In conversation with Steven Sim

APRIL 17 — It’s not every night I have dinner with a YB (unless I include my kids who are self-proclaimed YBs), so I felt my trip to Penang last week was special.

I first met Steven Sim Chee Keong at the McDonald’s in SS2 about an ice-age ago. Since that time, this college kid has morphed into one of our country’s most promising leaders.

MP for Bukit Mertajam, he’s also a Senior Executive Officer at the policy think tank Penang Institute and in 2012 was named a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum in Geneva.

Learned philosopher in the making that he is — and probably the only high-profile Malaysian who’s a self-professed fan of Slovenian psychoanalyst-thinker Slavoj Žižek (see Note 1) — Steven (see Note 2) has also published a book on politics and philosophy titled The Audacity to Think (which my friend and I initially confused with Obama’s Audacity of Hope, but Steven swears he’s forgiven us).

Super-hero politicians

So we went to this placed called Starview Restaurant along Jalan Dato Keramat. The joint used to be a kopitiam, today the place rivals even giants like Tai Thong in terms of façade and splendour, a renovation which (I couldn’t help notice) mirrors what Steven himself underwent.

Almost the first thing he talked about — after ordering a totally sumptuous fish steamboat which defied reason and hot water — is the need to do away with superheroes in politics.

According to Steven, superheroes are a symptom of how regularly and extremely messed-up our society is.

Imagine having to thank a doctor each and every week for the amazing surgery or treatment he’s done for one of my loved ones; wouldn’t this suggest that something is absurdly wrong with my family’s health?

Instead, according to Steven, politicians should be inconspicuous. Like a Google server administrator working in the background, politicians should only be making the occasional tweak (and very rare critical fix) whilst the machine runs efficiently in public.

The fact that people don’t yearn for regular news about who runs Google’s systems only proves how effective it is.

Likewise, the rakyat shouldn’t have to fixate on saviour politicians like travellers in a sinking ship or hostages on a plane.

The health of a polity may, ironically, have an inverse relationship to the preoccupation of its members with politics.

Of course, what Steven shared with us probably needs to be qualified by his own article here (where he suggests that maybe superheroes are needed after all?) but it’s hard to disagree that a nation which needs so much saving is hardly a paragon of good politics.

(At this point I was gobbling down some roast duck which, frankly, overwhelmed my ability to take mental notes.) Anyway

The illusion of celebrities and VIPs being ‘just like us’

Steven proceeded to muse about how the cultivation of an “ordinary Joe” personality may diffuse accountability on issues like corruptions or scandals.

Take, for example, a corporate leader who’s guilty of CBT to the tune of millions. This person may then appear on TV in a T-shirt walking to the pasar malam to buy mangoes, invites you into his home and you see his children making nasi lemak in the kitchen, and he screams when Liverpool scores a goal, complains about how the cat scratched the sofa, etc.

What’s happening here? The (very effective) illusion being created is that this leader is “just like us.” He’s a “normal person” with “everyday problems and enjoyments and fears”, all of which makes it easier for us to accept and excuse the distance that his public role introduces into the picture.

Because we’ve seen him do something biasa like queue up to buy satay or struggle to carry some boxes from the living room to the garden, there is this tendency to believe that, “Oh, this guy is at heart completely normal but the pressure he faces in his role pushed him towards committing certain crimes which, really, are not his fault. In the end, he’s actually a victim of the entire political process.”

Steven of course claims this simply cannot be the case. Accountability and justice cannot be demurred even an iota on account of the appearance that he’s “one of us.”

In truth, and taking this beyond what Steven said, I’m of the view that it is precisely the image of the “ordinary” that increases the awe or aura we usually experience when thinking of VIPs or celebrities.

Consider those photos of people like Angelina Jolie eating a hot dog on the street whilst maybe struggling with her umbrella or searching for her keys — just like normal people do, right? But think about it: Do such photos raise or lower the esteem we hold towards her as an A-list Hollywood star?

If Vin Diesel walked into Suria KLCC to eat chicken rice (like a normal guy), and he sat about three tables away from us, would that raise or diminish our wonderment at his larger-than-life personality and career?

Clearly, the answer is that we’ll be in even greater awe of him. The banal tends to exacerbate the symbolic gap between VIPs and mere mortals.

Of bankruptcies and clichés

In between tasty helpings of roast duck and stir-fried kuey teow, Steven also shared his view about how, paradoxically, the youth and women wings of political parties should work themselves out of existence (because if a party is truly egalitarian and all-rounded, why have special units?); how some wealthy people avoid taxes and what-nots by transferring their money to their wives and just declaring themselves bankrupt (which, IMO, gives a grand twist to the concept of “true love”); how merely having a column in an online newspaper doesn’t mean one’s voice must be heard let alone granted equal importance as the voice of folks who’ve cut their teeth in politics for years; how he can’t believe people still wax eloquent phrases like “Malaysia needs more democracy”; and about how he can’t deny the truth of the laxity of Malaysian higher education but how he sees hope all the time when chatting with local grad-entrepreneurs.

Translated: If you want to impress Steven, don’t show how satisfied you are with the system as it is, but also jangan tembak jer.

Try your best to work, to create something new and, subsequently, vanish away because your job’s done and it’s time to pass the baton.

If you want to piss Steven off, do nothing more than complain and churn out more clichés and shibboleths (in other words, sound like a politician).

Another thing which also irks him are folks who cling to tradition for the sake of it, at the expense of kindness and compassion. Finally, if you want to connect with him, buy him dinner and share ideas (from parliament to pastors to durians to erotica, etc.) but do so from an angle which disrupts conventional wisdom.

Better yet, read some Žižek and trade philosophical jokes with him. Best of all, do a Stephen Chow impression from one of his movies from the 1990s — and watch Steven do his.

Thanks for the conversation, YB. After our meal, I suspect you’ll disagree with the following quote from one of your favourite thinkers: “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not in order to enjoy ourselves.”

Note 1: I’m delighted to have co-written a paper with Steven which analyses Bersih through the lens of jouissance, or what is known in psychoanalysis as that libidinal matrix of pain-pleasure into which human subjects are incurably soaked. The paper was published in the Asian Journal of Political Science in 2014. Check it out.

Note 2: Call him YB more than twice and Steven waves it off. Very well.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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