Saturday, 21 April 2018

Why we need to get over these elections

I understand the boycott campaign, and in better times, might even support them. These elections are not presenting us with a choice of good and better, but worse and worst. At least, let’s hope that this is as bad as a political option can get: Maybe Barisan still has some surprises up its electoral sleeves. Yet, I will be casting my vote. Not just because I have a candidate I can get behind standing in my electorate, not because for the first time in my life I’ll be able to contribute to a woman getting in to Parliament, but because these elections are going to decide whether we can just get over elections and get on with the task of building a politically aware electorate. There is no hope for that under BN. If you had any doubts of this beforehand, the dual farces of the fake news act and the redelineation exercise should have exorcised them.

It seems highly unlikely, but if the current Opposition wins, then we can finally get over that issue, the “can we get rid of BN” issue, and start looking at the more interesting stuff.

Like local elections. Anybody else notice that Pakatan Harapan seem to have dropped these from their manifesto? The ability to appoint councillors is a key power for the state government, it’s a system of patronage and gives those in place real powers. It’s easy to see why Pakatan Harapan have dropped it. We need to put pressure on them to reinstate, because local elections and local government are the power-house of a democracy, it’s where citizens are able to see how their vote directly impacts their lives. Decisions on zoning may sound dull, but if it’s about whether your pet is legitimate or not, they literally strike much closer to home. Decisions on parks, and advertising, on stalls and shops. Local councils is where we live, quite literally.

But what starts locally grows. There is an intoxicating power that comes from being able to control your own life, what the Founding Fathers referred to as public happiness. A friend told me it even has the power to extend your life: Power, real power, over your life tends to make you live longer, she said. Thomas Jefferson strove to bring power down to the smallest possible level, the ward. Democracy wasn’t just about choosing representatives, it was about generating political power at multiple levels, empowering each person to take control of the community decisions that affected their lives. And if they could experience this close to home, they’d be active in keeping an eye on what happened at a state, federal and international level. His views on public happiness were largely developed too late to influence the US Constitution, and writers from Tocqueville to Arendt have warned about the consequences, which were are now seeing blazoned across the White House in the 24-hour-tweet fiasco that is Donald Trump.

We need local elections, because until we have them, we will not have anything beyond a sham of democracy. And we need a strong, thriving democracy to face the challenges of the next fifty years.

We all know about climate change. It seems like something distant and far away to most people. It’s not. The impact of climate change, probably even if we do cut to zero emissions and start drawing carbon down tomorrow, are going to be massive. Because we’ve already started unlocking stores of methane and other greenhouse gases that have been locked away in permafrost, which is now melting.

Climate change means two things. We need to move to a zero carbon economy with urgency. But given our small population, and our geography, even more urgently we need to think about how we deal with a warming globe. Most Malaysians live on a peninsula. That means we are surrounded by water on three sides. Few people live in the interior of West Malaysia, we’re fairly well concentrated on the coast, and the same is true for Sabah and Sarawak: around 60% of the population. By 2050,  sea levels are predicted by conservative (small c) scientists to rise just under 60 cm. Rice production is expected to fall, by up to 30%. Malaria is set to increase as temperatures rise, and other health impacts are uncertain.

So far, the government’s response has been to see this as an investment opportunity. Malaysia punches far above its weight in terms of solar panel and LED light production. But in terms of building resilience, pushing unpopular but necessary changes to our lifestyle, there is no leadership. On either side of the political fence. Both sides keep our political minds focused on the comparatively minor issue of who wins the election. And until BN is evicted from power, it is the only question in Malaysian politics.

We need to get over it. We need a new government. Not just because of corruption. Not because we need a new set of cronies. But because we need to get over the question of whether government can be changed by the people, whether it is possible to make government scared of us, rather than the other way round.

There are real issues looming on the horizon. They will test our coherence and patience as a nation. With a race-based coalition, that premises its power on the idea that our interests are defined by our ethnicity, not our common Malaysian heritage, we cannot possible meet the challenges the coming decades offer. We will splinter along the lines fostered by those in power who benefit from us being Malay, Chinese, Indian first, Malaysian last. Those who want us to define ourselves by religion, against others.

I don’t have much hope in Harapan. But I’m not hopeless enough to think there is an alternative.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Keep on smoking....

That would be the advice to a cancer patient if current discussions on 'energy policy' are any indication.

Today there has been a large fracas on gas shortages, with worries about what changes to policy could mean for future investment in gas. The underlying assumption being that Australia needs future investment in gas.

I was listening, as I often do, to Jon Faine on the radio. He interviewed a colleague in Canberra about the implications and the options. But not once did either journalist mention climate change when discussing energy options.

