THE DREAM or MONSTERS OF ENLIGHTENMENT


September 11, 2016

by Michael Wood

THE DREAM OF ENLIGHTENMENT

By Anthony Gottlieb
300 pp. Liveright Publishing. $27.95.

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A man is asleep at a table, his arms half-covering a drawing. Behind him a whole crowd of owls, bats, cats and less easily definable creatures hovers, ­crouches and flutters. One of the most humanoid of them is holding out a pen, and seems keen for the man to wake up. On the side of his table, written in large letters, are the words El sueño de la razón produce monstruos. We are looking at one of the etchings in Goya’s late-18th-century work “Los Caprichos.” The sleep of reason produces monsters. Or is it the dream of reason? The Spanish word allows either meaning. Goya’s note on the etching suggests he inclined to the former sense: The monsters arrive when reason is no longer alert. But the other reading has a long and persuasive history: When reason dreams, it dreams of monsters.

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When reason dreams, it dreams of monsters.

“The Dream of Reason,” the first volume in a history of Western philosophy by Anthony Gottlieb, a former executive editor of The Economist, appeared in 2000, and took us from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance. The new work starts with Descartes and ends on “the eve of the French Revolution.” Another book is promised, picking up the tale with Kant. Gottlieb’s aim, admirably fulfilled, is to help us see what older and newer philosophers have to say to us but not to turn them into mouthpieces for what we already think we know. “It is tempting to think that they speak our language and live in our world. But to understand them properly, we must step back into their shoes.” This will be true no doubt of the post-Kantian volume as well. Even the shoes next door can look pretty strange if they belong to a philosopher.

Philosophy is many things, Gottlieb suggests, including much that we no longer call philosophy, but one of its recurring features is what William James called “a peculiarly stubborn effort to think clearly.” As Gottlieb declares in the first volume, the idea of clarity has not always seemed foremost, but the stubbornness is everywhere. “The attempt to push rational inquiry obstinately to its limits” is the name of the project. Sometimes it fails entirely, and the dream “seems merely a mirage.” At other times, though, “it succeeds magnificently, and the dream is revealed as a fruitful inspiration.” The dream appears as either fantasy or revelation, and ­Gottlieb skillfully tells “both sides of the story.” But what about the monsters?

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Gottlieb reminds us that, for Bertrand Russell, Rousseau was responsible for the rise of Hitler, because his idea of a general will “made possible the mystic identification of a leader with his people.” Leibniz was inclined “to confuse his own mind with that of God.” Descartes “was too quick to assume that whatever seemed to him to be necessarily true was in fact so.” Hobbes was “almost charmingly naïve” about the supposed rationality of sovereigns with absolute power. This last instance becomes especially strange when we think of Hobbes’s eloquent elaborations of what people are like when left to their own devices (“no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time . . . no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death”) but then, as Gottlieb shrewdly says, Hobbes “wanted above all to scare people by stressing the anarchy that would prevail in the absence of government.” He could idealize government on the same pretext.

Gottlieb is fully aware of the monsters in the dream, but doesn’t allow them to dominate his book. He is committed to the positive aspects of inquiry, especially where scientific advances are involved. “It is by virtue of its engagement with the special problems posed by modern science that modern philosophy is distinguished from premodern philosophy.” Gottlieb often makes fun of his philosophers, but gently, as a way of bringing us closer to them, and they emerge as brilliant, vulnerable humans rather than monsters of any kind. Descartes worried about “the divine insurance plan”; “Hobbes got rather carried away” when he told us how solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life was. “If Leibniz had been a composer, most of his symphonies would have been unfinished.”

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Descartes gets a slightly harder ride than the others, and Gottlieb seems to have changed his mind about him since he wrote the earlier book. There his writings were described as “engaging,” and now they appear as “dubious” and “built on sand,” with Descartes himself accused of “trying to work out too much in his head.”

This last remark looks like a rather odd verdict on a philosopher, but it makes sense in the context of the book, and of course Gottlieb is not denying Descartes’s immense influence. All of Gottlieb’s chief subjects — Descartes himself, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Hume — are engaged, precisely and in a new way, with the world outside the head. Even geometry led to politics and social theory; advanced theoretical thought constantly engaged with the physical and mechanical sciences — for a long time these disciplines were still housed under the name of philosophy. There was plenty of room for work inside the head, of course, and as Gottlieb says, “philosophers always travel in several directions at once,” but the material world was a laboratory and an authority replacing, even for religious thinkers, the old, unappealable orders of the church.

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Thus Hobbes sought to “disentangle politics and religion.” Spinoza said, “I do not differentiate between God and Nature in the way all those known to me have done.” Locke was suspicious of unempirical theories that “make the mind sound lazier than it is.” And even Leibniz, whose interests ranged from waterworks and ­proto-computers to the secret order of the universe, insisted on the intimate relations of thought and substance, claiming “not only that matter cannot account for mind but that mind is needed to account for matter.” Hume meanwhile taught that “extrapolating from experience” was just as unreliable as other philosophers thought it was but still more trustworthy than any other methods we might imagine we have. And Descartes, despite overdoing his mental homework, did not maintain, as he is often supposed to have done, that the mind and the body are irrevocably split from each other. “He could not explain how it is that mind and body are united, but he was sure that they were.”

