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Why class matters

Classroom without people
A class successfully avoided (©Tiffany Szerpicki / sxc.hu)

AS a teacher, I can tell you that students can and will find any excuse under the sky in order to escape classes, and to not study. What is odd for me is that in Malaysia, there are also politicians, political activists, ideologues and public commentators who likewise refuse a political education.

Some politicians do not take too kindly to the word “class”, for reasons as confused as their reasoning. We are told that any class analysis is dangerously close to the bugbear of Marxist thought (and that surely is dangerous!) or that discussion of class-based issues can “go above the heads” of some.

Karl Marx
It’s a picture of Karl Marx! Run!
(public domain/wikipedia)
Well yes, class analysis can and will go above the heads of most as long as we remain an intellectually stunted and challenged nation. We live in a society where the popular understanding of class remains confined to the word “classroom”. Should we be surprised then if Malaysians in general and some Malaysian politicians in particular do not wish to engage in discussions about class structures and struggle? Or that they are adverse to any class-based analysis of the racialised capitalist model the state employs?

Class matters because it offers us a concrete, objective and verifiable basis to any form of political analysis that may, in the long run, help us understand our country’s muddled politics. For too long, Malaysian politics has been seen through the prism of race, ethnicity, language and culture. These are all general concepts rooted in subjectivities that are relative, change with the times, and are next to impossible to measure accurately.

Furthermore, so much of what passes as political discussion in this country — particularly when it comes to discussing the fiction of “race” — is rooted in essentialisms that are over-simplified and not even empirically grounded.

So why this reluctance to talk about something real and rooted for a change, such as class?

Shallow understanding

As an academic who teaches political theory and history, I am deeply worried when politicians demonstrate a reluctance to deal with real class differentials. For that would be like trying to discuss sexism or racism without rooting the discussion in the realities of power and power structures.

A cursory view of the state of popular politics in Malaysia at present would show just how shallow and weak our grasp of power realities are at the moment, and how our discursive landscape is cluttered with essentialised ideas.

Old portrat of Sultans with British officials
First Durbar (Conference of Rulers) held at Kuala Kangsar, Malaya in 1897; Seated (l-r):
Hugh Clifford (Resident of Pahang), JP Rodger (Resident of Selangor), Sir Frank Swettenham (Resident-General),
Sultan Ahmad (Pahang), Sultan Abdul Samad (Selangor), Sir Charles Mitchell (British High Commissioner),
Sultan Idris (Perak), Tuanku Muhammad (Yand di Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan) and
WH Treacher (Resident of Perak) (public domain/wikipedia)

All this spurious talk of “Malay unity”, for instance, is predicated on the idea that there is some homogenous Malay “race” out there to be united. But the reality is that racial differences were, and remain, a construct of the colonial era and an instrumental fiction that was used to divide and rule the colonised natives.

Likewise talk of preserving ethnic and racial identity — be it through vernacular schools or the vernacular media — again assumes that there are communities that exist distinct from each other in neatly isolated and insulated racial-ethnic bubbles. The reality is that we are all hybrid creatures inhabiting a shared discursive cultural and linguistic public domain.

Class solidarity

Woman approaching bag of sago flour
Poor Malaysians share a similar economic and social
status, regardless of race
Class matters in Malaysia for one simple reason. It is when we focus on the real disparities of income, wealth and power differentials that we see that the lot of poor Malaysians, regardless of their racial categorisations, are closer to each other than they realise.

A poor fisherfolk trying to make a living in the village of Bachok, Kelantan, has more in common with a poor vegetable seller in Ipoh or a rubber tapper in Perak. They may be of different ethno-linguistic-cultural backgrounds, but their economic and social status are the same.

It is upon realising these commonalities that there can be class solidarity, and people can begin to work and help each other on the basis of shared interests. It is also on this shared basis that we Malaysians can see each other as fellow citizens rather than as members of different ethno-linguistic-religious communities.

For this to happen, however, there has to be some degree of political education in Malaysia; at least one that furnishes our citizens with a modicum of understanding about politics, representation, fundamental rights, responsibilities and entitlements. And while teachers like me go about doing all this teaching, we hope that some of our politicians will learn, and help us, too.

What do politicians want?

Malaysian politicians — of all parties and on both sides of the political fence — have to decide whether they want political power for themselves or political education — and eventually emancipation — for the people they claim to represent.

Politicians claiming to speak for the rakyat and then having gigantic posters and banners erected on their behalf do nothing to empower citizens and foster better relations between disparate Malaysians.

