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Book Review- Dark Spring: Essays on the ideological roots of Malaysia's GE-13 by Azly Rahman
by Murray Hunter
2013-07-13 12:28:07
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Book Review- Dark Spring: Essays on the ideological roots of Malaysia's GE-13 by Azly Rahman

Published by the Strategic Information and research and Development centre (SIRD), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Review by Murray Hunter

This compilation of Azly Rahman's articles about Malaysia before and after GE 12 in 2008 expresses what many have in their hearts; a strong sense of emotional distress.

dark_spring_cover_400Azly's articulation and approach to many important contemporary issues facing Malaysia, come from a series of unique perspectives, of which I intellectually admire and would personally find very difficult to articulate, as he has done superbly. Through his perceptions and meta-framing Azly has been able to see straight through the symptoms and "sandiwara" that besets the country and take a brutally honest and sincere look at the root causes of the condition Malaysia is in today. This "immersed" yet still objective approach has been able to tap into some of the colonial pre-Merdeka, post 1969, and post-Mahathir era narratives. He has deciphered their sinister and destructive meanings, that today run counter to the shared aspirations an evolved Malaysian society holds today.

This is why I believe Azly's volume of essays compiled from 2005 right up to the GE 13 election eve on 3rd May 2013, is an extremely insightful reflection of some of the important events influencing the shape and meaning of Malaysia's cultural and social evolution to what Azly aptly calls "hypermodernity".

Through the very title, "Dark Spring", Azly has accurately described the Malaysian social, economic and political landscape in a way reminiscent of Rachel Carson's seminary book "Silent Spring" published back in 1962. Carson described a silent American 'farmscape', poisoned by US chemical corporations, where as a consequence bio-diversity was lost and birds no longer chirp. The environment was destroyed but US corporations profited greatly out of this loss in biodiversity richness. Similarly, "Dark Spring" represents a poisoned Malaysian society with greed and prejudice that has taken away the very soul and spirit of the land that we all love.

The ideas and thoughts presented by Azly in this collection should be considered by every Malaysian if they love their country and have an empathic connection with the spirit of Malaysian history. This is a cathartic challenge to the realities we have been brought up to believe in, and accept as the truth. The ideas and thoughts embedded within these pages may change one's sense of understanding about the way things are today, laying down of an cascade of alternative realities, which may emerge as being closer to the truth as history is critically revised and rewritten a generation from now.

This revision will expose the hidden cancers growing within Malaysian society that need to be treated if Malaysian's evolving aspirations are to be celebrated rather than repressed by the elite forces of vested interests who rule the country they have tried to keep divided for the last 50 years.  

Then Azly presents a second challenge. This is a challenge to our collective imagination in asking "what could be?", through his expression of a "Republic of Virtue". This is where this book "Dark Spring" is also full of hope and optimism for the future.

Azly has reached out to each and every Malaysian in this book. He wants people to realize that although they are from different histories and heritages, they are in-fact the same in their aspirations, no matter what race, what ethnic group, what location, what level of education, what level of income, and what religion they have embraced.

Malaysians share a collective soul. Azly looks beyond the cultural "barbed wire" of divisiveness to a Malaysia where the paradox of diversity has a true spiritual unity about it. This is one spirit that encapsulates a single Malaysian aspiration about the purpose and 'dreams' the country was founded upon during the struggle for 'Merdeka' and search to find identity as a nation.

According to Azly, this is a Malaysia beyond the "Syatians" of indulgence, the "Samsara" of attachment, "Maya" the world of illusion, and the greedy traders in the temple of Mosses; to a level where all religion shares a common state of love, compassion, and sense of humanity for the world.

And it's from this perspective that Azly promotes the optimism of 'just and equitable society', rather than the hegemony of "what is". Azly firmly believes this is the position from where a truly Malaysian way forward can be found, freeing us from the bond of feudal based neo-colonialism that has shackled Malaysians minds for the last 50 years or so.

This is the hope that "Dark Spring" gives us.

I will skim through some of the important aspects of Azly's analysis and the solutions he offers to create a spiritual, economic, and social sustainability that Malaysians aspire. 

