The politics of dialogue

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badawiJohn Hilley argues that curbs on the discussion of racial and religious issues not only breed suspicion, resentment and disunity but foster Vision-type notions of national unity popularised by big leaders.Malaysians do know how to debate and disagree civilly. They must reclaim this right.

Malaysians recently woke up, many not a little alarmed, to this headline: “PM: Discussions will raise tension”: “Article 11 forums to discuss inter-faith issues must stop immediately because they are deemed to cause tension in our multi-religious society, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said.” (The Star, 26 July 2006.) With the usual synchronised media/government instruction, the report notes how “he [Abdullah] also called on the media to carry out its responsibility not to stir up anger and tension among the masses”.

And, once again, we saw the Malaysian media jumping in Pavlovian response to its political masters.  Reformers and ordinary Malaysians alike have long been aware of such spineless obedience.  They have also been aware of the state instruments used to impose the BN’s idea of what a responsible media should look like.  From time to time, there has also been a certain amount of open exchange, even if mainly among the ‘chattering classes’.  Yet, Abdullah’s latest call for “responsibility”, and the media’s dutiful repetition of that message, is yet another example of the limitations on such exchange.  Thus, we find the media in compliant, self-censoring mode, subverting information and limiting the terms of social debate.   

Where is the notion here of journalistic enquiry?  Where is the concept of critical reportage?  Where is the desire to see an honest and rational debate take place on an issue of national importance?  Where is the principle of the press acting as a medium of enlightenment, serving to bring religious and ethnic communities together in a spirit of understanding and dialogue?  The questions are really rhetorical.  For, directed at their subject, they might as well fall on deaf ears.

This is the ‘responsible journalism’ espoused by the government and filtered by editors in pretence of the ‘national interest’.  Yet, Abdullah’s knee-jerk reaction to the anti-apostasy protest outside the Johor Forum signals a deep discomfort over the very thing the BN proclaims to uphold: social unity.  

As with his predecessor’s Vision proclamations, many can see through Abdullah’s ‘unifying’ language.  And they can also see very clearly that social understanding, political awareness and mature ways of living together in mutual regard cannot be possible in a society that sweeps such issues under the carpet or hides its problems away in a locked cupboard, pretending they are not there.  That can only breed suspicion, resentment and greater social disunity.

Staying on-message

Meanwhile, Abdullah contrives to use this and other current tensions to clamp down on any more ‘daring’ media output. The assurances of Communications Minister Lim Keng Yaik of non-internet censorship are made, of course, to protect the business agenda of the MSC.  Meanwhile, the repressive Printing Presses and Publications Act remains a solid warning to any errant editor.   Malaysiakini is threatened with further action on the pretext of an erroneous report of the spray incident with Mahathir. Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin issues warnings over net users spreading “rumours and news that can harm racial unity in the country”. theSun

The government, he warns “will not tolerate…media which inflame communalism and religious issues. The government means business in this matter and will take action guided by the Malaysian way…” (Bernama)

Isn’t it instructive how the minister assumes not only moral authority on such matters, but the monopolistic wisdom on the national “way” of dealing with them?  We can only presume from these menacing tones that “Malaysian” has now become the official government synonym for “clampdown”.  Or maybe many Malaysians, affronted by the pejorative use of their national identity, would want to assert many of their own Malaysian ways of dealing with such problems, as in acting like co-operative, compassionate people.  There is nothing intrinsic, to my understanding, of Malaysians being predisposed towards state repression or an inability to speak in a spirit of mutual understanding.  As ever, it is the repressive apparatus of the state itself which, in Malaysia and elsewhere, employs the language of ‘national values’ as a propaganda tool.

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The Blairite way

Tony Blair regularly invokes such values of national unity and integration; a concept apparently still to register, he thinks, with a large part of the ‘terrorist-supporting’ Muslim community in the UK.   Yet, contrary to Blair’s ‘Brutish ways’, here and around the world, I have been greatly encouraged by the humanitarian ways in which large sections of the Muslim community in Britain have joined with other forces, secular and religious, to challenge his government over Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and other war crimes.  Intrinsic to that coalescing of people has been an ongoing desire to build a genuine multicultural society where the rights and practices of Muslim people are constitutionally protected and culturally regarded.  It is, of course, a long and difficult task.  But the main thing that sustains it is the basic idea of civil engagement and open dialogue.  

