Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire (What the British did to India)

February 6, 2018

Book Review Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire (What the British did to India)

Reviewed by Cyril Pereira

Image result for Shashi Tharoor's Inglorious Empire

The backstory is the Oxford Union Debate of July 2015, on whether Britain should pay reparations to its former colonies. Shashi Tharoor’s team won handily, arguing that Britain should. The YouTube segment of his speech went viral, downloaded a stunning three million times. Hence the book Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India, published in 2017.

Asia Society Talk

Tharoor took the lectern at the Asia Society in Hong Kong on Dec. 2, not fully recovered from mobilizing relief in Kerala forr victims of Cyclone Ockhi. Beset by coughing fits, his practiced recitation of the ruination of India by the East India Company and the British Crown was matter-of-fact. He spoke without notes.

The result is a bitter indictment of colonialism and an argument that the UK gained far more from India than India ever gained from colonialism. Narratives of British rule in India, he said, rarely dwell on the rapacity of the 80-90 percent tax levied on farmers, the substitution of food crops by opium for export to China, the massacre of 1,800 unarmed civilians by General Dyer in Amritsar, or the systematic wrecking of then world-class native steel, ship-building and textile industries.

Choking Local Industry

Indian swords were forged from a special high-carbon crucible technique developed in south India in the 3d Century BC. Seaborne trade with the Middle East exported this knowledge, where it gained fame as the “Damascus Sword.” British troops were known to retrieve the superior sabers of the Indian warriors they shot in battle, Tharoor writes.

The Raj closed India’s iron and steel furnaces on the grounds that they constituted a threat of armed native revolt, Tharoor said. The techniques and the knowhow flowed into British steelmaking which boosted the Industrial Revolution. There is a repetitive pattern of appropriation of Indian techniques, while suppressing the local crafts and trade.

The textile cottage industry spun fine fabrics which were the rage even of the fashionable ladies of the ancient Roman Empire. As the industrial looms began to roll in England, Indian hand looms were smashed and in one tragic case, the thumbs of the master weavers were sliced off – recorded by a Dutch observer. Indians had to purchase Lancaster cloth imported tax free, while stiff tariffs were imposed on Indian textiles.

Indian teak and the tar derived from burning it, along with jointing techniques, outlasted European ships constructed from oak by at least five times seaworthy life, the former diplomat charges. Alexander the Great commissioned Indian ships to ferry his retreating army to Greece. Ma Huan, interpreter on Ming Admiral Zheng He’s voyages of the 15th Century, studied boat construction in Bengal. Historically, Indian shipbuilding was globally recognized.

In 1675, the East India Company built a shipyard in Bombay to use Indian teak. The British Navy commissioned hundreds of ships for its fleet. Indian ships, Indian loot, Bengal saltpeter (gunpowder), piracy, the slave trade from Africa, opium dealing in China, and the sugar canes of the Caribbean, enabled Britain to rule the waves.

When the industrial era of steamships began, punitive tariffs were imposed on Indian shipbuilding. Investment in modern development was blocked by British shipbuilders and the colonial government. The shipbuilding industry was forcibly strangled too. Eliminating competition to monopolize trade was standard colonial policy.

It is sometimes suggested that India would have fallen behind anyway, even without the destructive British policies, overtaken by the industrial revolution. To that, Tharoor asked: Why do you think Indian merchants experienced in international trade of textiles, steel and shipbuilding, wouldn’t invest in and adopt modern techniques from anywhere?

Rich Archives

The compulsive shopkeeper habit of the British, afforded a ready reference of dates, events, imports and exports. About 300 source documents are annotated in the book. “The task of validation was straightforward as the British maintained detailed records of policy, trade statistics, and parliamentary debates,” Tharoor said.

When the East India Company arrived in the 1600s, India’s global GDP share was 25 percent while Britain’s stood at 1.8 percent. Over 350 years of the Company and 200 years of the British Raj, Indian revenues financed the Industrial Revolution and critical maritime supremacy. By the middle of the 20th Century, the British GDP share had risen to 10 percent while India’s shrank to 3 percent.

Image result for Robert Clive of IndiaSir Robert Clive of India


Tharoor dismisses the hagiography and apologia of historians like Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World; Lawrence James (1997), Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India; and Andrew Roberts (2006), A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900. He exposes the  vile larcency of colonial rule.