This seems to be a persistent blind spot. Jon Faine, and colleagues in the ABC, seem to agree that climate change is real, that there is a scientific consensus on the issue, but they don't seem to think that this means that something has to be done. This isn't about politics, it isn't about radical positions, it is at the very least what needs to be done to protect the global economy (which is far more important than the people in that economy, obviously).

Climate change is a cross-cutting issue. It affects refugees, it affects women, it affects food security and energy security and jobs and health. Yet it is never mentioned in relation to any of these things, at least not on the ABC.

As you can tell, this is starting to annoy me. But it's more than that. It is an example of how media framing is preventing us from recognising the scale of this issue. This is the biggest problem the world faces right now, and yet most of the world's media are fiddling as the world burns.

As readers, as viewers, as human beings with a stake in the future, please urge your local, national and international media of choice to not just pay lip service to the reality of climate change, but look at how you might change your programming if the future of the people on this planet actually mattered.

PS This was supposed to be an uplifting happy post for International Women's Day. I got distracted.

Monday, 6 March 2017

The urgency of climate action

Too many headlines today indicated that we are not just living in a present that is driven by fossil fuels, but we're still investing in a future driven by fossil fuels. I sometimes wonder if bankers and politicians think that their children will be living in a different world than ours, if they are living in a different world from us, where the reality they can buy is reality, and it insulates them from the need for clean air, from a livable atmosphere, rising sea levels and thirsty koalas.

Which means there's an even greater need for action from people not blinded by rhetoric and money to make change happen.

One of the things I'm trying to do is work with my local climate action group, and I'm fortunate enough to be in an area where there is a FANTASTIC group doing amazing work. They're working hard on getting signatures for the Climate Emergency Declaration; are working to persuade politicians that there is a climate emergency; and providing voters with clear information about climate-friendly candidates in local, state and federal elections here in Victoria.

But perhaps one of the most important things is that they're helping disseminate ideas about what can be done on a local level, by local councils, by local governments, by communities, to those who can make changes.

In some ways, the need for change is comparatively clear cut from an Australian perspective. From a Malaysian one, when we talk about the need for change, there are so many urgent items on the agenda, that climate change seems to be, well, not insignificant, but we need to do so much other stuff FIRST before we can put it on the agenda.

The problem is that time is not on our side. Climate change is already causing changes in Malaysia's water supply, in the seasons. The prognosis is not good, and we need talk about climate resilience and cutting Malaysian emissions; working to reforest our landscapes.

But we can't wait for leaders to emerge who will create these changes, we can't wait for the systems to catch up with the problems, we need to create the solutions, and put them into action, leaving the 'leaders' to catch up. Interested? I'm hoping to post links in posts over the next few days on how communities can drive change :). Here's one file to start...

Sunday, 5 March 2017


This week I have been told by one of my children what a bad person I am. More worryingly, I've been told by an adult who I have been trying to assist sort out her affairs for just over a year, what a bad person I am.

So I have been thinking, quite a bit, on what I think about the nature of good and evil, and what makes a person 'bad', or not. I'm not really interested in discussing whether Trump, for example, is the new evil, whether physical violence is wrong, but more in the banal everyday acts where people we might think of as 'good' contribute to clearly bad things.

The archetype of this is the average citizen of Nazi Germany. I have recently been reading a book on women journalists and writers who worked in Germany from 1900-1950, and the one I found most fascinating was the literature reviewer who wrote the New York Times, and in an underspoken way worked around the Third Reich, reviewing writers who were banned and talking to her American audience about a Germany that was being demolished before her wavering eyes. She certainly seems to me to be skirting around that line of allowing evil to happen, despite an apparent commitment to the pre-Reich days and writers, not drawing attention to the exceptional nature of the Nazi regime, pretending it wasn't really there.

I feel that there's a lot of this around today, that it is hard not to be part of it. We all know that there is really no such thing as cheap clothes, that someone somewhere pays the cost, and it is the cost of wasted lives attached to sewing machines in shoddy warehouses that might collapse or burn, the cost of cotton grown in fields and harvested by slave labour, and conditions of environmental degradation. We all know this. And yet, it is so easy to go and buy a cheap t-shirt, to buy a cheap t-shirt over the more expensive.

And even if we buy the more expensive t-shirt, is that doing the right thing? Are we being deceived by fair trade labels or taking jobs away from those most in need, and giving them to comparatively privileged Western factory workers?

Vegetarians are criticised, because they are taking food from poor farmers and inadvertently killing intelligent mice; vegans are culturally insensitive. And making ethical purchasing choices is the purview of privilege, and makes no difference so WHY BOTHER?

Some of these, particularly the last, are valid criticisms of trying to live ethically in a world that values money and consumption above all else, but I think they are important facets of trying to change that world starting with ourselves.

