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.
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?
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.
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.
Poor Malaysians share a similar economic and social
status, regardless of raceClass 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.
(© 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.