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Politics & government Society

[2879] Illberal troubles besetting the West liberate liberals elsewhere

Development in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe where racist and fascist sentiments are hogging the headlines is worrying. It has been going on for some years now and it is proving to be a long-term trend rather than just an election-cycle blip.

One of many reasons why it is a concern worldwide is that major countries that used to be associated strongly with liberalism now are more reluctant in defending liberal values globally as they struggle to contain domestic problems at home. Some are even uninterested in doing so because, arguably, they no longer believe in liberal values. For instance, it is quite fanciful to think that Donald Trump believes in liberal values.

But it is not all bad news. Difference circumstances exist throughout the world. Indonesian and Malaysian societies for instance, exist in a context that is different from the one in the US and the UK.

Liberals in places like Malaysia from time to time get accused as being Western puppets or having their minds colonized by the West. When the Western world was the leader of the free world so-to-speak, the accusation had been used by local conservatives to mean that liberalism was alien to the local society and served foreign interest. When Bersih was busy protesting, the BN machinery was quick to link the movement to outside interest like George Soros. To be fair, Malaysian liberals do look abroad for help and inspiration while living in an environment that might be unfriendly to them.

I do not think such accusation is a uniquely Malaysian experience. When a large Iranian protest partly fueled by Iranian liberals erupted in 2009, one of the most popular opinions out there was for the US then led by Barack Obama to not be too vocal in their support of the protest and instead let the locals do their thing, out of fear the Iranian religious establishment would run the propaganda that the protest was fueled by outsiders, and ignore the legitimacy of the protest.

However, today, I think that accusation is starting to lose its traction.

I believe so because liberalism in the Western world – I use the West here in the general popular sense referring to the North America and Europe while keeping in mind the problematic definition as well as the fact there are places where liberal values are still held closely, like in Canada – is in trouble and as a result, the West is losing its role as the prime example of a liberal society.

As the West loses its role, liberals elsewhere get a chance to prove that they are liberals not because they look up to the West, but because they believe in principle that transcends geography and culture. And more importantly, the West does not control the local liberals. With the West in trouble and even local liberals starting to condemn the illiberalness of the West, the accusation that local liberals are Western puppets are becoming less and less relevant.

In other words, illiberal troubles besetting the West liberate liberals elsewhere.

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Economics Politics & government Society

[2872] Lasting change needs more work, more time and wider support

We have the right to celebrate May 9. It is after all the first time in Malaysian history change at the very top happened. For years we were only chipping at the edge. Progress felt irrelevant. But now, here it is. Change.

Yet, not all or even most of the changes Malaysia needs will be instituted quickly. It will take time and work for these changes to happen. There will be residual resistance to change and perhaps using the adjective residual understates the problem at hand. After more than six decades of Perikatan/Barisan Nasional in power – seven decades if you go all the way to the first Malayan general election in 1955 – there is a kind of deep state the new Pakatan Harapan government will need to win over and even fight.

There will be disappointments, and Pakatan supporters and sympathizers will accuse the new government of betrayal and hypocrisy.

But before any of us levels those accusations, we must understand that the government will have to pick their battles. Some will be won. Some will be lost. Pakatan and their supporters will need to be smart in which battles they want to win.

More importantly, before throwing those accusations in the future, we need to understand the long arc of history all of us have to deal with. Malaysia’s deep multifaceted history – with dimensions of race, religion, Peninsula-Borneo, federal-states, urban-rural, national origins, class, gender, etc – is the proper context to judge the new government in the next few years. No action could be judged in isolation.

And the future is just as important as the past in understanding this new Malaysia and the new government.

Our demography and culture are changing at glacial pace. It is slow but the inertia is massive: our society is set to become less diverse in a meaningful way. By 2050 the Bumiputras will form 70% of total population from about 60% in 2014. So would be the Muslims. The Malay population share will rise to 60% from 50% in the same period.

At the same time, we will be an aged society by 2050, from our low median age of 28-29 years old and low dependency ratio.

I fear the two demographic shifts could make our society less open and less progressive in our values. It is not the Malays and the Muslims per se that I fear. It is the increasingly monolithic nature of our society, and hence, the possible intolerance of differences. I fear that future where the Malaysian mind would narrow to a point that leaving is the only reasonable option for too many people.

