On July 14th, the Prime Minister and First Lady of Malaysia had a private audience with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. The Prime Minister, Najib Razak, wore a dark suit; the First Lady, Rosmah Mansor, wore a pale blue baju kebaya, a traditional Malay women’s garment that harks back to a time before Malay culture was as heavily Islamised/Arabised as it is today. The Queen herself wore a daffodil yellow dress. In the room, there were at least two vases full of yellow flowers, perhaps more.
I’m not a royalist or even a royal-watcher. My official take on royalty is about as republican (in the British sense, not the American) as it gets. Still, nobody interested in human behaviour can escape a fascination with royalty, simply because they are so much like the rest of us in some ways and yet, in other ways, so different. For example: most people assume, without even thinking about it, that queens and princes and princesses are narcissistic. But a particularly perceptive friend of mine pointed out to me this week, during a discussion of the sin of self-absorption, that while Young Will may have been raised to believe in his own importance to the British nation, self-absorption is not quite the same thing. Indeed, true self-absorption requires an unexamined belief that the minutiae of your life are interesting to the rest of the world; the self-absorbed make little distinction between public and private, revealing everything of themselves to anyone within their reach. Young Will and his family, on the other hand, guard their privacy fiercely, not (or at least not primarily) as an act of rebellion against those who try to invade it for profit, but because there can be no decorum without privacy. Who really knows what Young Will and his father and grandmother are thinking at any given moment? Who knows their reactions to celebrity divorces or heat waves or traffic jams? Young Will does not — cannot — announce to the world what sandwich filling or teatime biscuit he is currently enjoying, what he dreamt of last night, which country he was rooting for in the Eurovision contest.
In preparation for her meeting with Najib and Rosmah, the Queen’s advisors would have briefed her thoroughly on Malaysian current events. Not that the Queen needs an introduction to Malaysia, a country she has visited several times over the course of her reign, and whose history after the 18th century is closely intertwined with that of the British Empire. There is, therefore, no question that the Queen chose her daffodil yellow frock blithely, simply because she has always liked yellow (which she has), or because yellow suits her (which it does, this being one important trait that the Queen and I share). Yellow is the colour of Bersih (“Clean”), the Malaysian Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, in support of which 50,000 Malaysians had demonstrated on July 9th in Kuala Lumpur, just five days before Najib stood smug and rosy as ever before the glowing Queen.
In the weeks leading up to July 9th, Najib’s government arrested hundreds of people for distributing leaflets, for wearing Bersih T-shirts, and, yes, for wearing any yellow clothing at all. On Facebook, supporters of Bersih decorated their profile pictures with the official Bersih button or simply replaced their pictures with photos of yellow objects: sunflowers, mustard fields, yellow butterflies. The government did everything it could to stifle the rally, demanding that protesters gather at Merdeka Stadium instead of marching according to the original plan, denying them a police permit even when they agreed (in Malaysia, any public gathering of more than five people — in practice, any political demonstration against the government — requires a police permit), setting up roadblocks, shutting down entire sections of the city, and yet between 20,000 and 50,000 Malaysians of all ages and races — this after more than fifty years of increasingly divisive racial politics — showed up to demand electoral reform. They were tear-gassed and blasted with chemical-laced water from cannons; more than 1,400 people were arrested. (Malaysia’s Internal Security Act gives the government the right to detain people indefinitely without trial if they are deemed threatening to national security.)
We’re a little more than halfway through 2011, and already it’s been an intense, eventful year. But those who compare the Bersih rally to the Arab Spring are indulging in wishful thinking: most Malaysians stayed home on July 9th, warned their loved ones to keep quiet and mind their own business, complained that the roadblocks and the traffic jams were keeping them from their favourite — their only — weekend pastime of trawling the valley’s two hundred malls, medicating their anomie with clothes, shoes, gadgets, Coach handbags, American donuts, Japanese cream puffs. In Malaysia, it’s consumerism, not religion, that is the true opium of all the masses, across cultures, creeds, generations. The government knows exactly what it’s doing when it encourages the construction of more and more malls, each one bigger than the last, at the expense of all other types of public spaces.
Lie low, don’t make trouble, do your work, fill your wallet, and forget about the rest: this is the advice most Malaysian parents give their children. We don’t want another 1969, people say, referring to the race riots that erupted after the Opposition organised a parade to celebrate its unprecedented gains in a particularly contentious election. Somewhere between 200 and 2,500 people died in those riots. The government suspended Parliament and declared a national emergency; the Prime Minister at the time stepped down. The new government created the Malaysia we have today, a country in which ethnic minorities content themselves with second-class citizenship in exchange — or so we are told over and over again — for peace. Fear has ruled Malaysia for forty-two years, and with it an endemic apathy I’ve never encountered anywhere else in the world: a byproduct, a tacit declaration of hopelessness, a defense (because if you don’t care, you can never be disappointed). But this is what I keep coming back to: at most, the 1969 riots cost 2,500 lives. Yes, even one life is precious if it’s your child’s, your mother’s, your lover’s, but from a distance, armed with objectivity, how can we deny that 2,500 lives are a tiny fraction of the death toll in other civil rights struggles, civil wars, revolutions, battles for independence? In the Sri Lankan civil war, about which I wrote last month, between 80,000 and 100,000 people died. In the Partition of India, around one million. In the Rwandan genocide, somewhere between half a million and a million. In the Bosnian War, close to 200,000; 7,000 were killed in the massacre at Srebrenica alone.
So why, faced with the forty-year old memory of 2,500 deaths, are Malaysians willing to sacrifice the prospect of free and fair elections — and with such elections, perhaps, at last, equal rights for all citizens? Why does the threat of another 1969 convince us to put up with politicians who tell ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens of Malaysia to “go home” if they’re not happy, and brandish their kerises to remind their audiences of the special rights of the Malays?
Here is one part of the answer: for most people, apartheid politics notwithstanding, things are not bad enough in Malaysia. Most of us are just not desperate enough. Asked to choose between our principles and the joys of endless consumption, we choose consumption; when it comes down to it we’d rather have our Calvin Klein jeans and Shu Uemura whitening cream than a constitution that does not favour one race over all the others. The few people living squalid Victorian-slum lives are too busy trying to feed their families to think about changing the system. The majority has too much to lose: even before July 9th, people were already complaining that Bersih was just going to frighten away the tourists and the foreign investors.
But looking at the Queen, resplendent in her yellow dress, beaming at our sleek Prime Minister and his sinister wife, I realised that the truth is a little more complex. We have too much and too little. We are neither poor enough to be desperate nor rich enough to be bold. I don’t normally covet status, power, or immense wealth, but for once I want what the Queen has: I want to be able to tell a man that I hate everything he stands for, loud and clear, without having to bang my fist on the table, or raise my voice, or even open my mouth at all. She shares so few of her opinions, that wily Queen, so that when she does share them, we listen. I still think she should pay taxes, but you have to have some respect for a woman who says something actually worth saying to the whole world while she has our attention. How many of us can say we do that? Our audiences — limited compared to the Queen’s, but audiences nonetheless — are always there, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, hanging on to our every word if only to avoid their own lives, and we tell them of cheesecakes consumed, of bouts with foot fungus, of our babies’ overflowing diapers. My wise friend is right: sometimes arrogance is the very opposite of self-absorption.
[Photos of Najib and Rosmah with Queen Elizabeth by Dominic Lipinski, WPA Pool/Getty Images; Pavilion Mall Interior by Earthworm on flickr]