Azly begins his book by tearing the carpet from under us with his quote from Voltaire. "There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility". This is his first challenge. To question all the assumptions that we believe to be 'facts', especially those unquestioned ones that have underlined our identity. We have been blinded by the political paradigm, created and developed by those who rule, preventing us from seeing new possibilities. Chapter one concludes with a call to the reader to rewrite history according to contemporary aspirations. As he reiterates again in Chapter 63 when discussing the reasons behind the keris, there is no history, just events that need interpretations.

One of Azly's prime tools a continuous examination of the gap between what the elite espouse and the realities on the ground. Within the paradigm of sculptured history, Azly postulates that the 'social contract' accepted by Malaysians has in fact been an instrument of hegemony and control, which has hindered the evolution of our social values and national cohesiveness, at great cost to the maturity of the nation. Within this neo-colonialist frame, Malaysian society has still not achieved true independence, still a captive of the old caste system under the domination of an elite.

In chapter three, more assumptions are examined where it is postulated that Malaysians have been prisoners of their own constructed hegemonic paradigm, which had great consequences on social and equity policy over the last decades. The economic pie has been seen as something fixed, where effort has been put into how this static pie can be divided within society. The NEP has been the instrument of choice, where the difference between what it espoused and what it achieved has left a large gap. This has been at expense of what could be.

In addition the whole concept of economic development has been within a post-colonial development paradigm, a slave to 'growth for profit', 'development for riches', and 'diversification for monopoly'. Development has been a game for the elite, without any questioning of this occidental paradigm.

In chapter four, the symbolism of Malaysia is examined. Cyberjaya is seen as an aspiration of the modern advancement Malaysia seeks. Although domed in Western-oriental architecture, this facade cannot hide the underlying material assumptions behind Malaysia's national symbols.

Chapter five goes deeper into the assumptions behind multiculturalism, exploring through a series of questions to probe the reader to think about how deeply ingrained multiculturalism actually is within Malaysian society. Azly eludes to assumptions behind the multicultural fascade as being raw capitalist greed.

Azly approaches political analysis through humanism. He considers the spiritual level, where the nature of greed and hate has corrupted the self. Humanism, mercy, and compassion, universal to all religions, are the necessary drivers of society, if our communities are to evolve away from the existing greed and hate paradigm. At this level of consciousness, the universal meanings of Islam can become the basis of a true Malaysian democracy. This requires a weeding out of corruption within Malaysian society.

However corruption is not the only problem. In Chapter six the level of our collective consciousness is examined, where according to Azly our whole view of the world is seen through the lens of race which generates envy and hate. As such we are locked within a psychic prison unable to get out, preventing us from being able to think.

In chapter seven, Azly considers the watershed change after May 1969, where a small but rich elite grew at the expense of the poor. Malaysia glorified new sets of heroes, while at the same time burning books and forcing the cream of the country's academics to flee.

However in the 1990s with the advent of the internet and online media, the power of this guided culture is on the wane. This is changing Malaysian's consciousness where many no longer look at national symbols in awe, and have started to abandon the politicization of personal experiences. This is changing a Malaysia that has been dominated for more than 20 years with Mahathirism, the epitome of crony capitalism, bringing another change to Malaysia.

Within the next few chapters Azly paints a picture of what post-Mahathir Malaysia is like, with the persecution of academics, and students within the nation's universities. A withering education system that needs reform to enable enlightened learning. A Political system that is morally bankrupt badly in need of ethics to return to public service. Repression and the use of brute form to dominate society by government has ignored both human rights and the constitution. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow, with the psychology of crony capitalism growing rampant.  A restricted economy that promotes elite cronyism at the cost to the average Malaysian who cannot access the privileges that allow some to become super-rich. Politics is not a profession of public service, but rather a profession of self indulgence with a very unhealthy political-business nexus. This system perpetuates the elite neo-feudal classes in the country, where opportunity is not equal, a country where crooks ad robbers are glorified through stately honors and media admiration.