This is the reason why the 2018 election was the last chance to change in time. The trends are pushing against us, especially against the liberals. It is not simply an election rhetoric. It is a real long-term concern about the fate of Malaysia. This is why I feel spoiling your votes or not voting is unwise: the advocates of the tactics (who wanted some kind of change) are ignorant of history and blind to demographic changes.

It was also the last chance to change because substantive changes that Malaysia needs could not be made by the same side that benefited from the closing of the Malaysian mind. Najib Razak tried it in 2009-2013 and he failed. All his attempts were in the end reduced to mere silo economic targets that stood alone outside of multifaceted Malaysian contexts, making them utterly dissatisfying as a vision. So dissatisfying that we had to go back to the 1990s to move forward.

And substantive change will need more support from Malaysians. While the Pakatan victory is the first step, we have to remember Pakatan won only plurality in popular votes, not majority. Lasting change would require Pakatan to get more Malaysians on board.

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Politics & government Society

[2847] We care because we are capable of empathy

It’s a big, big interconnected world out there. And that interconnectedness, ironically, makes the world smaller is a non-physical sense. Economically, socially and politically. Our lives are no longer affected purely by domestic matters. To some, the foreign affairs segment in the newspapers is an abstraction but for some others, the lines demarcating domestic and foreign concerns are blurry.

These remain the days of globalization still, however the Trumps, the Le Pens, the Farages and all those who long for a smaller world are trying to rewind the clock. They may yet be successful but for now they have a lot to undo. In the meantime, many have multiple homes and multiple affiliations with friends traversing national boundaries, opposing such undoing and rewinding.

For Malaysians, the war in Ukraine so far away across the Asian continent painfully proves the fact foreign affairs are home affairs too. Many Malaysians could not find the country on the map, but it still has an impact on the Malaysian psyche. And Malaysians did care for development in Bosnia during the Balkan War and in Kosovo. They do care about the conflicts in Palestine, in Syria and in Iraq. And to take a trivial example, there are Malaysians who care about the fate of foreign, English Premier League teams, despite not being English themselves.

The refugee crisis in Myanmar is also a Malaysian concern, because these oppressed men, women and children are coming to or passing by Malaysia. Whether we like it or not, we have to act in one way or another. Pretending the imaginary lines on a 2-dimensional map as an impregnable wall ensuring that is not our problem will not help by one bit. And to turn back the boats is not just an illiberal policy, it is heartless.

In the several years after the 9/11 attack, I became a victim of profiling at US airports, just because of my nationality and my Arab-sounding name. Security personnel would put me under extra security measures and screening. That discouraged me from leaving the US for home for the next four years for fear I would face immigration troubles upon reentry at the airports. I knew of other international students who needed to report to the Homeland Security office regularly, and I feared being subjected to the same requirement as an entry condition.

And so, I spent my entire time as a student in Michigan travelling throughout the US, reaching New York, DC, Miami, San Francisco, St Louis, Chicago, Sioux Falls and more. I remember how it felt like to drive the car through the Great Plains from the Great Lakes, or how peaceful it was staring into the night sky from the bottom of the Tuolumne Canyon just north of Yosemite in California. I learned to love America for the wonders it brought to my young mind.

Indeed, my political beliefs to a large degree were shaped in the US. However flawed the US is with all of its hypocrisies, it is still the greatest liberal democracy that the world has. It is the Athens, the Rome, the Baghdad, the Cordoba and the Delhi of our time. Just because of that, I looked up to it. Because of this and because I spent a significant portion of my early adult life there, if I had a second home, the US would be it.

When Trump and his followers do what they do, and among others equating the US to Russia, I feel that is an undoing of what the United States of America is supposed to be in my eyes, a foreigner, who looks kindly to the east across the Pacific. Trump is killing the US that I know, and by that, threatening the idea of liberal democracy all around the world (even in Malaysia where our democracy is becoming increasingly flawed and more authoritarian). That makes me angry.

The Trump’s ban, now challenged in the courts, adds further to the anger. My alma mater, the University of Michigan, is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. And I am entertaining thoughts of returning to Ann Arbor to catch the festivities and walk down the memory lane. Trump’s ban, could potentially affect me. I still remember my experiences at various US airports during the Bush era. I thoroughly dislike the discrimination and I do not wish on others what I went through.

