For Malaysians, What’s In a Handshake?

The recent ‘gripping’ world news of the handshake between Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron during the former’s maiden visit to Europe as president was fraught with symbolism – or so we were told. There has been a certain amount of meaningful handshaking in Malaysia as well that is equally fraught with symbolism. Of that we will deal later.

In the meantime, what did it really mean as Trump and Macron locked their palms in a firm grip, looked into each other’s eyes and then at the cameras while still holding on to the handshake? In one account, Reuters notes: “Each man gripped each other’s right hand so firmly that their knuckles turned white and their jaws seemed to clench as they sat down for a face-to-face meeting.” Indeed, the same news report goes on to provide a frame-by-frame look at the handshake, accompanied by a brief account of the unfolding of the shake, and leaving the reader to draw one’s interpretation of the symbolism of Trump releasing his grip first.

Perhaps the lack of substance coming out of the meetings, aside from the fact that Trump remained – for now – noncommittal on the Paris climate accord - left a void in substantive news to report. But then again, the significance of public presentations of self and posturing shouldn’t be minimized, since they can after all provide meaningful insights into interpersonal relations and public diplomacy, not to mention a critical signal for establishing henceforth the tenor of the subsequent chemistry and relations between world leaders or public personalities.

Just days before, a fair bit was also made of another Trump’s public greeting with another leader. This time the attention was not on Donald, but rather on his better half. Not surprisingly, the focus was very much on Melania’s (and to some extent Ivanka’s) exposed hair during the Trumps’ visit to Saudi Arabia. The numerous international media reports, including accounts in the Malaysian media, focused intently on the symbolism of Melania’s decision to be attired as she was during the visit. As part of the dissecting of this, comparisons were drawn between her and Michelle Obama’s appearance during Obama’s presidency.

Curiously, however, there was no mention whatsoever, of another handshake. I’m not referring to the one between Donald and the Saudi king. Indeed, while there was, judging from the media’s lack of interest in that handshake, little to analyze, there was another handshake – one between Melania and the Saudi king – that also went unacknowledged in the media. The disappointing herd mentality in media reporting was again on display as report after report revealed a sense of abject superficiality in mimicking one another with its focus on Melania having not worn a headscarf. But what about the Melania handshake with the Saudi king?

At the very least, some in the Malaysian media – where the issue of gender relations and cultural etiquette especially between Muslims and non-Muslims seems to be a issue of concern among traditionalists and fundamentalists – may have been inclined to ask what was the social and cultural significance of the Saudi king shaking hands with a non-Muslim female? For example, how does this pertain to the adherence to Wahhabism espoused by the Saudis, not to mention many fundamentalists in Malaysia? After all, the Saudis’ brand of Islam is one that is very well received in many official quarters in Malaysia.

Surely this could have been an occasion for a more meaningful civil discussion and illumination of the culturally specific contexts of particular social norms and mores.

Much like the international media, local media in Malaysia were either oblivious or conveniently overlooked the occasion to ask some equally pertinent questions related to the apparent prohibition in Islam of any physical contact between non-intimately related men and women – or so we are told by various Islamic authorities in Malaysia.

In a country where the zeal of various Islamic authorities has been the subject of considerable attention in recent past, it would have been refreshing indeed for the more progressive elements in civil society to have taken the opportunity to prompt a more meaningful discourse on the significance of the recent Trump handshakes in the context of Islamic tenets. But alas, the absence of any serious discourse may be just another indication of the heightened sensitivities (and self censorship?) with which Muslim and non-Muslim progressives alike have to be attuned with in Malaysia.

Speaking of sensitivities, the Malaysian media also seemed to have dropped the proverbial ball when it could have also asked more questions awhile back about another handshake, between Najib and Zakir Naik. Yes, that very same Zakir Naik who, among other infamous attributes of his, deems it appropriate for him to speak ill and disparagingly of other faiths. Of course, Najib can be excused for not knowing that Zakir, who was granted permanent residency in Malaysia, would eventually end up being wanted by the Indian government and may soon be of interest to Interpol.

Apparently, the sensitivities of the non-Muslims in Malaysia that Zakir Naik has been repeatedly offending didn’t seem quite as pressing to Najib and his government when they “embraced” Zakir.

International and local coverage of one aspect of the encounter and not another significant one that was arguably quite salient unfortunately does more than reveal some of the superficiality and sensationalizing certain quarters of the media are susceptible to around issues of much cultural significance especially in multicultural countries such as Malaysia. Invariably, this disservice undermines the media’s wider capacity to inform effectively.

After all, there can be more ways than one to analyze and evaluate the cultural significance of certain handshakes.

Sunil Kukreja, who was born and raised in Malaysia, is a professor of sociology and an associate academic dean at the University of Puget Sound