In Britain, the tabloid media has inverted that ideal, its apparent mission to foster nightmare scenarios of the ‘Muslim (read ‘terrorist’) threat’ in our midst.  It’s an often ugly hatred to work against, particularly with Blair and New Labour pandering to such populism.  Thus, we see how the peddling of racist suspicion, alongside calls for ‘dialogue’, has, for many in the Muslim community, become a backs-to-the-wall defence of the Islamic way.

Is, one might ask, the compliant racism of the British rag tabloids any worse than the servile obedience of the Malaysian media?  Well, probably.  Yet, each, one might say, is a well-worn variation on how to cultivate mass conformity, even mass ignorance.  And, in many ways, the outcome is the same.  Neither inform.  Neither encourage any sense of mature dialogue.  Neither help stimulate real social and racial harmony.

The religious and ethnic demographic in the UK is, of course, very different from Malaysia.  But I believe similar principles apply.  In Britain, Blair is spinning the need for a ‘necessary debate’ among Muslims.  But it’s a patently false call, intended to shift the focus away from his government’s own culpabilities.  In Malaysia, Abdullah is, effectively, saying that there should be no debate at all.  Yet, this has the same overall effect: to close down rational discussion and mitigate any threat to power.

 

Big leaders and national unity

The ‘Malaysian way’ has also been used as an economic narrative, drawing the populace into unifying variants of Vision development.  Yet, the idea that we live in a discrete political, economic or even cultural entity is in many ways delusional.  Our lives are directly ordered by the forces of international capital, corporate demands and the cage-like conditionalities of globalisation.  Our place in that order of things transcends the artifice of the bordered state.  We engage, to varying extents, as localised citizens and political actors.  But our economic and political conditioning is of the wider world.  Much of it may well depend on how we ourselves see external conflict, as in the Middle East, encouraging empathy for others not of our ‘nation’.  

Not only do Vision-type notions of national unity encourage a false comfort zone of well-being, they also foster the delusional notion of leaders as regenerational saviours.  With Malaysians facing up to another set of economic and social dislocations, who might be seen as taking up that mantle?  Is Anwar the man to lead Malaysia towards this national regeneration?  In a word, no. However, the problem is less to do with Anwar himself than the false notion that a particular leader has the capacity to deliver a society from its problems.  As with Bush and Blair, we have seen how leaders can certainly damage their own society, while annihilating others.  Yet, even they are just part of the bigger corporate-political monolith that dominate our lives.  While leaders talk of domestic economic and political renewal, it is the extraneous forces of economic and political power that are constantly renewing their forms of control.      

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Anwar recently spoke (at Monash University) of his desire to see a renewed form of Islamic democracy take root in Malaysia, and, indeed, in other mainly Muslim countries.  He, no doubt, sees this as part of Malaysia’s regeneration.  But the real, more mundane, truth is that a society is only as progressive as its citizen actors want it to be.  I’ve often longed to live in a country led by a real intellectual, radical and compassionate figure.  How invigorating for the people of Venezuela to have in Hugo Chavez someone not only willing to engage in serious social and economic reform on behalf of the poor, but to do so in a way that stimulates the political mind.  But the key thing driving the Venezuelan revolution is not Chavez, important as his leadership is, but the Venezuelan people themselves in their Bolivarian projects and devolved efforts to build a true participatory society of the common good.  

