Confused conservatives

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As the West continues its struggle with hard right extremists, Malaysians have perhaps looked at the most powerful country in the world and felt a chill of déjà vu. We’ve had plenty of experience with contradictory statements from our public officials, our messy bureaucracy and a childish administration that seems to exist in its own deluded reality.

The doublespeak and the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump’s administration in the face of criticism is eerily reminiscent of what we go through in Malaysia on a regular basis, and perhaps it is time too to look at the resurgence of right-wing rhetoric around us.

Conservatism takes many forms, but we’re concerned here with social conservatives, who of late have earned for themselves a black name in the United States for their disregard of boundaries in their determination to win the culture war. In the highly charged protest against the withdrawal of tax exemptions from racist Christian colleges, we cannot fail to see that the festering heart of the movement was always just below the surface.

But what of Malaysia, where conservatism has been a way of life for the better part of our history since independence?

Malaysian conservatism has long revolved around the “Malay way of life”, which ostensibly revolves around the culture and customs of the Malays, but has evolved in recent decades into one centred on a strict and punitive version of Islam. And thus, in recent years, we’ve been watching a race among various groups to see which can be more conservative than the others.

When NGOs can say barefacedly that non-Malays and non-Muslims must pay taxes but accept being exiled from the administrative process of the country, one must wonder if we have reached peak conservatism – in other words, the rock bottom. Add to that the inflammatory rhetoric that states that Chinese Malaysians are intruders originally brought in by the British to oppress the Malays, and one has to wonder if the situation is absolutely hopeless.

Conservatism’s biggest weakness has always been the assuredness of its own righteousness, and as it has slid further to the right, those pronunciations of religious privilege become ever louder. One suspects even the conservatives know that loud noises are needed to obscure the shakiness of their positions.

Much like Trump’s self-contradicting evangelical Christian support, conservatives are far too often willing to ignore logical fallacies and ideological inconsistencies to ensure that their message makes its way out into the mainstream. Conservative commentators in the US have observed this phenomenon and have made much of the battle for the Christian soul that Trump’s election represented. That battle was obviously lost and has resulted in the America we see today.

Modern Malaysian conservatism does not lie at a crossroads. It continues down that same path it was set on by those who claimed to succeed Tunku Abdul Rahman’s spirit, absorbing and distorting the narrative in its favour every step of the way. At which point will it be time for self-reflection? Without that moment of clarity, the fear that things will never improve becomes one that is too close to the skin.

Scott Ng is an FMT columnist.

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