Politics & government Society

[2929] Malaysian democracy dies and we forgot to mourn it

In 2017, political scientist Thomas Pepinsky claimed that life in authoritarian states was mostly boring and tolerable (that is tolerated by the people). He cited Malaysia where life was quite normal, despite it being an undemocratic country and mildly authoritarian. But his audience were not Malaysians, but Americans, many of whom found themselves in opposition to Trump and his illiberalism.

Pepinsky argued authoritarian states did not necessarily mean “jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus.”

He was not defending authoritarianism. Instead he was warning that authoritarianism arrived more subtly that most people realized. It does not come with a bang. He wrote:

It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang. [Thomas Pepinsky. Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable. Vox. January 9 2017]

Forward 4 years later, Malaysia has lost its democracy and we are now ruled by a dictator.

When Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his allies in 2020 wrested power from the victors of the 2018 Malaysian General Election without going through any election, his action arguably was still done within the gray ambit of democratic practices. Gray because of the 2009 mistake that began in Perak legitimizes an obscure process of selecting a government over the usual transparent process of letting the contenders prove their support in the Dewan Rakyat. The same untransparent process contributes to or exacerbates the political instability that we suffer today.

Muhyiddin’s government was never stable from the get-go. Now when it became clear he did not have the majority needed to remain in government, he carried out a self-coup through the declaration of emergency. The excuse was the COVID-19 pandemic but we know he was just pulling the wool over our eyes. As if giving more power to a government that mismanaged the pandemic was a good idea. More will die sadly. In a better situation, we would be replacing this incompetent Cabinet with one of better caliber.

That self-coup has firmly placed this government into the realm of authoritarianism. The Prime Minister is the Dictator of Malaysia. There is no democratic mandate to speak of anymore. There is only the will of the Dictator Muhyiddin Yassin.

And that happens without loud protestation.

The pandemic is to blame no doubt. Perhaps the economic devastation worsened by this government’s complete incompetency is sapping energy away from the population. Perhaps they are tired of the failure of the Pakatan Harapan and their allies in opposition to do what was right back in November during the tabling of the 2021 Budget. The failure and disillusion breed ambivalence. Everybody is tired of the national political chaos.

All that leads to us tolerating authoritarianism. This is more so when the Dictator defends his self-coup by stating life will go on as normal, however disingenuous that sounds. The Dictator is telling us authoritarianism is tolerable.

Such a disappointment.

Economics Society

[2927] M40 classification mischaracterizes the middle class, weakens the middle class and in doing so, weakens democracy in Malaysia

Who are members of the middle class in Malaysia?

Theoretically, they consist of those in the middle income distribution. The middle class is a relative position between the poor and the elites, however both are defined.

But it is not that simple. On Wikipedia alone, there are plenty of dimensions to be considered beyond income. Among the factors are education, nature of employment, social status and even as fluffy a factor as lifestyle. Wealth is another marker, which is related to income but perhaps better except its data is not as easy to get.

In Malaysia, perhaps for over 10 years now, we have chosen a specific way to define it. We do it through income distribution. We have the bottom 40 percentile households in terms of income distribution defined as the poor (the B40), the next 40 percentile households are understood as the middle class (the M40), and the top 20% household income earners are taken as the rich (T20).

The classification is needed to operationalize certain policies like conditional cash transfer that Malaysia has. Household income, whatever its weakness, is an easy proxy of status. It is needed for targeting purposes. You lose something, but it does the job. Arbitrary, but convenient and it works.

Our problem is that the same convenient arbitrary classification that works is beginning to have an unintended negative effect on social discourse. Familiar to the definitions used by the government for implementation convenience, the public is beginning to associate the M40 as the middle class, and the middle class as M40, when in fact, there are middle class people falling outside of the M40 group. Additionally, there are people inside the M40 who are not really members of the middle class. The shorthand of B40-M40-T20 is dividing the middle class crudely and consider some members of the middle class as members of the elites.

It creates a class war against the middle class just through misattribution arising from arbitary statistical definition.

The middle class is special because they are largely the flagbearers of progressive values. With such values, they function as a check-and-balance mechanism in any society. Members of the middle class are not poor and that allows them to spend more time on matters other than livelihood issues. Things like corruption, environment or something that is well above something that is similar to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the same time, they individually are not rich enough to have outsized influence on society like few elites. Yet collectively, they check the power of the elites thanks to their education level. They are the bulwark preventing the elites from abusing power. They are the ones crucial in keeping a democracy from becoming crass majoritarianism.

When members of the middle class are considered as elites, middle class values would be condemned as elitist. Once identified as so, the same values would be rejected by the majority because they feel the values are meant for the few.

