Eastern butts, western demo?

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Mustafa K Anuar argues that civilised and uncivilised behaviour defies labelling western or eastern; in fact such behaviour whether positive or negative cuts across national boundaries. If, as some argue, demonstrations are ‘western culture’, does that mean that butt exercises are ‘eastern culture’?

Butt exercise

Not too long ago when a rally was held in Kuala Lumpur, there were people who grumbled that street demonstrations were ‘western culture’. This is because, the complainants said, demonstrations usually have an element of violence which is not suitable to ‘eastern culture’, which is supposedly gentle in nature.

Thus, it is no surprise why the recent Bersih 3.0 rally brought much serious criticism (and reactions) from certain quarters, including the country’s leaders and other groups. The criticism lashed out at the rally organisers and the thousands of Bersih supporters became louder especially after the demonstration ended in violence.

In fact, soon after the Bersih 3.0 rally, the National Fatwa Council came out with a fatwa declaring that it is ‘haram’ for Muslims to take part in rallies and demonstrations that are considered ‘illegal’, unproductive, trouble-making and capable of destroying public properties, disuniting the Ummah and toppling a legitimate government.

It looks like not only are rallies such as Bersih 3.0 incongruent with our ‘eastern culture’; they also conflict with Islam (from the perspective of the Fatwa Council and other groups in Malaysia).

But if we look at what had happened since Bersih 3.0, it appears that not all demonstrations are seen as ‘haram’ or not suited to our ‘eastern culture’. The ‘silence’ on the part of the powers-that-be and religious leaders apparently denotes that, for example, the demonstrations in front of Bersih co-chairperson S. Ambiga’s house are okay by them. In this case, a small group of ex-servicemen demonstrated in protest of Ambiga and her friends in Bersih 3.0 because they felt that the rally that was organised on 28 April 2012 had smeared the country’s image in the eyes of the international community. Hence, these army veterans felt that shaking their wrinkled butts was one way of redeeming that smudged image – apart from a possible attempt at making it to the Guinness Book of Records.

The implication of this butt gyration is that one question prevails, and that is, whether the butt demonstration was in line with our ‘eastern culture’ or more importantly, whether it is suitable to Islamic principles – particularly when the country’s leadership and religious leaders apparently kept mum over this matter. This is apart from the fact that the private space of Ambiga’s had been intruded by the groups concerned.

This matter is raised not because we want to question the practice of demonstrations in society. What is stressed here is, peaceful demonstrations in principle are part of the democratic process, a universal practice that is neither western nor eastern. What differentiates one demonstration from another is the level of civility shown by the demonstrators.

Is this ‘eastern’ culture?

Furthermore, much of uncivilised behaviour is universal in nature. It is not monopolised by the west or the east. A few examples of actions taken by certain groups in recent months are enough to show that these actions, which were indeed rough and violent, can also exist in an ‘eastern society’ such as Malaysia’s.

What is so ‘eastern’ about, for example, sending a cake that looks like poop or a symbolic coffin to a political leader as a form of protest by a group against what it deems as injustice? Wouldn’t it be better and civilised if the protest by handing over a petition or holding a peaceful demonstration in front of the leader’s office? Or, alternatively, engaging with opponents in debates and discussions?

What is so ‘eastern’ about the action of a handful of people who screened a pornographic video in public merely to score political points? Is the action of these ‘porn purveyors’ more moral compared to that of the couple seen in that video? Is this a value that we want to gladly pass on to the younger generation?

What is so ‘eastern’, if not Islamic, about the action of certain sections of the mainstream media that defame certain political leaders, especially when the latter were not given space and opportunity to rebut or defend themselves? Doesn’t the code of ethics of professional journalism demand that the right to reply be accorded to the aggrieved party?

What is so ‘eastern’ about the action of presenting a burger to Ambiga when the public is aware that beef is not kosher to Hindus like Ambiga? Isn’t this akin to giving pork to a Muslim?

Is the act of throwing dangerous objects such as stones into a ceramah area or roughing up sections of the ceramah audience to the point of causing injury considered civilised in an ‘eastern’ context? Wouldn’t it be more civilised if differences of opinion are handled via peaceful debates and talks?

At the very least, debates and discussion can raise the bar of intellectualism in the political arena and in society.

What is so ‘eastern’ about the action of a mentri besar some time ago who showed a lewd finger sign just because he disagreed with the views of his opponents? Was this an act that showcased the ‘gentleness’ of ‘eastern culture’?

The above incidents experienced by Malaysian society now and then indicate that power play is at work within the political and cultural realm. In other words, culture is often defined by those in a position of (political) power in society who in the final analysis determine what is ‘positive’ and what ‘isn’t’ in our ‘eastern culture’.

The definition of certain practices and cultural elements should be based on democratic values and principles and not be placed within a narrow framework that entertains the wants and interests of certain political groups. Justice is certainly one of the values that should be upheld.

So do we need to be surprised when, for instance, the poco-poco dance was banned in haste while political leaders maintain their elegant silence when faced with the phenomenon of corruption which is wreaking havoc on the nation? Or, what do we make of their silence in the face of the allegation by Bersih 3.0 that the electoral procedure is so far ‘unclean’?

Like the army veterans who wriggled their butts, the act of turning one’s back on universal good practices and values will not be able to transform our society to one that is civilised and democratic.

Dr Mustafa K Anuar is honorary secretary of Aliran.

*This piece, originally written in Malay, was published in Merdeka Review.

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