Justice may be unsexy

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Unless we tackle the inner demons of suspicion, mistrust and fear within us, we will be unable to achieve a democracy that is inclusive of the “unsexy” people whom we find hard to see as our equals, writes Cheah Wui Jia.

Photograph: allmalaysia.info
Photograph: allmalaysia.info

For those of us “middle-class folks”, justice is not about basking in an educated, academic limelight of some sort. It is not just about participating in the grand scheme of politics and the making of public policies.

Justice is not just about an educated, urban, middle class group of voters toppling an authoritarian regime. It is not just about pointing our fingers at the rural folks who are seen as BN dupes living under coconut shells.

It is not just about shouting “Ubah!” and “Ini Kalilah!” at a blackout protest rally. It is not just about an educated, informed group of people tweeting their urban hatred towards the government.

It is not just about a particular race, religion, or a privileged section of society, that wants to speak ‘on behalf’ of others. All these are becoming the norm and the “in” thing to do as a young generation rises up in the grand narrative of Malaysian politics.

Justice can be simple. Yet quite difficult to do. It can be uncool or “unsexy” even. Because whether we want to admit it or not, we can be selfish.

Driving responsibly, choosing to wait patiently for the old lady lumbering across the road with her tongkat, or forgiving the driver who cuts into your lane as he whizzes past your windscreen with the magic finger sticking out of the window … not that easy.

But if we can’t deny our own selfishness and respect another ordinary citizen on the road, it is quite fruitless to talk about big ideas of rights and democracy.

Sometimes, justice is as simple as getting to know your next-door neighbour of a different skin colour, tongue, race or religion.

Or holding the hard, arthritis-worn knuckles of a lonely woman at an old folks’ home.

Sometimes, it is smiling at and asking the cashier behind the counter how her day was.

Or thanking the anneh who served you your teh tarik at a Mamak shop.

Or making a cup of hot chocolate for the long-serving Indonesian domestic worker who has lived in your home, cleaned your mess, scrubbed the edges of your toilet bowl, dangled herself perilously on the windows ledge to wipe your glass windows, picked up your dog’s poo, or wiped the backsides of your five year old twins.

Or hugging your friend who just told you that he is gay but also Christian or Muslim or atheist.

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Or choosing not to turn your nose up at the ebony-skinned men in their green uniform when they come in their smelly garbage trucks to collect your apartment trash.

Because racism does not stand alone, but overlaps with other areas of our urban, middle-class anxieties, like our fear of dirt and squalour, of muttering and insane mentally ill beggars, of broken and unrefined English, of uncultured hysterical and toothless laughter, of ‘unusual’ sexual desires, and of chipped and chewed-on fingernails.
We do not need to enter mental wards or gay bars to encounter the unknown.

In fact, fear and prejudice are often within close proximity, for instance, in our homes with the domestic workers (“Hopefully she won’t sleep with my husband!”) and the gardeners (“Son. You better study hard. Otherwise you want to end up like our gardener, who only earns about RM900?!”)

These individuals are somehow regarded as pitiful beings infected with some sort of leprosy and therefore deserving our deepest sympathies. Somehow, we fail to teach our children to learn to respect people of a different income level or profession that is less ‘prestigious’.

We teach them, instead, to study hard and get good grades, and earn big incomes. And, for heaven’s sake, not turn out like that woman down the street who sells char koay teow for a living, or that road sweeper breaking his back in the sun, because clearly, they did not finish their homework back in school!

We cannot deny the reality that even in our air conditioned offices, the existing hierarchies we have constructed shape relationships that result in an indirect bullying of subordinates, who are seen as less competent, less respectable, or even less human (“Darn! I need to waste my time now and do some dumb work of mailing some letters?!” “Why don’t you just get the clerk to do it lah?” “Yeah hor, great idea!”).

The dictum that “I went through this crap to make it this far, therefore you have to go through it too,” is a norm that is actually, also, a form of cop-out to excuse oppressing those who are at the bottom rungs of the ‘food chain’. Apparently, the more verbal abuse, shelling and work-dumped one receives on a ‘silver platter’ as a subordinate worker, the more valuable ‘experience’ and gold stars one accumulates in one’s career history.