This is the danger of the M40 classification. The misattribution makes the middle class alien to the poor as the elites are, but without having the same influence the elites have. This weakens the roles of the middle class in protecting democracy from abuse by the elites, and from majoritarian excesses.

That is one of the costs of the B40-M40-T20 classification. It breaks the middle class, and then artificially and implicitly labels middle class values as elitist. With that, the roles of the middle class as the moderating force in our society gets weakened.

In short, the M40 classification mischaracterizes the middle class, and weakens the middle class’s role in moderating Malaysian democracy.

Conflict & disaster Society

[2925] Free COVID-19 vaccines for more people, and not just Malaysians

Vaccines for COVID-19 will be made free for Malaysians, said the Prime Minister. That is good but there is an issue here. A big gap. Foreigners will have to pay for it.[1]

I am thinking the vaccines should be made free for low-income foreign workers as well. I say so because as we have seen, the strength of our community response towards COVID-19 is as good as our weakest links. And the low-income foreign worker community is part of those links. Regardless how we like to marginalize them, they are part of our Malaysian community.

In the past few weeks, we have seen Malaysia’s total cases spiking over and over again. There is no guarantee that we have seen the global peak. The worst is yet to come.

Daily new Covid-19 cases

Given the trend and the government’s actions of late, it seems they have given up the fight for containment. Instead, they are betting on the arrival of the vaccines. I feel this is the wrong position to take because while the first vaccines should arrive next year, it will not be enough to cover sufficient portion of the population until 2022 or 2023. That is a long way to go and it will necessitate prioritization of recipients.

Regardless of the need to prioritize, a good chunk of the cases involve transmission among low-income foreign workers. The government has long given a minimal damn about it, but COVID-19 is making that lackadaisical attitude a luxury even for a bunch of racists. If the foreign worker transmissions are not managed well, it could threaten to spill over to the wider population, and make the already bad situation worse. This is especially so with the government’s weakening will to fight the pandemic as seen through inconsistent and hypocritical regulations and enforcement.

To prevent the spillover risk, I think it is necessary to vaccinate low-income foreign workers working at the construction sites, plantation grounds and factory floors for free. Or at least, subsidize the cost so it is cheap enough for them to get vaccinated.

Additionally, we may need to provide free, or cheap vaccine to long-term undocumented immigrants and this will have to come with amnesty. To fight COVID-19 fast and effectively, we need to vaccinate as many persons living in Malaysia as possible, regardless of their status. I would also make it compulsory.

Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — PUTRAJAYA (Nov 27): The Covid-19 vaccine will be given free to Malaysians but foreigners will have to pay a charge determined by the Ministry of Health, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said today. The prime minister said the government has no plan to make the vaccination compulsory and the vaccine will be administered only to those who agree to take it voluntarily, particularly people at risk and prone to disease. [Bernama. Covid-19 vaccine to be given free to Malaysians, says PM Muhyiddin. The Edge Markets. November 27 2020.]

Economics Science & technology Society

[2917] Urban life will not go away with WFH and digital technology

Last week, I participated in a discussion panel on urban poverty and urbanization. Over the course of the session, a fellow discussant highlighted the potential of working-from-home phenomenon in reducing the need for urban centers.

I am unsure if I could agree with the suggestion.

First off, such decentralization is possible. It is not out of this world. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted discussions on living away from cities. We could work from everywhere now. Some have even thought perhaps it is time to go rural altogether. There is a logic behind it.

Beyond the panel, there is a rethinking about high-density area. As it goes, maybe we should spread it out a little to make our society more resilient against future outbreaks. WFH is one of the ways that could be achieved. We can work remotely, and therefore we do not need a place in the city. Ditch the city, the slogan might sound.

If pandemic is the only thing to worry about, sure. Decentralizing the population into many smaller low-density towns would be the way forward.

But cities are not just about working culture, and pandemic is not the only thing that concerns us.

If I remember my lesson back in university, there is such a thing as agglomeration. If enough companies—and indeed people—gathered together, they would enjoy some kind of economies of scale in more than one way.

In terms of services, the more people there are in a place, the cheaper it is to deliver those services. This is relevant to both public and private services. Think of mass transit, or better city trains. Super-expensive to build and operate. Having it in Kuala Lumpur might make sense with its 2 million-4 million people depending on the definition used to define the city along with its satellites. Less so in smaller cities such as Kuantan that does not even hit one million population mark. Malacca Town with its low population city has a monorail, but we all know it is a bad, expensive joke.

And it is not just mass transit. Think about utilities. Think of roads or better in these days of interconnectivity, fiber optics network. It is cheaper to lay the cable for city use, like in Kuching, than in the interior of Sarawak. Indeed, communication tower is generally the preferred cheaper method of expanding internet services into rural areas.

