Holding up a cloudy mirror

FEBRUARY 5 — After the havoc President Donald Trump has wreaked in his two weeks in office, it is hard not to feel schadenfreude for the superpower that has always acted like it knows what is best for the world. Apparently it does not even know what is best for itself.

Trump has not only antagonised journalists, but seems to be on a warpath against the institution. His strategist Steve Bannon — whom many have now taken to mockingly calling President Bannon -- has attacked journalists by labelling them the “opposition party”, demanding the institution just “keep its mouth shut.”

Funny how Trump’s White House was so hell-bent on “correcting” the attendance numbers at his inauguration, with blatantly false information given by the White House press secretary Sean Spicer himself; this was later defended as “alternative facts.”

And Trump’s family members just cannot stay away from his administration, as much as Trump just cannot stay away from his business interests. His daughter Ivanka Trump is reportedly playing a quasi-First Lady role, replacing Melania Trump. Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner is serving as senior adviser to the president.

Then, Trump fired attorney general Sally Yates who had defied him, calling her act a “betrayal.”

To the rest of the world, the actions of Trump’s first few days were mighty repugnant. But to some Malaysians, it was just like looking into a cloudy mirror. Such a familiar sight, but much dirtier.

But things only came to a head for many Malaysians when Trump decreed an executive order restricting entry into the US by citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries that left heartbreaking scenes at the country’s airports.

US President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida on February 3, 2017. — Picture by AFP
US President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida on February 3, 2017. — Picture by AFP

Rightly so, Malaysians turned up to protest the action dubbed the “Muslim ban” at the US Embassy in KL. Although the turn-up was nothing to shout about, the cause garnered an interesting mix of supporters — from the Opposition, to Malay supremacists Perkasa, to Islamists Abim, and secular activists.

The protest may have fallen on deaf ears though. After all, Malaysia was not involved in the ban and there is little chance that Malaysia itself will ever call out the discrimination like it did against the treatment of Rohingyas, either for fear of retaliation or simply because there is no political clout to be gained, both with the international community and especially with target voters who mostly ignore US politics.

But if anything, the Trumpian US should show Malaysians what authoritarianism looks like. And how it insidiously differs from a democratic liberal administration as it took over the country in one fell swoop after the inauguration.

It should show that an authoritarian state looks nothing like our dystopian fantasies. This is no Panem, nor Airstrip One, not even the age of After Ford. It is not even close to Nazi Germany. In its place, we just have a society too meek to resist in a relatively liveable world, while the status quo steamrolls all over their rights to stay in power and reap the rewards.

Many of us have been conditioned to ignore the repression around us; after all, we have grown used to it. For many, it is the only life we know. It is hard to see it for what it is when your leaders keep convincing you how rosy life is. It is only when you have tasted freedom that you realise how repressed you have been.

It is a different view when you look at Malaysia from the outside. I was listening to Monocle 24 podcast show The Foreign Desk on the topic of autocracy, when I heard Tom Pepinsky, an associate professor of Cornell University’s Department of Government, actually use Malaysia as an example of an autocracy.

“The switch to authoritarianism happened overnight. It really took the stroke of a pen that was not opposed by those who were in a position to oppose it, to remove bureaucratic competition from the table,” Pepinsky said about Malaysia, although he did not elaborate which event he was referring to.

The same podcast also had Aykan Erdemir, an academic who was formerly a member of the Turkish Parliament, describing Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism in almost a decade of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s one-man show. Again, the similarities are astounding.

Rules of the game keep changing. Media, academics and dissidents are silenced with such disproportionate force that pretty soon everyone just skirts around the more critical conversations. Everyone becomes more careful with their social media, keeping stuff to their private domain.

The side-effect of this autocracy, Erdemir said, was the rise of opportunists who see that there is money to be made by toeing the line, and those who just stay silent in the hope that “the Sultan’s wrath never gets to them.”

Erdemir contends that in Turkey, Erdoğan’s rise to immense power was caused by the failure of both secularists and Islamists to find a common ground and a deliberate democracy. And this hurts a lot, because it is essentially the thing that is stopping Malaysia from moving forward.

With the general elections coming soon, Malaysia has yet to produce a viable Opposition. It is as if no lessons were learnt since the 2008 polls: that Opposition needs to stand together not only on a consensus that the parties can agree on, but also the common things that the public wants.

Instead, we have an Opposition fractured by polarising Islamist goals by those who just cannot make up their minds whether they want to win Putrajaya, or appease God.

It is an undeniable fact that for our society to escape this malady and malaise, the only way is for pluralism to flourish. Not just of religions, but most importantly a pluralism of ideas.