Alex von Tunzelmann’s 2007 book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, has this passage: “In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.”

Vexed Legacy?

There are widely held positive appraisals of the legacies of British rule: the railway network, the civil service, the rule of law and a free press. Tharoor concedes these with ambivalence. Through his lens, these were incidental residuals of the Raj imperative to stamp efficient colonial rule – not gifts from a benevolent monarch.

Railway investors were guaranteed a minimum 5 percent return by the Indian taxpayer. In its first two decades, each mile of Indian rail cost nine times that of the UK & the United States. Public exposure of that scam lowered the cost to five times. The railways extracted raw material from the hinterland, and deployed soldiers inland to maintain order.

The civil service was a classic formula of British ingenuity: the clerical bookkeeping, stock tally and labor supervision were left to English-educated Indians, while policy direction and enforcement rested with British sahibs. The education system, supplemented by mission schools, supplied local recruits for the administration.

Image result for The Indian Civil Service

Law and order was imposed to further East India Company operations and for the greater glory of the British Raj. Laws were framed to ensure compliance to rules and regulations for opium cultivation, plantation management, land tax collection and to enforce subservience of all subjects to the British Crown. It was a tool of colonial oppression.

The press (in English) grew in the port cities as commercial information vehicles to facilitate trade. When indigenous newspapers sprouted in response to rising nationalism after WWI, repressive sedition laws were used to detain editors and ban publications. Pro-establishment English press flourished. Press licensing tightened media control.

‘Let them starve’

Image result for winston churchill and Mahatma Gandhi book

On the historic scale of mass murderers, where Stalin ranks at 20 million, Mao at 15 million and Hitler at 6 million. Tharoor reckons British colonial rule killed 35 million Indians over recurring famines. He is particularly scathing of Winston Churchill, who misappropriated food grain during the infamous Bengal famine of 1943, causing five million deaths. Churchill scribbled in the margin of his cabinet papers, “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”

Tharoor attributes such callousness to three factors: the ‘free trade’ principle, the Malthusian sustainable-population theory, and the rigid colonial practice of disallowing humanitarian assistance as fiscal prudence. Mercy shown could be misinterpreted as weakness, and such indulgence would make the natives lazy anyway.

Tharoor, a former UN Under-Secretary General, author of four fiction and 12 non-fiction books, Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, roasts British colonial rule to counter the contrived amnesia and disinformation, about what the experience really meant for India and Indians.

Should Britain pay reparations? Tharoor suggests, tongue-in-cheek, a token One British pound sterling per year over the next two hundred years, plus an apology. He urges colonial history be taught in British schools honestly. Colonialists vamp noble narratives about their mission, mostly fake.

Cyril Pereira is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel

Good riddance to the culture of dialogue

July 7, 2016

Cambodia: A culture of dialogue

by David Hunt

Instead of a dialogue with the government, Cambodia’s embattled opposition party must focus on a dialogue with the people.

The late Christopher Hitchens used to tell the story of telephoning his friend, the Polish Holocaust survivor and political dissident Isreal Shahak, who lived in Jerusalem.  When Hitchens asked, “How are politics developing?” Shahak would reply, “There are encouraging signs of polarisation.”

Today, we appear to be dwelling in a global political culture where partisan and conflict have almost become vulgar terms — we should all love our enemies, and learn to converse with them. In Cambodia, the desire for consensus politics was found in the so-called ‘culture of dialogue’, an agreement between the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP, first tabled after the 2013 elections, which gained momentum towards the close of 2014.

The agreement was meant to end the mudslinging that typified relations between the two parties and usher in an era of mutual disagreement but placid co-operation. It is not clear how long the culture of dialogue lasted, a year at best. Today it’s apparent that it is over — finished and left in tatters except for the CNRP’s crowing for it to resume.

The culture of dialogue found its greatest advocate in Sam Rainsy, president of the CNRP. Anyone who has read his autobiography, We Didn’t Start the Fire, can deduce parallels between it and ‘moral rearmament’, a revivalist movement which emphasised cooperation, honesty, and mutual respect between opposing groups. This was most likely one of the first political lessons Sam Rainsy learnt, after he became aware of it in his early twenties, and has most likely stayed with him for his political life. In the autobiography, Sam Rainsy wrote: “One of the key ideas [moral rearmament] promoted was that post-conflict reconciliation on the personal level can have an important political impact.”

