When the powerful plead fragility, we’re done for


Bear with me, I will talk about Donald Trump further down.

Just as the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill was passed by our legislators — not that there was ever any doubt that it would be — a tiny social media post crossed my line of sight. It was a news snippet about how some small shopkeepers in Kota Baru, Malaysia, were ordered to remove all advertising posters that featured women whose heads were not covered with a scarf. There would be fines for disobeying the order. 

Yup, I said to myself: same thing. What’s happening in Kota Baru is exactly what’s happening here in Singapore. The ‘reasons’ given by the Muslim clerics in the Malaysian state are no different from those given by our law minister when moving the bill. If you think that Kelantan, of which Kota Baru is the capital, is a backwater because of leaders like they have, then Singapore is, or will soon be, a backwater too.

The new law Singapore just passed codifies in sweeping language penalties for criticising the judiciary or even commenting on cases that come before the courts. Shockingly, it reduces the threshold from ‘real risk’ to any conceivable risk. The government’s justification for pushing the new law through was to ‘protect’ the reputation of the judiciary and to ensure that judges were free from influences that might sway their decisions.

In Kelantan, the new sweep — the ordinance itself has been around for some years — is supposed to protect male Muslims from un-Islamic feelings. Apparently, the slightest glimpse of hair on female heads fill men with uncontrollable lust, driving them to sin. Likewise as in Singapore, the same ‘any risk’ test is applied.

The common denominator? An assertion of fragility  — moral, reputational — among the privileged and powerful, and with it an imposition of draconian prohibitions regardless of cost to others’ liberties. It would be risible under any other circumstances for these people in positions of power to play pretend at fragility, if not for the huge cost they inflict on people and whole societies.

Kelantan is hardly the only Muslim-majority place in the world that is keen on such vigilant policing of morals and risk. We have seen enough such examples to know that the real impulse to maintain such controls is to protect the power and privilege of the religion’s authority figures. The true objectives are not defence against sin — which is wholly imaginary in the first place — but to intimidate. To show people who’s boss and to shut down any unwanted conversation. Far from the kinds of lofty spiritual or heavenly goals proffered, the real reasons are temporal and worldly — in other words, a lot more tawdry. In fact, the very need to disguise motives by passing off loftier reasons, however tenuous and diaphanous, further debase whatever shred of moral authority these powerful men have ever had.

What happened in Singapore is no different.

But the depressing trajectory of Islam and Muslim societies through the last 100 years — since Abdul Aziz ibn Saud took control of Arabia, and ushered his pact with Wahhabi clerics onto the international stage as the country got rich on oil — offers a salutary lesson as to where Singapore is headed. Once a society starts going down this road, it is very hard to turn it around. There have been countless courageous, intelligent people in Muslim countries who could see what was going wrong, and who, sometimes at immense cost to themselves have tried to turn the tide of events. Despite their speaking up, we can argue that by most measures, Muslim-majority countries with a strong religious grip are worse off today compared to most other geographical regions. Naturally, I am speaking in relative terms. It is true that nutrition, telecommunications, roads or sewage systems may be better today in many Muslim countries than when Abdul Aziz emerged from the desert in the 1920s. But it is not hard to see that most of their non-Muslim neighbours have in general made more progress since. And with reference to the soft assets like education, entrepreneurship, invention, freedom and intellectual vigour, frankly nobody today associates these attributes with Muslim countries, least of all those under a religious grip.

Keeping our eye on the big picture, the point I want to make is how hard it is to effect change once a society bows to the imperative of protecting ‘fragility’ against enemies. My friends know I sound increasingly pessimistic about Singapore. This is just one more reason why I do.

Of course, nothing is forever. One day, the regions we today call the Muslim world will be vastly different. Change will come. It always has. But we should never think that change is easy or painless. We can expect that Muslim societies will largely have to crash (or stagnate for a long time in deep misery — a slow crash, if you like) before it happens. The process will not be quick either. At least a whole generation in crisis may be needed to recreate a new order. I cannot see why my prognosis for Singapore should be different when the forces are the same.

The Trump phenomenon is fascinating to watch. It’s actually a classic example of creative destruction. The whole edifice of neoliberalism upon which the Republican Party has for decades worshipped, and sold with more than a spoonful of White nationalism, is crashing down. Trump has taken the logic of Republican political strategy to its natural refinement. If neoliberalism could only win votes when undergirded with White nationalism, then why not use White nationalism directly? This especially when, by junking neoliberalism, one can give overt voice to victims of neoliberalism and the economic pain they have suffered. What better way to secure fervent, loyal support from voters?

My guess is that within ten or fifteen years, the ideological positions of both major American political parties will be materially different, and with that, the direction of the United States in domestic policy. Without understating the pain that the economically displaced American has suffered for the last 30 years, this is still going to be astonishingly painless and quick compared to the wrenching crash (or crashes) that politically and socially illiberal states will have to endure. Just look at Russia and Ukraine today, 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. These two countries suffered a 50% GDP decline in the 1990s. Though they have recovered somewhat, they are still very far from consistent growth and prosperity.

There is unquantifiable value to human rights and liberty.

The naked Trump statues show it in all its glory. Naughty though they may be, they represent the fierce arguments and debates that have swirled since the beginning of his and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns. When power is not treated as fragile and no demand is made to protect powerholders’ pride or privilege from opposition and criticism (even if hyperbolic), it becomes possible to have a real national conversation about a country’s direction. The polls indicate that come 8 November 2016, Trump will not win, but this is not to say that he has not wrought profound change. He has shown how the Republican Party’s previous neoliberal and socially conservative agenda is really the figure who has no clothes.

If a similar statue of Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong were ever erected, we however will not get profound change. We will only get more of the same. You can bet your last dollar that a new bill will be rushed through parliament making it an offence to ridicule any cabinet minister. Maybe it will be called the Administration of Singapore (Protection) Bill; you know, so that ministers can make ‘good’ decisions without being buffeted by criticism, campaigns, media pressure, or alternative viewpoints; so that their fragile dignity — which is essential to Singapore’s security, of course — shall not suffer the slightest chip.

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