What is teh tarik enlightenment?

This is my first column on The Malay Mail, published 3rd December 2013

Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani was something of a charismatic maverick and crusader of anti-colonial ideas in late nineteenth century Egypt. His informal engagement with the public evokes a scene not dissimilar to a small forum led by Socrates. Surrounded by earnest disciples in cafes, Al-Afghani would hold court on ancient Islamic science and Western philosophy, appealing to the dispossessed lower and working class who would feel out of place in the hallowed halls of Al-Azhar University.

The ultimate goal of Al-Afghani’s thought was to avenge the degradation that European imperialism had brought to the Islamic world. But he did not reject all things Western or European in toto. By shrewdly adopting Western tools of modernity such as the printing press, Al-Afghani wrote articles and published pamphlets to disseminate his exhortations against the West. So influential was Al-Afghani that he was attributed as the architect of the politicisation of Egypt’s public sphere in the 1870s. Within a few years of his arrival in Egypt, nearly all of Egypt’s newspapers were run by his devotees. His most notable disciples would later become leaders of postcolonial Egypt and later, Iran, his homeland.

More than a 100 years later, something similar is afoot in urban peninsula Malaysia. Groups of Malay men meet at 24-hour restaurants rattling off names of white men both dead and living: Spinoza, Kant, Mill, Hayek, Habermas. To make applicable and complimentary to the local context, iconoclastic Muslim thinkers such as Ali Shariati are invoked. Is this some kind of intellectual renaissance unseen since, well, who knows? Perhaps. But what is certain is that it is what Clarissa Lee calls the birth of our salon culture.

This loose collective of individuals organise book discussions, lectures, and produce books translated into Malay, the language of its audience targeted for intellectual and Islamic reform. IKD has recently published Immanuel Kant’s foundational text What is the Enlightenment? in Malay, signalling an attempt to herald a Malay kind of Enlightenment. Now is as good a time as any to investigate the rise of this community.

These names and ideas bandied about during the Enlightenment have a talismanic quality. They appeal to idealists. The Kantian man stands apart from the rest of society thanks to his superior faculty to reason and freedom from the shackles of fear and dogma. He and his ilk form the public sphere, a potent site for contesting against the state. With the right conditions, Islamic reform and Islamic secularism may be imminent. These grandiose ideals may be the seeds of an intellectual framework for a new Malaysia.

There are, however, detractors who are cynical of this fledgling intellectual trend and quick to denounce earnest verbiage as “pseudo-intellectualism.” Such criticisms should be disabused from the short-sighted ignorance of the power that ideas have in the bigger picture of history. Ideas alone, often slow in its path towards eventual action, have resulted in social transformations and political revolutions. Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet on imperialism and capitalism inspired revolts against colonial subjugators in Asia and the Middle East.

There is a naivety like the rush of first love in this intellectual movement. Their often uncritical adoration of Western philosophy is attributed to a lack of awareness of the vast corpus that challenges its androcentric Eurocentrism. But like Al-Afghani, we should not throw Western theory out with the bath water. After all, Malaysia as a country was founded on Western ideas; the nation-state was a created as a European political project, the rule of law, Parliament, and our education system are all imported without us resisting against its foreignness. And yet, other concepts — female emancipation, freedom of speech, civil liberty, gay rights — are attacked as being alien to our “culture.”

What is more interesting to observe is how pockets of this intellectual community are inspired by Indonesian civil society made up of key contemporary feminist, literary and socio-political figures. Women make a significant presence in Indonesian intellectual circles. But the urban Malaysian salon culture, which is keen on attracting the working class Malay, remains stubbornly Malay male-dominated. This gendered intellectual exclusion can also be witnessed in Singapore where an emerging intellectual book culture is dominated by young Singaporean Malay men.

There are certainly parallels between our local burgeoning intellectual community with that it aspires to mirror. Women were excluded from participating in world-changing philosophical debates in 18th century France. Their views were thought to lack weight and while their very presence amongst male thinkers (wannabe or otherwise) were inhibiting the freedom of intellectual homosociality these men enjoyed. Women opt out from late night discussions in 24-hour restaurants because being female in public at night is risky in Malaysia. Who knows what other reasons that account for their absence?