Writing in Southeast Asia Globe in September 2015, the political analyst Markus Karbaum noted that the arrest of opposition senator Hong Sok Hour a month earlier meant the ‘culture of dialogue’ was looking “a little one-sided”. Karbaum added that the “culture of dialogue seems to be little more than an agreement between the two party leaders, rather than the parties themselves,” an indication of the ‘personal level’ approach of moral rearmament.

But the culture of dialogue, in fact, was always one-sided, and the inclusion of the word ‘dialogue’ was a misnomer since it implied an equality of debate. In reality, what we saw was the same old ‘culture of monologue’, with the CNRP becoming reticent in criticism, and the CPP remaining  quick to use it.

In April 2015, Prime Minister Hen Sen warned that the culture of dialogue was at risk and, in the same speech, made an unveiled threat against Kem Sokha, vice-president of the CNRP. Comparing him to a snake, the PM said: “next time [we] beat the snake, [we] will not beat the tail and the middle, but [we] will beat the head. Next time, if there is a problem, we will beat it at home.” Today, with Kem Sokha in hiding in Phnom Penh to avoid arrest, these words seem rather prophetic.

Can one imagine, Sam Rainsy being allowed to make a similar riposte? Of course not. Instead, the CPP continued with tradition – any criticism of the government typically equated with either rebellion or treason – while Sam Rainsy clamoured over the selfies he took with Hun Sen during a family dinner together in July 2015 to show that the consensus was working.

The “historic meal”, as Sam Rainsy called it, was obsequious at best and demonstrated the flaws of the culture of dialogue. As the CPP spokesman Sok Ey San explained, Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen broke bread to “get to know and understand each other”, but at the dinner table “nothing serious was discussed”. Suppose, for example, that you were one of the ex-Boeung Kak residents beaten from your home, or a farmer extracted from his land to make way for illegal logging. Would you want the person who says represents your interests to not discuss this with the one man who has the power to make changes? The answer is obvious. But muteness was the price, figuratively and literally, of getting a seat at the table.

No doubt, the culture of dialogue benefitted CNRP politicians. Mu Sochua, an opposition MP for Battambang, wrote an impassioned op-ed in the Phnom Penh Post extolling its virtues. First, it allowed for more interaction between “Majority and Minority MPs”, as she put it. Second, CNRP members could meet “more freely” with constituents, who were more inclined to communicate their grievances. Third, she argued that since “mistrust and fear divide us, the nascent culture of dialogue alleviates political tensions, it encourages people at different ends of the conflict to find a middle way.”

Mu Sochua knows the problems facing her party, so fair enough. Until, however, one asks: can there actually be a middle way in Cambodian politics? In an interview with Radio Free Asia in June, Sam Rainsy was clear about the political situation. “The world has learnt that the situation in Cambodia has reached a most dangerous stage due to the strategy of the dictatorship of Cambodia,” he said. But, only a few breaths later, added: “I want to emphasise that I always value and hail the culture of dialogue…we have to have trust that the culture of dialogue will remain alive and replace the culture of violence.”

Of course, no one wants to see the arrest of opposition politicians or violence committed against them, but Sam Rainsy’s two aforementioned comments illustrate the casuistry of the CNRP. The CPP is either unreformable and incapable of bringing about genuine democracy and human rights to Cambodia, which Sam Rainsy has claimed in the past, meaning that there is no purpose whatsoever in trying to work with it to find political common ground. Or the CPP is capable of instigating change, which makes the CNRP’s posturing as the only viable instigator of social and democratic development misleading. The CPP is either the root cause for all of Cambodia’s ills or it isn’t. Hun Sen must either be removed from office to allow democracy to flourish or, if he can improve it himself, need not step aside for the CNRP. He is either a dictator or not.

To put it more bluntly, if the CNRP doesn’t think there is a major problem with the CPP and the political structure it has created, why should the public be? If the ‘representatives’ of the downtrodden and poorly-treated can find the good in the CPP, and sit down to eat together, and refrain from criticism for the sake of progress, why should activists face violence and arrest by protesting against the government? Why should the electorate risk instability by voting CNRP at the general elections in 2018?

