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...

Friday, 1 January 2016

Reading Victoria Grace on Jean Baudrillard

Doodles on how I interpret the ideas, and questions it raises

What is identity? How is my identity defined, why does it involve cutting off from others – yet my being bleeds from this body, literally and figuratively, into the bodies of others, from my mother, to my children. My body is my brain is the thoughts I share, that circulate outside this maelstrom of hormones, and then reintegrate before journeying again into the maelstrom of others. Are they not me? The thoughts are me, and they leave me as me, and come back into me as me, and while they are in the maelstrom that is someone else, they are still me. Not all of me, but they are a part of me, and are a part of 'someone else' and they are themselves.

Feminists who attempt to assert the female are already accepting the patriarchal dichotomy of one and another, of difference and identity. When they grope my breasts as I walk down the street, they are asserting my difference, as well as my objectivity. When I am beaten, when we talk of femicide, these are assertions of difference, the difference that made the Holocaust possible. By asserting that I am not like them, that there is no them and no I, does it not make violence impossible? If you hurt me, that rebounds, like Death and the Maiden, straight onto you, because the separations that exist are fragile. Being female is not my identity. And to say I am Sonia is incomplete, though on one level, that is who and what I am, but I am not complete in and of myself, and this is not lack, any more than the sea has a lack until rained upon, a lack from evaporation that causes the circulation of water away before it returns. It is wholeness. What makes the sea 'lack' is not the incessant flow of rivers and rain and clouds, but the desecration of pollutions and plastics. But I am not the sea, and lack from me only comes when I do not recognise what makes me whole.

This does not mean I have no need for spaces, space to be alone, freedom from physical violation. There is a need for safety and security, but these are only possible when that interconnectedness is felt and realised. And while I sit in a room of my own, I need to be able to leave my room, and reconnect with those others who make me vital, otherwise solitude becomes loneliness, and like a snail in salt, I start to shrink.

It is not being female that makes me whole, it is being human. It is not being female that feeds my need for interconnectedness, it is being human. And it is not being female that makes me dependent on love and feedback and sharing, it is being human and being alive.

Is this why Baudrillard likes Calle? Because in her photographs she establishes an irreversible connection with a stranger, his life becomes incorporated in hers. Whenever we establish these connections, they are fraught with danger, because it is not easy, accepting, inviting in, this ongoing process of being who we are when we are with/ part of others. They enrich us, they enable us, but they are never one-way, they are reciprocal. And when that is not recognised or realised, if the person we are investing in suspects that their identity is being diluted, rather than enriched, the pain of separation can be intense, it is real. And that pain can be physcial – Calle could have been 'caught', arrested, beaten up. She is at risk. And the pain rebounds, she is risking not just herself, but also this ephemeral stranger... and by doing so her own risk is magnified.

In terms of the political project - and this is what those doodles are trying to make sense of - we need to see beyond democracy, democracy as a project that is about separation and difference. Perhaps taking a Gandhian starting point, meeting needs and reciprocity as the basis of a fair world.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Combatting crime

From afar, with anything-but-rose-tinted spectacles, crime seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. On a personal note, my parents' place has been subject to some baffling disturbances. Why someone felt the need to empty out the shoe cupboard, but leave nothing taken, will hopefully remain a mystery. I'm hoping they'll remain outside my parents' house, which is fitfully guarded by one large and one tiny dog, both equally inept at deterring anything but squirrels from entering the garden.

Nonetheless, I'm sickened by some of the vigilante videos I've been seeing on Youtube. Vigilantism doesn't keep us safe, it's just a different form of crime. There are plenty of really good reasons for this. First off, everyone is equal before the law. The person who first commits a crime, and the person who subsequently assaults them. Both the theft and the assault are crimes. Nobody - including the police - have the right to assault someone. Even if they committed a crime. If you aren't convinced, don't forget that those who participate in illegal assemblies are also committing a crime.

Second, everyone has the right to a fair trial. Part of the point of this system is to take the vengeance element out of the equation. The judge is impartial, and weighs up the evidence, only then is the suspect found guilty, or innocent. Until that point, they are innocent. Thus, each kick landed, each wallop walloped is given to an innocent person. Innocent until proven guilty, no exceptions. A fair trial happens prior to punishment, not after the person has been so badly beaten they can no longer stand. If you oppose detention without trial, that's the basis, the right to a fair trial. It applies universally.

