By Ooi Kee Beng for The Edge Malaysia, 30 January 2017
There is a forceful quote from John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the political economist and philosopher, which reads:
“A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes – will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.”
Along with many of his other famous sayings, this one rings sorely true, and remains salience today. Three realms come into play here. The first is that of power; the second that of the citizen; and the third being how they encounter each other.
Seven decades after the Federation of Malaya came into being, it is a good time for us to revisit these three things to fathom how they converge. I use the quote here for it activates immediately for discussion the notion of power, and the dilemma of how we have to live with it and how we cannot live without it.
Any power structure, however horrid and unfair, however famed and fabulous, spawns residents who find it homely. That is a good initial lesson to learn—all forms of power attract abundant guardians to excuse it, defend it or die for it.
That alone should make opposing power a stance to encourage for anyone who wishes to explore freely the world into which he unasked is born. This is not so much his right to do as it is something beyond the right of another to deny him.
Now, the maintenance of any society requires some degree of regimentation of the mind and manner of its individual inhabitants. This regimentation is done by that part of society that we call “the state”, whose legitimacy is directly reflective of its degree of representativeness of the society it regiments.
The paradox of politics
Herein lies the paradox of politics. How does one represent the people that one must regiment?
Often enough, the priority of the powerful is to stay in power, which is why the regimenting tends to overwhelm the representing. One can understand this need more where the state is new and the country a recent creation.
Regimenting through policies on schooling and language use, regulations and legislations, comprehensive systems for tax collection and resource redistribution, and rationalisation of daily life through the creation of integrated institutions of state—all these have to come into play. And it is not easy for a society at such a time to resist this barrage of control measures.
As with young parents, the young state feels it necessary to tell its citizens what they can and cannot do, and to teach them what rules to follow and what thoughts to think—all for the general good of country. Too many diverse views means too much energy wasted. The common good and the collective identity come before all else.
But as with parenting, this cannot but get overdone. When the regimenting goes too far, the representing becomes farcical. The mature parent tend to realise that excessive regimentation in thought and action of children dwarves them, and makes them less able to face the world as independent adults.
This is no easy balance. How does one nurture children and citizens such that they grow to function effectively in the collective and yet are sovereign enough to have a will authentic enough to need representing by the state?
Here lies the big issue for countries that came into being in the middle of the last century. Can they give up on the regimenting now grown excessive, learn to trust that they have done a good enough job in the last five or six decades for their citizens to act responsibly, and revisit their own role?
Are they themselves willing to grow up and become representatives instead of regimenters?
We see such unwillingness in overbearing parents keeping their children dependent on them, and we see it in how political parties—especially the nation-founding ones—exploit more and more their ability to regiment, and to dwarf, their citizens.
This brings to mind another brilliant quote often cited by management consultants, and which holds true as much for the patient parent as for the political party: “Success lies in working towards one’s own redundancy”.
This is most clear in parenting. You teach the child to walk and talk, and you take pride in seeing it manage on its own. And as the child becomes an adult, your role recedes, and a new generation has arrived. That’s good parenting.
He or she makes himself redundant, and thus becomes esteemed. The good state is one which in like manner fearlessly develops citizens with minds of their own whose will is authentic enough to need genuine political representation.
Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS Publishing 2016).