Young girl raising her hand in class
(© Anissa Thompson)
This is a question every politician should ask her/himself. It’s a question that the public needs to also ask of politicians. Is politics merely about the acquisition of power and the perks that come with it, or is politics about the political emancipation and empowerment of the masses?

If it is about emancipation and empowerment, we need to understand that a politically educated and emancipated electorate will expect and demand more from the people they elect to represent, and not lead, them. They will demand more, say more, protest more. But they will also participate and contribute more to the development of a working democracy in any country.

Of course, old-school politicians may not take too kindly to a politicised Malaysian public that is better educated, knows their rights, and consequently demands more. But a politician who is genuinely committed to the ideal of democratic emancipation will greet these developments with a smile, and know that she/he has done the job well.

The same dilemma is faced by school teachers, by the way. The teacher can choose to dominate his/her students and impose his/her will on them via a narrow pedagogy that is constraining. Or a teacher can open up the minds of students instead.

Choosing the latter, admittedly, means having to teach many an opinionated and headstrong student. But it is my most independent-minded students who have always turned out to be the best students, and who later went on to do better things than I could have dreamt of. It is not for me to take credit for their success, but I am thankful that I was not the one who limited their potential either.

Politicians should start doing the same. Favicon


Dr Farish A Noor is basically a school teacher, and quite content to remain so. He is one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site, along with Dr Yusseri Yusof.

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14 Responses to “Why class matters”

  1. Jamie Khoo says:

    Amen!

  2. Justin says:

    I believe you’re mistaken in your belief that the ideal politician should not be leading the people but nothing more than represent the people. This is an ideal that is based on a flawed assumption that the people are highly educated and know what is best not only for [themselves] but for the country in the long term.

    The reality of it is that nothing is equal. As you have mentioned there are many Malaysians that are poor. Is it not also true that there are many Malaysians that are not educated or not educated as well as others? Even if people are well educated it does not mean that they’re good or interested in economics, politics, foreign affairs, the laws and etc. Furthermore you’re discounting the fact that there will be people with vested interests demanding all sorts of things regardless of whether their demands make sense or not. If politicians were to listen and accept all [their] constituents asks for, the politicians could never do anything.

    If you believe that this is the best way to go, just look at how American politics works. It is pretty close to your ideal. Rather than being a great democracy that people seem to harp on, what I see on the other hand are many politicians in America that lack backbone, pander to their constitutents, make promises on issues that do not make sense, freely slander/libel their opponents, use mistruths to justify the issues that they are supporting and many more. Is this what we want? Or do we want to be better than them?

    In your [article], you only narrowly defined what politics can be which is “merely about the acquisition of power and the perks that come with it, or is politics about the political emancipation and empowerment of the masses”. I disagree because I believe there can be a better way. The integral features of what I believe to be my ideal politician [are:] he/she has a great amount of integrity, is capable of rational thinking, practical in solving problems, has good judgement when it comes to accepting or rejecting what his/her constituents say or demand, is able to communicate well, and has a vision for a better Malaysia for Malaysians to live in.

    Running a country demands these features as it is much [more] complex [than] just “emancipation and empowerment of the masses” because in reality people don’t know what is best for themselves in the long run. Do note I am not condoning or justifing that politicians should not hear what the people have to say but rather to take their ideas and opinions and evaluate their merits before accepting or rejecting them.

    I also disagree that we should be introducing the idea of classes into Malaysian politics. Is it not enough that we have religion, race, language and culture to justify all kinds of discrimination that now we need to add different classes into the mix? It is not hard to fathom that there will be different classes with competing interests and where they clash we’ll be getting class warfare.

    Rather then relying on such ideas why not treat the problems as you have mentioned the way they are? Which is, a lot of Malaysians are still poor, not well educated and have no way of getting out of that trap. If the problem is brought up and focused on rather than [being distracted from] by adding things like class, race and religion into the problem, it would be more constructive. Of course this would be of no use if only a small subset of Malaysians care about this issue which is all the more important that we have good politicians that have the vision to push such issues and work to fix them.

  3. Yusuf Martin says:

    Further reading: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Max Weber, Michel Foucault, Gilbert & Kahl, Anthony Giddens, Stanislaw Ossowski, et al.

  4. T-Boy says:

    What amuses me, of course, is that Farish has attempted to puncture that tendency for talk about power structures in Malaysia in essentialist terms by … arguing that class is the real essentialist term …

    I get the fact that if you don’t include class in discussions on power dynamics, you risk blinding yourself to real pitfalls, and that people should not shout down arguments that are formulated in class or class-based theory …

  5. PH Chin says:

    “If it is about emancipation and empowerment, we need to understand that a politically educated and emancipated electorate will expect and demand more from the people they elect to represent, and not lead, them. They will demand more, say more, protest more. But they will also participate and contribute more to the development of a working democracy in any country.”