The “Age of Reason” is a phrase usually applied to the 18th century, but ­Gottlieb invites us to take it all the way back to Descartes’s “Discourse on Method” (1637) and his “Meditations” (1641), as long as we are willing to see reason as part of the puzzle rather than its solution. Is reason the same as enlightenment? For their conservative enemies, both are equally dangerous. ­Gottlieb’s description of his 18th-­century philosophers actually applies to all of those he discusses: “They were asking difficult questions where no questions should be asked.” Did they spread light? Of course, but they didn’t always know the answers to their questions, and this is why it is appropriate to think of enlightenment as a dream: It won’t always translate into the working day. It’s still a great achievement, of course, and Gottlieb gives the last quoted word to the French philosopher d’Alembert, who is defending knowledge against those who claim it is dangerous. He doesn’t believe “that anything would be gained by destroying it. Vices would remain with us, and we would have ignorance in ­addition.”

Michael Wood teaches at Princeton. His most recent book is “Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

A version of this review appears in print on September 11, 2016, on page BR20 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Reasonable Age. Today’s Paper

When Law is NOT Justice


July 14, 2016

This conversation is with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who is a university professor in the humanities at Columbia University. She is the author of “An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization,” and other books.

Brad Evans: Throughout your work, you have written about the conditions faced by the globally disadvantaged, notably in places such as India, China and Africa. How might we use philosophy to better understand the various types of violence that erupt as a result of the plight of the marginalized in the world today?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: While violence is not beyond naming and diagnosis, it does raise many challenging questions all the same. I am a pacifist. I truly believe in the power of nonviolence. But we cannot categorically deny a people the right to resist violence, even, under certain conditions, with violence. Sometimes situations become so intolerable that moral certainties are no longer meaningful. There is a difference here between condoning such a response and trying to understand why the recourse to violence becomes inevitable.

When human beings are valued as less than human, violence begins to emerge as the only response. When one group designates another as lesser, they are saying the “inferior” group cannot think in a “reasonable” way. It is important to remember that this is an intellectual violation, and in fact that the oppressed group’s right to manual labor is not something they are necessarily denied. In fact, the oppressed group is often pushed to take on much of society’s necessary physical labor. Hence, it is not that people are denied agency; it is rather that an unreasonable or brutish type of agency is imposed on them. And, the power inherent in this physical agency eventually comes to intimidate the oppressors. The oppressed, for their part, have been left with only one possible identity, which is one of violence. That becomes their politics and it appropriates their intellect.

This brings us directly to the issue of “reasonable” versus “unreasonable” violence. When dealing with violence deemed unreasonable, the dominating groups demonize violent responses, saying that “those other people are just like that,” not just that they are worth less, but also that they are essentially evil, essentially criminal or essentially have a religion that is prone to killing.

And yet, on the other side, state-legitimized violence, considered “reasonable” by many, is altogether more frightening. Such violence argues that if a person wears a certain kind of clothing or belongs to a particular background, he or she is legally killable. Such violence is more alarming, because it is continuously justified by those in power.

B.E.: At least some violent resistance in the 20th century was tied to struggles for national liberation, whether anti-colonial or (more common in Europe) anti-fascist. Is there some new insight needed to recognize forces of domination and exploitation that are separated from nation states and yet are often explained as some return to localism and ethnicity?

G.C.S.: This is a complicated question demanding serious philosophical thought. I have just come back from the World Economic Forum, and their understanding of power and resistance is very different from that of a group such as the ethnic Muslim Rohingya who live on the western coast of Myanmar; though both are already deeply embedded in global systems of power and influence, even if from opposing sides. The Rohingya have been the victims of a slow genocide as described by Maung Zarni, Amartya Sen and others. This disrupts an Orientalist reading of Buddhism as forever the peace-loving religion. Today, we see Buddhists from Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar engage in state-sanctioned violence against minorities.

The fact is that when the pro-democracy spokesperson Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest there, she could bravely work against oppressive behavior on the part of the military government. But once she was released and wanted to secure and retain power, she became largely silent on the plight of these people and has sided with the majority party, which has continued to wage violence against non-Buddhist minorities. One school of thought says that in order to bring democracy in the future, she has to align herself with the majority party now. I want to give Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi the benefit of the doubt. But when the majority party is genocidal, there is a need to address that. Aligning with them cannot possibly bring democracy.

However, rather than retreating back into focused identity politics, resistance in this context means connecting the plight of the Rohingya to global struggles, the context of which is needed in order to address any particular situation. Older, national, identity-based struggles like those you mention are less persuasive in a globalized world. All of this is especially relevant as Myanmar sets up its first stock exchange and prepares to enter the global capitalist system.

In globalization as such, when the nation states are working in the interest of global capital, democracy is reduced to body counting, which often works against educated judgments. The state is trapped in the demands of finance capital. Resistance must know about financial regulation in order to demand it. This is bloodless resistance, and it has to be learned. We must produce knowledge of these seemingly abstract globalized systems so that we can challenge the social violence of unregulated capitalism.

B.E.: What are the implications when the promotion of human rights is left to what you have called “self-appointed entrepreneurs” and philanthropists, from individuals such as Bill Gates onto organizations like the World Bank, who have a very particular conception of rights and the “rule of law?”

G.C.S.: It is just that there can be law, but law is not justice.

The passing of a law and the proof of its existence is not enough to assure effective resistance to oppression. Some of the gravest violations of rights have occurred within legal frameworks. And, if that law governs a society never trained in what Michel Foucault would call “the practice of freedom,” it is there to be enforced by force alone, and the ones thus forced will find better and better loopholes around it.

That is why the “intuition” of democracy is so vital when dealing with the poorest of the poor, groups who have come to believe their wretchedness is normal. And when it comes time to starve, they just tighten their nonexistent belts and have to suffer, fatefully accepting this in silence. It’s more than children playing with rocks in the streets. It takes over every aspect of the people’s existence. And yet these people still work, in the blazing heat, for little or next to nothing for wealthy landowners. This is a different kind of poverty.

Against this, we have this glamorization of urban poverty by the wealthier philanthropist and aid agencies. There is always a fascination with the picture-perfect idea of poverty; children playing in open sewers and the rest of it. Of course, such lives are proof of grave social injustice. But top-down philanthropy, with no interest in an education that strengthens the soul, is counterproductive, an assurance that there will be no future resistance, only instant celebrity for the philanthropist.

I say “self-appointed” entrepreneurs because there is often little or no regulation placed upon workers in the nongovernmental sector. At best, they are ad hoc workers picking up the slack for a neo-liberal state whose managerial ethos cannot be strong on redistribution,, and where structural constitutional resistance by citizens cannot be effective in the face of an unconstituted “rule of law” operating, again, to protect the efficiency of global capital growth. The human rights lobby moves in to shame the state, and in ad hoc ways restores rights. But there is then no democratic follow-up, and these organizations rarely stick around long enough to see that.

Another problem with these organizations is the way they emphasize capitalism’s social productivity without mentioning capital’s consistent need to sustain itself at the expense of curtailing the rights of some sectors of the population. This is all about the removal of access to structures of reparation: the disappearance of the welfare state, or its not coming into being at all.

If we turn to “development,” we often see that what is sustained in sustainable development is cost-effectiveness and profit-maximization, with the minimum action necessary in terms of environmental responsibility. We could call such a thing “sustainable underdevelopment.”

Today everything is about urbanization, urban studies, metropolitan concerns, network societies and so on. Nobody in policy circles talks about the capitalization of land and how this links directly to the dispossession of people’s rights. This is another line of inquiry any consideration of violence must take into account.

B.E.: While you have shown appreciation for a number of thinkers known for their revolutionary interventions, such as Frantz Fanon, you have also critiqued the limits of their work when it comes to issues of gender and the liberation of women. Why?

G.C.S.: I stand by my criticism of Fanon, but he is not alone here. In fact he is like most other men who talk about revolutionary struggle. Feminist struggle can’t be learned from them. And yet, in “A Dying Colonialism,” Fanon is really trying from within to understand the position of women by asking questions about patriarchal structures of domination.

After the revolution, in postcolonial Algeria and elsewhere, those women who were part of the struggle had to separate themselves from revolutionary liberation organizations that were running the state in order to continue fighting for their rights under separate initiatives. Gender is bigger and older than state formations and its fight is older than the fight for national liberation or the fight between capitalism and socialism. So we have to let questions of gender interrupt these revolutionary ideas, otherwise revolution simply reworks marked gender divisions in societies.

B.E.: You are clearly committed to the power of education based on aesthetic practices, yet you want to challenge the canonical Western aesthetic ideas from which they are derived using your concepts of “imaginative activism” and “affirmative sabotage.” How can this work?

G.C.S.: Imaginative activism takes the trouble to imagine a text — understood as a textile, woven web rather than narrowly as a printed page — as having its own demands and prerogatives. This is why the literary is so important. The simplest teaching of literature was to grasp the vision of the writer. This was disrupted in the 1960s by the preposterous concern “Is this book of relevance to me?” which represented a tremendous assault on the literary, a tremendous group narcissism. For literature to be meaningful it should not necessarily be of obvious relevance. That is the aesthetic challenge, to imagine that which is not immediately apparent. This can fight what is implicit in voting bloc democracy. Relevant to me, rather than flexible enough to work for others who are not like me at all. The inbuilt challenge of democracy – needing an educated, not just informed, electorate.

I used the term “affirmative sabotage” to gloss on the usual meaning of sabotage: the deliberate ruining of the master’s machine from the inside. Affirmative sabotage doesn’t just ruin; the idea is of entering the discourse that you are criticizing fully, so that you can turn it around from inside. The only real and effective way you can sabotage something this way is when you are working intimately within it.

This is particularly the case with the imperial intellectual tools, which have been developed not just upon the shoulders, but upon the backs of people for centuries. Let’s take as a final example what Immanuel Kant says when developing his “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.” Not only does Kant insist that we need to imagine another person, he also insists for the need to internalize it to such an extent that it becomes second nature to think and feel with the other person.

Leaving aside the fact that Kant doesn’t talk about slavery whatsoever in his book, he even states that women and domestic servants are incapable of the civic imagination that would make them capable of cosmopolitan thinking. But, if you really think about it, it’s women and domestic servants who were actually trained to think and feel like their masters. They constantly had to put themselves in the master’s shoes, to enter into their thoughts and desires so much that it became second nature for them to serve.

So this is how one sabotages. You accept the unbelievable and unrelenting brilliance of Kant’s work, while confronting the imperial qualities he reproduces and showing the contradictions in this work. It is, in effect, to jolt philosophy with a reality check. It is to ask, for example, if this second-naturing of women, servants and others can be done without coercion, constraint and brainwashing. And, when the ruling race or class claims the right to do this, is there a problem of power being ignored in all their claimed benevolence? What would educated resistance look like in this case? It would misfire, because society is not ready for it. For that reason, one must continue to work — to quote Marx — for the possibility of a poetry of the future.

 Now in print: “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” an anthology of essays from The Times’s philosophy series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

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The Building Blocks of Learning


June 15, 2016

The Building Blocks of Learning

Malaysia: A Bipolar Nation


June 9, 2016

COMMENT: I received a warning for the second time from  the Media Unit, Malaysian Multimedia Corporation (MMMC) instructing me to remove my posting of Kassim Ahmad’s article.

See: https://dinmerican.wordpress.com/2016/06/06/the-power-of-syahadah-declaration-of-muslim-faith-verse-18-surah-al-i-imran-the-family-of-imran/

Kassim Ahmad is a controversial public intellectual whose bold and forthright take on Islam is deemed unacceptable and yet agreeable to some people like me. I complied with the MMMC directive as I respect the law, although I think their action reflects what Dr. Azly Rahman what says in his article  (below) about our mentality.

