Celebrating diversity

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Democracy and human rights will become a privilege only for urban voters if we fail to recognise the importance of economic rights, says Cheah Wui Jia.

Protest rally at Kelana Jaya on 8 May 2013:
Protest rally at Kelana Jaya on 8 May 2013:

What is referred to as the rural “impoverished” world has, without a doubt, stuck out like a sore thumb in discourse on the urban-rural divide.

The orang kampung and their gap-toothed smiles and scruffy feet seem to be encroaching into our manicured fingernails, white-collared and shiny condominium territory, which, according to dominant GE13 election analysis, predominantly spells a vote for Pakatan Rakyat.

A kind of clash of civilisations is being highlighted like a flustered school teacher circling the grammar and spelling mistakes in an English essay. What these elections have revealed is an expose not only of money politics, but also of our middle-class anxieties and prejudices of backward rural orang kampung.

Eric C Thompson’s article “GE13 and the politics of urban chauvinism” (14 May) raised a valid point. Support for Pas was not too “happening” at one point of time, when Kelantan was perceived as less developed and trapped by an Islamic repressive regime in contrast to a politics of modernity and a moderate, more progressive way of life perpetrated by Umno, and the “rest of us” living in other states, who have presumably moved past the primitive, no-pork-or-alcohol Flintstone era.

It is only recently that urban hatred for Barisan Nasional (BN) and associated reports of corruption, import of foreigners as counterfeit voters, accumulating national debt and an identified middle-income trap have awakened us to revolt, overlook our biases and support the Pas moon logo in good faith. We urban elites, armed with our overseas university degrees, are not so stupid to buy into BN money politics, unlike some “others”.

Noble concepts of democracy and justice are capable of becoming the privilege of a select few — mainly, the “educated”, the “intelligent” and the “informed”, which, reflect particular income levels and access to education systems that are more expensive, and do not point to innate intelligence per se.

Since the high-sounding ideas of rights or the concept of a social welfare state do not resonate with voters in constituencies that account for a quarter of parliamentary seats, the question is whether we are able to re-define rights talk in a more inclusive manner, one that avoids cloaking talk on justice in some form of elite snobbery.

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Instead of promoting an incestuous discourse that reiterates discussion on race, religion and identity, ideas that remain but ideas that are far removed echo the lofty ideals of an educated elite of technocrats, can we make our language on rights more accessible and applicable to the daily struggles of the worker in the field — the Indonesian domestic workers in our homes, the security guards of our apartments, the prostitutes in Lebuh Chulia, the migrant workers whom we currently sweep over and label as “Banglas”? Are we willing to invest the time and resources to simply get to know the orang kampung and find out what they really want?

Saifuddin Abdullah, the Umno supreme council member who lost his Temerloh parliamentary seat in GE13, described the electorate as divided between two groups of people. “Those who voted based on their hope for development such as roads, water and basic amenities, while the other group voted based on their hope for democracy and on issues such as freedom, human rights, equality. Where the majority of voters voted based on hope for development, BN won. Where the majority voted based on hope for democracy, BN lost.” Current discourse on elections pathologises those who voted for the BN, and, in effect, delegitimises basic economic needs — access to food, water and health. It would seem that we privilege certain rights over others, namely civil and political rights over economic rights.

This is easy to do, simply because some of us can afford air-conditioning more than others. Or rather, one (wo)man’s bowl of rice is another (wo)man’s Starbucks espresso. To illustrate this, it was reported that BN threatened to take back houses and water tanks from the hardcore poor in rural villages. Since remote villages lack access to more balanced representations of what is “true”, and only have local radio and television stations within their reach, this leads to the reality that issues of abuse and corruption will be unheard of to rural villagers. It is, in fact, the deprivation of something so basic as the Internet and associated alternative news, such as Malaysiakini, (which was, in essence, made free only for anyone with a computer who could actually log onto the Internet), that results in a vote for what Saifuddin terms as “development” in terms of financial resources. The argument that democracy and free elections are more important than basic necessities like computers or water tanks does not hold here. People do not actively choose to live under a rock. To subscribe to such logic is to imply that rural villagers choose to be complicit in their own oppression. It is not an issue of “stupidity” that is at hand, but more of the reality of vulnerability as a result of acute deprivation.

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Essentially, when we privilege certain kinds of rights over others, we are also privileging the “needs” of certain groups of people over others. The privileged ones are those who happen to have been born into decent living conditions — to household incomes that spell adequate nutritious food and health, overseas university education, academic qualifications and entry into higher-paying professions, dictionaries, computers, iPads, and social connections of influence and power. We speak of the need to articulate ideas freely, without censorship or sedition charges. This freedom of expression and dialogue is beautiful.

But we also need food, clothes, and shelter because our concrete lived experiences dictate that we live in human bodies. Imagine the elation at getting a voucher for RM50-100 if you are juggling with two jobs as a single mother with five children. It would only become natural to feel obliged to vote for the BN, because Pakatan is not splashing you with money like BN is.

Surely, the making of a just world would account for the multitude of experiences that affect us as human beings. This means valuing our bodies, not just our minds, and the wonderful, disembodied ideas that we can churn from our brains. We seem to assume that the brain is somehow magically detached from other vital organs, and that we do not need any kind of nutrition to nurture ourselves. I believe that is not a very smart way to understand how our bodies work.

Let me be clear. I am not advocating the support for a corrupt party that throws money around like the game of basketball. This is, rather, a plea for a more open mind. A mind that is imaginative and not blind or shut to the plight of others. A just world is one that celebrates the diversity of human experiences, not one that only focuses on the rich.

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This article was originally published in The Malaysian Insider.

Cheah Wui Jia is interning with Aliran.

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