So, I do care for things that if happening in the US. The world is interconnected enough that I have real attachments to the US. Needless to say, I have friends in the US too.

But one does not need to have personal ties to the US to be worried about development in the US. It is just like how some of us are concerned about the oppression in Xinjiang, or in Iran, or in Egypt, or in the Philippines or anywhere else without the need to have any personal connection.

Even if we cannot think of ways which a reclusive, protectionist US could affect Malaysia — it will by the way: HSBC economists think Malaysia will be one of the top four economies to be worst affected by a protectionist US — we can still care because we have empathy for other human beings. Injustice or discrimination anywhere is still wrong and we can take a position on the matter. We can make personal judging based on our values. We have enough room for empathy those near and far beyond our shores.

Because of our capacity of empathy and because of the interconnectedness of the world we live in, it is outrageous to think we have to choose between caring US-based or Malaysia-based issues. Both are causes for concerns. I care for the deplorable things happening in the US, and at the same time, I care about the 1MDB corruption scandal, or the blockade in Kelantan, along with other injustices in the Malaysian society I am living in.

Indeed, it is a false dichotomy having to choose the US or Malaysia. There is no reason why a Malaysian needs to choose between the two. We can be concerned for both, and more.

More importantly, there are liberal values and among them are that we all are created equal and all should have the same fundamental rights. This applies all around the world, not just in and around your small neighborhood.

In time when anti-liberal populists are turning national policies inward, it will be most disappointing to have liberals retreating to a small-world cocoon as well. Such inward retreat would be a betrayal of liberal belief, that liberal values are universal in nature and not provincial. We fight racism, discrimination and everything bad out there by staying true to our liberal values, not by abandoning it.

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Politics & government Society

[2831] Corrupt patriotism will eat us all

It is September 15, the eve of Malaysia Day. As I walk out of the train station into the atrium of KL Sentral, I see rows of the Malaysian flags draping down from the ceiling. Those red and white stripes are unmistakable.

The flag-flying fervor has not been as strong as it had been in the previous years. Perhaps all those third-world corruption controversies have dampened that patriotic sentiment. As it should be. Corruption the scale of 1MDB and Najib Razak should worry many, raise questions and stop us from engaging in petty excitement.

Even in its weakened form however, displays of patriotism disturb me. Here we live in an age where patriotism all around the world is increasingly provincial in nature, and that its jingoist version functions as a vehicle for racists. These racists would be fascists the moment they are given power, democratically or otherwise.

I dream of a cosmopolitan liberal society. I have never stopped believing so even as the idea gets bashed and its weaknesses get revealed by the receding tides. And that liberal ideal does not sit well with unmitigated patriotism.

The usual kind of patriotism that goes against cosmopolitan values typically targets outsiders.

But another version eats the society inside out, whenever it is unclear who the outsiders are. And in this cosmopolitan country we live in, it is never easy to differentiate between the insiders and the outsiders cleanly. It is a mixture of everything. An attempt at nativism would divide our society.

I fear, that is what Malaysian patriotism is turning into, especially when used by the corrupt in power. It turns patriotism onto us Malaysians. Anxious to preserve power despite their wrongdoings, the corrupt are trying to distract us the population from personal crime and justify their hold to power by claiming outsiders are interfering in our affairs. And increasingly, those Malaysians who disagree with the corruption of those in power are being labelled as traitors, working in cahoot with outsiders.

Near Kerinchi in Kuala Lumpur as well as other places, I have noticed yellow and black posters pasted on walls deriding those protesting against Najib Razak’s corruption as “talibarut Amerika.” It is a strong Malay term translating into spies, saboteur, stooges and anything similar. All invested in them the connotation of betrayal.

And to be a patriot is not to work with outsiders, as the narrative goes. Outsiders are out to destroy “us”, they say, as if it is “us” Malaysians whom benefited from the multibillion dollar corruption by the men and women sitting in the desolate distant Putrajaya.

The fact domestically, the corrupt are trying to save their skin and bring everything else down, is forgotten conveniently. Purposefully distraction, digression and misdirection happen to shift attention from 1MDB and Najib Razak’s corruption. Words are being inverted and subverted the way Orwell had imagined.

