Memory-Control, Anxiety and Elections
By Bunga Pakma
I began drafting my piece for today on Thursday, May 13th. The day has always been and will remain a time to reflect on sombre memories. Those who lived through riot and destruction cannot help but mark the day. Some of them have spoken of their experience of that lamentable time. Other people, thoughtful people who did not witness the terror, will review what they know of its history and wonder what it signifies. But most Malaysians will have heard of May 13th only through the state-controlled media.
The régime will never let May 13th rest. How can it? In the first place, the grisly fear can only be dissolved by a patient and accurate review of the events as they happened. In 2007, Dr. Kua Kia Soong published his book on May 13th, and the documents he accessed from the UK’s Public Records Office suggested new and surprising avenues of inquiry. British witnesses, though, are not enough. If a researcher could explore the National Archives, retrieve the evidence and piece it together, we would have a much clearer picture of what happened.
To come down with a serious illness is frightening. Vastly more frightening is coming down with a serious illness and the doctors can’t tell what it is. Sure, we know what happened on May 13th. Tempers ran high, words were exchanged, then insults. Then people started to fight with fists, sticks, parangs and firearms. In a few days much property was destroyed, many families were homeless, and many people were dead.
As a narrative, this is as clear as mud. That is understandable. Ask yourself, when you last got into a quarrel with your spouse (or friend, &c.), after it was over did either of you remember what started it? You’ll remember the hurt, you won’t remember the steps that led to the hurt. This is the way the ruling clique uses May 13th. That terror hurt real bad, but UMNO and their media represent that terror only as a huge, shapeless monster, lying in hiding, waiting to rise up and devour us as we lie helpless.
Someone could write an interesting history of all the vague terrors that political interests have nurtured to keep the populace in psychic subjection. Dr M has found the Jews useful.
Approaching the anniversary of the fatal day, I noted nothing unusual about how people walked and went about their business. On the web, what prompted the most chatter was the announcement that a “Melayu Bangkit” rally was to be held in Terengganu on May 13th itself. Most commentators responded that the idea was stupid, tasteless, and offensive to the point of obscenity. Wouldn’t it be better to build a public memorial to all those killed in the 1969 riots, and lay wreaths on it each 13 May? This is how other countries mark the regrettable and shameful events of their pasts.
I suspect that the proposal of a “Melayu Bangkit” rally was raised for the precise—and only—purpose that it would arouse such disgust and indignation in the public, and that it could then be called off.
Maybe I’m a conspiracy theorist. Who isn’t these days? Nonetheless, if my guess is correct, the Melayu-Bangkit Caper briefly aroused a flicker of my interest as a new twist the art of propaganda has been given.
No politician is going to quarrel with me if I say that there is no way one can rule a country without the consent or acquiescence of the people. A ruler can gain this by three methods: by force, by buying it, or by persuasion. Force as a way of ruling a populace is generally frowned upon these days.
Then, money. In the 90s, up to the currency crisis towards the end, enough people here and abroad were well off enough that politics cooled down. If the rulers can manage the economy to make enough people feel content, most people are not going to be interested in politics, but that If is a big, fat If.
What about persuasion? The “naïve” theory of democracy is that those who aspire to the responsibility of governing present their plans for the common good with solid reasons and that the people listen impartially, think and vote.
That’s half of it. People also listen to their interests, or what they believe to be their interests. Hence, emotional speech and the lie have always been political tools. Go look at history, the history of any country in any time you please. The withholding or suppression of fact is also a kind of lie. I doubt that anyone in the ruling circle knows what really happened on May 13th. They are sitting on the facts and certainly don’t want anyone else to know.
Closer to hand, look at the conduct of the Hulu Selangor by-election, which Farish Noor describes as—
…by far the slimiest, lewdest and most dastardly of issue-free campaigns we have witnessed of late. Never mind the moralising and sermonising from the pulpit and the car park, what offended even the jaded sensibilities of this writer was the manner in which everyone wanted to claim the high moral ground by stepping on the heads (and the personal records and private lives) of others. [Off the Edge, May 2010]
What Farish notes here is the use of the Big Lie. Political lying deserves a piece to itself, but in brief, the Big Lie consists of asserting something so outrageously and amazingly stupid, contradictory and impudent that ordinary human beings cannot conceive of anyone uttering it as a deliberate falsehood. Repeat that as often as possible and as loudly as possible, and there you are.
The danger for the propagandists is that they may come to believe their own lies, and when that happens, their downfall and destruction is not far off.
Oliver Hirschbiegel, near the end of his 2004 film Der Untergang, makes the character of Joseph Goebbels say this:
“We didn’t force the people. They gave us a mandate and now they’re paying for it.”
Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and the man who wrote the book on the technique, is a few seconds away from death. He ought to know he and the Nazis did indeed force the people with every means they had, to gain the fig-leaf of a “mandate,” “the will of the people.” A democratic surface excuses everything. At his very end, we see that he has propagandised himself. Goebbels has forgotten that he forged his many slogans as the opposite of fact. He now believes them as utterly true. Loyal to his truths that were once his lies, Goebbels shoots his wife and then himself.
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