What are the other dynamics of exclusion at work in this emerging intellectual culture? Why do the chattering classes unproblematically choose to meet at 24-hour restaurants? Should they question the political and economic conditions that allowed them to discuss “liberty” and “rights” on cheap teh tarik while migrant labourers do the 3D jobs (dangerous, dirty, and difficult) that Malaysians won’t do? Liberty and rights for whom exactly? In the society where 9-to-5 jobs are privileged as the ideal, who is there to challenge the ethics of 24-hour sit-down restaurants if not the enlightened ones?

Perhaps one shouldn’t expect too much from an emerging intellectual class that is still learning the lessons of what a truly democratic society means. What took Europe several hundred years, two world wars and numerous fatal lessons from feeling superior to the rest of the world, Malaysia is only beginning to jump off the coat tails of empire since only the last century. Globalisation and super fast media may speed up the intellectual awakening of the elites in developing societies while the rest of humanity waits patiently for their turn.

The geography of urban intellectual culture in the Malay archipelago

First published on THE STATE magazine, 10th October 2013

Everyday for six months last year, I took the mikrolet from a major bus stop in South Jakarta to my home. A kind of share taxi, the blue mikrolet—number 36—would take around fifteen passengers at a time, following a looping route that covered one small area of South Jakarta. On the route, there was one stop that would prove to be always intriguing, intimidating, and irresistible: Salihara.

Like an oasis in the dusty and chaotic urban sprawl of the megalopolis, Salihara is a complex of smaller parts: one part cafe, other parts amphitheatre, book and DVD shop, and an inviting lecture room with lush carpeting and flattering lighting. The main building itself is a symbol of democratic renewal, echoing the architecture of modernisation in decolonising countries during the 1960s. Eminent poets, writers of edgy feminist novels, Islamic activists, and film makers are regularly seen here, either as invited speakers or self-invited customers of the cafe.

Just outside of Salihara is Pasar Minggu, literally the Sunday market by name but in actuality a marketplace all week. But Pasar Minggu is light years from the bucolic idyll of the farmer’s market. Traders and street food merchants sell their wares on the ground, just inches from the exhausts of slow moving traffic.

The sights and smells of Pasar Minggu miraculously disappear in the understated but elegant surroundings of Salihara. Built in 2008 primarily as an arts venue, Salihara is the brainchild of members of Indonesia’s most eminent and creative civil society. On most days of the week, poetry readings, dance and theatrical performances, lectures, and panel discussions on Islam, cinema, and feminism take place. They are attended by an engaged public, who have come to this place to challenge the status quo. In one panel discussion consisting of Islamic clerics, a member of the audience asks, “What is God?” to which one of the clerics answers, with radiant confidence, “God is but a mantra that one chants to the heart.” One will never witness such an exchange in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, a small but growing group of Malay men are inspired by the intellectual energy of Salihara and determined to create a small public sphere modelled after it. It is a game of catch-up, as they see their Indonesian cousins moving far ahead, while Malaysia is left in the dust in the intelligentsia stakes. The Malaysian chattering classes gravitate towards the enclave of Bangsar, in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, as the spiritual hub of the burgeoning intellectual scene. Bangsar has all the trappings of such a place; full of high-end watering holes, cheap food offered in 24 hour sit-down restaurants, and located between the hubbub of the capital and the expansive and desirable suburbia of Petaling Jaya. Here, the local rich and sophisticates, the White migrant community, and all manner of aspirational wannabes dine, drink, and are seen. They tend to eat the same things here; Indian Muslim fare of rotis and sweet teas—food of the people.