However anchored through a static view of the pie and the importance of the "institution' of neo-colonialism at home, Malaysia is relatively going backwards in a competitive globalizing world. Parochial thinking according to Azly is preventing us seeing the bigger picture of the world, which may turnaround society in Malaysia to becoming slaves of the rest of the world, if this narrow and biased mindset cannot be broken out of.

However Malaysian society has more in common with Stalinism than it has with liberal free market economics. Our development economics are based upon occidental neo-Rostowian ideas of the 1950s without any question or challenge by anybody. We aspire to "Wall St'", "Silicon Valley", "biotechnology", and becoming a global market leader without considering our own possibilities, trying to live others dreams. This is where our view of 'hypermodernity' needs to be challenged if elitism is going to be caste away for true spiritual values, equity and multiculturalism.

In chapter 24 Azly looks at the myth that the Chinese control the Malaysian economy. But the reality of this narrative is one of maintaining power in the hands of an elite who promote Malay nationalism.  This old ideology is still the driver of the Government's espoused economic philosophies, which as a side effect maintains a convenient division of the country's various ethnic communities. This "bogeyman' strategy has worked through the ages playing up to the need of blame and build up paranoia against other groups. This is supplemented with a number of other measures designed to take their mind of their state of being such as more Astro channels and national service camps to indoctrinate the young. A 'sandiwara' of words goes on in defense of the "Malay" position. We are idly sitting by allowing this race based hate politics continue without any protest whatsoever.

And this is all occurring when the concentration of asset ownership has never been more skewed towards a small group of elite in Malaysia. The poor and dispossessed have no voice in the nation's narrative. Rather capitalistic greed motivated projects in the name of national development and unity continue this rapping of the poor and needy within Malaysian society. Not only is Malaysia divided by race, but also by socio-economic class, taking the country further away from the concept of a single "Bangsa Malaysia", as Azly argues in chapter 25. Again the NEP has been divisive and devoid of any qualities of human liberation from poverty and abandonment. Once again, there is silent revolt over these structural inequalities.

In chapter 29 Azly comes out and blames the state of affairs on the leaders of the nation. Moreover, the scandals, corruption, bullying, and discrimination comes from a lack of virtue. This has been both a fault of our education system and the ritualistic adherence to Islam where no sense of altruism has developed. Instead greed and materialism has developed covering the man's true nature, reflected in the politicization in many of the state's institutions. No meritocracy exists, where Malaysia has become a political and authoritarian, rather than virtuous state. As consequence, the ills of the country like poverty are not being truly tackled with any sense of conviction. To the contrary, the reckless sacking of the Malaysian environment in the quest for profits has grave consequences upon the environment as Azly's commentary on the Iskandar lays testimony to in Chapter 30.

This is one of Azly's great revelations in this book. That technology for the sake of progress is actually sowing our own destruction. "Hypermodernity' against advice of all the ancient texts and religions is destroying the very land "in which the legendary keris-wielding party Umno was born".  This destruction is the antithesis of spirituality and will create all types of suffering and destruction through rising temperatures and floods as we are beginning to see. Rampant development has become unquestionably part of the national narrative. However, the 'evils' of progress will be felt by the future generations of Malaysia, long after the elite have made super-profits through this rape of nature.

In the next chapter Azly goes even deeper and explains how the Malay is a prisoner of his own language that has a built in anti-egalitarian feudalistic hierarchical orientation that insures respect the un-virtuous leaders of Malay society. This is reinforced by political leaders portraits almost everywhere as a symbol of the power relation structure that exists within Malaysia, maintaining this oppressive colonization of the mind. As a consequence language is one of the instruments of blindness which must be addressed through changing anti-egalitarian salutations in order to be free of the hegemony of the ruling class and see new possibilities for a new Malaysia.

This is the fear of the ruling elite. The fear that their accumulation of wealth will be questioned by the "rakyat' of Malaysia. Today's Malay language carries with it the ideology justifying this elite to a subservient serf class. The 'rakyat's' enlightenment through social media and alternative interpretations of events is challenging this old feudal structure that has protected the greedy.

