It is always a pleasure to listen to what Farish Noor has to say. He is a kind of a hip academician that challenges and entertains the mind. He makes history subversive and so making it much more interesting that the dull official version sanctioned by the establishment. I like subversion, even if I myself am increasingly conforming to societal rules… for a libertarian, that is. Last weekend when he held his regular public lecture at the Central Market Annex was no different.

He has a hypothesis on the understanding of the concept cleanliness and its evolution since colonial times. I do not buy it outright because it is, well, too clean and too specific. If you have a certain set of events, you are likely to be able to accommodate a lot of themes if you are creative enough.

Farish wanted to tie that lecture with the Bersih movement. I thought that was all too convenient. It sounded as if he was working the problem backward rather than deriving it from the root. Given this, there has to be more than a theme to sew it all together cleanly and tightly.

Nevertheless, the hypothesis of his is interesting enough for me to have a think and to modify it so that to make it more general. I find the looser understanding of his hypothesis which I consider as the gradual inversion of top-down approach of governance into the organic one as a more convincing narrative.

The whole premise of the lecture was how the idea of cleanliness was originally state-centric. European colonial powers in Southeast Asia considered the tropical environment with some disgust. The tropical jungle with sweltering sun conjured insect-infested environment, always associated with diseases like malaria.

The colonial powers brought with them new ways of life, apparently more ordered and cleaner, free from the naturally dirty tropics.

These powers introduced systematic town planning and better sanitation in Southeast Asia. Farish showed a photograph or maybe a painting contrasting clean European-designed building painted white erected in Southeast Asia with wooden Malay homes built haphazardly with coconut trees growing here and there randomly. If I may exaggerate, cows roamed free in the Malay village. European colonial powers took the former as clean, and the later as dirty. Farish more than hinted the racial superiority European colonialists held against the native then.

He argued that the introduction of modern medicine through colonial state apparatus further strengthened the European notion of cleanliness. The scientific nature of modern understanding of medicine intertwined with European understanding of cleanliness. Traditional Southeast Asian medicine was looked down at due to its dependence on beliefs regardless of its efficacy (here was where I first disagreed with Farish’s lecture. While a lot of these kinds of medicine are effective, many more are based on grandmother’s belief and downright fraud). The colonial powers undertook upon themselves to apply modern understanding of medicine and hence cleanliness to clean up the colonies. Hence, the introduction of town planning, for instance.

For him, cleanliness is not confined only to physical cleanliness. He argued at the public lecture that the definition of cleanliness was more wholesome. It also includes moral and spiritual aspects. It is this definition that allowed him to tell a story of evolving definition of cleanliness. He defended his definition by highlighting that the local inhabitants’ understanding of the term cleanliness included moral and spiritual cleanliness: a soul or morality untainted by the bad intention or even touched by the devil so-to-speak. He cited various customs as a lemma to his larger point.

Farish believed the notion of cleanliness that the European colonialists brought to this part of the world was a facade to cover up the dirty business of colonialism. While the colonial towns and capitals were neat, the political and economic exploitations were ugly: tin mines, rubber plantations, the misery these activities brought to the immigrants, the wars and crime. Farish argued that even the introduction of health ordinances was done toward this end.

European racism somehow got into the picture, with the colonial masters inevitably associated all things dirty with the locals and that gave the impetus for the mission of civilizing humankind, or probably in Farish Noor’s parlance, making everything clean. Here is where the wholesome definition of cleanliness gets into the larger picture.

This all encompassing understanding of cleanliness gives one mandate to govern. I am better than you, and therefore I am the master. From mere racism, it was later translated into statism. The state was all knowing.

Fast-forward to post-colonial Malaysia, the racist connotation (racism among Malaysians notwithstanding) was gone but the statism prevailed.

This time around however, the common people subscribing to Islamic values saw the government was dirty, whatever those values were. It was a kind of nationalism that despised colonial legacy. In the 1970s, the university students saw the political elites and institutions as champagne drinking men living a Western lifestyle. These elites were not the god-fearing leaders that fit the idealized leaders these students dreamed for. The students were revolting against what they thought was impure political structure.

Farish believes this was the first seed that prodded civil society to assume the concept of cleanliness as theirs and turned it from state-centric to organic definition. From the state being clean and the ruled being dirty, the relationship was subverted and reversed. What was dirty was clean, and what was clean was dirty.

He then introduced the Bersih movement into the storyline.

It is the civil society in Malaysia which now sees the government as dirty, and that civil society is stepping up to the pedestal, and beginning talking down to the government, as the government did previously. The civil society wants to clean up the corrupt government. Thus explains the evolution of the concept ”cleanliness” up to contemporary time.

Again, the evolution of cleanlinessis too convenient for me. Again, like I wrote earlier, I find the looser hypothesis more attractive, a hypothesis that traces the evolution of the relationship between the governed and the governing rather than that of a concept, which has to be loosen up beyond its typical meaning before it could fit Farish’s narrative.

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