Salihara and the hip Telawi area of Bangsar are roughly reminiscent of Jurgen Habermas’s imagining of the public sphere. A place where civil society—a motley group of writers, journalists, artists and activists—come together and form a super league of dissenting voices against both the state and the prevailing threat of Islamic extremism to democracy and civil liberties. They are keenly aware of Habermas’s ideas and take advantage of their potential, along with those of the Enlightenment that drive their discussions. In this liberal marketplace of ideas, one can be a magpie, picking up works of key philosophers at random to add intellectual panache to political concepts. In this liberal marketplace of ideas, the misogyny of Rousseau and Spinoza are airbrushed out, the disregard of non-White plight of countless others are wilfully ignored. Ideas become fetishised commodities, whose provenance and context are often obscured.

In Malaysia, they are also inspired by the text of the much-revered Malaysian academic Syed Hussein Alatas, Intellectuals in Developing Societies (1977), which outlines the characteristic and function of the public intellectual in Malaysia. One such delineated characteristic that rings true of the Malaysian smart set is their self-imposed distance from the rest of society and preference to mix with their own kind. This distance is further accentuated by the geography of their haunts. They may be eating the food of the people, at the prices of the ‘masses,’ but they socialise and plot for a better Malaysia only within the specific locations of the Telawi area.

Members of the intellectual elite in South Jakarta and Bangsar organise the development of ideas and performance around public book discussions, and the translation of ‘classics’ into Malay and Indonesian. Book publication of Anglo-European thinkers into Indonesian is a serious and long-established business in Indonesia. The country has long lived with a mono-language policy in the media and education throughout Suharto’s New Order (1966-1998). Malaysia, meanwhile, has had a more chequered history of national language policy since political independence in 1957. It has switched capriciously between English and Malay, while competing with Tamil, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Cantonese.

The rise of this particular kind of public sphere is set against a backdrop of a revived sense of democracy and political potential in the hands of the people. After the end of Suharto’s authoritarian regime in Indonesia and the Reformasi movement in Malaysia, a flurry of organisations filled the vacuum of a once forbidden public space. Members of these organisations and social movements are collaborative. They are often situated within a bus or Light Rail Transit stop from another, and they eat and drink together. But they do not socialise merely to assert their social capital. The ultimate goal of the fledgling intellectual culture in Malaysia is to challenge the status quo, displacing the power of the ruling government and heralding a Malay version of the Enlightenment. The recent publication of Immanuel Kant’s What is the Enlightenment in the Malay language offers clues to such a dream.

As a term much used in developmental and sociological studies, civil society requires further contestation within the context of Malaysia and Indonesia. It is the buffer between the state and society, but its members’ position is often closer to the higher rungs of the nation than ‘the rest.’ In Jakarta, there is an acute awareness of class privilege among the self-professed elites who are the inadvertent beneficiaries of decades of corruption under Suharto’s regime. There is a yawning wealth gap in Indonesia where the small middle class are squeezed between the über affluent and the abject poor. In Malaysia, where the broad middle class enjoy a history of relative economic and political stability, class awareness is less frequently acknowledged. And when they are, they are uttered between sips of expensive lattes.

The Malaysian intellectual community is male-dominated because its membership reflects the dynamics of its founders who are highly educated, heterosexual, Malay, and male. They meet after work and till late when it would be riskier for women to travel alone at night in a country where crime is on the rise. There is the banter and debating style in a company of men that only a few women, who are expected to be demure and accommodating rather than highly opinionated and bold, will feel at home with. Also, the ‘serious’ books the community reads are those mainly by other men. There are, after all, only a few female philosophers. In this constellation consisting of supernova male philosophers whose work are seen as an exciting challenge to an intellectually arid landscape. Philosophy, alongside the humanities and social sciences, learned outside the classroom are currently being recuperated in Malaysia after decades of abandonment in favour of ‘useful’ and ‘job-making’ spheres of knowledge like engineering, law, medicine, and the ‘hard’ sciences.

There is plenty of interest in combining Western philosophy and critical engagement with Islam, personal liberties, and rational reason in Indonesian higher education. Indonesia can attribute its ability to combine Islam and institutionalised intellectual endeavours to the founding of the Indonesian Associations of Muslim intellectuals (ICMI) in 1990. Their legacy can be felt in the country’s progressive civil society. But there are acutely few spaces for such things in Malaysian universities. The repressive University and University Colleges Act restricts socio-political engagement amongst students in ways deemed oppositional to the state. Its impact on student activism and critical expression has had a lasting legacy in Malaysian university life since its imposition in 1971. And thus, the Malaysian university is no place for the intellectual who nurtures some kind of political ambition.