    I believe the rakyat are more politically aware now after last year’s 8 March general election.

    The question is, “Are the politicians ready for the politically educated and emancipated rakyat?”

    To all politicians: change or perish politically.

  6. kamal says:

    Yup, and so we know that the foundation of our society is class based and not race, gender, or any other forms of categories that we like to box ourselves in. Not that these categories are not real or important, but it is almost meaningless to talk about them in Malaysia without talking about class. But we do, and sometimes this sounds or I suppose feels like trying to cook curry without the curry powder.

    Class is essential to our understanding of power and social relations in Malaysia. I can understand and even appreciate when politicians don’t want to talk about class, instead quickly hide behind other constructs such as religion, ethnicity or bureaucracy to deny space for class arguments; or when the rakyat in their most passionate moments cannot help but see shadows lurking in the dark and think to themselves that these are indeed the reality.

    But for academicians to want to propose pilot studies into race relations to understand ethnic perceptions and grouses, leaves me somewhat speechless. Knowing that shadows are optical illusions, why persist to see them as concrete and representational of reality?

  7. DanielC says:

    Compared to class, I think ecology, cosmology, genetics, or even anthropology would be a better idea to spread if we wish to unleash humanity’s full potential. Hoping that a few bright students or a politician or two will do good is too limited hope for a teacher/social activist :P

    It’s a crucial time for the planet. The political messiness and economical disparity we see today can rise or subside. However the environment pollutants we leave behind are mounting and doing irreversible damage.

    The health of the ecology should be the dominant issue for any political party with any real vision or care for society.

  8. Kris Khaira says:

    Justin, do you really think America is closest to the ideal Farish Noor had in mind? America, the place where an elite group can push privatised healthcare onto the people?

    > “…because in reality people don’t know what is best for themselves in the long run. ”

    If you’re saying democracy doesn’t work, what’s your alternative?

  9. Sonia says:

    “This is an ideal that is based on a flawed assumption that the people are highly educated and know what is best not only for [themselves] but for the country in the long term.”

    This is a highly dangerous idea. As research from James Scott, Syed Hussein Alatas and many others shows, people who are uneducated tend to follow what is in their best interests, even if it seems strange to the casual observer. It also tends to dovetail with the idea that the only form of education is what you get at school and university, and that lessons learned on the factory floor, in farms or in the forest are not ‘education’.

  10. Indeed, Dr Farish has identified a social-political problem but he subsumes it into a class conflict. I think the truth is closer to the disparity between the 10% rich and 90% poor in every country.

    And the real political and economic problem is how the elite political class is elected by the 10% rich and not the 90% poor. The only politician in Asia who represented the interest of the poor rural folks is Thaksin. But removing Thaksin does not solve the 10%:90% problem given that the King has no viable successor.

    What Dr Fairsh’s analysis shows is that any politician can be become very influential if he is democratically elected by the 90% poor. Whether this is good or bad is a different issue: are people known to have their own long-term interests at heart or are electorate always blindsided by temporary gains such as protected jobs, subsidised prices, etc?

    In Malaysia, a charismatic politician like Anwar can easily be elected to represent the masses. But does he have the formulae to address the long-term economic needs of the nation?

  11. Justin says:

    Kris Khaira:

    Yes I do think that America is the closest you can get to it. The people who are loudest in making their demands tend to get it and not the people with the most reasonable arguments. By the way I think you’re mistaken into thinking that an “elite group” are pushing for privatized healthcare, it is a reality in the US. Furthermore Americans tend to dislike anything that is related to socialism, which is why it caused such a big hoo ha during the presidential election when the Republicans were calling Obama that. Which is also why Obama is having a hard time reforming health care, he’s trying to make it not look like any kind of socialist program like those in Western Europe.

    Second I am not saying democracy doesn’t work. I think people have a wrong idea of what democracy is. The idea of democracy is that the government has to be accountable to the people. I accept that and I agree with that statement. Now the easy part is that, the more important problem is how? How can the government be accountable to the people? Of course elections is one of them. An independent and fair justice system is another but I think it is equally important of what we expect from our politicians. We can of course expect our politicians to be pushovers with no backbone whatsoever who cave in to demands that are reasonable or not. Of course if we assumed that everyone is reasonable and knowledgeable in making their demands with an eye towards the future rather than today then of course their demands might make the country a better place. But this is assuming quite a lot, one being that our education system is sufficiently good enough to educate Malaysians with sufficient knowledge of how economics, politics, logic and a whole bunch of other subject matters that are pertinent to politics work. In fact I would dare stick my neck out to say that our education system has got worst through time. A more practical way to approach this is by electing politicians that have the good qualities that I have mentioned in my earlier comment. We as citizens should let them do their jobs. Of course we also give them feedback or suggestions but that doesn’t mean that they are guaranteed to be accepted. We also should keep an eye out to remove politicians that are lacking integrity, ignorant and incompetent.