But changing our individual consumption patterns isn't going to make real changes to the planet unless we work on social changes too, on changing and re-imagining the world we live in, the world we share together.

And here I'm kind of stumped. I know how to get involved in big things, I can write letters and sign petitions and visit politicians, but none of that seems to get to the heart of the problem, which is imagining a better world and sharing and building that vision in the communities in which we live.

I'm currently exploring other people's ideas on this, from a local co-op that I'm part of (with the family) to reading and listening to new ideas. But I'd like to build something that will appeal to my (literal) neighbours, to my family and friends, and not just those who already recognise that this world isn't working.

So this is an invitation to the conversation, and perhaps a hope that it will help me learn more about how to be a better person.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

On leaders and followers

The Citizen's Declaration is a fine document. I agree with almost everything that it contains. Some people worked hard to amend the original document so that it was in line with more progressive aims, and they did a good job at that. But I'm worried.

One of the reasons Malaysia is in the mess it is in today is because we place inordinate value on leaders, on trusting our leaders. There was trust in, belief in, the idea that politicians may be creaming a bit off here and there, but in general, they were ruling in our interests. There was no need for oversight, or scrutiny, because we could trust them.

The decision to hand over the leadership of the movement for the Citizen's Declaration to Mahathir seems to be share the same premise. If we bring Mahathir in, we bring in his 'followers', and that way, we can institute change. It is too easy. Change requires far more work than that.

But what sort of change would that entail? Swapping Najib for Mukhriz seems the most plausible scenario, and what does that mean? Will those followers rise up and demand democratic change, or will they follow blindly?

We need to do away with leaders, because we need to do away with followers. If the democratic movement in Malaysia is relying on someone who has begrudgingly signed onto democratic reform, and they are relying on him to bring along his followers, then we have a problem. Because what we need, for democratic reform, is that the 'followers', the rakyat demand of their leaders, do this or we will be done with you.

If the democratic movement allows itself leaders, rather than spokespeople, allows itself demagogues, then it is not a democratic movement. Let Mahathir join the people's movement, let him be part of a tidal wave of citizens demanding reform and resignation. But let's not make him a figurehead, a leader, when he cannot even mouth the slogans of reform.

Let's change those followers, work with them. If we're serious about this, those are the barricades that need to be stormed. Instead of bringing Mahathir and his followers into the fold, let's transform his followers into independent citizens determined to determine a future of their own, not follow an old man's demising dreaming.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

What do I want from democracy?

More responses to my reading of Chantal Mouffe, valid for both Australia and Malaysia...

I want a political system that looks to the future, not to the past. That stops subsidising private transport, but guarantees free health-care for all, not just citizens or permanent residents. Citizens aren't the only ones paying taxes, and a sick migrant can infect a dozen healthy citizens. It's false economy to pretend we have a cordon sanitaire around those with rights and those without. That doesn't subsidise private education, or violent education, or racist inhumane education, and invests in sustainable and renewable energy, particularly for the poorest in society. It eases the transition away from coal, petrol and gas for miners, not for bosses. Perhaps a start would be a commitment to solar or hydro energy in remote communities, and helping people within the communities learn how to install and maintain systems, creating jobs and improving the sustainability of lifestyles even on a low income. A commitment to solar and heat exchange for public housing (and a commitment to public housing).

I want a government that works towards a four-day week, and prioritises small business who put money back into the community over transnational corporations who provide crap jobs. We produce more than we need, there is no reason why a minority can suck up all that wealth, while those at the bottom fight over fewer and fewer low-paid jobs, where production is mechanised. Perhaps this can be done through incentives to model co-operatives, ones that might provide a real challenge to the monopolies of some of the larger sectors.

I want a government that is concerned about the supply chain, because the world is inter-connected. Rather than funding either a massive aid budget or overseas military adventures, let's look at getting large companies to invest in their supply chain. Maybe a tax, or incentives for those over a certain profit margin. This could be related to the move to a four-day week.... Money could be spent on health and safety in factories overseas, and that could be translated into tax credits in Australia. Likewise on the sourcing of goods – a sustainable supply chain moves you into a different tax bracket. Let's try and think up imaginative solutions.

This is only possible if we reform democracy – Mouffe's main point in what I'm reading now – so that it incorporates politics once more, rather than just government. We need to think about, and demand, what we want – and force politicians to listen.

The point of stating this isn't to provoke agreement, but to provoke thought – another political system is possible. There are a lot of people trying to show how it can be done, in Syria for instance. Do we have to wait until people are so disillusioned with democracy that they abandon it entirely before we look at why?

