The biggest loser Malaysia
JAN 7 — When I read the news of the “open verdict” on the Teoh Beng Hock inquest, I felt nothing.
Nothing of the anger, nausea and outrage that I felt in the days after his mysterious drop from the heights of the building that houses the nation’s premier anti-corruption agency.
Neither was I filled with the bilious feelings of contempt that I had when reading suggestions that Beng Hock might have “strangled himself.”
I felt nothing because I have come to expect little of the country’s institutions.
I have long thought of these institutions as a necessary illusion for living comfortably in our very own authoritarian state.
You see, Malaysia has produced a simulacrum of modernity and democracy, sometimes profoundly convincing and, at times like these, utterly fake.
Yesterday, the national slip billowed in the wind.
Behind the glossy image and multi-million dollar public relations campaigns lie the real power-brokers whose venal agenda we have all been recruited to uphold, mostly unwittingly, sometimes gladly (because we too are venal beings).
And so I was not surprised that the inquest ended inconclusively after what must have been an exhausting year for the Teoh family, Beng Hock’s friends, the lawyers and that sad creature called the Malaysian “public.”
“Sad” because this public is constantly being led by the nose by our betters, known during the Cold War as psychological warfare experts and, currently, as spin doctors.
They serve their political masters best not only by mobilising overt support for the status quo but often more effectively by sowing anxiety among their political constituents. People in the grip of a moral panic rarely think critically.
The public is not blameless, of course. It often dares not ask difficult questions perhaps because it fears the answers it is likely to receive.
Perhaps because it has forgotten how to ask difficult questions. Our national curriculum seems to consist of a diet of stodgy patriotism and incontrovertible factoids.
Of course some segments of the public do rally around those individuals who do display the capacity for critical thinking and have the social courage to articulate it.
I bet though, there are many more critical minds out there who, except for the considerations of personal comfort, would get out of their plush homes and nudge the nation towards genuine reform.
Instead we are left with an empty shell of a collective self. We are a zombie of a nation.
But fear not, we join those other unfortunate nations who consist of the living dead. We can console ourselves that we are not unique in our condition.
As for the Teoh Beng Hock inquest, we, as a nation, went through the motions.
And we always go through the motions because to not go through the motions can lead to dangerous conclusions.
What becomes of a public that can no longer rely on its mediating institutions to arbitrate conflicts and deliver justice, which is the promise modern governance, is it not?
Not a few nations have fallen off this precipice.
But that’s such a melodramatic metaphor; counter-intuitive even. After all we control in part one of the world’s most important waterways. No chance for us to become a failed nation, I’m afraid.
We need a better metaphor.
I am reminded of a recent posting on Facebook by one of my former students describing his university. “It’s like a faulty vending machine. You keep putting in money but nothing comes out,” he wrote. Clever boy.
Yes, this government is a vast and faulty vending machine that has been serving up sugar water bottled as a tonic.
A tonic for alleviating the symptoms of inequality (gas) and promoting national unity (hard stool).
The tonic has had many takers and as any snake-oil — or minyak lintah — salesman will gleefully tell you, there’s a sucker born every day.
Only thing left is to kick this big placebo-pumping monstrosity, which as we all know (following the metaphor, that is) leads to nothing but a lot of noise and a sore foot.
So what is there to do? Tweak the machine?
As far as I can see there is no reform agenda worth speaking about, only the endless churning of acronyms, large numbers and platitudes.
Perhaps if the government stopped out-sourcing their brains they could begin to repair the damage done to the bureaucracy, which is essential to a successful implementation of any reform programme.
But that’s not what happened. And how could it? They have nothing to gain by reforming the government, which was cast in their image all those decades ago anyway.
So it’s left to the party political opposition to give the desperate public hope for change. But many questions remain to be asked of them too.
Ultimately, and in the death of Teoh Beng Hock, we recognise our utter helplessness in the face of the really existing Malaysian state.
A young man is dead and, in all likelihood, no one will ever be held accountable.
The tragedy is followed by a farce and all that is left is for us to admit that the time for national self-loathing is upon us. Let us bow our heads in shame.
We are the biggest losers, Malaysia.
* Sharaad Kuttan is a regular guest on the popular culture radio talk show, A Bit of Culture, on BFM 89.9 on Sundays at 5pm. It’s also available on podcast.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.