[Note] This essay is republished at The Other Malaysia
[Very long article: read at Your Peril]
When I think of the American election and the way it was won, I am endlessly struck by the fact that such a great war was won with such small battles. In the most literal, immediate sense, one can see this on any election map of America, with its states dotted here red and there blue. One can zoom further into the map and see that each state, each city, each town, perhaps even each house, is divided up into its own red and blue mosaic patterns, right down to the individual Republican and Democrat. The battle for America, won yesterday by Barack Obama, was won out of individual differences — sometimes a matter of razor thin percentage points — consolidated by majority at the voter’s level, the constituency level, the state level, the national level.
But there were other, perhaps more important battles — a succession of small battles that had been fought out within the battleground of the single individual and his or her place in history. To me, Obama’s presidency — the first black presidency in the history of the United States — was won at this micro level of the individual, generation to generation to the present, battling against his or her very self: against old prejudices, against hardened consensus, against apathy, against history. To me, the victory is symbolic: their small battles and victory from the grassroots reflects the nature of the larger war itself. We can’t be overwhelmed enough by what this victory means historically: one hundred and forty-three years after the end of the American Civil War, and four hundred years of racial hatred, bigotry and injustice since the inception of black slavery in the United States, the American people have said, with their ballots: Enough. We are no longer the people we were.
Markers of progress
This election, to me, attests to the maturation of a people. It tells me, for example, that over time, a people can move from the idea that black people are not really human to not only the idea that there could be a black leader of the United States, but that it is downright shameful to admit that the colour of his skin could figure in your vote. That signals, to me, a victory of public opinion: that today, a significant majority of Americans, even if they did still feel prejudiced against voting for a black man, would probably at least lower their voice when saying so in public – or perhaps, in defiance, strike a tone of belligerence and become defensive. I have heard voters snap: So what if I’m prejudiced? That is a question which knows that its receiving audience has changed, and that this new audience disapproves. Its belligerence is a tacit acknowledgment of defeat.
And this tells me that such a battle can be won – that change, to use an awfully overused word, is possible. That, given time, strength and leadership, such change may even be possible here in Malaysia. Dare I dream that one day, a voter will have to snap, peevishly: So what if I want a Malay PM? while his interlocutor stares incredulously at him? But how terribly young we in Malaysia are, I thought, as I watched Obama address a nation which has taken two hundred years to change its mind on race – and even today, in some places, still falters.
Obama, in a moving speech this March, said that the American declaration of independence in 1776 would later be stained by the nation’s ‘original sin of slavery’. This ‘original sin’, he said, would make a persistent mockery of the Constitution upon which the country was founded – a Constitution that promised its people liberty, justice and a more perfect (and perfectable) union. And it is at the foot of this original sin of Slavery, that great blot on the national conscience, that America’s perfection should begin.
When I heard that, I thought: What is Malaysia’s original sin? Or in other words, what is the singular injustice which we have wrought unto ourselves, and upon which we, too, should begin to build our own perfection?
Like America, our problems are also born out of racial discontent. We might rail against our colonial heritage, and say that it is solely because of people like Furnivall, Winstedt, Clementi and all our largely well-intentioned but racist British officers, that our society divided racially in the way that it did. Those who do will be led to the erroneous conclusion that we have already built our perfection with the flagstones of Merdeka; that Malaysia, freed from the British grip, is by definition already perfect. But I do not think it’s possible to abjure responsibility for the past fifty years, in which we have had our Merdeka, in which we been our own people, but during which we chose, and still choose to remain racially divided. In a way, I think, we too have been guilty of a kind of slavery, though not of the physical kind. We have enslaved ourselves to a false idea: that we can’t help casting each another as eternally divided (lesser) beings, because the ‘facts’ of linguistic, cultural and religious difference will not allow reconciliation; because the ‘reality’ of money politics condemns all hope of unity as naive; because this, because that, and fifty years of ‘just because’.
Our original sin is this weakness, this self-enslavement. We are caught in the thrall of race politics. If in the creation of our divided society the British were once our slave drivers, we ourselves have since taken the whip into our own hands.
What can America teach us?
I want to suggest three concrete lessons that the recent American elections can teach Malaysian politics – or rather, three examples of what is possible, and what we should dare to hope for.