And we know that when bullying becomes the norm, it also means that injustice and a violation of dignity become status quo, something not unfamiliar to what we are experiencing today in a dark period of national police clampdowns and sedition charges.

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When prejudicial fear surpasses understanding in the likes of xenophobia, observed during polling day in footage of migrant workers being insulted and bullied by overzealous vigilant observers (see Angeline Loh’s ‘GE13: Migrants were BN scapegoats’), it becomes reflective of a typical BN strategy of scaremongering and racist divide-and-rule bullying.

As it can be seen, the government is becoming afraid of dissenting views, or opinions that are, to put it simply, different.

Now, we obviously dislike a government that prides itself on its so-called meritocratic, fear-stirring policies.

Yet, we too harbour irrational fear, disrespect and suspicion of people who are different from us in terms of ranking or intelligence, because, often, we act on auto-pilot certainty and fail to stop and reflect and dig deeply into an investigation of our own beliefs.

This kind of prejudice, seen in some Facebook posts that castigate the rural community for being unthinking, mindless people – when in fact, some of them are trapped in poverty and voted from a position of vulnerability and desperation – must be quite painful for the impoverished to face.

It has been claimed that a majority of families with household incomes lower than RM3.000 are Malay (see Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj’s ‘Malay hesitation to regime change’). If this is the case, can we blame some people for wanting the ruling government, with its associated pro-bumiputera policies, to continue its reign?

Why are our biases so rampant and so profoundly unchecked, even while we are more than willing to question the biases of the BN? In other words, are we willing to understand people who are different from us without casting the first stone of judgement as an automatic response to what we think they should be?

It is this same kind of auto-pilot, unreflective thinking pattern that has been tirelessly drilled into us since our days of mouthing Negaraku hunchbacked during school assemblies, and moral lessons that we had to memorise and vomit onto our examination sheets, some of which beg us not to question authority or the government.

It is the typical reactive, automatic machine-gunlike reaction by a Prime Minister who called the general election results a “Chinese tsunami”, and a Home Minister who urged those of us who found the results disagreeable to “leave the country”.

It is the same kind of underlying fear that prompted the arrest of student activist Adam Adli, politicians Tian Chua and Tamrin Ghafar, and political activist Haris Ibrahim. And we hate that kind of fear, don’t we?

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We all want freedom. But “the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” This is a quote from famous author and speaker David Foster Wallace.

Unless we put aside our biases and disgust for people other than our “own kind”, we too, are living in coconut shells, trapped in a poverty of selfish, self-centred beliefs and me-first tendencies, patterns of thinking that we all know are strongly aligned with the current ruling government, which refuses to “listen, listen, listen”.

Unless we are able to embrace the humanity of those who are not our ‘cronies’, or those who are different in terms of their world-views, appearances, or ways of living, our efforts at screaming ourselves hoarse at “505 blackout” rallies are but in vain.

Unless we learn to deal with the inner demons of suspicion, mistrust and fear within us, we cannot relate to one another well.

We also will be unable to achieve a democracy that is inclusive too, in particular, a democracy that includes the “unsexy” people whom we find truly hard to see as our equals.

The same kind of fear or tension is slowly being overcome as the Negaraku is now redeemed as a jubilant song at blackout rallies, because we have begun to learn to stop our fear.

This fear is overcome when we redeem our courage and our vulnerability, and learn to say no to a system of selfish desires manifested in the ruling coalition, which, we all know, also resides within us as flawed human beings.

We embrace our vulnerability when we finally understand that everyone has felt like a ‘pendatang’ (in a broader sense) at one point in their lives – when the supervisor publicly screamed at us, or when a classmate teased us for our crooked teeth, or when we were dumped by an ex.

When we tap into that feeling of unbelonging, we become one with Adam Adli, the oppressed, the “unsexy” and the bearers of insult.

And our songs are no longer dissonant notes of discord, but become a rich harmony that flows with the chords of justice. We then realise that we have been singing the same tune of the desire to belong somewhere, all along.

This piece was originally published in The Malaysian Insider.

Cheah Wui Jia has just completed an internship with Aliran.

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