Friday, 8 January 2016

Thoughts on reading Chantal Mouffe

This seems to me to have real relevance to my recent diatribes on Dick Smith and other big 'philanthropists' making symbolic gestures of benevolence while having accumulated wealth on the backs of working poor. Dick Smith is a particularly good example because he appears so benevolent through so many aspects of his life – his political participation and his charity.

First, I'd like to think through what is happening with this 'charitable' gesture. Dick Smith and his wife see, from their train window, a young girl apparently so poor she can't afford clothes. They determine to offer her a better future. Rather than postpone a trip home, work through local organisations or attempt to use local experts (or even film-makers) to assist them, they employ an Australian film-maker to track down the girl and present her with their life-changing offer. They are bemused at the reluctance of local people to engage with the Western film-maker, but eventually track down the girl and begin changing the life of her and her family.

This does not strike me as a charity, it strikes me as publicity. Why engage a film-maker? Who has no experience of the country or the language? Even in the unlikely event that the film-maker, and assistant, were not being paid, how much were the expenses incurred in sending them over to India to undertake this excursion? There are a host of better candidates, including some who may have been able to point out that there could have been unintended social and psychological ramifications from this act of charity.

(I also have very little patience with the bemused attitude displayed. If a stranger came up to my neighbours with a photo, naked or otherwise, of my daughter, I hope they would call the police, rather than point her out to them.)

Further, apart from stereotypes that this confirms of the poor brown girl dependent on white male wealth, I also think we need to interrogate how genuine the gesture is, by looking at the source of the wealth. A businessman, dealing with electronics doesn't seem particularly exploitative – in fact, it's not. It isn't in the more problematic fields of say mining or timber. Yet, by examining the chain of supply that ultimately ends up in his wealth, exploitation undoubtedly occurs – one that we as consumers almost intentionally refuse to see. Even if we assume he has a 'right' to a return to risk-taking behaviour, is this really more of a risk than that faced by the workers in electronics factories in China faced with a lottery of safety conditions? The risks of those who mine the minerals necessary to the working phones and computers we all rely on.

So how could he have done things differently? And still offered consumers the satisfaction they want?

Perhaps, rather than creaming off super-profits, that money could have been put into the factories where the goods being sold were made, to improve 'efficiency' while improving the living standards for the workers, making them model factories to work in.

What would the consequences of this been in terms of downstream effects? What would have been the effect on the children of the workers, on other workers and other factories? Surely all far better consequences than spending money to send a team of film-makers to India in order to provide for one girl for the rest of her childhood?

Further, the commitment to increased social justice would almost certainly have had paybacks in terms of consumer loyalty, at least among certain segments of society.

I think it's also important that we think hard about what we term 'ethical' behaviour. We live in a world where ethics seems to be strangely divorced from everyday life, particularly in as far as everyday life is determined by purchasing decisions. In the not-so-distant past, food was imbued with ethics. It was the sacred nature of food that was celebrated in near-global rituals of thanksgiving, at harvest, and at meals. Consumption as partaking of the divine, not the mundane. But today's consumer society cannot afford to think in those terms, of the origins of what is consumed, whether of food or other goods. Yet, the costs of this 'lack of affordability' are real, even if they are not directly borne by the consumers themselves. Is it really ethical to live a life where you are able to devote massive resources to improving the life of one family, while those who produce the goods that allow this largesse receive only marginal benefit?

Further thoughts, more related to the reading....

1. Laclau and Mouffe say that in order to deal with the antagonisms raised by the defining idea of democracy, that of equality (which I have no argument with), then we need to deepen democracy. This does not mean that we need to deepen democracy as it exists today. The assertion that democracy as it exists today (which isn't made here) can help to peacefully negotiate constitutive differences between individuals and groups seems to me to be blatantly absurd.

Rather, this deepening commitment to democracy must include discussion of forms of democracy that go beyond representative Parliamentary systems, but look at decentralisation, a decrease of bureaucracy (which is evident in the writings) and improved ways of negotiating difference – not overcoming, not eliding, but finding ways by which people with fundamentally incompatible modes of political imagination can live peacefully, and equitably, together.

2. Would it be possible to have a binding contract with politicians? There should be some things (primarily negative) that if they do them, they are automatically perceived to have resigned, that they are not permitted to stand for public office in future, and that they have to bear a proportion of the costs of the ensuing by-election. There should be further 'commitments', in writing, that they will aim to achieve. If they wish to stand for re-election, they must persuade an electoral committee of say 25 diverse people that they have made serious effort on these issues, or have been successful in pursuing. These contracts could be individual or party-based. Not a solution, if such is possible, but perhaps an interim measure...

Why we need to get over these elections

I understand the boycott campaign, and in better times, might even support them. These elections are not presenting us with a choi...