In chapter 33 Azly begins talking about this search for meaning. All the institutions that have perpetuated the myth of "Ketuanan Melayu" are now under pressure, where the bastion of this supremacy UMNO itself has become victim to the feudal system and fragmented into many different camps. Malays themselves have diversified from the traditional subservient mold that once ensured political power to the elite. And ironically this has been partly a product of the progress and development metaphor that once served well to ensure spoils and riches for those in power. Society is changing, and change is going to come. As Azly says reiterates the saying of an old Hopi Indian -"nothing lasts forever, not even the earth and sky". The very survival of the bastions of feudalism could be in danger of extinction from irrelevance. The illusion of harmony is coming to an end.

And this is what Azly saw back in 2007 ..."The Malays are waiting for a rebirth. But who will be their midwife? A neo-Malay the messiah we await" (P. 122), which sets the scene for the rest of his book.

Within the next few chapters election tactics are discussed where 'Mat Rempits' were used in Ijok to terrorize opponents and a culture of dependency is utilized through handouts and development to buy votes. Azly discusses who the symbols of dominance like Islam Hadhari, slogans of 'cemerlang, gemilang terbilang' and various acts and instruments like the "surat Aku janji" for public servants, the Biro Tata Negara, National Service Programme, Election Commission and mainstream media, playing various roles in maintaining the power of 'the establishment'. He signals that well informed voters will not succumb to these practices which will enable change in the electoral landscape.

In chapter 42 Azly eludes to the fantasy of an election. Elections are a time when all problems are solved, raods built and repaired, electricity run out to houses, and politicians come around bearing gifts to voters. This bribery on a massive scale has destroyed the peoples ideals and left them as short term pleasure seeking people who become dependent on hand outs. This reinforces the dominance of the elite over the people, and prevents society from evolving morally.

Azly looks at the illusion of foreign investment. We build development corridors imitating other regions of the world and gain great satisfaction attracting foreign companies that come here just to benefit from cheap labour. We give them 10 year tax holidays, subsidized capitalizations, and watered down labour laws to allow them to operate with few hindrances, implying the question here about whether Malaysia is really benefitting.

In chapter 46 Azly challenges the notion of bumiputera privileges on the grounds of ethics, rights, and responsibilities of citizenship and social justice. These privileges don't stand up to time and cannot be justified by religion. The spirit of Islam must extend to all races where no group can be discriminated against.  It is just pure and plain discrimination that is promoting tribalism in Malaysia. Malaysia's social contract has alienated the people of Malaysia from each other and caused great division. Most importantly this has crafted a 'bumi' verses 'non-bumi' environment which the elite can take advantage of politically, so apt in this post GE 13 environment.

In chapter 52 Azly recognizes that Malaysia is witnessing a collapse of race based political ideology, where this mental revolution is bringing widespread public concerns for democracy. He deemed this the 'yellow wave' in reference to Bersih that has faced aggressive resistance by a 'red faced' power elite where resistance is based upon economic interests, where all the keris waving race based rhetoric has been reignited to defend the elite's interests. This is the time where Azly calls on abandoning the analogy of the economy to a pie and redrawing new visions for Malaysia.  He draws the analogy of the 'yellow wave' to a durian which is repulsive to some, banned in hotels, but once tasted by many is a feast of heaven - just like democracy is seen by many.

In chapter 55 Azly looks at the 2008 election result seeing it as a cascade of complex forces hinged on a government led by UMNO that has failed to serve the people. He describes it as the Malaysian version of the storming of the Bastille in France with the fall of four states and the rise of the 'cybernetic' forth state in place of the irrelevant broadcast media. .  It was retribution for a government that has abused the institutions it was deemed to safeguard and a shock awakening. 2008 can be deemed as the birth of a new awareness where Malaysians aspire to a "more sensible Malaysia ready to work together regardless of race, colour, creed, (or) national origin". 2008 is the birth of a new culture where issues of social justice and equity come to the fore as the most important issues to engage. Violations of human rights over the last few decades must be tackled in the name of justice. Azly firmly believes that it was in 2008 when Malaysian showed that they had matured in their mind and truth and justice became the new judgment criteria of government. Azly mentioned in this chapter that each of the new Pakatan Governments must not only develop, but showcase what a new ethical system looks like to the Malaysian people. Each new government must show how fairness, equity, and creativity in their decision making processes benefits the people.