    At the end of the day, there is no such thing as one kind of democracy, there are many kinds because democracy is a goal or ideal that we seek but there are many ways to reach it, some are better than others.

    Sonia:

    It is not strange that people “follow what is in their best interests”, I agree with you there. The problem with that statement is that do they even know what is in their best interests. I find it difficult to believe that people who do not have a formal education can claim that they know what is in their best interests. It might happen but it is unlikely because more often than not they don’t have a firm grasp of economics. What is in our best interests is always a balancing act between their best interest in the short term vs the long term. We all know most of the time what is in our best interests in the short term, however things are more complex and less well thought out when it comes to out long term interests.

    Take for example a student who would rather play computer games than study and enjoy doing that because it is rewarding to the student in the short term but what about the long term well-being of that student when he/she doesn’t get a good education? Of course life would be miserable and unhealthy if all the student did was study day and night without doing anything fun. So he/she needs to have some balance ,however it is not very straightforward how to obtain this balance. I will outright admit that it is difficult, all the more if you’re talking about policies for the country.

    Lastly, let me make it clear that just because you to go school or university you do not all of a sudden know how to make good decisions. It requires two steps, one you need to be able to grasp the concepts, whether you learned it through formal education or by life experiences it doesn’t matter. The hard part is not understanding it but making use of it by practicing it. By going through a formal education that teaches you these concepts well you have at least the foundation. Nonetheless it doesn’t guarantee that they will make smarter decisions in life. We’re just trying to increase the chances of it happening.

  12. Kamal says:

    Justin

    “We’re just trying to increase the chances of it happening.”

    This is the same line of argument the religious authorities use – we are the experts, we know best. It’s the same argument our politicians like to use – we know what is best for you. And they all have well qualified people with certificates to fill an entire wall. But today, after forty over years, Malaysia, following the directions of the technocrats, finds herself facing some uncomfortable questions about her society and where she stands – not just in respect to economic development, but also on the meaning and everyday experiences of being Malaysian.

    To me, a good education gives you an opportunity at a particular job – it may give you an edge over others. But where other aspects of life are differentiated, what we agree as a nation and enshrine in our constitution is that all of us, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, academic qualification, rich or poor have the same one vote. This is the society equalizer. The guy selling fish in the market has the same one vote to make a change as the guy with a three PhDs in a business suit. And we see the effects of it in the March election of 2008. It wasn’t an urban vs rural or ethnically divided vote. People in the peninsula voted across the board for change – and in Selangor, Penang, Kedah, Kelantan and (for a while) Perak, saw the opposition coming into power as state governments.

    And you are wrong, representation and development is not about some long term planning to lift our society out of the undesirable whatevers – the issues that will bring us on the right footing in the future is not what we plan for tomorrow, but what we do for today. Good governance and development is not about the ends but rather it is the means.

    What happens when we hit 2020, does it all stop or suddenly, as if automatically having arrived at being developed we stop there? No. Future aspirations, current inspirations.

    And what do I mean? It is about ensuring fair play. After all, we are an independent nation. Independence was not given on condition or in increments, with a note attached saying you are not fully independent until you attain developed status.

    The measure of a man/woman is not about material wealth, the measure is in the acknowledgment that independence or being independent means carrying our own.

    Putting academic qualification as the marker for having certain privileges over fair representation is to deny the positive efforts by our founding leaders who worked hard to raise, care and provide for their individual families. Responsibility and character are the true mortars that build society. And that is for everyone. Unlike academic degrees. Those afford the more privileged and often are as good only in building personal careers.

    If we are democratic as we claim, the process is not about giving someone responsibility to decide our lives, it is about taking the responsibility ourselves. And it is not enough that we have general elections every five years. We need to make participation as often and at a more immediate level (to our lives) than what we have now. One level we must now reach to is municipal. Making municipal positions open for elections means giving control to the people to decide their own fate at the local level. Can people decide in their best interests? Yes. Our parents and grandparents with limited education have been doing this quite successfully.