There was the suggestion that the culture of dialogue was mere realpolitik by the opposition; it allowed them to buy time to form its promised television station, to reform the NEC and to gain the confidence of the government that it wanted to remove from power. If this is the case, then it has backfired spectacularly, and the CNRP’s naivety deserves to be regarded as such.

To put it more bluntly, if the CNRP doesn’t think there is a major problem with the CPP and the political structure it has created, why should the public be? If the ‘representatives’ of the downtrodden and poorly-treated can find the good in the CPP, and sit down to eat together, and refrain from criticism for the sake of progress, why should activists face violence and arrest by protesting against the government? Why should the electorate risk instability by voting CNRP at the general elections in 2018?

There was the suggestion that the culture of dialogue was mere realpolitik by the opposition; it allowed them to buy time to form its promised television station, to reform the NEC and to gain the confidence of the government that it wanted to remove from power. If this is the case, then it has backfired spectacularly, and the CNRP’s naivety deserves to be regarded as such.

Instead of a dialogue with the government, the opposition must instead focus on what it does best, a dialogue with the Cambodian people who want change and doubt this will come from the hands of the CPP. And it must remember that there are alternatives to violent confrontation other than consensus.

David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Sarawak 2016 Elections–Not Necessarily a Bellwether

May 13, 2016

Sarawak 2016 Elections--Not Necessarily a Bellwether 

by Azmi Sharom

Come and Steal Us again

SARAWAK politics is really weird. For one thing, I have never understood how the Sarawak people I meet seem so annoyed at the orang Malaya and their Federal policies, yet are so loyal in their support for the coalition which makes those policies.

Every time I try to get an explanation, I get the same brush-off: “You are not one of us; you won’t understand.” Maybe I’ve just been talking to the wrong people.

Granted, I am not Sarawakian (despite having a hairstyle that a Kelabit friend told me reminded him of his grandfather). Therefore, this piece is written from an outsider’s perspective.

The recent Sarawak state elections were rife with the usual complaints. Gerrymandering? Check. Accusa­tions of money politics? Check. Questionable spikes in voter numbers? Check. Unfair use of immigration laws? Check. Opposi­tion coalition can’t get their act together? Check.

If all these complaints are true, or even if only some of them are true, then they will surely have left an impact on the election results. But I am not here to discuss that. Because true or not, there appears to me to be an underlying issue that will colour Sarawak state elections, even if they are as clean and clear as a baby’s conscience.

Sarawak politics are, quite simply, state-based. National issues do not seem to have an impact on voter sentiments. If they do, they take a back seat to domestic concerns. Hence, despite issues confronting Putrajaya, a few nods towards Sarawak norms by their Barisan Nasional Chief Minister (no religious extremism, the recognition of English, plurality) have made him more popular than Watson Nyambek in his speedy pomp.

A sense of political “separateness” from the Federation is not particularly surprising. Generally speaking, states have their own personality and identity.If there is some sort of physical distance involved, this personality becomes more apparent, be it a mountain range as in the case of Kelantan or a narrow channel in the case of Penang. Imagine, then, how individualistic a state can be when separated by the humungous South China Sea?

My point is that there exists in Sarawak an emotional “separateness” from the Federation and it follows that the same will be true with politics. It is even more pronounced because it is only in the Borneo states that you have exclusively state-based political parties.

Add to this the rules put in place by the Malaysia Agreement (separate judiciary, Attorney-General, Bar, immigration laws, government agencies and extra state jurisdiction to make laws) and the individuality becomes even more pronounced.

Thus, the general sense that I get is that when it comes to elections, in particular state elections, it is really and truly about what Sarawakians think is best for themselves. And if this means having a BN-led state government, then so be it. National issues don’t really matter.

This is very different from voter sentiment in the peninsula. National issues get very tangled up with state issues.I honestly can’t remember a time when this was not so. In the Peninsula, election campaigns tend to be based on certain overarching issues which tend to be national in nature.

What all this is leading to is that I am not sure if BN’s landslide victory in Sarawak is actually a portent of things to come.It is not necessarily the signal that Sarawak is still very much a safe state for BN in the general elections due within a couple of years.

If it is possible for the opposition to show how their Federal policies will differ from BN’s in relation to the Bornean states and if they can prove that those policies are better for the people of Sarawak and Sabah, then it is very possible that the results of the parliamentary elections won’t be as emphatic as the state legislative assembly elections. Only time will tell.

