AS Malaysians know from personally experiencing the 14th General Election in May 2018 and the Sheraton Move in February 2020, changes in the executive branch can cause unrestrained euphoria and doleful mourning in equally hyperbolic measure. Supporters proclaim the dawn of a hopeful era; detractors declare the end of the world. Social media affirms political alignments, while traditional media (which now must include news websites without a paper edition) resynchronise their spin according to the orbits of their benefactors.
And so it has been with the inauguration of Joe Biden, frenzy and adulation being further encouraged by Amanda Gorman’s rapturous poem and the many inspirational musical interludes. My favourite was the pianistic re-harmonisation of Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ before the suitably eponymous climax was emotionally (or “emotionally”, if you’re cynical) witnessed by the new President and Vice-President. No doubt, Kamala Harris’ heritage and background, now augmented by a host of unprecedented ethnic minority appointments to the Cabinet, has further galvanised those who define this moment as a new beginning.
Still, I am glad to have American friends who are more measured and mindful of history, “sanity and familiarity will return, which will be comforting, but remember, out-of-touch comfort led us to Trump in the first place,” one said, while another (of African American heritage himself) warned, “these ‘diversity appointments’ will enjoy greater leeway than if they were white, and that’s dangerous”.
Indeed, in this country polarised not only by politics but by perspectives of truth itself – markedly seen in attitudes towards Covid-19 and climate change – the journey of the next four years could well define the next 40. And while Republicans calculate their own electoral fortunes in relation to dealing with twice-impeached Trump (a conviction in the Senate now looks unlikely), Joe Biden will have to be mindful of the gulf between centrists and progressives in his own party, who are for now encouraged by the tsunami of Executive Orders.
Malaysian friends have reacted with equal gusto, and I have enjoyed receiving congratulations for ‘Abidin in the White House’. On social media, one ideologically curious trend was scions of our political and corporate elites posting the memes of self-proclaimed democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders with the now-infamous mittens, seated in unlikely locations. While this is mostly harmless fun, I have noticed that increasingly, the political compasses of Malaysian millennials are being influenced by American narratives.
For example, last year, Black Lives Matter protests raised solidarity and drew attention to institutional racism around the world. But transplanting the US narrative to Malaysia risks obscuring our unique context. We certainly have issues of racism and histories of oppression that should be exposed and addressed, but Malaysia did not experience the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Civil Rights Movement, and indiscriminate shootings of African Americans by militarily-equipped police officers. While lessons can no doubt be learned – such as when Malaysian police officers are accused of racial abuse – we should nonetheless frame our problems according to our own historical, constitutional, and social context, addressed by our own ever-evolving processes of public policy, rather than import a foreign one.
More recently, a number of episodes have brought to the fore charges of cultural appropriation, relating to the notion that certain cultural practices, traditions or items are exclusive: to be used only by those who can creditably claim to ‘belong’ to that culture, rather than those outside it, particularly when the culture in question is a minority or seen to be disadvantaged.
For someone raised with the notion that mutually sharing and respectfully participating in other cultures is a good thing – and I think most Malaysians still believe this – it is disconcerting that the exclusivity we usually associate with the far right has an ally on the left, when both proclaim “this belongs to us/them, outsiders shouldn’t use it”, while obscuring contrary opinions within the groups they claim to protect, “Why do you get to speak for us/them?” Mistakes borne out of ignorance will inevitably occur in cross-cultural exchanges, but the solution isn’t to ban them.
While questions of trade and geopolitics will dominate Malaysia’s bilateral relationship with the United States of America, these social aspects will be important too, with many Malaysians taking their cue from, or reacting against, trends dominating American popular culture. With the recent departure of Ambassador Kamala Lakhdir (not because, as I suggested, “there is only room for one Kamala in the administration”), I am sure the incoming Ambassador will be heavily courted by all sides of our political community, sussing out the new President and whether to cast themselves as a ‘Pak Biden’.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas).