Dark (K)Nights in Malaysia (Part 1)

When politics and power are concerned, we must reflect on the possibility that truth is something that must be discarded at times without which chaos would reign. 

Alwyn Lau

What’s arguably the most anicipated movie event in Malaysia this year? Batman. What’s the most anticipated event in the country per se? The coming General Elections. In this piece, I hope to look at the two recent Dark Knight instalments and extract insights relevant to Malaysia, our politics, our hopes and, importantly, our fear.

The Dark Knight (2008), like many of Christopher Nolan’s movies (e.g. The Prestige, Inception), is predicated on fundamental lies. The movie depicts a world which needs to be lied to; a society which cannot face a full-blown encounter with the truth. Hence, the hero – Batman himself – embodies deception in its purest. He has a secret identity known to less than a handful of people. The secret identity itself is based on people’s uncanny fear of bats i.e. of a mammal with wings often used to cloak itself. Yet it’s not simply that Batman has to maintain a lie. In order to save society, the District Attorney Harvey Dent had to pretend he was Batman; Dent had to lie to the city in order to save the city itself. In the end, of course, Batman returned the favour by willingly taking on the role as baddie, as Dent’s killer, in order that the city would have a hero to celebrate. Dent (a good guy turned bad) was venerated and Batman (a great guy turned bat) was vilified – this was the solution the city had to be fed.

The ‘Dark Knight’, thus, refers to the falsely incriminated hero who takes on the sins of the real criminals so the city could continue life as normal believing in lies. It’s the ‘bogeyman’ a country needs to believe has been adequately dealt with so it can feel secure in itself. In Malaysia one name comes quickly to mind: the Communists.

To this day, one could argue that the Communists are indeed the dark knights of our country. From the very start, their cause for the poor(er) working classes in British Malaya. Their presence galvanized labourers to speak up as a collective, to fight for causes and issues largely ignored by a ruling class more concerned about protecting their business interests. The British colonial leaders, however, sought to derail a potential working class revolution by demonizing all Left-leaning political groups and transferring power to the very group who would ensure that colonial interests are sustained after Independence i.e. the aristocrats and business folks. Afterwards, a convenient story was told of how cruel the Commies were and how close Malaysia was to being overwhelmed by the Red Terror if not for the patriotic stalwarts from UMNO and so on. Hence, Malaysia’s myth of origins.

Our society needs to keep on hearing this lie failing which we may actually question the role of groups like UMNO in ‘liberating’ Malaysia. Our society needs to believe that Communism is bad in whatever form it comes – and that a profit-making system, by contrast, will always be great and ‘all-natural’ no matter how many rivers are polluted and forests rendered bare – lest the every-spiraling yearning after money is, gasp(!), questioned. Our society needs to see in Communism nothing but terror and mass poverty because without this ‘Satan’ of political groups, we may actually be forced to take a good hard look at the multitudes in ACTUAL poverty as a direct result of Capitalism itself. Our society needs to vote Commies out because this way we can continue believing that Democracy truly is nothing but the best and fairest political system created by Man (if not God himself) and it has no complicity whatsoever with an economic system which generates waste, slums, debt and greed.

Batman’s arch-villain, the Joker, on the other hand, is all about truth. He sought to expose the truth of Batman’s identity, of love and dilemmas (was Rachel Dawes more worth saving than Harvey Dent?), of the superficiality of noble intentions (could a public figure/hero turn bad over the death of a loved one?), of human self-centeredness (could a group of people willingly blow up another group to save themselves?) and, most critically, the truth of what it takes for society to police itself.

Towards the movie’s end, Batman realized that the only way to apprehend the Joker was to rely on mass surveillance, effectively ending the privacy of Gotham’s inhabitants. That is the price and the ground of peace – an exceptional act which takes the form of violence. In Malaysia, such political ‘exceptions’ are very familiar, aren’t they? The standard roll call of anti-democracy laws – The Security Offenses Act (formerly known as the ISA), the Sedition Act, the Peaceful Assembly Act,and most recently, Section 114A of the Evidence Act – are, in essence, legal acts of violence towards the people. To protect national harmony, we need the threat of personal disharmony (in the form of many nights in a 6-by-8 feet cell).

Nolan also presents a stark and awkward contrast between the candor of evil and the superficiality of the good. The Joker never takes anything personally – perfect candidate for Prime Minister? Batman takes justice too personally – perfect example of a political whiner? The Joker uses anarchy to expose the lies the people tell themselves (of goodness, of heroes, etc.). Batman uses and perpetuates a lie – himself! – so people can continue believing in the illusory motifs of hope and justice. Batman wears a mask and disguises his voice. The Joker wears make-up, which is to say that he turns his face into a mask i.e. the Joker becomes the mask he wears which is about as close to the truth as anybody can get (simply reflect on how many personalities we ‘put on’ in our everyday dealings; the Joker, really, has only one face and is entirely transparent). Of course, the Joker – unlike Batman – doesn’t bother to fake his voice.

Could the painful message of the movie therefore be that, in a world as messed up as ours, we often yearn to be lied to almost as desperately as we yearn for justice? That we are as ill-equipped to handle transparency and truth as we are frantic in demanding them?

When politics and power are concerned, we must reflect on the possibility that truth is something that must be discarded at times without which chaos would reign. Political governance is inseparable from the sacrifice of truth, the betrayal of heroes and the elevation of falsehood. Political maturity, hence, is not simply the ability to expose socio-political lies but to decide which lies have to endure and be endured.

Does all this simply translate into the boring fact that all politicians must lie? No, it means that in radical politics truth often takes the form of fiction. Justice may have to look like injustice. True democracy may, in other words, resemble its violation. Enter … Bane.

To be continued ….