A  nation (and people) that cannot accept views which challenge orthodoxy and is unable to embrace diversity is a nation in irreversible decline. Dr. Azly is correct when he says in his eloquent opinion piece (I repeat opinion and assume that we are all entitled to our opinions)  and I quote:

“…we are constantly at war with ourselves and that the goal of each political party is to destroy one another and for each leader to aim for the jugular – to rule the country.

As citizens we are not allowed speak up against evil-doings…We are asked to shut up or else be locked up if we dare speak of the fate of our hard-earned savings. Bipolar a nation we have become, paranoia our leaders are plagued with…

We are not allowed to do all these although as citizens – besides going out to vote – we are accorded the rights to participate in nation-building through making suggestions on how to maintain check and balances in a society supposedly progressive and democratic.”–Dr Azly Rahman

Be of good cheer. Time waits for no one. It is the great leveler and equalizer. History teaches us this reality, if we care and are humble enough to learn. So let us  use not waste it, when others are using it to deal with serious global issues of war and peace, and development and enlightenment. Being petty bureaucrats is not the way to be productive and useful to our country and humanity.–Din Merican

Malaysia: A Bipolar Nation

by Dr. Azly Rahman*

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Columbia University’s Dr. Azly Rahman

Stoning to death. More lashes to the Friday caning. Syaria Law eventually for non-Muslims. Leave Malaysia if you don’t like how things are run. That puzzling and trumpeting Bangsa Johor rhetoric – as if nobody can explain what the concept of ‘nation/natio’ is. Sabah and Sarawak wish to leave the federation.

Criticise the county and you’re not allowed to go for your overseas holidays. Who owns Gold Star and why the deep secret? Syaria-compliant this and that. A possible boxing match with Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in Kuala Kangsar. Humans eating ‘dedak’ or chicken feed. Is Hang Tuah a real person? Is the Taming Sari we have now a fake dagger?

These are some of the topics dominating the discourse of our nation. Can we do better than this? Don’t we care about the intellectual future of our children? Don’t we want them to emulate good ethics from us and the adults they see in power? Don’t we have such moral and critical thinking obligation to them, leaving behind good lessons in their national lives?

That much we owe them, so that they could carry on rejuvenating society without emulating the political and psychological ills of today’s leaders.

I feel that Malaysia’s youth of the next generation are missing out on good and productive discourse plaguing the national debate on things. Malaysians have becoming more global, progressive, intelligent, innovative, and articulate – at least from my analysis of the stories of successes I have been reading.

We might be shamed in the cyberspace and international media with the massive and complex money-laundering scandal implicating our leaders and members of their families, but we are also reading stories of ‘global Malaysians’ – in the arts, business, and sociopreneurship – doing well inside and outside of Malaysia. They are proud calling themselves Malaysians.

But I feel that the discourse dominating the country is one plagued with the filth of retrogressive-ness our youth need not be subjected to.

From the Islamists wishing to push the completeness of the Islamic penal code, the hudud, to the ongoing fights between the members of the opposition and ruling coalitions, to the increasing paranoia over race and religion produced by the political leaders, the daily news of cases of corruption, robbery in broad daylight, the ongoing public arguments between the Johor Royal household with select UMNO politicians – showing who can be more arrogant that the other – the malaise in our education system, and a host of other issues plaguing us, I feel that we are not moving in the right direction and taking advantage of the richness and talented-ness of our diverse population.

In other words, we are constantly at war with ourselves and that the goal of each political party is to destroy one another and for each leader to aim for the jugular – to rule the country.

As citizens we are not allowed speak up against evil-doings, such as the massive losses arising from the 1MDB fiasco although it is the right of each citizen to know what can happen to their life savings such as those in the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), the Haj Fund, and the fund allocated for the servicemen and women (Lembaga Tabung Angkatan Tentera).

Bipolar a nation we have become

We are asked to shut up or else be locked up if we dare speak of the fate of our hard-earned savings. Bipolar a nation we have become, paranoia our leaders are plagued with.

What a pathological state of democracy we are living in. What a shame for a country supposedly a ‘fully-developed industrialised society’ with first-class infrastructure and rhetoric of hypermodernity.

Today the dominant theme is (again) the hudud; of the Hadi-hudud proposal. I am sure by now Malaysians understand what the demands are and how UMNO is helping to fast-track the proposal. Although items concerning the Islamic penal code are minimal, they do point to the inching of our country to the illusionary and ‘non-existent’ concept of an Islamic state.

What a pathological state of democracy we are living in. What a shame for a country supposedly a ‘fully-developed industrialised society’ with first-class infrastructure and rhetoric of hypermodernity.

Today the dominant theme is (again) the hudud; of the Hadi-hudud proposal. I am sure by now Malaysians understand what the demands are and how UMNO is helping to fast-track the proposal. Although items concerning the Islamic penal code are minimal, they do point to the inching of our country to the illusionary and ‘non-existent’ concept of an Islamic state.

Although punishments such as stoning to death and amputation are left out, they might be tabled again eventually when the UMNO-PAS coalition on the ‘survival of the Malays’ and the ‘defence of Islam against its enemies in Malaysia’ becomes louder battle cries, especially for the Islamists wishing to turn Malaysia into a Taliban nation.

Today, the insistence is that the Syaria Law and hudud is only for Muslims, tomorrow it will be for all Malaysians, as political logic would dictate. Analysts on the scenario and the futurism of the implementation of Syaria law and the hudud have written about the complexity of the issue and how it can never be a suitable law in a country that prides itself in the superiority of man-made law as such as the Malaysian constitution.

