By Ooi Kee Beng, EDITORIAL, Penang Monthly September 2021
IN THE FEEDBACK which has come to my attention to Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow’s Penang2030, which he launched on August 29, 2018, just three months after the federal government was toppled for the first time in Malaysian history, one item stands out in my mind.
Penang2030 is formulated so as to be easily understood by the general public, and in short, it aims at not leaving out any sector of society. It is therefore largely without surprises.
And so, it was gratifying for me to hear from Swedish Ambassador Dag Juhlin-Dannfelt, who recently returned to his homeland, that there was one point in the Penang2030 Guide (see penang2030.com) which left a strong impression on him for being unique to such documents. This was the Chief Minister’s wish to “empower the people”.
This led me to ponder further upon what that phrase actually means in a general sense. In a free society – one without coercion –, wouldn’t the people be naturally empowered, to start with? Does empowering the people not suggest that they had undergone some disempowering process? Calling for “Power to the People” does assume that they have been dispossessed of it, does it not?
Individual First or Group First?
Common sense would see that as a correct enough interpretation. But then, things are never that simple. If we were individual beings each essentially living in isolation, i.e. in an apolitical state, then that would be true; we would then arrive at the idea of “the noble savage”, who on his own volition enters into society and makes social contracts that provide him with goods beyond his own means to attain but which in turn take certain liberties away from him.
This Rousseau-esque point of departure has often been criticised for envisaging the individual to be existing before and beyond the group. In contradistinction to this, one can instead – more correctly, I think – assume the group coming before the individual, such that group pressure, group order and group discourse act incessantly to define the consciousness of each of its members from birth. If the group exists before the individual, then politics must be assumed a priori. And with that come suppression, manipulation and coercion, almost as original sins, as it were.
It is not untrue though that collective will and action do provide goods and conditions an individual cannot hope to attain on his own. Here, we come to the point for my long preamble. Democracy, in one form or another, is what Modern Man has decided is the most viable model for empowering individuals, for providing political stability, and for ascertaining internal checks on abuse and misuse of power.
In short, we all lean towards the Lincolnian notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. To be sure, we can still disagree heatedly about what of, by and for the people actually means in each instance. The idea of democracy does not translate necessarily into a “one man one vote” situation.
But do democracies necessarily empower voters? To my mind, being empowered appears to be a psychological state rather than a political one. It is experiential rather than formal, is it not? More about proactiveness, authenticity and agency rather than about the gaining and exercising of rights.
Empowering people would therefore basically be about enhancing agency, integrity and dignity, and not a simple gratifying of wants and needs. State intervention may provide, but it also undermines the individual’s sense of accomplishment and autonomy.
This brings me to a favourite contemplation of mine, namely, the individual’s connection to the Here and Now. To what extent does his mind exist in and his actions initiate from his immediate time and his immediate space?
Coercion, to my mind, results in the psychological distancing of the victim from his or her physical world. He or she loses presence in their time and space; he or she loses ownership over them to varying degrees.
To me, then, regaining appreciation for one’s surroundings and one’s own time, is the return to being empowered. Thus, a group’s wish to empower its individual members makes most sense if it means providing mental space for each of them to strengthen the sense of belonging, and of agency in their daily life.
With that comes integrity and pride. What more can one give one’s fellow men?