A Malaysian Muslim Intellectual’s Peaceful New World Order

March 29, 2016

“The Causes of ‘Islamic State’ Violence, the Resolution of Which Would Result in a Better New World Order”.

by Kassim Ahmad

I looked up all references and listened to all expert commentators on the subject, yet I failed to get a satisfactory answer. In this essay, I shall try to probe the matter.

There are some telling clues. First, the perpetrators claim to represent Islam. Second, the targets are all Western countries whose populations are mostly Christians (United States, France and Brussels ), Thirdl the latest targets were the Christian minority community in Pakistan.

Fourth, look at present-day Iraq. It is chaos-in-chief, consequent upon three American-led coalition of 33 countries’ invasions of that country, thanks to the inducement by British Empire-created Irael (in  the midst of Arab countries) and imperial Iran. Remember Iraq was the home of the first human civilization, dating from Prophet Abraham in Ur of 5000 years ago.

Iraq and Syria, two ancient civilizations, is said to be the home of “Islamic State”, carrying the banner of Allah and Muhammad, a clearly mistaken banner.  The true banner of Islam is that of One True God, the God of all the peoples, Jews, Christians, Muslims  and others — all believers in monotheism, openly declared or kept secret.

All these clues point to a long conflict extending from 15th century up to the present between Muslims and Christians. Furthermore, do not forget the Western crusades against Islam. There were nine crusades altogether, extending from 1095 of the first crusade, to 1271 of the ninth crusade. The crusades were ordered by the various popes who were then also kings sitting on the thrones of Medieval Europe.

The crusaders’ purpose was to retake the holy city of Jerusalem, which the Muslims conquered from the Byzantine Empire.  Jerusalem is known as Baitul-Maqdis to the Muslims, also one of their holy cities.

All these acts of Muslim violence against the Christian West, starting from the 9/11 attack on the New York World Trade Centre, through Paris, Brussels and the Christian community in Pakistan, must be looked as a whole as Muslim revolt against the Christians. As can be seen, it has a long history, from 16th Century colonization of the Malay World, including the Philippines, most of which it has christianised, up to the 18th century.  In the 18th century European colonialism awakened Asian nationalism, resulting in new independent nation-states. But nation-states cannot unite the world that has become interconnected into a global village.

We need a philosophy, a new world-view for our interconnected world. As Islam is a “revolutionary, life-affirming and death-defying” world-view, as I have defined it in another location, that must have been the basis and reason for the rise of the “Islamic State” movement.

That being so, what solution can we offer to resolve this deep psychological-cum-physical conflict? Let us ask ourselves what type of world we want to see emerge for our and for future generations. Surely a peaceful, secure and just world.

What type of world do we have now?First , it a non-Muslim dominated world. It is ruled by two non-Muslim blocs led by two self-appointed superpowers, the United States of America and the Russia (and rising powerhouse China). Be it noted that the United States and Russia are both Christians. This world is neither peaceful, nor secure, nor just. The Sword of Democles hangs over us. It is imperative the justice-loving peoples of the world must change it before we commit ourselves to a mutually-assured self-destruction.

The West for all its physical and apparent mental might – can it face this this challenge of “insane’ violence? Certainly it cannot. But the west is too proud to admit defeat, although defeated it will be. “Islamic State” violence in increasing by the day, as all can see. But even Muslims cannot tolerate this violence commited in the name of Islam. It is not Islam’s solution. (When I speak of Islam I means the Islam of all prophet-messengers from Adam to Muhammad, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus.)

Thus both the essentially Christian West and the Muslims must come to an amicable agreement in order to bring about a peaceful, secure and just world. The Christian West must openly apologize for their colonization of the world and pay token compensation. Then all countries, Muslim and non-Muslim, which have been the victims of colonialism must openly forgive their colonisers and agree to live in peace with the countries that had colonized them.

The non-Muslim dominated United Nations Security Council, a relic of the Second World War (1939-1945), must be democratized. All countries must renounce and destroy all weapons of mass destruction. The “Islamic State” violence  and terror must cease immediately. And finally all countries, big and small, must undertake to live in peace with one another, solve all their differences and conflicts peacefully, and cooperate and help one another to progress in all fields of human endeavor.