To a considerable extent, Anwar has the intellectual drive and political charisma of Chavez.  This includes his ability to engage the issue of Muslim development as a bulwark to Islamic fundamentalism.  But does he have the progressive inclinations to challenge the monolith of neoliberal fundamentalism that is afflicting Malaysia and the rest of the planet?  Alas, I think the answer to that is not encouraging.  Anwar’s association with Western interests and ideals is well recorded.  He backed the IMF’s proposed ‘remedial’ medicine during the late ‘90s crisis.  He supported Wolfowitz’s appointment to the World Bank.  He has little to say about the Washington consensus and the ‘there is no alternative’ blueprint of the neoliberal mandarins who run this world.

Anwar has been very vocal lately on the flaws of the 9th Malaysian Plan, Abdullah’s economic mismanagement and the imminent spectre of recession.  But there’s nothing here to encourage a more visionary view of what Malaysia might, at least, aspire to.  And so we still hear this Vision-type rhetoric of a ‘first class nation’, equipped educationally and technologically to compete in the world market.  Where, beyond the usual business-friendly vocabulary, is the radical vision in that?   Of course, people should aspire to a better education and quality of life.  We also find among all this discourse the caring caveats on international and environmental responsibilities.  But where is the real transforming agenda, the one that sees ‘Malaysia’s problems’ as part of the bigger problem of global neoliberal dependency?  

 

Beyond the pretence

And so, much of the pretend politics carries on.  Does Abdullah run the country?  Does Mahathir still run the country?  Is Khairy the de facto supremo running the country?  Is Anwar the prince in exile ready to save the country?  These are all important and intriguing questions.  But they also help cloud the way in which none of these people matter to the extent claimed.  The truth is that they all belong to the same, essential, model of power, an accepted continuity of ideas that can brook no serious domestic reform or challenge to the orthodoxy of neoliberalism.  The same orthodoxies prevail in Britain.  A decade on from Blair’s investiture, does any radical observer believe that leader-in-waiting Gordon Brown, co-architect of the New Labour project, would offer anything qualitatively different?  A cursory look at his intense commitment to privatisation, the war in Iraq and his Atlantic-hopping with the smart money suits on Wall Street should dispel any false notions.  That dialogue is all about the interests of business and power, not about people and social transformation.   

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Likewise, with so much of the political class’s refusal to advocate a radical solution in the Middle East, Bush, Blair, Rice and their ‘diplomatic cohorts’: the complicity should be obvious. None of these people have any serious interest in dialogue.  It’s all posture and pretend diplomacy.  At a recent protest against an Israeli cricket match in Glasgow, I was pleased to stand among people who really do want an end to that killing, who do want to talk.  Among them was a member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, who stood up and declared with passion that Olmert’s murderous Israeli state does not act in his name or that of many other Jews.  Palestinians, old Lebanese women and assorted peace activists applauded warmly.

That solidarity is what helps people move away from confrontation and, ultimately, the killing of one’s neighbours.  It’s about our own willingness to engage as caring individuals.  Even as Israel continues its zero-sum game of killing Palestinians, and with a tenuous “ceasefire” after its ruthless, pre-planned obliteration of Lebanon, we can take great heart from the global, humanitarian response.  While Palestinian/Hamas figures and Israeli peace activists worked behind the scenes to find ways forward, it was Israeli’s covert actions which killed the initiative.  Their aversion to serious, that is constructive, dialogue is motivated by a fundamentalist desire to have their way and impose their will on suffering people.  But the same politics of entrenchment can be seen at many levels.  What it comes down to is the need for human tolerance, mutual regard and, as a vital step towards such, open and honest dialogue.  

As elsewhere, Malaysians need to speak critically about these issues.  They need to see the bigger picture of where their country sits in that neoliberal world disorder.  They also need to engage in open and considered dialogue on the often incendiary issues of race and religion.  But in order to do that there has to be an actual groundswell of open questioning, critical self-inspection and co-operative debate coming from within civil society itself.  That process will be advanced neither by sectarian protest or the pandering to government appeals for responsible media output.  As long as people remain stuck in factional, sectoral, racial and religious boxes, the harder any serious reformist task becomes.  And who, as ever, do you suppose benefits from that type of politics?

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Glasgow-based Dr John Hilley is the author of Malaysia: Mahathirism, and the New Opposition (London: 2001). 

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