By Rustam A.Sani
This experiment in government we like to call democracy – which has lasted for half a century now – depends upon, among other things, a certain level of trust, not only of the government and its elected officials, but maybe more importantly among the people themselves.
After that many years trust has been under attack in our society, we can today confidently declare that it is definitely dead.
Sometimes it takes much more that a casual look at the state of our society in order to understand that there is something really wrong with it. A time like this – this season of blessings, compassion and goodwill – it is perhaps a good time to take a really profound and perceptive look at our society, to go beyond just its crass surface and glitters.
Trust was more common and easier to uphold when this nation was “founded”. With far fewer people then, it was possible to actually know those with whom you would have contact and in turn be aware of their biographies and idiosyncrasies. A liar or scoundrel was known for his work, but so is the person who lived by his word.
Remember the case of Education Minister in the 1960s, Abdul Rahman Talib, who failed to clear himself from an accusation of corruption – a small financial indiscretion that by today’s standards would be dismissed by the government as a non-issue – resigned from his job.
The case was raised in Parliament by the then member for Ipoh, the late D. R. Seenivisagam. The minister challenged the opposition MP to repeat his allegations outside the House so that he could institute a legal suit to clear his name and defend his honour.
DR (as the opposition member was affectionately known) repeated his allegations at the Chinese Assembly Hall. In the ensuing court case, the minister failed to clear his name and, as expected from an honourable person, resigned from his job – and bringing to a close a rather glorious political career.
The matter was big news then. But “trust” and “honour” were definitely still the operative words in people’s conduct. Ethnic, religious and political party affiliations were hardly invoked in order to discredit or maim a person. Social values and institutions – such as freedom of speech, the media, the judiciary – were trusted, and deservedly so because there was no attempt by the power that be to compromise or mutilate them.
Today our society has naturally become much more complex, that it is rare for many to even know who lives on their block or even in the same building. Our culture is segmented – all the more so because of our dismal intellectual failure to create a true “nation” out of the segmented communities of the colonial plural society.
With modernity and technological advancement things have indeed become worse for us sociologically. We have become even more isolated, so that we are but strangers passing by each other in the midst of individual self-awareness and self-preservation.
Today Malaysians have become even more mobile – and are less likely to live in extended families. In recent years the permanent, local and family-based jobs has all but disappeared and workers have increasingly been forced to move far from their roots to find and retain employment.
We are isolated as we drive to work, pushed to produce so hard while at work that co-workers become objects rather than compatriots, and spoken to and dealt with by the public sphere on the basis of what divides us, not what we share in common.
Merchants cannot be trusted to deliver what they promise, employers cannot be trusted to pay their obligatory EPF contributions, and even spouses cannot be trusted to keep their vows. We live in a “buyers beware” culture, where every person is on its own to make it through a jungle of real and perceived threats and attacks.
One cannot walk in one’s own street without fear of some idiots being tempted to snatch away ornaments dangling out of one’s body parts for show off, cannot book a flight on an airplane without fearing being bumped because the flight was oversold, cannot drive on the freeway without concern that the idiot racing to take your space will not pull a gun to prove his point, cannot give a toy to a child without fear of lead poisoning, and certainly cannot trust a politician on anything at all.
Trust is really dead.
To compensate, we have tried regulating the behaviour of commerce, finance and nearly every aspect of life. Some among the religious conservatives and fundamentalists want to force the faithfuls to keep to their faiths unthinkingly and some on the secular side of the divide want to write enough laws that trust would become unnecessary because it has been replaced by government control.
The truth is trust cannot be imposed, it cannot be brought into existence by faith alone – it is by its very nature a product of free and open communication and human interaction. Trust is not a lofty goal of perfection and honesty. Trust is the acceptance of a dominant shared value that has the common good as its ultimate goal – the goal that has necessitated the creation of human societies and nations themselves.
But it does require facing what is without blinders, being responsible to look and to ponder beyond the crass and superficial glitters of the day.
Trust requires that we stop calling each other names – whether they are based on racial prejudice, religious bigotry, or partisan political blinkers – as a substitute for mature discourse, debates and problem solving.
There is so much of our culture today that are pushing us away from those requirements of a “true” society built on trust toward a world of fast paced isolation and fantasy.
There is no institution or force on the horizon – including the leaders of the government (many are conspicuously intellectual imbeciles), their inadequately socialised and ill-schooled apparatchiks and the greatly debased social and government institutions – to pull us in the other direction. All have but become part of the vortex of self-serving insincerity and pretense, all under great pressure to conceal or defend their crippling intellectual and moral inadequacies.
Trust is definitely dead, but isn’t this the season that reminds us that miracles somehow are still possible? Season’s Greetings and Happy New Year to all.