All these must be included in a revised and expanded the United Nations Charter, and  UN Universal Rights Declaration.Then a peaceful, secure and just world will come into being, and a new chapter in human life in this Universe will begin.




Sociological approach to understanding reaction to Citizens’ Declaration

March 12, 2016

COMMENT: Ooi’s article makes an interesting read. I see it as an attempt by someone from the Penang Institute, a think tank of the DAP  state government, to justify DAP’s political pragmatism in joining forces with UMNO Baru’s founder, Tun Dr. Mahathir, to oust Dato’ Seri Najib Razak as Prime Minister.

Get Najib out of power first and then worry about what happens next, that apparently is the plan. But it does not work that way since  a political vaccum will be created if we do not have an acceptable alternative in place.

Tun Dr. Mahathir has own preference in either Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin or his own son Dato’ Seri Mukhriz Mahathir to preserve UMNO Baru, while Pakatan Harapan can agree on Anwar Ibrahim who is now in jail. Anwar is a good choice but getting him out of jail is  going to be not easy. Tun Dr. Mahathir is not going to countenance his political resurrection, and it would be foolhardy for Prime Minister Najib Razak to get him out of jail any time soon.

Removing the Prime Minister by politically motivated dissent  is unusual in our country. Tun Dr. Mahathir would not tolerate it when he was in power. Democracy does not work in that manner, since it is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. The next Prime Minister has to decided by Malaysians in free and fair elections.  Prime Minister Najib is no fool; he knows that he can only be removed by constitutional means, either by a General Elections or a No Confidence Vote in Parliament. We are stuck.

We often use the word pragmatic rather glibly. The last time I checked with dictionary, I found it not quite complimentary. The conventional definition of pragmatist is someone who is pragmatic, that is to say, someone who is practical and focused on reaching a goal. A pragmatist usually has a straightforward, matter-of-fact approach and doesn’t let emotion distract him.

A pragmatist can also ignore his own ideals to get the job done, so in this way it can have a slightly negative meaning. The word is often used in reference to politicians to mean that they are either sensible or willing to cut corners for their cause.

A pragmatist is, in my view, is someone who will abandon principles, who is willing to work with an adversary to achieve a  purpose, even though he knows that his adversary has  a different agenda. DAP’s Lim Kit Siang, for example, has been  engaged in a political struggle with UMNO for decades.

DAP has always been a successful political force on its own with an ideology based on justice, freedom and democracy. Its foray into coalition politics of fairly recent vintage (in 2008 when it became an influential component of Pakatan Rakyat (and now Pakatan Harapan). I am, therefore, baffled that  Kit Siang should now compromise with a diehard UMNO man who was his enemy and in so doing lose his credibility and undermine the standing of his party.

The Citizens’ Declaration is an elitist document. As such, the ordinary man in the street has no time for lofty pronouncements written by the so-called thinking individuals. He is concerned about his job, food on his table, money to pay  his children’s education, pay his rent and medical bills. How can he be convinced that political change can make difference to his life?

If we are to bring change by replacing Prime Minister Najib Razak by democratic means, we need to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Malaysians. The Citizens’ Declaration is of no help here. Ganging up with the former dictator, Tun Dr. Mahathir is  certainly an exercise in futility.

We do not need a sociological approach, as suggested by Ooi, to understand why some Malaysians support and others reject the Citizens’ Declaration. We need to go back to the people with clear plan on how to reform our system of governance. This must involve a total revamp of our political system to stamp out corruption, crony capitalism, and uphold the Rule of Law. So, I need to be convinced with Tun Dr. Mahathir at the helm of the movement to oust Prime Minister Najib Razak from power, this coalition of strange bedfellows can get the job done, even if it succeeds by dint of good fortune to unseat him.–Din Merican

Tunku Abdul Aziz on Mahathir:

“Mahathir is a serial pathlogical “killer” of prime ministers and institutions. His obsession with his own sense of indispensability as a political force is both sad and touching were it not for the fact that it is tragically damaging for our country. Mahathir’s latest antics have merely confirmed what we have always known about this ruthless self-centred man with an over-sized capacity for mischief.”

Sociological approach to understanding reaction to Citizens’ Declaration

by Ooi Kok Hin*

Ooi Kok Hin is a research analyst in Penang Institute. He graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy, and is also the author of the book, “Aku Kafir, Kau Siapa” , published by DuBook Press.