    The vote system is not simply about popularity – it is about reflecting the will of the people, the popular support. Politicians are voted not on who they are but what they aspire to – we should vote people who share our inspiration for the municipal and at the general elections for the country.

    And what about the technical expertise – they are always there. These are your tireless civil servants, be it the police, the professional and administrative bodies, the army, the academic institutions, etc. You want to have the best of society running these agencies. They translate our collective inspirations and aspirations into structural process. We want them to be qualified – with post-graduate qualifications and with experiences to boot!

    However, you don’t need to have a PhD to represent the aspirations of the country. I would argue you don’t even need a tertiary education for that. What you need is someone who has an argument to forward about society (and a ear on the pulse of society) and it is up to the people to decide if they support the argument put forward and the objectives of the party and think enough of it to see that he or she and the party they represent is given time to implement them.

    The question of good governance needs political will and the ‘right’ expertise, but this will not happen without the free participation of people through their interest groups or social movements, or professional associations. It is when there is space for active, diverse and free participation for all Malaysians that we have achieved a truly independent society. And this is not measured in the GDP but in our collective respect for the rights of each other as equal participants.

    We may not agree with each other; some may win and others lose, but we know that the government after each elections quickly heals the fractures to come together as a nation – yes even a diverse nation can come under one banner. And independence will not come from just the clever people but from passionate participation. It will only come when people realize they are independent. The relationship between free citizens and the government should not be represented as one of a recalcitrant child and the all-knowing parent; rather they are more like equal partners.

    Anyway, for me at least, to suggest that only those with degrees are qualified to express the will of the nation is sheer arrogance.

  13. Karcy says:

    To Kamal:

    You made some mistakes in your reply to Justin. The March 8th result very much showed class division between rural and urban areas. In states where the Barisan Nasional dominated or proved formidable, most of the votes that went for BN came from the rural areas. The March 8th results were amazing, but you shouldn’t pretend that the March 8th results were more than what they were.

    Also, I think you’re hiding the fact that Sarawak and Sabah also gave tremendous backing for BN, again based on the rural-urban divide. Those in urban areas threw their votes in for the opposition, and in towns like Sibu, Sarawak, did not fall to opposition only because there were so many independents stealing votes.

    I agree with Justin. Many factors contribute to shaping democracy. One problem: if I vote based on genuine interest of the betterment of the country, my vote is still canceled out by some guy who received ‘transport money’ to balik kampung and vote. Another problem: while Sarawak’s constituents have significantly fewer residents per constituency, their decisions contribute to more seats simply because of the number of constituents. If the March 8th elections had been done based on a total count of popular vote holistically, BN would have completely tumbled.

    However, a democracy is still the best system that is available, and warts and all, I wouldn’t opt for anything else.

  14. Kamal says:

    Karcy:

    I may be misreading but, the last elections was the first time in Malaysian elections that the Barisan Nasional lost five states. That is amazing. Never mind that where Barisan won, the rural votes may have leaned in their favour. I am interested in where they lost and what that means.

    As for Sabah and Sarawak, the political culture there cannot be understood without going into the history of the relations both within the states as well as between the states and the federal government.

    As much as your analogy indicates the imperfection of free elections – you have to admit that your vote can also cancel out the one who got a free bus ride home.

    I agree with you that democracy is the best option available because it offers us all a voice. Let’s look at it not as a complete project, but one where we are still ironing out the problems to make it better at being representational. Let’s focus on the means in how we want to achieve this end.

    What I wanted to indicate in my reply was we are all responsible for the outcomes and change as we have that responsibility – and not just during the elections. That is why I suggests we encourage municipal level elections – to broaden and deepen the scope of public participation and closing the gap between the ideals of one vote and the practice of what one vote (and constituent) represents.

    What I also wanted to say was let us not only assume those with qualifications are better placed than the rest of us to decide on our future. Whether BN or PR wins – they represent our will. Neither is the absolute hero or villian. Wouldn’t you agree that they are a bit of both? The destiny is ours (as a collective society) – don’t we want a say in that?

    Finally, of course I agree it is about class, but what does that mean in Malaysia – is there only one class relations model? And this is the urban/rural divide? Are we to assume that among rural communities there are no distinctions? And that all urban folks learn to play the piano, speak impeccable English and do ‘brunch’ on weekends? I think the social life in any ‘construct’ is much more complex and that is why I would be suspect of any analysis of the elections that tries to argue the results reflected in dichotomies; Bumiputera/non-Bumiputera, or rural/urban, etc.

    Plus, with such exciting results – and I don’t mean just the opposition winning, rather the impact of what people can do through participation that some can get carried away reading ‘too’ much into it.


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