The appeal of the European Enlightenment is a curious one in Malaysia. Although often critical of religion, the Enlightenment poses little threat to the idealism and aspirational radicalism of the Bangsar intellectuals. What matters it that the Malay incarnation of the Enlightenment will release them from the ball and chain of dogma and moral paranoia. They have little interest in postcolonial or feminist critiques of their idols. And this underlines the illusion of their special place in the geopolitics of ideas where gender, class, space, and time are of no consequence.

The above are snapshots from a personal observation that will be soon be part of a social history of a new intellectual and cultural phenomenon deeply rooted in political action in Malaysia, one that is inspired by social and cultural movements in Indonesia. Key members of the Malaysian intellectual culture flit in and out of the sphere of formal politics, and their influence within such realms remains to be seen. However, there is little to doubt that their influence is fast spreading amongst younger people who are newly politicised via the trending climate of democratic possibility that has resurfaced after many decades.

Will the real intellectual please stand up?

This is a response to Syahredzan Johan’s article, Rise of the pseudo-intellectuals. First published in Loyar Burok on 29 June 2012.

Is Syahredzan Johan intimidated by people who use big words and may actually be smart?

I am more than certain he would vehemently respond in the negative to the question above. However his recent article has all the implicit cues that point to a feeling of being threatened by smart-sounding people. More than intimidation perhaps is the curmudgeonly and sanctimonious attitude that can cut through the thick smokescreen of intellectual-wannabes and expose a person who, as it turns out, knows nothing.

What does he gain from this?

Notwithstanding the personal exchanges via email that prompted the writing of his article, ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is a personal attack on people who read, to varying degrees of depth and comprehension, and synthesise their ideas to produce arguments and opinions. It is an attack on people who are learning to engage intellectually in a culture that denies such levels of engagement from the get-go.

More crucially, ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is an all-to-easy label to use against someone you refuse to engage with on an intellectual level. It’s a label to belittle someone who you disagree with especially when that someone is adept at expressing themselves vividly.

The fact that Syahredzan thinks that ‘pseudos’ “challenge opinions or views as a way of making a personal attack” shows how personally he must take any kind of intellectual criticism and how emotionally fragile he becomes by an onslaught of Nietzschean quotes and valid, deeply thought-out opinions.

Interestingly, he speaks of this ‘rise’ of pseudo-intellectuals, but does not care to state the possible reasons for this apparent rise. I myself do not have an answer to explain this phenomenon but I can say a few things to people who are suspicious of ‘pseudo-intellectuals’:

You are lucky if you had the privilege and opportunity to study and travel abroad, talk with people who don’t bat an eyelid when you quote Marx, and being told you are smart without having to read and quote Marx. But if much of your life and intellectual formation remained rooted in Malaysia where you’re not taught to think and think differently, how wonderful it must have seem to discover rebel thinkers like Fanon, de Beauvoir, and Rousseau?

You are lucky if you have cultivated the art of articulating your ideas from your high-brow readings without sounding like a fool with pretensions above your reach. But in Malaysia, we do not have many avenues to articulate ‘high’ ideas and have those ideas validated by arbiters in the intelligentsia. To begin with, our intelligentsia or what we can recognise as one is tiny and institutionally, there is great resistance to a development of one. And we know that much of ‘highbrow’ thinking is suspicious of the state, the status quo, capitalism, and heteronormativity.

In the Malaysian context, we are witnessing some changes in public attitudes towards dissent.

Slowly, a culture of protest and civil disobedience is being developed. It comes to no surprise then that these events and the people inspired by them seek to nourish their minds further with theory and philosophy that chime with their experiences and help articulate raw feelings into bigger ideas. Also, many of these people who quote Sen and Gandhi are young. To denounce ‘pseudos’ is also to dismiss youthful attempts at forming an intellectual identity. It is like stomping on new blossoms in the spring.