The reactions to the widely-publicised Citizens’ Declaration can generally be categorised into two camps: first, support for the initiative which brings together arguably the strongest anti-establishment forces today, and second, disillusionment and uproar by those who abhor the opportunistic nature of the grand informal coalition.

Not withstanding the polarised debates, the distinct reactions can be explained through a sociological approach. We can first employ a tool of sociological analysis, which is to investigate a phenomenon through three factors: origins, nature, and functions.

In simplistic terms, origins refers to the “Where”, nature refers to the “What”, and functions refer to the “Why/How”. For those who strongly opposed the joint declaration, they emphasise the origins factor, that is, the source of institutional abuse of power: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself.

This group couldn’t forgive the former Prime Minister for his crackdown on individual rights and the integrity of the institutions, let alone accept him as the “saviour”.

Having fought against Dr Mahathir, his legacies and Mahathirism for the most part of their adult life, they view any proposal to incorporate the man into the Save Malaysia agenda as “opportunistic” at best, and “sellout” at worse.

Meanwhile, those who are willing to support the declaration emphasise the functions factor, that is, the need and utility to form a broad-based, albeit elitist, coalition to overthrow the chief danger of the time: the current executive.

This group doesn’t necessarily forgive Dr Mahathir and his allies, but they prioritise the function of the coalition to solve the problem over and above the origin of the problem. This differentiation of priority of emphasis also leads us to the second sociological tool of analysis.

Utopian v Ideology

In 1929, Karl Mannheim wrote a book called “Ideology and Utopia”. The thinking of human groups, he argued, can be divided into two categories called ideology and utopia.

The concept of ideology “reflects the one discovery which emerged from political conflict, namely that ruling groups can in their thinking become so intensively interest-bound to a situation that they are simply no longer able to see certain facts which would undermine their domination, (it) obscures the real condition of society both to itself and to others, and thereby stabilises it (the status quo).”

In contrast, the concept of utopian thinking reflects “certain oppressed groups are intellectually so strongly interested in the destruction and transformation of a given condition of society that they unwittingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it.”

Using this distinction, we can say that those who strongly oppose the declaration subscribe to utopian thinking. Shaharuddin Maaruf, in applying this distinction to analyse the social psychology of Muslims in Southeast Asia, wrote “These people are not at all concerned with what really exists; rather in their thinking, they already seek to change the situation that exists”.

In other words, they don’t care about the limits of the situation; what is permissible and doable within the present circumstances. Nothing less than an overthrow of the structure and status quo is satisfactory.

The thinking process of those who sided with the declaration can be said to be still functioning within the status quo. They, correctly or not, diagnose a possible solution based on the existing and realistic condition of the society. Because they still operate within the structure of the status quo, they are limited by the realm of the possible and are more susceptible with the idea of working with the lesser evils for the most immediate agenda.

The differences between the utopian-minded and the ideology-minded are plenty. The former couldn’t accept working with Dr Mahathir’s camp because they are part of the status quo which the group seeks to do away with.

Even if institutional reforms are demanded in the declaration, this group knows that any positive outcome would not do away with the status quo since the Mahathir-led coalition will have people inside the establishment party to replace the incumbent.

For this group, it doesn’t matter if there is no immediate possibility of a political revolution that can overthrow the establishment. It doesn’t matter if a deal with the devil offers the only realistic chance of change. All that matters is the utopian fervor to destruct the status quo.

The ideology-minded, pragmatic and focusing on the immediate, seek small wins and seize whatever chance of change. The utopian-minded, idealist and focusing on the structure, seek a new political order and disdain anything that falls short of a total annihilation of the status quo.

This sociological approach to understanding the distinct reaction to the Citizens’ Declaration is undertaken in the belief that our understanding of social and political phenomena could be improved by studying it with existing academic theories and a certain academic slant or rigour.

Ideas and theories are able to provide us with a tool of analysis to deepen our understanding and explain the process of social thought and refines our analysis, instead of ramblings and gut-feeling analysis.

This distinct style of thought, utopian and ideological, formulated by a sociologist long dead, is able to explain our society’s reaction to the declaration. The fundamental difference, in this case, lies in those who insist on nothing less than the breakdown of the existing order, and those who seek to work within the status quo and salvage whatever progress might be made. – March 12, 2016.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.