The Malaysian structure of politics remains intact, there has been a sea change in the culture of politics as it is practiced on the ground. Every element in the mix has grown a little murkier, the interests of each having got intertwined, and politics has become an entrenched system that is highly resistant to challenge. The language of politics too has coarsened significantly, and there is a lot of anger going around, resulting in political choices that seemed to be very unlikely just a few years back. Social media, by giving voice to the millions who were earlier forced only to listen, has deepened democratic participation while simultaneously enabling a shallower political discourse.
There is a sense of sure-footed precision around the “surgical strikes” carried out by PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang as has been widely commented upon, his action has changed the dynamic of PAS-UMNO conflicts in a fundamental way.PAS’s actions might be clear and well executed, but what of the other players that have played a role? As far the larger public goes, it is not difficult to understand that there is a huge amount of pent-up anger that lies stored, waiting to be unleashed.
When the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Azalina Othman Said stood up in Parliament after lunch to move a minister’s motion to give priority to Hadi’s Private Member Bill motion on hudud, she was not doing Hadi’s bidding but carrying out Najib’s directive.
Although PAS leaders are gloating at their political “coup” to get Hadi’s hudud motion presented to the House, it came to nought, for Hadi backed off from a debate and a vote, and the result is that Parliament had not given leave to Hadi to present a private member’s bill to amend Act 355 to amend the syariah court’s jurisdiction.
Going forward, it is possible that by appearing to walk the talk in terms of showing a new determination to change the dynamic of PAS-UMNO relations, some of the frustration will begin to subside. The truly strong do not need to make exaggerated threats all the time, and once there is a greater conviction in one’s proclaimed strength, it is possible that the anger quietens into a deeper sense of confidence. Restraint then becomes a choice one makes rather than being seen as an excuse for one’s perceived inability to act with strength.the most worrying has been that of media. When a powerful tool like that is used so single-mindedly, without even the slightest pretence of objectivity, and a total absence of accountability, there is the great danger of being led into a path with tragic consequences. What a significant section of media is doing today is to amplify the anxieties of its audiences and deliberately whip up sentiment, and it is doing so for largely for a commercial purpose.
On the other hand, the hysterical form of nationalism that we see today could feed on itself and become a phenomenon that could turn ominously dark. After all, one surgical strike is merely the beginning of a new chapter of non Muslim hostilities. What happens when another incursion takes place? And what when there is from the non Muslims ? What kind of a response becomes mandatory then? The nuclear threshold might have been pushed upwards by the PAS action, but it is very much part of the equation going forward. To be pushed into taking police action against PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang for saying Only Islam can rule, because of public sentiment is a frightening prospect.
It is important now to recognize that the PAS-UMNO’s action has also fundamentally changed its own threshold of responsibility. Earlier, the Malay-Muslim reaction could be as intemperate as it liked, for words were a substitute for action. Nothing really changed on the ground, so it did not really matter what was said. Fantasies of revenge could be framed in whatever terms that seemed politically advantageous. After this action and the very public owning of it, the umno relationship with PAS has been recalibrated in a way that it has become much more sensitive to any new input. There are not many more intermediate steps available between where we are today and outright war. The government needs to protect itself from its own support base and from the urgings of a hyper-nationalistic media and give itself the room that it needs to take action on its own terms and in the nation’s long-term interests. Statements like the ones being made by Umno secretary-general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor might have been fine earlier, but today when of PAS president crows about being ‘in a state of coma’ after the split the consequences of such casual uttering can be severe. The narrative from the PAS side needs to be much more tightly controlled, for now, what it says and does will be taken much more seriously.
