I used to look at the development of civil society as a trajectory. Reading news articles about repulsive Malaysian politicians telling women that they should have sex with their husbands on a camel if the husband demands for it, my first reaction is usually to wish I knew stronger swear words, then wish violence on them, then feel guilty for being a bad person.

After I’ve calmed down, I try to be rational, and accept the fact that we are a growing society with teething problems and long for the day we become a society like “the UK or US” where I imagined such behaviour would immediately be pounced on by the press, an outraged public would kick up a fuss, someone would inevitably resign and be condemned to eternal humiliation – which to me was punishment enough somewhat? To me, civil society was a destination, and Malaysia was on a journey – albeit a long, rocky one – there.

Boy, has America finally driven home that I was ever so wrong.

Who do I look to now that societies who are the supposed bastions of humanist values, who were supposed to be what we wanted to be, have degenerated to the point that the democratically-elected leader of the supposed free world is a corrupt sexual predator? Yes, I know I’m being incorrigibly idealistic and foolish, because everyone is intuitively nativist or racist or sexist to some extent or whatever, and I read too much of the New Yorker and too little everything else, and all these governments have their own agendas anyway, don’t get anyone started on drone strikes and Guantanamo…

…but at least, in day-to-day life, there is a clear divide between things you are allowed to say or think or do in private as opposed to in public. Yes, that means everyone a hypocrite, but I don’t care about that as long as I like my friends and I can go out of the house knowing what the boundaries for right and wrong are, what people can or cannot do to me, what people should or shouldn’t be allowed to say and how mad I am entitled to feel or what sort of retribution I am entitled to when people cross the line.

I don’t want to worry that I am exhibiting far too much cleavage and people could feel entitled to grope me without fear of punishment. I don’t want to have to be wary of the ethnicities of people around me and wonder if the rude cashier just needs training or is being rude because I am a ‘Cina babi’. I am tired of being constantly weighed down, or seeing friends or relatives weighed down, by a general sense of bleak defeatism because institutions – scholarships, business opportunities, job opportunities – will never be on their side as long as they aren’t the right colour or class or cousin. In Malaysia, the system is rigged. Many elites are part of the conspiracies (which are real). Newspapers are partisan.

It drives me mad all the time that everything everyone always ever talks about on Facebook is politics, politics, politics, because coming from my cushy little armchair it’s easy to look down my nose and say hey there are so many other things wrong in this country that you CAN do something about…but honestly, I can understand how reading about molesters of schoolchildren and paedophile scholarship holders who seem to get away with lighter punishments than they deserve can stir a really all-consuming anger.

So I look to “Western societies” and wistfully think about how long Malaysia needs before we get our shit together and by shit I mean grow up.

Stealing David Remnick’s quote of George Orwell however: ‘The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.’

Society is not a concrete block rolling along a trajectory at all but a shapeshifting electrically charged cloud of individual temperaments that are bound to fluctuate, especially when they find their dearest priorities and basic necessities under threat – and when these temperaments fluctuate, so does our collective sense of wrong and right, so do boundaries between one person to the next, so does how free or how safe we are from one another.

Which means there is no telling how long we will be stuck in this stupid rut and how long the world will just be generally a sucky place run by twats.

 

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