What is this ‘honesty’ that Syahredzan speaks of and celebrates? Is it the admission of not knowing anything highbrow and intellectually aspirational and actually have pride in it?

For Syahredzan it seems, only some people can be deemed ‘real’ intellectuals, others not. He plays right into the hands of structural power, privilege and class if he truly believes that. Aside from the narrowly-defined established intellectuals (academicians, writers, artists), what does it take be an intellectual?

I believe that smartness is the sum of perception and institutionalised lore. Perception because you can be perceived to sound smart when you are buoyed by the gift of confident eloquence. Institutionalised lore produces who is ‘smart’ through exam results, intelligence quotients, science streaming in schools, and university degrees for example – there is no consistent evidence that these things actually make you smart, but people say they do.

Of course while smartness and intellect can mean the same thing, intellectualism is quite different; it grants status, respect, prestige, and can be very intimidating.

When you are suspicious of people who engage in an intellectual manner chances are you envious, insecure, despise people who try to be better themselves with their minds, or all of the above?

I just hope Syahredzan will see the larger context behind this ‘rise’ of pseudo-intellectuals should the phenomenon itself be real rather than a figment of his insecurities.

On male public intellectuals of the Twitter age and gender

Woman: A man's "body" of knowledge?

We can trust the public intellectual – the voice of the zeitgeist, so to speak – to be clever, witty, sometimes rather sexy (because they’re clever and witty), and male.

Though it seems that lately being male is a crippling impediment to being the voice of the zeitgeist. Recently, Stephen Fry caused the chattering classes to gasp in shock when he mused rather publicly that women don’t enjoy sex very much. Trust an openly gay man to be the expert in female sexuality. But why the shock? Why did planet intelligentsia brake to a screeching halt on its axis?

Well, to begin with, Stephen Fry is royally endorsed as a kind of British national treasure. He is the repository of wit, middle-class bourgeois ideals, and unthreatening intellect. Therefore, everything that passes through his venerated lips is certified to be right and wonderful of the pristine order. But why did he think he could get away with talking about something he clearly has no personal engagement with?

Maybe it’s because he’s rather unofficially a public intellectual, and as a public intellectual he shares his sagely views on worldly issues based on his celebrated intellectual capacity, even when they’re stretched beyond his experiential limit. Public intellectualism is mansplaining par excellence. Liberal and enlightened male thoughts have the passport of privilege not to be examined first for sexism and misogyny. It’s only when they’ve made an ignorant gaffe that they’re called out and reprimanded with a velveted slap on the wrist.

This brings me to discuss Farish Noor’s recent talk on the changing concepts of modesty in Southeast Asia last October at the Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur and his status as Malaysia’s “sexiest” public intellectual. Although I was sad to have missed out on what is a typically thought-provoking Farish Noor lecture, my heart sank to new uncharted depths when I found out that the lecture included a fashion show with “babes in Peranakan corsets”. This is particularly sexist and disgraceful for a cerebral warrior like Farish Noor. To his credit, however, Farish Noor has successfully made public lectures accessible and trendy. His well-received critiques on religion and politics traverse effortlessly across the Facebook universe making him an intellectual star of the social network age.

But by sexing-up critical thought for the Malaysian public, women become objectified as bodies to gaped at as they parade around in tight-fitting costumes. Women’s bodies become the vehicle through which Farish furthers what I believe are his political claims against hegemonic notions of modesty. The lecture on modesty thus becomes an exercise in irony and intellectual farce, as it appeases the unchallenged male gaze that underpins the very notion of modesty.

Should the sexist failings of public intellectuals come to anyone’s surprise at all? Certainly not. Public intellectualism is a male preserve disguised as a form of cerebral enjoyment for all. The views of public thought-artists like Stephen Fry and Farish Noor should not be seen as entirely objective or supremely above the biases of their androcentric perspective. But problems contravening their “rationality” arise when they inadvertently claim expertise in women’s experiences and gender.