The thought of stoning to death and amputation itself makes one wonder of the barbarism to be represented as a punishment supposedly ordained by a merciful, loving, and compassionate god -– God of the Religion of Peace. God who forgives more than one who gets angry all the time. Perhaps not many Islamic scholars in Malaysia have even inquired into the ancient cultural origins of such punishments; for example of the Pagan (Greek) and early Judaic origin of stoning which was then borrowed by Islam.

Today, stoning to death can be considered barbaric and inhumane and opposed to the United Nations convention on torture. Why subject a wrongdoer to a slow death? Would that be a philosophical question of today as the Hadi-hudud PAS-UMNO proposal progresses?

These developments in Malaysia that are colouring the discourse on hypermodernity continue to take away our consciousness – especially of the youth – of more exciting things to work on: environmental issues, sustainability, newer technologies of peace, green technologies, newer jobs, newer hopes for world peace, appreciation of the arts, humanities and philosophies in school, good labour practices, respect and understanding one another cross-culturally, virtual reality, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and even new ways of crafting Malaysian politics so that the rich will not get richer and filthier and the poor taken care of well and re-humanised.

But we are not there yet. We seem to love letting the discourse on Medieval and Dark Age practices dominate us. We need to move beyond these. How do we do this?

Let us share as many ways. As a people let us not stone ourselves to death. As smart and peace-loving Malaysians, let us not amputate our intelligence; the gift of the intellect to be used for ethical and social purposes. Is not religion, from the Greek ‘religio’ about making peaceful connections and not about amputations or being spiritually empty after being stoned to death metaphorically?

*Dr. Azly Rahman holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in the fields of Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication. He will be pursuing his fifth Masters in Fine Arts, specialising in Fiction and Poetry Writing.

Malaysia: A Tale of Hang Tuak and Hang Jebon


May 23, 2016

Malaysia:  A Tale of Hang Tuak and Hang Jebon

by Dr. Azly Rahman

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Malaysia’s : Hang Jebon-The 1MDB mastermind

When I was 10 or 11, I wanted to be either Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat or Bruce Lee. For those not familiar with the names, I will skip explaining who Bruce Lee was. One may check his Facebook page to find out who the San Francisco-born Chinese-American-Philosophy-major warrior was. Tuah and Jebat did not have Facebook accounts. Not even Linkedin profiles.

I worshipped Tuah and Jebat, I even wanted to be both heroes in one – like a Nescafe 2-in-1 sachet.

I would lock myself in my bedroom at times, put on my baju Melayu Johor, kain samping, a paper tanjak or headgear, and with my paper-made keris, I’d be Hang Tuah fighting Hang Jebat. I’d jump up and down the bed yelling words like “Cis bedebah kau! Mati kau!” (You son-of-a machine-gun you! Die you, die!)  before I plunge my kris into myself as I was playing both roles – Tuah and Jebat.  I was not sure which one was a better hero or a better moron of Malacca times.Today – I have killed both of them.

Here is the story of the re-branded heroes Hang Tuak and Hang Jebon; the former a warrior drunk with moronism and the latter a gangster and a playboy-warrior. ‘Tuak’ is a Malay word for ‘palm wine’ and ‘Jebon’ is a mongoose.

Hang Tuak was said to be the most loyal and most celebrated Malay hero of 15th century Malacca; a hero endowed with special powers to serve the king. He was said to be a polyglot as well, able to speak multiple languages while able to defeat top-notch fighters from neighbouring kingdoms, especially Majapahit.

He was also an expert kangkong eater, able to trick his way into getting a glimpse of the face of a Ming Dynasty emperor by pretending that he was swallowing the Chinese salad heads-up. I suppose the great Chinese sultan looked as pretty as a Hong Kong version of Shah Rukh Khan that no one is allowed to even look at his face.

The Hang Tuaks led by a Mr. Kulup

For Hang Tuak to gain access to that face – that was a most remarkable and celebrated achievement of the Malay warrior when it comes to fine and acrobatic dining. Had he stayed longer and ate more kangkongs, Tuak would have taken selfies with the supreme ruler of the dynasty, right there in the middle of the middle of the Middle Kingdom.

Hang Jebon was Hang Tuak’s BFF or best friend forever until one day he found out that Tuak was wrongfully sentenced to death by the sultan who loved women and would steal other people’s wife and daughters or even concubines and grandmothers if they look like Marilyn Monroe or Lady Gaga.

Yes, because the sultan was angry that his favourite warrior-terminator did not get to kidnap one Tun Teja of Pahang and instead the fool fell in love with Madam Teja.  (Note: Teja is not to be confused with Madam T, the wife of ‘Mr T’ the African-American TV hero with the mohawk.)

The gorgeous Teja perhaps looked like Katherine Hepburn in Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Tuak was unlucky in that mission impossible and was sentenced to death ; maybe to death by tickling till he turned pink and red and then died.

Chosen by the Mandate of Heaven

That was a form of slow death, arguably pleasurable those day before lethal injection. And that was how sultans acted those days. If you are a sultan chosen to rule by the Mandate of Heaven by some Divine Daulat, you could do anything – do good to your slaves or ‘hamba sahaya’ as well as have as many concubines that your harem can accommodate and steal other people’s wife or daughter or steal even royal goats and orangutans.

There were some bad sultans back in the day, mind you. Some may have kept both concubines and porcupines as well.

As God-appointed rulers, you can have all the nice designer clothes you want, sit on the most exquisite diamond-studded throne till you constipate, eat caviar all day, summon the Malay court  dancers to even dance like Janet Jackson or have them do the locomotion, and even have 10 gold-plated bullock carts to bring you and your palace gang members around the village-kingdom, reminding people that a sultan can do no wrong and is above the law and that going against them will have you arrested and coconuts will be shoved down your throat, as the mildest punishment.

