM6 and drop the outrageous charges of sedition or conspiracy and stop acting primarily to derail the opposition.

In this sense, honesty of such a radical kind is a double-edged sword which raises the bar for all parties and which can only create long-term benefits for the people.
 
Thirdly, votes and winning election seats can be put into perspective as hardly the be-all and end-all that many make it out to be without jettisoning it as significant for the future. It can be graciously recognised that, despite the non-participation or non-registration of eligible voters, the common good isn’t being ignored and that non-voting does NOT equate to apathy. The obvious corollary here is that both pro- and anti-election groups can work together to serve their community rather than hurl judgments at each other.
 
Like George Michael’s steamy insistence, I Want Your Sex, perhaps politics can be the domain of pure willing and desire (towards a helpful vision of a caring and just community) which leaves aside unfruitful categories or perspectives which claim an illusory higher around over everybody else. When our public foundations and private interests are exposed and rendered unstable, maybe then we’ll focus on something else: a hopeful vision of the future spurring action in the now. Surely this can’t be a bad thing for those of us who have good things on our minds, be it sex or politics.