There are plenty of examples across many sectors. Cost consideration alone make cities capable of providing services rural areas struggle to provide.

Large population is also a theme central to growth theory. As one growth theory puts it, beyond capital accumulation and technological progress, population growth is really the ultimate driver of growth. With population, comes new ideas. Edmund Phelps long ago wrote the following that pretty much summarizes mainstream growth theory:

One can hardly imagine, I think, how poor we would be today were it not for the rapid population growth of the past to which we owe the enormous number of technological advances enjoyed today… If I could re-do the history of the world, halving population size each year from the beginning of time on some random basis, I would not do it for fear of losing Mozart in the process. [Edmund Phelps. Population Increase. Canadian Journal of Economics. August 1968. Page 511-512]

To put it simply, technological progress itself is a function of population growth.

Good stuff tend to be created when people congregate in a place. New observation, innovation, idea exchange and all that happen more often among large population located in a dense area than in a sparsely populated space. The residents of large cities also make sophisticated demands arising from urban life. Without these demands, nobody would think of the solution and no progress would be made.

There might be an optimal population size. But for Malaysian cities, I think we could make it denser. I prefer denser cities not just because of the factors mentioned above and more, but also because the toll sprawls exert on the environment. Big cities tend to share resources better.

Finally, it is true that the pandemic lockdown has proven that we have the technology to work from home.

But it also proves we do not enjoy being stuck at home.

We do not just live within the space of our four walls. It is the culture, the connections and the values that matter as well. We yearn society. I yearn the city.

Many options available in the cities are available on the internet not because online services are taking over those services previously provided physically. Rather, the internet accommodates the provision of those services. It does not make cities irrelevant. Ultimately, those very services are made possible by cities.

Personal Photography Society Travels

[2914] Madness in a holy shrine

I have an English translation of the Masnavi at home. It has been on my shelves for years but I have never read it full, much like my collection of Kafka’s, or writings of Robert Nozick and Bertrand Russell, or even the Koran.

The Masnavi feels like a reference material. You do not read it whole. You open the pages once in a while and read a verse or two or three now and then.

There is criticism that most established English translations have stripped the Islamic religion out of Rumi’s poems. That have made the Masnavi secular for a wider audience outside of the Muslim world; Rumi has been removed from his Islamic context. Meanings have been corrupted from its original intention.

My miseducation had misdirected my expectations when I was in Konya visiting Rumi’s tomb. He died here in the 13th century when this part of Turkey was ruled by the Seljuks. The tomb is officially called the Mevlana Museum. Rumi, or in full Jalal Ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, was a teacher, a master, a Maulana. But the tomb was no museum. It is a major shrine. And the population of Konya, I was told, is deeply religious but in a different way.

Growing up as a Muslim in Malaysia with religious education pummeled into me early on with questions discouraged, I had come to think of shrines as something absolutely unorthodox, bordering cultish. The religious authority in Malaysia strongly discourages worshipping at shrines fearing it could lead to effective apostasy at worst. In Keramat in Kuala Lumpur, a Muslim shrine was removed by the government to prevent the Malays from visiting it. By a long shot, Malaysia is not Saudi Arabia. But some aspects of it could be felt.

Rumi's tomb

And so it was a sight to see people coming in droves into the large shrine praying in front of Rumi’s large heavy sarcophagus.

The stone coffin, itself under a massive tall green dome, is lifted off the ground by a set of four legs. I, a person whose understanding of Rumi had been divorced from the Islamic context and understanding of Islam must have had approached puritanism from the perspective of these devotees in this shrine, was dumbstruck by the religiousness surrounding me. I did not expect to be in a pilgrimage, but I found myself stuck inside one.

It was all around me. Old women in black dressing covered from head to toes without a veil prayed toward Rumi’s remains while tearing up. There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger… and Rumi the teacher. It was as if Rumi was a prophet himself. The Masnawi after all was nicknamed the Persian Koran. I was unprepared for this. Their devotion was true.

Many were determined to make their way to the front, pushing those in the way out harshly. A majority of them were Turks, but I spotted some Iranians too and other foreigners by listening to the language they spoke. They must have seen me as a nuisance, a foreigner standing in the way, not praying as they did.

As I observed, I came to disapprove what I saw. It was not so much due to my religious education, but rather due to the situation at hand. I can understand how holy the experience could be, but in the believers’ eagerness to reach for the scared, they pushed and shoved others in their way with a greediness and disrespect that should have no place in a holy place. The madness was understandable but disagreeable. It felt too worldly to deserve a place in this tomb beside the maulana.

I frowned each time I was pushed aside.

I felt angry but relented. If I needed to be patient, perhaps here inside the tomb was a place to practice patience. After all, I came with a secularized understanding of Rumi. I had no rights to judge them.