That was the power the sultans gave themselves. Back in the day, if you laugh at a prince who could not kick the sepak takraw ball right you could end up dead as well. Maybe stoned to death with a hundred of those hard rattan ball. Those were the days – of the Malay Harry Potter days – when sultans were also carried around the village in what looked like stretchers crafted by the best adiguru (master artisans) with chair design expertise.

One of the sultans even died on a ‘dulang-looking stretcher’ in Kota Tinggi, when he was murdered with a keris by his own laksamana. His story was told as ‘The Story of Sultan Mahmud Mangkat di Julang’. He was an evil sultan who did not like people stealing fruits from his kebun/orchard. Especially buah nangka or jackfruit. He does not care if you are a pregnant woman craving for a piece of jackfruit.

Back to the two Hang men – Tuak and Jebon.

Hang Najib’s generous friends from Saudi Arabia–USD681 million Gift

So as the legend goes, Jebon was extremely angry and, in the spirit of Che Guevara and the infidel Fidel Castro, decided to revolt and take over the kingdom. Not only the sultan had to go into hiding in some ‘batu-belah-batu-bertangkup-looking’ cave but Jebon was smart, in the tradition of womanising-smart he learned from the sultans – he took all the sultan’s concubines as well all for himself.

All those Marilyn Monroe, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and even Beyonce and Kim Kardashian and Kaitlyn-Bruce-Jenner looking Malacca concubines were made his. Jebat the silat-smart Darth Vader-like warrior took them all and had a lot of fun in the process of fighting for justice. Fighting for Tuak his BFF.

It is like today’s ethos – to be a politician means to serve and to steal. And to do these big time. Tuak and Jebon were the favourite lakshamanas (‘admirals’)  entrusted to keep the sultans in power and in lust all the time. There were handsomely rewarded.

The legend and nothing more

So, that was the story of the two Malay warriors of Malacca times. That was the legend and nothing more. One cannot even do a DNA testing on those two Hangmen, There is no point spending time debating ‘cogito-ergo-sum-ness’ of the two. No point using a Descartian logic to prove their existence.

All those Marilyn Monroe, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and even Beyonce and Kim Kardashian and Kaitlyn-Bruce-Jenner looking Malacca concubines were made his. Jebat the silat-smart Darth Vader-like warrior took them all and had a lot of fun in the process of fighting for justice. Fighting for Tuak his BFF.

It is like today’s ethos – to be a politician means to serve and to steal. And to do these big time. Tuak and Jebon were the favourite lakshamanas (‘admirals’)  entrusted to keep the sultans in power and in lust all the time. There were handsomely rewarded.

The legend and nothing more

So, that was the story of the two Malay warriors of Malacca times. That was the legend and nothing more. One cannot even do a DNA testing on those two Hangmen, There is no point spending time debating ‘cogito-ergo-sum-ness’ of the two. No point using a Descartian logic to prove their existence.

But Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat were my heroes. I love them. Not anymore after they had a name-change: Hang Tuak ‘the forever drunk’ and Hang Jebon ‘the original Malacca  gangsta’.  That leaves Bruce Lee and me, myself and I as the two heroes. The Nescafe 2-in-1 me.

Malays of today do not need Tuaks and Jebons as heroes. Malays don’t need to glorify these names and confuse children what a ‘hero’ should mean. A moron is not a hero. A moron does not think. They follow the money and those with power. We have so many ‘Hang Sapu Habis’ heroes propped up in our midst.

The hero is the self – the kingdom within larger that the outside – the child that refuses to bow to authority, especially if the authority is based on the system of moronism etched, archived, and embalmed in the past.

That we call tradition and history must be integrated with Philosophy and there is nothing wrong in using the tools of today’s philosophical discourse of what is right and what is wrong in rewriting the past and killing past morons hailed as today’s heroes. That is our task in education for critical consciousness. Dare we rewrite the history of our own people – so that each of our children will triumph as hero?

Comprendo? As Che Guevara would ask.

In Memory of Adlan  Benan Omar

The Day Hang Tuah Walked Through My Door

http://therealmalay.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-day-hang-tuah-walked-through-my-door.html


This is a short story by Adlan  Benan Omar – a fellow lover of history and a dear friend who died on Thursday, 24 January 2008. He was only 35. Those of you who know him will remember Ben’s almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Malay history

There can perhaps be no fitting tribute to this remarkable young man, and no better way to remember him, than to reproduce this short story by Ben, which not only highlights the passion that he had for Malay history, but also shows a bright, intelligent mind that was a breath of fresh air and a shining light in contemporary Malay culture.

I continue to remember Ben with great fondness


The Day Hang Tuah Walked Through My Door 

by Adlan Benan Omar (1973-2008)

Everyone knows who Hang Tuah is. Everyone knows that he was a great warrior, that he was loyal to his king, that he fought and defeated Hang Jebat in a gruelling duel. But I knew more about Hang Tuah than anyone else. No… I didn’t read more than anyone else (how much more could a twelve-year-old have read anyway?). I knew more about Hang Tuah because he came to live with us a few months ago.

Yes, you heard me right. Hang Tuah did come to live with me and my family. Abah took him home one day. He had found the old man walking around the local playground one evening, while he was out jogging. It was getting dark and the old man had no place to go, so we took him in. Mak was not too happy about that, she thought the old man looked crooked. He was dirty and he didn’t wear shoes. Mak said that people might think our family has gone weird. Abah just laughed. “Kasihan …dia orang tua,” he said.

My friends didn’t believe me at first. They thought I was dreaming, or making things up, or just plain lying.

