FOR a region that prides itself for its so-called Asian values, we in Southeast Asia don’t seem to practise what we preach. We talk about how the region’s peoples are peace-loving, but we forget — and we continue to erase and forget — the historical fact that Southeast Asia has been one of the world’s most violent parts.
It was here that the Khmer Rouge murdered hundreds of thousands of people in their bid to take Cambodia back to Year Zero. It was here that hundreds of thousands of alleged communists were massacred in the anti-Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) purges in the 1960s. It was here that the Vietnam War was fought with napalm and chemical weapons.
So where, pray tell, was the peace in the region?
Of late, tempers have flared again in Malaysia and Indonesia for the wrong and most absurd of reasons. Indonesian vigilantes now claim that they will unilaterally invade Malaysia with samurai swords and ninja-throwing darts. How will this invading force land on Malaysia’s shores? Fly over via Air Asia?
And in Malaysia, a dispute over the building of a Hindu temple in a predominantly Malay-Muslim neighbourhood led a group of nobodies to parade with a severed cow’s head in hand. What an apt reminder that this is the month of Ramadan when Muslims are supposed to exercise moral and emotional self-restraint and composure. These are brutish times indeed.
Power of the media
Should we be surprised by any of this? The historian will remind you of the facts of our bloody and violent history and tell you that in relative terms, we seem to be slightly more civilised than before. It would be surprising, to say the least, if the region witnessed another round of bloody genocide akin to that by the Khmer Rouge.
Yet this does not, and should not, be a cause for celebration for us. The tempering of tempers in the region has less to do with a Southeast Asian community that has matured and renounced our ancestors’ violent ways. Rather, it has more to do with economic and geopolitical realities, which dictate that states can no longer massacre their own populations and get away with it. The global media is there to see to it that mass killings, pogroms and the systematic demonisation of communities will not be carried out in full public view. The only thing that seems to hold back this tide of unreconstructed primordial violence is the fear of the loss of international recognition and much-needed foreign capital investment.
But if and when the international media is not looking, the thugs and gangsters who infest our political landscape will come out of the woodwork and do their dirty business. The cow-head protest in Shah Alam was a relatively small incident that, despite making international headlines, did not stay there for long. Likewise, the vigilantes in Jakarta who are sweeping the streets of the city of Malaysians probably realise that they, too, being insignificant themselves, will get their 15 minutes of fame and then be forgotten.
Power, politics and brutality
But more worrying is the convoluted relationship between power, politics and politicians, and the culture of brutality that we have cultivated here for too long.
Today we hear politicians in Malaysia and Indonesia harp on about civil behaviour and good relations between neighbours. But have we forgotten that some of these politicians have themselves led demonstrations where the clarion call to kill their political opponents were uttered? Have we forgotten that these were the very same bloody words that were shouted aloud in public at the demonstrations orchestrated during the Perak state assembly crisis not too long ago?
And have we forgotten that the very same politicians today who speak of peace and love were also present at rallies where communitarian-minded chauvinists bandied slogans like “This keris will drink Chinese blood?” Are these the same politicians who now want to talk about peace and love among human beings?
While on the subject of nasty politicians and brutish politics, let us be fair and note that practically all the major political parties in Malaysia have resorted to the same dirty and violent tactics in the past. It was, after all, the leaders of PAS who once claimed that Muslims should “sow the seeds of hatred” against liberals and secular-minded Malaysians. PAS has also accused intellectuals and activists of blasphemy at the drop of a hat, aided and abetted by their allies in Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). Indeed, the only two parties in the peninsula I can think of that have never taken the path of violent communitarian politics are Parti Sosialis Malaysia and Gerakan, which is not saying much.
As long as the culture of politics in Malaysia and the rest of Southeast Asia remains one that equates power and authority with state violence, be it real or threatened, then we will probably never see the end of brutish politics in our part of the world.
Southeast Asians tend to adopt a dismissive view of the West. And there are far too many right-wing ethno-nationalist leaders in our part of the world who cannot evolve any further than to continue in their nasty polemics against anything and everything Western.
But let us ask ourselves this simple question, and answer it honestly if we can: Can anyone of us imagine a British politician standing on stage with a weapon in hand? Can anyone imagine a demonstration in Europe against a mosque or a Hindu temple where a pig’s or cow’s head is dragged out into the streets?
Can we imagine those involved not being arrested on the spot? Can anyone imagine a press conference in any European city where a politician is publicly threatened with rape — and the police do nothing? Perchance, therein lies the difference between us Asians and the so-called secular, decadent, materialistic West.
Long before we stand on our high horse and preach Asian values to the world, perhaps we need to look at the hypocritical state of our own primordial, emotional and brutish politics first; and disentangle its fatal associations with power, authority and violence. Our politics remains brutish and violent, and all the cosmetic make- overs with skyscrapers and shopping malls are not going to change that soon, unless we reject the association between violence and governance once and for all.
Dr Farish A Noor is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore and affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia. He is also the co-founder of The Other Malaysia website, where this essay also appears.
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