Third, punishment is commensurate, and defined by law. This complements the last point, about taking vengeance out of the equation. The punishment for a crime is that which is defined by law. Few countries have made 'snatch theft' a capital offence.

So what can we do about crime, if we are serious in addressing the problem? More cops, generally, doesn't work too well. What does is social inclusion. This isn't quite the same as social justice. It's about making people feel part of the community. I'm not entirely sure how we build it - it starts with social justice, but it doesn't end there.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

A clean slate

Khairy Jamaluddin has suggested that we need to start over, renew the social contract upon which Malaysia was, so myth has it, built.

It's a shame the idea hasn't garnered more attention. Because even if we decide that we're happy with the Constitution we have (and many of our best lawyers are, just think we could have better respect for the document), it doesn't hurt to look at what works about it, what doesn't and why things are the way they are. It might also help generate discussion on the ways in which we can agree on what Malaysia should be.

There are some reasons why I think this would be a good idea.

First, Malaysia was never our creation. We never voted on our constitution, and we never discussed what we wanted in it with our neighbours. As long as Malaysians were outside the drafting and accepting of the bedrock of our governmental system, it's going to be considered, at least by some, of questionable provenance. Those who argue the British imposed our Constitution upon us are going to have resonance, as long as that remains true.

Second, it gives us a chance to build capacity. I'm thinking a Venezualan-style nationwide discussion on democracy, democratic processes, the role of the Constitution, separation of powers... if I'm not making you hot and sweaty with this kind of talk, then you shouldn't be reading my blog! It's about as sexy as it gets, as far as I'm concerned.

I know that there are some problems, not least the distance between the supporters of an Islamic state and the supporters of a secular state. But ignoring this issue isn't making it go away. It was there at the drafting of the Constitution, and looking in the opposite direction has just made it grow bigger. However, it would be great to get the two sides to sit down and try to agree on something. Even better if they could. A constitution inspired by the values of Islam is something I would love to see, for example. I realise this isn't close to what some people want, but if we can get to the point where everyone understands that the Constitution has to be a document that everyone can agree on, a starting point for building a nation, then this in itself would be an achievement. (Admittedly, that just underscores how hard it would be!).

If that happens, and we, the people, draft something which is then voted on in a fair and transparent process, and... this of course is where my house of cards all falls down. Because on the other side there are real problems with reworking what we have.

Who controls the process? Who participates in the process? Who drafts, who votes, and who oversees the voting process?

BUT... but but, surely we can talk about it? Start those hot and sweaty conversations going, even if the courtship leads nowhere?

Sunday, 28 July 2013

More than sticking plaster

On Thursday, a day when boats were overturned and children drowned, my children and I heard the dulcet tones of Mr Abbott through the car radio. My reaction made my daughter think that her brother's life was in danger (from the Leader of the Opposition, not from me!).

I find it hard to fathom why Australia finds it so hard to agree upon a humane policy regarding refugees and asylum seekers. The rhetoric is blatantly inflated, the figures so tiny, and so bedraggled and haunting. But even if we play their game and pretend that Australia is in danger of being overrun by foreigners, that this is a threat to Australia's sovereignty and that the country has to control immigration for the sake of... a nation of immigrants. There is still a pretty simple solution, one that doesn't require overturning a commitment to the refugee convention and international human rights standards.

Stop the planes. Instead of stopping the most desperate, the worst off, the poorest, stop the ones with the 457 visas, the skilled migrants, the thousands who come in for blatantly economic purposes. Put an end to it. Instead, search among the lost and displaced, those seeking asylum and stuck in the no-persons-lands of camps, hostels and Malaysia. Let them be at the front of the queue. Upping the numbers let in, giving people hope that they might be resettled from the camps that are (almost, if you squint) on Australia's borders, would lessen the temptation to arrive by boat.

And the money saved from the shutting down of multi-million dollar facilities could be pumped directly into the countries where we getting the refugees from, into education and housing and sanitation and not not not guns and bombs. And maybe we'd be helping to staunch the flow of refugees into Indonesia and Malaysia, and giving them a chance to rebuild lives, homes and communities in the places they didn't want to leave in the first place.