Azraai said that the old man was an alien from Mars and not Hang Tuah. Eqhwan laughed at me and said that either I or the old man must be mad. Anuar said that if Hang Tuah was still alive I wouldn’t be able to understand what he said because he spoke classic Malay like in the hikayats. Hilmi (our local school’s smart alec) tried to explain to me that the Melaka Empire was no more and that Hang Tuah was just a legend. He said that if Hang Tuah was still alive he would be at least five and a half centuries old and the latest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records stated that the oldest man in the world lived only to 120 years. Only Farid sympathised with me… and that was because he had an imaginary friend whom he always took along to play marbles with us.

I really didn’t care what they said. I knew that old man was Hang Tuah. I know because I asked him myself.

The morning after we took the old man in, Mak asked me to wake him up for breakfast. I went to the spare room and found that he was already awake. He was sitting on the edge of the bed with a blue batik bundle on his lap.

“Jemput makan, Tok,” I said, politely.

“Terima kasih,” he said.

I was curious, so I asked, “Apa dalam buntil tu Tok?”

“Barang Tok… barang orang miskin,” he replied.

Then he opened it up slowly. I saw him fiddle for something, then he took out a long keris with an ivory sheath. It was at least a foot long and studded with jewels.

Hang Tuah Sketch

“Ini keris Taming Sari,” said the old man.

I snickered, “He! He! He!”. I thought the old man was joking. Everyone knew that Taming Sari belonged to Hang Tuah and that it must have disappeared with its master.

The old man looked up at me. His eyes stared into mine. I felt a little queasy at that. His expression changed, he began to look angry. Suddenly his eyes drooped and he looked more hurt than angry.

“Kenapa cucu gelak?” he asked.

“Tak ada kenapa,” I answered, a little frightened.

“Tok tahu, cucu ingat Tok bergurau.” I kept quiet.

He began again, “Inilah keris Taming Sari yang sebenar. Ini keris Tok sendiri.”

“Kalau begitu Tok ni tentulah…”

“Hang Tuah,” he interjected, “nama Tok ialah Hang Tuah.”

“Tapi Hang Tuah sudah mati.”

He laughed, “Tidak, Tok belum mati. Tapi Tok sudah tua…”

“Berapa umur Tok?” I questioned.

“540 tahun.”

Mak didn’t really like Tok Tuah. But she didn’t say anything when he just stayed on and on in the house. She didn’t say a word when Abah and I took him to Hankyu Jaya to get some new clothes. She just kept quiet when Tok Tuah joined us to watch TV in the living room after dinner. I told her (and Abah) that the old man said that his name was Hang Tuah. She wrinkled her face (and Abah just laughed).

It was a Wednesday night and RTM had a slot then called “Teater P. Ramlee”. It so happened that they were showing Phani Majumdar’s “Hang Tuah”. P. Ramlee, so young and thin, acted as the hero and the late Haji Mahadi was Sultan Mansor Shah.

Hang Tuah4

When Jebat got killed, Tok Tuah pipped in, “Tidak langsung macam tu…”

Abah stared at Tok Tuah. Mak stared at Tok Tuah. I too, stared at Tok Tuah.

“Aku sudah tua masa tu, Jebat muda lagi. Jebat kuat. Dia sepak aku hingga aku tertiarap, kemudian aku berguling. Aku himpit dia. Aku kata sama dia ‘baik sajalah kau mengalah’. Apa gunanya kita dua bersaudara bergaduh?”

Mak started to look worried again.

“Jebat tak mati.”

Abah looked surprised. He said, “Habis tu, apa jadi pada dia?”

Tok Tuah said, “Aku tak mahu Sultan bunuh dia. Aku tahu Sultan zalim. Jadi, aku sorokkan dia di Ulu Melaka. Macam Tun Perak sorokkan aku masa aku difitnahkan. Lepas Melaka kalah dengan Portugis, Jebat ikut aku merantau.”

I said, “Bila Jebat mati?”

Tok Tuah laughed, “Jebat belum mati. Baru tahun lepas aku jumpa dia. Dia meniaga di Kedah.”

“Meniaga?” I said.

“Ya, Jebat duduk di Kulim. Dia meniaga kereta. Apa tu? Kereta ‘second-hand’ kata orang. Proton, Honda dan Nissan. Laku jualannya. Banyak orang beli.”

One day, I took Tok Tuah on a walk around KL. He got bored just sitting in our small bungalow in Bukit Bandar Raya. So after school, we took the mini-bus to Central Market. Tok Tuah really enjoyed the walk. “Banyaknya orang…” he wondered. We ate at McDonald’s. He  didn’t like the cheeseburger (well, he didn’t like the cheese, though he loved the burger itself). After lunch, we went to Muzium Negara.

I showed him the frieze of a young Hang Tuah which was sculpted by an Englishwoman in the 1950s. It showed a handsome Hang Tuah in ‘Baju Melayu’ and ‘samping’. He was holding Taming Sari in his hand.

“Siapa tu,” Tok Tuah asked.

“Itu Tok-lah. ltulah orang putih gambarkan sebagai Hang Tuah. Hensem, kan?”

Tok Tuah chuckled, “Apa tulisan atas tu?”

“Ta’ Melayu Hilang di-Dunia. Eh, takkan Tok tak ingat? Itu kan Tok yang cakap dulu?”

He kept quiet. Slowly he mumbled, “Ta’ Melayu Hilang di-Dunia? Tak ingat pun.”

Suddenly, he started, “Oh! Bukannya Ta’ Melayu Hilang di-Dunia. Silap tu. Tok tak pernah cakap macam tu…”

“Habis tu?” I asked.