Firstly, democracy. This American election was a chance to see a healthy, functioning, two-party democracy in full swing: a democracy in which the differences between the parties are ideological and significantly distinct, and not simply a matter of incumbent and antithesis, i.e. UMNO and not-UMNO. The axes of contention were not ‘Ruling Party’ and ‘Opposition’, but one qualified potential candidate against another. The campaigning period was exhilarating, extensive, and above all, genuinely competitive and strongly grounded in issues. Because the process was so fully transparent, people inside and outside America were able to watch the shifts and trends of the election like hawks. There were pundits, but then there will always be. There was a free, flourishing press coverage of the entire campaign. There was not – or at least it does not seem as though there was – any electoral corruption; only the usual and expected technical inefficiencies of getting 305 million people to fill out a ballot correctly.
How shamefully, terrifyingly unlike Malaysian elections!
Secondly, the lack of violence. The overturning of the eight-year incumbents did not cause riots. More importantly, even in the wake of the senseless bigotry that 9/11 provoked, the election of a black man to the presidency of the United States, amidst half-baked whispers that he might be – God forbid – a Muslim, has not in fact resulted in widespread bloodshed. For all the grumbling and disappointment, the American people have assented to the mechanisms of democracy, without violence. Disagreements will of course dog the new government; there will be debates, anger, frustration, bitter compromise — but Dato’ Seri Syed Hamid Albar, there does not have to be riots; peaceful change and peaceful disagreement is, in fact, possible; and violence, as they say, only begets violence.
But what made the American elections truly exceptional for me, and what I hope Malaysia can learn from, is this: grace. Hilary Clinton’s defeat in the democratic nominations must have been a terrible pill to swallow, but she swallowed it with stupendous grace, rallying behind Obama in the interest of party solidarity. Her and her husband’s efforts must have done immeasurable good to unite the democratic vote behind a man who, after all, lost her a chance at the American presidency. John McCain’s defeat must have been, if anything, a hundred times more bitter; yet a more gracious, respectful concession speech could not possibly have been issued, still less from a man for whom this long, arduous election would be his last chance to achieve the zenith of a fifty-year career. “I hold in my heart,” he said, “nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens…[and] whether they supported me or Senator Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.”
Such grace is also an indicator of maturity – the maturity of its politicians, but also of a body politic who has mostly come to expect nothing less from them. It is a grace unburdened by systemic political corruption, by dirty money, by the brazen disregard for justice that issues so readily and haughtily from Putrajaya; it is grace born out of a spirit, however imperfect, of democracy. That, at any rate, is the alleged ‘genius of America’. Need I mention President-Elect Obama himself? — “To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn,” he said, “I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.” Dato’ Seri Najib Abdul Razak, if you lost our vote next year, could you have the grace to bless your opponent, or would you draw your keris? And if you won the prime ministership, would you listen to those who could not give you their vote, or would you, again, draw your keris against them?
On March 8th this year, Malaysians, too, had seemed to say ‘Enough – we are no longer the people we were’; but it seems we were not listened to, and I cannot help thinking now, as I watch the old divisions reappear and the old politics creep gleefully back, that it was not really true. Is grace even possible for Malaysia? Perhaps not now. Perhaps not next elections, or even this century. But does it not make you dream? Are we so foolish to hope? – as foolish as, say, Martin Luther King might once have been thought to be?
This year, the American elections have given hope, I think, to more than just Americans. It shows us that the smallest battles can win the greatest wars; that our daily struggles within ourselves against prejudice, against apathy, against history, and above all to understand what it might mean to be ‘Malaysian’ can amass over time. In coming to know what we are, we may yet redeem ourselves, and our sin. This is a fight that has been fought and won. Obama’s election tells me that as of November 4th 2008, Malaysia can found herself on a dream that has already been realized — because however great the tasks of rebuilding America will be for the new President, and however closely disillusion and disappointment threaten his presidency, a great milestone has already been crossed. And it shows us that that we too, through the waging of small battles for justice – for RPK, for the right to Dan Lain-Lain, for free and fair elections, for Altantuya, for the Malaysia we know to exist in the interstices of race politics – may someday, insh’allah, ourselves know the grace of a more perfect union.