JAN 28 — The sudden upsurge in the popularity of kangkung can be explained through Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point. The convergence of the Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context has created a wildfire out of a seemingly harmless vegetable.

True enough, the cynicism surrounding kangkung was popularised by famous netizens. The word kangkung itself has a stickiness factor to it, as it sounds like “flip-flop” or as the Kedahans would put it loqlaq. And finally, while the word was taken out of context of  the prime minister’s speech, it was timely as it was invoked at a time when the sharp escalation in the cost of living is suffocating us all.

Just invoke the word kangkung or order it for dinner and you’d hear light-hearted chuckles from friends and conspiratorial winks from waiters. It has come to symbolise what the government stands for (albeit a little wobbly); flaccidity.

Of stuffed or stuffing effigies

There are those who took the celebration of kangkung to the next level such as PKR’s Lee Kai Loon. He orchestrated the kangkung flash mob which included the ceremony of stuffing kangkung into an effigy which appears to look like the prime minister himself.

While in the first instance, the act might appear uncouth, it is important to uphold freedom of expression, even if it seems distasteful. I remember during my university days in the UK. Students used very strong means to convey their message to the authorities. We occupied the university premises in support of Gaza during its conflict with Israel. There were also innumerable protests on the streets. Protests in stadiums are unheard of.

I’ve even heard of one protest where an effigy of a university director was burned. Apparently, it was taken as a creative form of freedom of expression. 

Weapons of the weak

A deeper interrogation of the kangkung saga would reveal that most Malaysians are of the opinion that the way the country is run is scandalous and that Malaysia is facing a decline, a lost decade.

Of course Internet memes and the ridicule of public figures are common in any democracy. But the scale of Kangkung-gate is too large to be ignored. I do, however, think like all fads, it will pass and people will move on with something else to ridicule the government.

The cynicism that greeted Kangkung-gate is essentially due to the powerlessness that the masses have against this government. This incident reminds me of James Scott’s celebrated work, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.

Essentially what Scott was advocating was that those at the bottom of the pyramid, are not as powerless and slavish as one would believe. He conducted a study in a peasant village called “Sedaka” (a pseudonym) in Kedah. 

He observed that while peasants would be obsequious in front of the landed elite, when behind their backs, the peasants would call them names, make fun, gossip, plot and in the more extreme cases, sabotage.

He gives, among others, an example of a person that the peasants comically refer to as “Haji Broom”—a rich man who made his riches through charging exorbitant interest rates for loans. He’s called Haji Broom because he sweeps in every cash that is in his path.

While the peasants can never hope to unseat the ruling elite, these forms of resistance provides them with some sort of catharsis.

For Scott, peasant resistance is an everyday occurrence and it seems to disprove Gramsci’s idea of hegemony, where those at the lower end of the strata acquiesce to everything that the ruling class does.

While I admit that there are stark differences between resistance by the peasants in Sedaka and Kangkung-gate (the kangkung saga is more pronounced and blunt), it is interesting to see the many permutations of resistance.

The allegations of electoral dubiousness, the heavy-handed approach to dissent, the ubiquitous proxies in the form of social movements and the nation’s coffers at their disposal demonstrates the power that Barisan Nasional wields as the ruling coalition of Malaysia.

Their powers are vast and they have exercised it misguidedly in many times. The power of individuals, opposition political parties and human rights NGOs are no match against the BN’s machinery.

When civil institutions are ineffective and the trust deficit continues to widen, the people have no recourse except for cynicism. Pleas will fall on deaf ears and the pegawai kerajaan has always appeared not keen on helping. 

At least concocting names and gaining pleasure out of vegetables would provide us with some form of consolation. But the greatest strength of Malaysians has always been our resilience—just like when we endured 22 years of Mahathirian rule. 

Only through solidarity and persistence, shall we one day overcome this period of powerlessness.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.