Poetics and politics of cultural life in a nation
This is the foreword to Dr Azly Rahman’s seventh book on Malaysia entitled ‘One Malaysia, under God, Bipolar’ which is out in major bookstores.
COMMENT Dr Azly Rahman’s ‘One Malaysia, under God, Bipolar’ is a book that, I believe, anyone with the slightest interest in Malaysia and its future cannot ignore or neglect. In this fine collection of opinion pieces, the respected and sagacious public intellectual Azly Rahman reflects on the political machinations and cultural politics in Malaysia.
The book is a smorgasbord of commentaries on the poetics and politics of cultural life in a nation that is struggling to transcend its racialised structure to forge a cohesive and harmonious future. The word ‘smorgasbord’ may give the impression that what is presented in this book is simply a variety of ‘dishes’, hot and cold, familiar and exotic, all separate and distinct treats laid out on a buffet table.
It is a smorgasbord with a difference: all the ‘culinary delights’ (read: commentaries) are laid out in an orderly manner with a story line that threads through the whole text. Organised around three main themes - society, schooling, and salvation - the commentaries offer rich food for thought and reflection and satisfy the intellectual and political appetite of anyone interested in Malaysian affairs and cultural politics in general.
(The references and inferences to food is intentional as eating and talking about food is, as any observer of Malaysian culture will concur, is a Malaysian past-time or obsession. Azly Rahman does partake in this obsession as evident in two or three of his opinion pieces.)
Thinking analogically, the commentaries are like colourful beads on a string, where each bead is a gem on its own but strung together the beads transform into a sparkling piece of art. Metaphorically speaking, the string represents the critical theory (the three Ps, namely political economy, post-structuralism, and post-colonialism) shaping and informing the political analysis and opinions presented in this collection.
While the opinion pieces are enhanced with a healthy dose of theoretical and philosophical reflection, they are not simply for an academic audience or for pedagogical purposes, even though Azly Rahman states that as an educator he is interested in what he calls the ‘teachable moment’ of political debates in Malaysia and elsewhere.
They are also not just to interest or fascinate the reader with Malaysian tales of extraordinary politics but what makes this book of immense value, in my opinion, is its explicit objective to arouse the awareness, sensitivities and sensibilities, especially amongst Malaysians, of the injustices, malpractices, and policy follies in the country.
Azly Rahman invites his audience to shift their attention and concerns from the ‘manufactured crises’ and slogans circulated in the public space and the gutter politics to the ‘real big issues’ such as 1Malaysia Development Board fiasco, massive financial losses, the Goods and Services Tax (GST), rising cost of living, Sedition Act arrests, and rent seeking.
One of the many admirable aspects of this book is Azly Rahman’s approach to race and racism. He begins his book with a heart-warming poetic expression of gratitude and love for his late mother and through his poem dedicated to his mother he reveals his strong sense of ethnic pride as a Malay.
Many with a similar pride tend to slide on the slippery slope to racial bigotry and ethnic chauvinism. Azly Rahman, however, embraces a refreshing and progressive multi-ethnicity where he highlights the malaise of racial, ethnic and religious chauvinism and celebrates the many delights of Malaysian interculturalism and cultural hybridity. He reminds us that one can be proud of one’s own identity or ethnicity without denigrating or disavowing cultural diversity and multiculturalism.
In other words, Azly Rahman in his musings underscores the fact that ethnic pride and interculturalism or cosmopolitanism are not, and need not be, logically incompatible or paradoxical. It is also implicit in his writings that he adheres to the belief that Malaysia is not just a multi-ethnic nation but a nation made up of multi-ethnic people.
This collection of commentaries were previously published in Azly’s column in the online daily, Malaysiakini which is Malay for ‘Malaysia Today’ and can also mean ‘contemporary Malaysia’. Azly Rahman is certainly a columnist who has a good grip on the pulse of contemporary Malaysia. Like a western-trained medical doctor, he reads the pulse for the highs and lows of the heart-beat of a nation.
And like a Chinese sinseh, his ‘finger’ on the pulsating nation alerts him to the past and future health woes of Malaysia and with sincerity and courage, Azly tells it as it is without ‘fear and favour’ (which is the title of the late Tan Chee Koon’s column in The Star years ago). Azly’s courage is driven by his strong commitment to dialogue, empathy, and social justice.
In my endorsement of Azly Rahman’s book 'Controlled Chaos', I stated that ‘with its wealth and breadth of penetrating insights disrupting conventional discourses and offering a ‘’new politics”, this is a book that no Malaysian or non-Malaysian interested in Malaysia, can or should ignore’.
I would endorse this book with the same words and state that Azly Rahman has shifted the focus of his critical eye on another set of issues but with the identical political message that Malaysians must open their eyes to the economic
malpractices, religious extremism and political malaise in their nation in order to create a just, harmonious and peaceful society.
Azly Rahman avers that “Political change needs social imagination and critical sensibility founded upon a very strong ethical system drawn and designed as a national philosophy; a transcultural system inspired by the strength and universality of all religious and non-religious philosophies - not just based on Islam that has its limitations and cultural biases, albeit insisted upon and imposed onto many as a complete and all-encompassing, all-hegemonising political, social and existential philosophy.” I could not agree more.
Guided by such a principled philosophy, Azly Rahman makes a sound plea to Malaysians (and others): “Let us work together on a common ground - for the common good”.
It is a clarion call to Malaysians to get out of their comfort zone and apathy and to join the movement for a better Malaysia where bigotry, racism and religious extremism are kept in check and where peace, harmony, intercultural understanding are reinstated and reinforced as part and parcel of everyday life. There is much offered in this book that can constitute what I would boldly label as the ‘Malaysian Manifesto’.
DR ALBERTO GOMES is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, Melbourne and global director, Dialogue, Empathic Engagement and Peacebuilding (DEEP) Network.