And so I look at the show of patriotism warily. I wonder when it would turn to people like me who would like to see the corrupt in prison instead of in Putrajaya.

I know on the other side of that corrupt patriotic wall is fascism. I will not worship that wall. Without a chisel, I will stay away.

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Politics & government Society

[2536] Some liberals are not really liberals

I have been accused as a purist when it comes to defining the term liberal. I subscribe to a specific definition of the term liberal that will disqualify many other self-proclaimed liberals quickly. By specific, I am referring to libertarianism. Others prefer the term classical liberals and I find it hard to really differentiate the two in a substantive manner. In any case, that label is merely used to convey the idea that I and others like me hold the individual as the most important component of our society. The way we manifest our political philosophy is by mostly emphasizing or demanding the absence of coercion in running our lives. This is most easily observable when libertarians address economic questions by trying to circumvent any reference to any political authority. There are other qualifications but those details can be suitably discussed at a more measured pace some other time. I only lay out the major identifiers generally to prove that the definition is specific and will disqualify other self-proclaimed liberals.

The term liberal in the most general sense did evolve over time. The experience in the 20th century fused ideas in so many ways. Some decidedly non-liberal understanding of the world before the 1930s became generally liberal by the 1990s. The great economist John Maynard Keynes went out to save liberalism and capitalism from fascism and communism by introducing ideas that today are so imbedded in mainstream economics, but then opposed vehemently by the liberals of his time. The results of the intra-liberalism debate produced a new liberalism that not only sharpened its thesis but also synthesized some of its anti-thesis. A new hypothesis emerged in the post-Cold War 1990s with the rise of the Clinton and Blair administrations, after a political and economic classical liberal resurrection of the 1970s.

The evolution of liberalism forces me to admit at least this: even if I philosophically despised these evolved liberalism, their subscribers do have the claim to the title. They are like the siblings that you find hard to sit with. No matter how much you cannot stand the other, you know all of you share the same parents and there have to be some kind of decorum between the sides.

The debates between the different schools of liberalism still continue today to remind all of the original early 20th century debate in the mist of the Great Depression. But the essential difference is that those intra-liberalism debates now firmly take the center stage while in the past, the opponents in the ring were not liberal at all. Communism is dead and hard socialists of old only throw potshots from outside of the ring, unable to steer the debate even as liberals’ capitalism is in trouble. Possibly jealous of the success of liberalism in evolving itself, old liberalism’s 20th century foes from the left who call themselves liberals, ally themselves with the evolved liberals and sometimes pull the strings towards the left’s original home in the process.

The left’s liberals are those that I take pleasure criticizing because I know they are not liberals in the general sense of the term, even without appealing to libertarianism. At least the evolved liberals accept the market economy even if they do not have the courage to run their arguments to its natural course as libertarians do. In contrast, the left’s liberals are not really convinced of the arguments of the market economy. Have a discussion with them about economic liberalism and one will wonder what is so liberal about them. Pursue a fundamental question beyond the veneer and a fault line will emerge. The left’s liberals would tweak the market economy beyond recognition the minute the more genuinely liberal others blink.

Outside the realm of serious philosophical debates are the superlative liberals. They are liberals just because they are more progressive compared to our conservative society. They may be political moderates or centrists but they are not liberal ideologically in a way that some ideas are fundamentally derived from first principles, like proper liberals. But the superlative liberals call themselves liberals anyway, just because they met someone who holds conservative worldviews that disturbs them. Unfortunately, that is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition to be a liberal.

And then there are the libertines. Or really, they are just socialites. While some liberals may live life large, but libertines by themselves do not ground their ideas the way subscribers of liberalism do, if they have any idea at all. Libertines’ liberalness is just like the superlative liberals’ liberalness. Their liberalness is devoid of liberalism. Moral and religious conservatives derisively call these libertines are liberals while alluding to liberalism, but that only because the conservatives do not understand liberalism as proper liberals do.

So, when I criticize non-libertarians of their diluted liberalism, I can accept the charge of being a puritan. When I criticize the superlative liberals and the libertine, I think I have full moral authority to dismiss them, if they claim themselves as liberals. In the latter case, I am not being a purist at all. It is just about calling a spade a spade.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
This was meant to be published in The Sun in March 2012. It did not appear on the appointed date for reason unknown to me.