The Freedom of Limits

We exercise our freedoms in modest amounts. Selecting carefully which brand we prefer, what newspapers to read (or not), musicians to support, our select hang out spots, restaurant, coffee chain, bank, mobile phone service and sport. At least in consumption, some amount of autonomy can be exercised. To push boundaries takes a lot more than most of us can afford. It takes a certain amount of self-certainty, commitment, time, energy, emotions, risk and metaphysical dreams. There are some amongst us who take this on as a vocation. Making a life that is about identifying points of discrimination, inequality and substandard quality as they see it, thinking of ways to make that obvious to the rest of us, trying to get people in power to pay attention and make some changes.

But Malaysians in general are unused to freedom. We are unaccustomed to speaking out against unfair government policies. We are nervous with providing unfettered critique against lousy creations by architects, legislators, horticulturists, artists or activists. We are awkward in our demands for basic needs like affordable healthcare, clean water, thoughtful politicians, functional democracy, independent media or relatives of different ethnicities and religions. We cannot think about love without customs, costumes or lawyers.

Perhaps this is the only way to live in current Malaysia where we have a plethora of laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA), Emergency (Public Order and Preventive of Crime) Ordinance (POPO), Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), Sedition Act and a chain of other acronyms to help secure our boundaries. It can almost be comforting to exist within limited freedoms — as long as others are in the same bind.

Our collective imagination festers with lack of trust. We have grown with the awareness that much is apparently not allowed in Malaysia, and long shadows of taboo lurk in public spaces. We are warned about the ‘sensitivity’ of others, and have cultivated a highly attuned sensitivity of our own. Small differences are magnified to solidify stuff that is in reality, constantly shifting; from culture to identity to desires. National policies that ostentatiously call for equality cleave even as they seek to equalise. Rhetoric of unity is always accompanied by its sharper underbelly of potential violence. To keep the wheels of our society going, we function under the cozy paradigm of economic development.

So while a few may join NGOS, bringing them in direct confrontation with state policies, for most of us, our heroics happen in smaller (s)paces. Despite depressing tidings of suffocating laws and stifling discourses, there are still pockets where we can, and do perform some mini acrobatics in pursuit of freedoms. Writing letters to the editors is an obvious (and maybe a little boring) example. Even if out of a hundred letters only a handful are printed, the editor is still aware about the mass of stuff currently discomfiting people a little more than usual. This has some impact on the direction of reporting and coverage, although not seen. Or calling in to the radio. especially, still has to maintain some level of ‘seriousness’ in their programmes. The DJs might be getting cross-eyed with frustration, listeners are at least given one channel of information that is not endlessly streaming imported tunes in uniformity.

Agony aunt or Big Brother columns carry a surprising potency for social transformation. Somehow, normal people, usually reticent, place a lot of trust in such spaces. The flesh of human relations in crisis is presented raw to be untangled. The most intimate of power negotiation — between romantic partners, family members, friends and colleagues — is put into the most public of spaces. Generously assuming that most readers are not just in it for voyeuristic pleasure, it does give a glimpse of what is in reality hurting real people, and gives us a chance to exercise our Inner Social Architect in us to come up with alternative solutions.

In side streets, alleyways and bus stops, sticker and stencil revolutions are happening in gritty colours against concrete. Some may carry clearly political messages while others are simple marks of individual taggers. Even then, it is an exercise in the subversion or reclaiming of open spaces that have been given up and sold in a forgotten social democratic contract. When young people especially are bound by norms or named as apathetic robots of tomorrow, a spray can and some street cred can make a huge difference in individual empowerment. Walls become potential canvasses for independent thought, subaltern communities and occasionally bad art.

Malls are the ubiquitous democratic space of contemporary urbanscape. Where else can anyone enjoy shelter, air conditioning, clean toilets, benches and sometimes even sample bite-sized food for free from 10am to 10pm? In a country where State welfare for the homeless is non-existence, the benefits of such spaces cannot be belittled, especially when some are so kind as to offer complimentary shuttle-busses. As with all unabashedly commercially driven spaces, moral norms become a little more flexible. Hand-holding is not slapped with a criminal charge here and tank tops or loose hair is okay. You probably won’t get charged for handing out leaflets if you’re fast on your feet, and handing out flowers is definitely acceptable, even to security guards. You can engage anyone in conversation about anything as long as you’re not smelly, drooling, painfully shy or boring. It is a wonderful promised land for one-on-one shattering of normality.

The internet is still relatively free in its unruliness despite recent threats (aside: thank you for reassuring web content producers of non-jail persecution Pak Lah). There are blogs mushrooming every other day with stories that are too often hidden. If you know the lingo, you can find dissident discourses about almost every subject under the coconut shell. Social networking tools and platforms spawned from web 2.0 technologies like Myspace and Friendster are creating communities that defy any laws against the right to assembly and association. Mailing lists abound to spread information, panic waves and thoughtful caution superseding any blind from the Official Secrets Act. Even personals are giving new spaces for creative re-construction of identity. The anonymity that the web allows for enables freedom that can bend the body, erase history, and materialise the darkest, furthest depths of imagination.

The problem though, is not that we lack in space or penumbra of legislations that expressly forbid. The problem seems to be our lack of imagination, or maybe desire, or perhaps need. We seem content to let our exchanges be numbed by circumscription. Most of the time. We seem to have swallowed the romanticism of the Economic Development Mythology and let it lead us into trepidation in any other facet of life. Like the adolescent who submits his existence, stories and fears in utter trust to Big Brother, we submit a whole range of freedoms to our dysfunctional democracy.

Instead of creating, we seem to prefer to exercise the freedoms to disengage, to blame everything on race, class or genitals, to enjoy privileges that come from accidentally occupying some category of identity, to use all lack of freedom as a justification for un-interrogated enjoyment of privileges, to buy ciplak DVDs, to afford broadband and populate forums and comment boxes with hate speech and reckless utterances, to refuse to read Utusan, NST, The Star, Berita Harian, Harian Metro and Kosmo, to buy and masturbate to Mastika, to update CVs, get another job, borrow more money to buy a house and family, to choose Maxis or Digi, to take all our lack of freedoms, bunch them in a fist and take them home to our loved one’s face. We seem to choose the freedom of myopic forgetfulness.

I am not sure. Chaos Theory promises that a single flap from a butterfly at one end of the world can cause tornadoes in another. So perhaps there is a scattering of ordinary people who are shaking our foundations at the cracks through small uncommon movements.


Jac sm Kee is a feminist activist, poet and blogger. Sometimes she chalks pavements.

First Published: 24.08.2006 on Kakiseni

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