Democracy is a bet that humanity that takes on itself, and the stakes are rising like never before. In an earlier age the democracies of the day went about their business of apparently being led by the wishes of the people while in fact working within a highly regulated framework that did not leave too much to chance. The political discourse emphasized a restrained and formal practice of democracy; the process was governed by a tight set of protocols and rules, and was presided over with a comprehensive system of checks and balances. Politics was a formally enacted costume drama, much as was the case with the judiciary, and came bound with the fabric of propriety and justice.while much of the structure of politics remains intact, there has been a sea change in the culture of politics as it is practiced on the ground. Every element in the mix has grown a little murkier, the interests of each having got intertwined, and politics has become an entrenched system that is highly resistant to challenge. The language of politics too has coarsened significantly, and there is a lot of anger going around, resulting in political choices that seemed to be very unlikely just a few years back. Social media, by giving voice to the millions who were earlier forced only to listen, has deepened democratic participation while simultaneously enabling a shallower political discourse
There is a comforting if untested notion that all this a part of an evolutionary process, and that things will improve with time. The digital world is new, and as of now, a wild unregulated space, without adequate safeguards and requisite social conventions, including a reward and punishment system. This, it can be argued, will inevitably become more rule-bound, as we discover the costs of our freedoms, and some of rabid behaviour on display will get toned down. The rise of populist leaders who feed on anxiety and create divisions have existed before, but history tells us that these are almost always transient phases, a periodic itch that societies scratch furiously, but briefly.
The question is, left to ourselves, will democracies move towards greater individual freedoms and away from divisions based on religion, race and ethnicity? As the hold of the elite weakens, does the politics of democracy becoming a purer version of itself or does it get attracted to its baser side? This is a very big bet to make. Is the emergence of a more populist and strident form of leadership a pointer to our destination, or is it part of our learning curve?
There is enough reason to be pessimistic. Structurally, media- which determines how we see the world by making it visible to us in a particular way, is geared to heighten polarities. Social media resembles an arena where warring tribes engage in relentless hostilities, with ever escalating rancor. The state is increasingly intolerant when it comes to dissent – surveillance and pre-emptive action is on the rise and NGOs worldwide are under pressure. Media, the market and politics are all pointing in the same direction. Each increasingly privileges the desires of people and caters uncritically to these. The big ideas that defined democracies- equality, justice, freedom of expression are all under attack- not from non-democratic forces but from the instruments and processes that are highly democratic.
The effect of media can be imagined in another way too. Theorist Tom Pettit proposed that the last 500 years have been what he termed as the Gutenberg Parenthesis, that began with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and continued till the advent of the Internet, which he argues represents a return to a more oral consciousness. The authority of the printed word represented at its pinnacle in the form of the book, is eroding as more oral codes of communication are gaining dominance. We are ‘going forward to the past’ in terms of media and its impact on society. While Pettit sees this as an overthrow of the tyranny of structure as imposed by formalized ideas of knowledge, his formulation could be used to imagine other possibilities.
At its most basic level, the era of print made knowledge more easily accessible and freely circulated. It helped shape a common currency of ideas, some of which were privileged as shared ideals that society must aspire to. The culture fostered by the print world emphasized rationality and logic. It also alienated human beings from the world that they lived in, but this detachment helped foster many of the ideals that have propelled liberal thought. The coming of television and now the internet has meant that we have returned in some form to our oral roots.
If we were to accept this axis of analysis, then it could be argued that liberalism and the idea of modernity that drives it is not an inevitable progression based on the human instinct for freedom, but a development contingent on what the dominant media form of the time is.
To reduce complex social and political phenomena to a single variable is rarely meaningful or useful, but in this case, it poses a question that is both provocative and plausible. The question in effect is whether progressive liberal ideals were an accident of media; an interruption that is now petering out. Recent events of the world might not be part of a cycle, but be indicative of a longer term shift towards a more tribal consciousness. It is too soon to imagine what kind of changes lie in store, for the codes of a digitally powered society are still in the process of being formed. But liberalism as we know it might not merely be under attack, but might possibly not survive the changes that we are seeing. The ideals that democracies take for granted might be up for negotiation, not merely for now but for good. It is not a comforting thought, which is why it is worth thinking about.