Monday, March 03, 2008

The Cultural Smile of the Mona Lisa Guile

The whale never feels like a fish until it's beached.

There are those from places like Malaysia and Singapore who come to places like America and find what they may have found missing, and in many cases that translates to a freer debate of issues, and a different plate of issues. I think the fascination that people like myself find interesting in following American politics is not really rooted in the issues of NAFTA or universal health care. Rather it is the whole concept of confrontation that is not only permissible but the driving force of campaigns. The candidates know that contesting ideas - or at least the image of it - drives the media, in turn because the media know that's what drives viewers, and the advertising dollars that follow. What the actual ideas are may be important to an intellectual few, but to the majority I suspect the real charm is in an intellectual - or better yet, unintellectual - feud.

Malaysians may have due cause to resent a stifled media perching dangerously towards incumbents. But might I suggest a proposal that it is not simply the two-dimension hegemony of those in control popular among our professors but an extension of our culture. Direct confrontation is quite simply not the way we do things. Most of us have a inbuilt sense of something which one could characterize in that most interesting of ala-Freudian oxymorons: we're passive-aggressive.

We're not used to the in-your-face kind of resolution. Even if you are right and you go direct, you lose coz you're rude. Do this if you're right and white, and we'll comfortably bash a perceived Western arrogance... all at our local McDonald's.

And that's why watching Obama and Hillary bash it out is as attractive as it is. As contradictory as it sounds, it's like someone who is lactose intolerant getting vicariously satisfied by watching others overdose on milk.

But you see, up to this point in my commentary you may have noticed a rather self-depreciating tone. That's because we have the reach second Asian gene defect: we're too obsessed with our defects. There is pleasure in victimhood, perhaps out of a certain twisted sense of exaggerated humility. The side effect is that the "Malaysia Boleh!" theme was always had an empty ring compared to the almost linguistically identical "Yes we can!" of Obama. Let's face it, we revel in the sour, pessimistic tone, and if the Americans exported their politicians, Malaysians might even get over any subconscious sexism to vote in a Prime Minister Hillary.

Our Malaysian politicians know this, I suspect, despite the wildly popular Lim Kit Siang-Rafidah Parliment spats on YouTube. The pro-incumbent position is not really about the peace and stability that they may have achieved - but the hidden message of instability and unlawfulness that may occur if they are not returned to power. And on the other hand we might note that the DAP message is not what one would change to, but what one should change from.

But there's hope for us yet.

We may be passive-aggressive, but there is a certain charm in the indirect way we deal with things. It may indeed be less effective in the boardroom or the classroom - and in this latter example I am having a surprising education in recent days. Nonetheless, the avoidance of direct conflict comes not only from a presumption that I don't have to tell someone right in his face that he has wronged others. The underlying foundation of this very Asian presumption is a compliment to this person: that he has the intelligence to read between the lines and think about what he may have done without one having to spell it out for him. Aha, you say, therein lies the problem. Because that person may not have that said intelligence. Indeed, as Jeeves would say, that is a fly in an otherwise unsullied stew.

It is in this vein that that being exported from my original petri dish has brought out some pride in the way that Malaysians interact. I honestly do believe that while direct confrontation may at times be expedient, subtlety has its charm, its time, and its place - and half of that charm lies within the intellectual prerequisites of subtlety. There's a certain bond that is created over time from indirect communication, in the same way that talking your plants improves their health, and eventually yours. At the very least, and despite its admitted faults: if a Malaysian confronts one in the face, one can distinguish that it's serious.

The whale never feels like a fish until it's beached.

But that's why we have faith in changing tides.

1 comment:

stev said...

that might explain why i face daily constructive confrontations being in malaysia :-*

all for the best though imho - in a working environment anyway as there's no time for reading between the lines or sarcasm

still, agreed tho on the point of the certain charm of subtlety in general ;)