Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Cultural Conundrums

By Jacqueline Ann Surin
The Other Malaysia

‘PLEASE do not use your handphone on the bus’, the pre-recorded voice extolled. I expected the voice to add, ‘It may cause technical interference with the bus’. Instead, we were told not to use our handphones ‘because it will annoy your neighbours’. Welcome to Japan where preventing individual distress appears paramount and everything from the toilet seat to personal behaviour is regulated towards that end.

I arrived in Tokyo on the night of Dec 9 with a fellow Malaysian for an international conference, and it didn’t take us long to appreciate what an organised and orderly society we had flown into.

The most impressive example of this was how the buses that departed from the airport terminal kept so exactly to their schedule. We had to wait 45 minutes before our bus arrived and in between that time, there must have been at least five other buses that came and left, with the precision of a Swiss watch, or maybe I should say Japanese precision.

Hard not to appreciate that kind of efficiency when I had just disembarked from a Malaysia Airlines flight where the stewards took more than an hour to figure out that they could not fix my video screen; my leg rest wouldn’t stay in place; and my seat wouldn’t recline.

Here in Tokyo, the toilet seat is pre-warmed so my bottom doesn’t seize up when I sit on the throne, and flushing sounds and a deodoriser emanate effortlessly from the commode. I can understand the deodorant but am not sure if the periodic flushing sounds do anything for my bodily functions.

Still, I am in Japan and the purpose of the conference I am attending is about moving towards an East Asian community ‘beyond cross-cultural diversity’. And as Professor Yasushi Kikuchi from the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies at Waseda University explained at our orientation session, undergoing ‘cultural struggle’ can result in resilience.

‘There is your own culture. And in Japan , you will experience Japanese culture. This process of cultural struggle will result in a third culture’, he said, adding that it is this that enables one to survive in any given situation. ‘You will know how to understand different cultures’.

Kikuchi added that Japanese society was actually heterogenous. ‘But they say we are homogenous so that it’s easier to control’, he added, obliquely referring to politicians. Within the context of control, however, it may actually be useful to understand homogeneity not just in terms of culture. In the Malaysian context, it would seem that there is also a growing tendency towards enforcing a homogeneity of ideas and values.

For example, exercising freedom of assembly and expression in a country that is supposed to be a democracy is viewed by the present administration as opposition that must be stopped.

The arrest of eight people, on the day I was flying into Japan, at a peaceful march to uphold freedom of assembly and mark International Human Rights Day is also bemusing because this is the same administration that signed, in November this year, an Asean Charter that, among others, aims to promote human rights.

What seems to be happening, for me, is a clash of cultures. While civil society groups try to push for a culture of openness and respect for dissent, the government remains strapped to the notion of a monoculture where everyone must think and behave in the way that the government wants.

Hence, the public expression of dissent is seen as defiance against the authorities that can lead to disorder, a threat to national security, or worse still, somehow linked to ‘terrorist’ groups or a Western agenda bent on destabilising Malaysia .

Thus far, it would also seem that the government has resorted to a homogenous set of conventionally harsh responses when dealing with differing views, including the use of tear gas, water canons, propaganda, arrests and the threat and use of the Internal Security Act.

But new strategies are clearly required to manage a heterogeneity of values and ideals that may not be reflective of the official mindset.

For example, the International Herald Tribune (IHT) ran on its front page on Dec 10 a report with pictures that had as its headlines: ‘A campaign of brutality: Foreign labourers hunted down in Malaysia’. The abuse of migrant workers and asylum seekers by Rela may not be viewed as a human rights violation by Kuala Lumpur and may not find its way into the Malaysian press, but there’s little that can stop the news from making the headlines elsewhere.

Notable, too, was the news item about the Dec 9 arrests in Kuala Lumpur on the second page of the IHT. While in Malaysia the government may think it is able to control what expressions are allowed, including through strict media controls, increasingly these controls are meaningless.

Homogeneity may indeed make control easy. But if heterogeneity is increasingly synonymous with resilience, those in power might do well to rethink their strategies and responses to opposing views.

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