Is liberalism a privilege of the well-off?


Zurairi AR, Malay Mail Online

I am a journalist earning quite a decent living, and sometimes I wonder if that is why I can afford to write about liberalism.

After all, what good is human rights, civil liberties and personal freedoms when you are still chained by your income status?

I have this belief that arguments about socio-political issues should not be locked into a dichotomy of the liberal versus the conservative, or the secular versus the religious. I think for the most part, the public just does not care much about such issues.

I think most people are much more concerned about issues that affect them directly. This includes money: putting food on the table amid increasing cost of living and the falling value of your cash.

There is health, to stay fit and proper in order to be breadwinners. There is also education, because with more education you can earn more money. Of course, in order to get easy access to health and education, you would still need money in the first place.

The issue of income disparity has pervaded our country for so long that it has morphed into racial rifts thanks to affirmative action, resulting in shows of frustration and entitlement such as the recent protest against luxury development Datum Jelatek in Keramat.

Compared to all these, things such as the importance of being able to speak your mind, how vile it is to persecute others for their beliefs or non-beliefs, sexual orientation or gender identity, and why authorities should not hold absolute power — just seem so far away, or rather irrelevant.

As one of my respected colleagues once commented: the poor are starving, homeless and hooked on alcohol and drugs, and their predicaments are articulated not in published columns, but just mere numbers.

Not everybody has access to the media, nor the ears of the authorities. Not everybody can pen an open letter that gets read, and here I am quoting Suzanne Moore, a columnist with UK paper The Guardian: “Open letters are the drunk texts of the great, the good and yes, the already privileged. That’s why they get read.”

But then again, perhaps it is only the middle class who has to worry about their liberties being crushed by our increasingly polarising government, that seems to have conveniently forgotten that this country is a melting pot rather than a homogenous one ruled by a master race.

We are unlikely to ever hear complaints about human rights abuses from the elites, the ultra-rich, the aristocracy — both feudal and political — and the blue bloods.

If the poor are too bothered to care, the elites just cannot be bothered to care — because it is unlikely to affect them.

The elites, especially the Malays, will scarcely be subject to the same harassment, moral policing and judgment that their middle-class brethren face almost every day.

Last week, local Twitter users discovered an Instagram account called “The Rich Kids of Malaysia” (@therichkidsofmalaysia), purporting to show the lifestyles of the rich and famous in Malaysia, a la Rich Kids of Tehran (@therichkidsoftehran).

An interesting segue from the discussion had been how “poor” the Malaysian kids looked, compared to their Iranian counterparts.

There was not much excess and sinning being flaunted, which perhaps says a lot about how much more excess and sinning our actual elites can get away with without ever facing censure.

In November last year, I wrote in my Malay Mail Online column titled “Why would anyone flee Malaysia?”, defending those who chose to stay in Malaysia despite the country not loving them back.

In the months since, I have had the pleasure of speaking to a number of Malaysians who disagreed with me. A common suggestion had been that should Islamisation continue unabated and the country turns to an Islamic state, we will see a mass exodus of the Malays.

And just like the “Rich Kids of Malaysia”, we know many have already left. Many more can afford to leave.

Maybe one day, even those who can barely afford it will choose, or are forced to leave.

Maybe in the future, the Malays will share the same fate as the Iranians, where the mass exodus of highly educated citizens has been happening since the early 1990s.

This separation was illustrated succinctly in the recent furore where the Iran national football team was banned from taking selfies with their female Iranian-born Australian supporters in the Asian Cup finals. The reason? It was against the country’s “moral principles.”

The poor might not care for it, and the rich might not bother with it, but I believe that liberalism is very important to keeping the country free. It is clear that liberalism is being attacked left and right because it poses so much threat, not to the country, but to the status quo who are trying their damnedest to cling to power.

But liberalism does not need to be beholden to the elite few in the middle class itself, who feel that the only way for Malaysia to “progress” is to ape the West completely.

There is no one way to liberalism, and to copy the West will only breed animosity, to the benefit of those who are spreading the myth that it is a neo-colonialisation tool of the whites.

Liberty. Equality. Rights of all men. Freedom of speech, association, religion and expression. Free and fair elections. These are liberal values. The Federal Constitution guarantees them, and they belong to all Malaysians — rich and poor.