Azly, who did his doctoral thesis on the impact of digital communication technologies on "Cybernating nations" like Malaysia looks at the impact the internet will have on politics and elections in Malaysia, proclaiming that this will become a major force promoting 'creative anarchy' by the 'digital proletariat'. This impact is increasing by the day and will be a major factor in the outcomes of future elections.

Azly sees the internet as the new jungle where bloggers are "Guevara-inspired guerilla like cyber-freedom fighters" who can take on the issues of corruption, abuse, and wrong doings, exposing them to the public and bringing them down. The internet will balance the hegemonic broadcast media that has supported the current regime, where this new information flow is something like the fall of the Berlin Wall. This will bring a society where politicians must earn rather than demand respect.

These are the megatrends that will change Malaysia. An increasingly aware people of Malaysia, more political consciousness among the young, the scrutinizing of politicians beliefs and actions, and the abandonment of race based politics for issues based platforms.

Azly likens Malaysian society  to Herbert Marcuse's 'one-dimensional beings' where thinking has been controlled by the hegemonic institutions of power for so long. So in the final sections of the book, Azly has presented a number of commentaries about what has to change within the Malaysian psych to escape this psychic prison. He examines the concept of 'Ketuanan Melayu', the need for education about the importance of elections and policy, citing that education is an important parameter for democracy.

Azly has a few enlightened words to say about sustainability. For Azly sustainability represents so much more than recycling. The concept of sustainability of a deep state of mind based on compassion and love for the earth and humankind who dwell upon it.  Sustainability is an awareness and a guide to the future strategies Malaysians must take in stewardship of their own country. Sustainability is about shedding away the shadows of domination by others that leads to exploitation of the environment, people, and culture. It's about developing knowledge through science, philosophy, and technology to transform the country. And this begins as with many things with the transformation of Malaysia's education system. He criticizes the "need to achieve" psych of Malaysia following blindly western development paradigms without considering what's best for Malaysia? Upon reading further, one will find that the parameters around sustainability are almost the same as Azly suggests are needed to free the mind.

In this review there is not the space to comment on the broad range of subjects that Azly has made social commentary upon such as the court system, electoral violence, the education system, the neglect of the Indians, slogans, the 'keris bearing' rhetoric of politicians, the ill-treatment of foreign workers, crime rates, conspicuous consumption, the Sedition Act, the ISA, and the like.

This Malaysian reckoning is Avant garde, but at the same time it is proudly very traditional, deeply attached to Malaysians' rewritten history of shared heritage.

Azly is far from being naive and has not advocated change for change's sake. Any new administration with the current mold and psych would just bring further disappointment to Malaysians. Something which Azly warns about.

Azly is not locked into the conservative ritualistic ways of Islam as it is being practiced today, a "meme of rigidity and bias" that is holding back society. Rather he sees Islam as a living religion which should prescribe the way our society is organized within the context of today. Azly goes beyond the politics of religion to assist the reader "get in touch with" the deeper spiritual side that religion offers, so humankind can be viewed without the need of greed, prejudice, and ignorance.

This is Azly's offering to Malaysia. A mirror to reflect, and a cloth so the dust of despair can be cleaned away so a new truth can be known. However Azly's truth consists of multiple realities that give rich texture of meaning to people, events, and ideas. It is only with this meaningful and complex reflection of the past and present can we see the possibilities of a new future.

Azly Rahman's "Dark Spring" is a book about evolution. He has striven to take us out of the shadows of Plato's cave and into the freedom of emancipated Malaysian society free of hegemony, repression, and suppression. However as Azly has eluded to, there is so much to do in Malaysia if the country is going to re-vegetate the barren lands that have been stripped for decades, and regenerate the Malaysian mind to face the emerging national and global challenges ahead. Malaysia must move from a rent-seeking society benefitting the few to a modern and progressive society where sustainability and adaptation rather than corruption and the rape of wealth as the premise behind policy.

This is one of the most insightful contributions to the sociology of Malaysian society and should be read by all who have a stake in the country's future.


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