“Masa tu Tok tengah pergi masjid untuk sembahyang Maghrib. Isteri Tok ikut sekali. Dia tengah ambil air sembahyang di tepi perigi, kemudian kakinya tergelincir. Dia terjatuh masuk. Orang ramal pun menjerit-jerit sebab perigi itu dalam. Apa lagi, Tok pun terjunlah untuk selamatkan dia. Isteri Tok bukan sebarang orang, namanya Tun Sa’odah, anak Bendahara Tun Perak.”

“Kemudian?” I urged.

“Bila Tok bawak dia naik, Temenggung Tun Mutahir ketawa. Katanya, Tok sayang betul pada isteri Tok. Tok pun jawab, “Mestilah… Ta’ Isteriku Hilang di-Telaga. Jadi, mungkin orang silap dengar…!”

Tok Tuah stayed with our family for more than six months. He stayed at home in the first few weeks but he felt guilty not doing anything to contribute. So, one morning, he followed Abah to work. Abah was manager of a factory in Sungai Buluh which made video tapes and CDs. They needed a new ‘jaga’ or watchman. Tok Tuah got the job. Abah said, “Who better to guard us than the great Malay admiral Hang Tuah?”

The workers got along well with him. Amin, Abah’s driver, said that Tok Tuah told them lots of funny jokes about Sultan Mansor of Melaka and his fifteen wives. Tok Tuah also got to know Rajalinggam, the sweeper, who he said reminded him of Mani Purindan, the father of Bendahara Tun Ali. Like Rajalinggam, Mani Purindan too came from Tamil Nadu and cooked delicious dhal curry.

One morning, my teacher at school said, “Tomorrow I want you all to bring a model of an old artefact. Then I want you all to explain its importance in front of the whole history class.”

Hilmi (always the teacher’s pet) spent days working on a matchstick model of the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station. Azraai decided to build a spaceship instead. Eqhwan bought Anuar’s origami keris for fifteen dollars and brought that to school. Farid asked his imaginary friend to draw a picture of Mel Gibson as Sir William Wallace. I? Well, I just brought Tok Tuah along.

My teacher was flabbergasted. She said, “Why have you brought this ‘jaga’ along?” I smiled, “He’s not just a ‘jaga’. He’s the great warrior Hang Tuah!”

My teacher said, “I’ll call your father and tell him you’re playing jokes in class.”

“Please, Cikgu. Just listen to what he has to say,” I insisted.

Tok Tuah stood in front of the class. He coughed. My teacher sighed. I smiled. My friends sneered. “Assalamualaikum,” he said. “Wa’alaikum Salam,” we answered.

Tok Tuah began his speech. He started out by saying that the Melaka we read about in the history books was very different from the real Melaka. He explained how the Sultan used to let anyone come to the palace with any complaints at all, and he would settle it there and then. He told us that he and his four friends used to go on tours to Pahang and Terengganu and Ujung Tanah, even to Siam, on great galliards with five big sails. He described to us that Melaka had 120,000 citizens, each of whom had land and houses of their own and that no beggars were allowed to go even a day without food and shelter. He mimicked Sultan Mansor’s snarl, and Tun Perak’s twitching handlebar moustaches and Jebat’s swaggering walk. Finally, he told us how Melaka got corrupted by its wealth and warned us not to do the same now.

That day, Tok Tuah got a standing ovation. Even Teacher clapped. I got an ‘A’ for History.

Tok Tuah died seven weeks after that. He was 542 years old. It was during the Puasa month and he took the LRT from Sungai Buluh. He wanted to stop and buy some sweetmeats (he absolutely loved ‘pau kaya’). When he arrived at Chow Kit station, he collapsed on the platform with a massive stroke.

They rushed him in an ambulance to Kuala Lumpur General Hospital but he was already gone. He didn’t feel a thing.

We buried him at Ampang Cemetery, right across from the grave of Tan Sri P. Ramlee, who played him in that film. I visit the grave sometimes just to tell him that I’m now a lecturer in Malay History at Leyden University.

I still remember the day he walked through my door. It’s as if it was just yesterday. Ah, well… By the way, did I tell you I met King Henry VIII whilst I was studying in Cambridge? He worked as a night porter at my college. But that, as they say, is a different story.

At Double 7–My Thoughts


 

May 21, 2016

At  Double 7–My Thoughts

In two days I turn 77 on May 23. Yes, it has been a long and difficult journey for me with more than my share of ups and downs.  I did life my way. Of course, there are stories I could tell you, but I would spare you all the agony of my rantings which are often about the good old times, and there seems to be nothing great about the present. Most people have no time for grandfather stories, so I shall spare them the jarring pain of putting up with mine.

Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican (77)

Yesterday, one of my students at The University of Cambodia asked me. “How does it feel to be Double 7?”. My answer to him is also a one liner. “I don’t feel a thing.” Like Poet Robert Frost, I say I have miles and miles to keep before I sleep.

Senator John Glenn once remarked: “Too many people, when they get old, think that they have to live by the calendar.” I don’t. So my life goes on and I lead a life of many possibilities, with occasional missed opportunities, although I may feel nasty towards former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad for his legacy of kleptocratic governance,  and Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak and his bunch of corrupt, incompetent, and irresponsible cabinet ministers for making life difficult to  us.

Senator John Glenn of Ohio–My Hero and Role Model

You may remember that John Glenn, this well known astronaut from Ohio turned politician, became the oldest person at 77 to board a U.S. Space Shuttle. He is my role model for exemplifying the ethos that  we shouldn’t let age define and cripple us. The calendar is a useful way to let you know the date, but if you let yourself  to be hemmed in by your chronological age, you may lock yourself out of potentially valuable opportunities. You can bet I do not intend to remain static and come my remaining days.–Din Merican