Boycott? Yes, let’s all boycott selfish politics

Nathaniel Tan, The Star

Has a boycott in Malaysia ever been effective?

The merits of the Palestinian cause are real, and Israeli oppression in the region should by all means be decried. That said, no reasonable person would believe the boycott effort related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict against companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks in 2014 had any sort of long lasting (or perhaps even short lasting) effect on said companies.

McDonald’s is obviously still going strong, and Kuala Lumpur is fast approaching the situation once described by comedian Lewis Black, when he spoke about having experienced the end of the universe one day when he exited a Starbucks, only to see another one right across the street.

By now, we’ve probably all seen those infographics circulating on WhatsApp groups listing all the Muslim products to buy and non-Muslim products to avoid – right alongside the counter-infographics showing which non-Muslim products to buy and which Muslim products to avoid.

It’s Malaysia’s own little mockery of a trade war.

What are we truly expecting? All the makciks and aunties to start squinting at their smartphones at Giant to cross check the infographic against what they see on the shelves?

While one might understandably be cynical about Malaysian politicians, it would be a mistake to think them stupid. None of them is so ignorant that they actually think their calls for a boycott will make some sort of difference in the economy.

If they know it won’t really have an economic impact, then why do they do it?

They do it for themselves – it’s a self-aggrandising attempt to look like “champions”.

While these calls have next to zero economic impact, they have an extremely high impact on the social fabric of our nation. Without making a dent on any of these big companies one way or another, the toxicity of this boycott movement poisons the relations between ordinary Malaysians, creating an atmosphere of mistrust and anxiety where there would otherwise exist peace and harmony.

It’s nothing short of disgusting.

It’s fair to blame those who started these calls, but it is inaccurate to blame only them.

As we approach a year and a half under a new government, it has become all too clear that the boycott movement did not happen in a vacuum – it happened because of a vacuum.

When Pakatan Harapan (PH) failed to understand the importance of articulating and emphasising a new narrative for Malaysia after winning GE14 last year, the coalition lost a vital opportunity to redefine the very question of what it means to be Malaysian. It lost the opportunity to reshape the Malaysian story from one of division and hate-mongering to one of unity and shared purpose.

In failing to do so, it left behind a vacuum. When it failed to lead the Malaysian story, people were left standing around, unsure what was happening or what they should be talking about. Eventually, others (the Opposition) led the way for them.

What did those others turn to? The tried and tested formula of dividing Malaysians for selfish political profit.

The other related big development this weekend is the assembly that seeks to solidify the partnership between Umno and PAS. An interesting comment about this assembly is that closer cooperation between these two parties is “inevitable”, a la Thanos in Avengers: Endgame.

I think the political landscape we see forming up now was as evitable one year ago as it is becoming truly inevitable now. Harapan’s failure to “go for the head”, or take the final step and throw the One Ring of race politics into the fires of Mount Doom, is what set us firmly on a path back to the evils of divisive politics.

Even if Umno-PAS fail to win a single seat in urban areas, or other Opposition parties don’t win a single seat anywhere, the damage is already done. As proven in GE12 and GE13, it’s entirely possible to still win an entire general election in such a situation.

Finally scrambling to awake from their slumber and respond, PH scheduled a Cabinet meeting this same weekend (happening at the time of writing) to work on Malaysia’s “long-term economic direction” based on the “Shared Prosperity Vision”.

Both this Cabinet meeting and the Shared Prosperity Vision (which I would wager less than 5% of Malaysians have heard of or can identify correctly) suffer from two major shortcomings: First, they come too little, too late. Second, more importantly, they smack far too much of being reactive rather than proactive – a sheepish march to the Opposition’s drums rather than a strong initiative originating from the government itself.

The timing of the Cabinet meeting, after all, is obviously no coincidence.

This sad state of affairs ultimately traces its origins to a simple imperative fact about PH: the lack of a strong ideological core, anchored in clearly defined principles.

It is not hard to understand why Harapan’s original philosophy going into GE14 was “defeat BN first, talk later”. It might even to some small extent be forgivable.

That said, it is becoming clear in retrospect that the “talking” part of building an actual sociopolitical movement based on actual values was postponed not only until after GE14, but has been postponed repeatedly since then.

The result? A hollow man, incapable of leading Malaysia in the right direction.

We are slowly coming to see that if we want genuine reform, to do more than swap roles while sticking to the same political script, then we need to take the difficult, “leceh” step towards identifying the common ground that truly matters to all Malaysians, and then build a movement around those unifying goals and values.

What we have instead of such a movement today are outdated, lumbering political sloths, entering into marriages of convenience (incentivised by a defunct electoral system) where lip service stands in place of genuinely shared principles – ultimately for the overarching purpose only of putting this individual or the other in power.

For many, this will bring to mind the previous coalition’s parties; but the more careful observer will be asking: will PH go the distance to be any different? Or will they too continue boycotting principles in favour of pursuing selfish, naked ambition?

In the end, it was the selflessness, untiring effort and sacrifice of Tony Stark and team that put an end to Thanos’ inevitability. Are we willing to do the same?