Book Review: Dark Spring

This compilation of Azly Rahman's articles about Malaysia before and after the 12th general election in 2008 expresses what many have in their hearts; a strong sense of emotional distress.

Azly's articulation and approach to many important contemporary issues facing Malaysia come from a series of unique perspectives, of which I intellectually admire and would personally find very difficult to articulate, as he has done superbly.

Through his perceptions and meta-framing Azly has been able to see straight through the symptoms and sandiwara that beset the country and take a brutally honest and sincere look at the root causes of the condition Malaysia is in today. This “immersed” yet still objective approach has been able to tap into some of the colonial pre-Merdeka, post 1969, and post-Mahathir era narratives. He has deciphered their sinister and destructive meanings that today run counter to the shared aspirations of an evolved Malaysian society.

This is why I believe Azly's volume of essays, compiled from 2005 right up to the GE 13 election eve on 3rd May 2013, is an extremely insightful reflection of some of the important events influencing the shape and meaning of Malaysia's cultural and social evolution to what Azly aptly calls hypermodernity.

Through the title, "Dark Spring", Azly has accurately described the Malaysian social, economic and political landscape in a way reminiscent of Rachel Carson's seminal book Silent Spring published in 1962. Carson described a silent American farmscape, poisoned by US chemical corporations, where as a consequence biodiversity was lost and birds no longer chirped. The environment was destroyed but US corporations profited greatly out of this loss in biodiverse richness.

Azly begins his book by tearing the carpet from under us with his quote from Voltaire. "There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility". This is his first challenge. To question all the assumptions that we believe to be 'facts', especially those unquestioned ones that have underlined our identity. We have been blinded by the political paradigm, created and developed by those who rule, preventing us from seeing new possibilities.

Azly examines the gap between what the elite espouse and the realities on the ground. Within the paradigm of sculptured history, postulating that the social contract accepted by Malaysians has in fact been an instrument of hegemony and control, which has hindered the evolution of our social values and national cohesiveness, at great cost to the maturity of the nation. Within this neo-colonialist frame, Malaysian society has still not achieved true independence – is still a captive of the old caste system under the domination of an elite.

Azly postulates that Malaysians have been prisoners of their own constructed hegemonic paradigm, which has had great consequences on social and equity policy over the last decades. The economic pie has been seen as something fixed, where effort has been put into how this static pie can be divided within society. The NEP has been the instrument of choice, where the difference between what it espoused and what it achieved has left a large gap. This has been at expense of what could be.

In addition the whole concept of economic development has been within a post-colonial development paradigm, a slave to 'growth for profit', 'development for riches', and 'diversification for monopoly'. Development has been a game for the elite, without any questioning of this occidental paradigm.

Azly approaches political analysis through humanism. He considers where the nature of greed and hate has corrupted the self. Humanism, mercy and compassion, universal to all religions, are the necessary drivers of society, if our communities are to evolve away from the existing greed and hate paradigm. At this level of consciousness, the universal meanings of Islam can become the basis of a true Malaysian democracy. This requires a weeding out of corruption.

Azly paints a picture of what post-Mahathir Malaysia is like, with the persecution of academics and students within the nation's universities, a withering education system that needs reform to enable enlightened learning. A political system that is badly in need of ethics to return to public service. Repression and the use of brute form to dominate society by government have ignored both human rights and the constitution. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow, with the psychology of crony capitalism growing rampant.

Then Azly presents a second challenge. This is a challenge to our collective imagination in asking "what could be?", through his expression of a "Republic of Virtue.. This is where this book is also full of hope and optimism for the future.

Azly has reached out to each and every Malaysian. He wants people to realize that although they are from different histories and heritages, they are in-fact the same in their aspirations, no matter what race, what ethnic group, what location, what level of education, what level of income, and what religion they have embraced.

And it's from this perspective that Azly promotes the optimism of 'just and equitable society', rather than the hegemony of "what is." Azly firmly believes this is the position from where a truly Malaysian way forward can be found, freeing us from the bond of feudal based neo-colonialism that has shackled Malaysians minds for the last 50 years or so.

Azly is not locked into the conservative ritualistic ways of Islam as practiced today, a "meme of rigidity and bias" that is holding back society. Rather he sees Islam as a living religion which should prescribe the way our society is organized within the context of today. Azly goes beyond the politics of religion to assist the reader get in touch with the deeper spiritual side that religion offers, so humankind can be viewed without the need of greed, prejudice, and ignorance.

However today Malaysian society has more in common with Stalinism than it has with liberal free market economics. Our development economics are based upon occidental neo-Rostovian ideas of the 1950s without any question or challenge by anybody. We aspire to "Wall St", "Silicon Valley", "biotechnology", and becoming a global market leader without considering our own possibilities, trying to live others dreams.

This is where the view of 'hypermodernity' needs to be challenged if elitism is going to be cast away for true spiritual values, equity and multiculturalism. One will find that the parameters Azly prescribes for sustainability are almost the same ones that are needed to free the mind, hence the urgent need to redefine the meaning of the concept of bumiputra.

Azly, who did his doctoral thesis on the impact of digital communication technologies on what he calls “cybernating nations" like Malaysia looks at the impact the internet will have on politics and elections in Malaysia, proclaiming that this will become a major force promoting 'creative anarchy' by the 'digital proletariat'. This impact is increasing by the day and will be a major factor in the outcomes of future elections.

Azly sees the internet as the new jungle where bloggers are "Guevara-inspired guerilla like cyber-freedom fighters" who can take on the issues of corruption, abuse, and wrongdoing, exposing them to the public and bringing them down. The internet will balance the hegemonic broadcast media that has supported the current regime, where this new information flow is something like the fall of the Berlin Wall. This will bring a society where politicians must earn rather than demand respect.

An increasing awareness, more political consciousness among the young, more scrutinization of politicians beliefs and actions, and the abandonment of race based politics for issues based platforms are some of the megatrends that will change Malaysia.

This is Azly's offering to Malaysia. A mirror to reflect, and a cloth to "dust off" the despair of the last 50 years so a new truth can be known. However Azly's truth consists of multiple realities that give rich texture of meaning to people, events, and ideas. It is only with this meaningful and complex reflection of the past and present can we see the possibilities of a new future.

Malaysia must move from a rent-seeking “feudocracy” benefitting the few, to a modern and progressive society where sustainability and adaptation rather than corruption and the rape of wealth as the premise behind public policy. This Malaysian reckoning is avant garde, but at the same time it is proudly very traditional, deeply attached to rewritten historical narrative of shared heritage.

This is one of the most insightful contributions to the sociology of Malaysian society and should be read by all who have a stake in the country's future.

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