Friday, June 09, 2006

IPS post election forum 2 | mandalas and me

One thing that I had wished was discussed at the IPS was the concept of daulat/derhaka, and the personal mandalas. Having said that to show off, in plain English it would roughly be the idea of giving face, and the likeability factor.

Daulat/Derhaka is a Malay concept that nevertheless has parallels in other cultures. My understanding of it is very rough, but daulat could be explained as the divine right to rule given to the king. Derhaka referred to treason against the ruler, treason including lack of complete loyalty and obedience . The prof who taught it to me is currently very embarressed by my explanation - sorry, but I was only sitting in at the lecture out of interest rather than for the credits, so my note taking was ... sketchy, although my pinball game was awesome.

The reason why I mentioned is because of something that I heard quite often, especially from the older generation, or more traditional Singaporeans: "Vote for the PM lah, give him a bit of face. He's our leader, we owe it to him." There seemed to be the opinion that giving the PM a weak mandate would have translated into making him the laughing stock on the international scene.

This seemed interesting for what it could be thought to say about the Chinese/Asian interpretation of the electoral process. It didn't seem to be a case of choosing a leader, or as is often the case of in walkover Singapore, choosing to express their opinion of leadership to date. For some, it seemed, the electoral process was a case of voting for the established leader as an act of patriotism. The same thing happened in the 2004 US elections, of course, but I wonder if the Bush voters thought of it as "giving face" to the leader, as an extension/representation of the state.

Personal mandalas - a mandala can be roughly described as a concentric sphere of influence, with an object at the centre as the source of celestial power. A personal mandala would have a person at the centre, a person imbued with certain characteristics that would cause power and people to be attracted to him. Southeast Asia has always featured such strong men leaders, strongmen who attract based on two things; what they could give their followers, and this indefinable sense of being blessed.

"Beloved Leader", anyone?

I was wondering how that came into play in the election as well. Chiam See Tong was occasionally described as having gone on a charm offensive, with the ST even featuring articles on Potong Pasir's love affair with Mr Chiam, as well as some appearing in the Chinese papers. Of course, it goes both ways as well - there are people who told me that they were voting LKY - or would have voted LKY because "It's Lee Kuan Yew! I remember when (insert war story) , and he was (insert moment of humanity)".

(At this point, I feel obliged to mention that some people insist that LKY and "moment of humanity" don't ever belong in the same sentence unless the "lack of" modifier is included. I disagree with such people; after all, the PM didn't arrive via stork.)

And of course, when it comes to the ability of the mandala holder to give out the good shit to his faithful followers - well nothing says I love you like a lift shaft. Unless, of course, it seems, if you're in Potong Pasir.

The benefits that the mandala-centre-holding person could give to his followers weren't always material goods or general lobangs. Sometimes it was just about recognition of the follower, the confirmation that the follower belonged to him, to the village, to an imagined community greater than the sum of the individuals. In the wild, frantically developing and shifting world of featureless sea and dark jungle that was Southeast Asia, where boundaries blurred and the dense foliage blocked your view of the greater sky, it was comforting to know one simple fact: I belong here.

I am his man. I belong to this group of people. I follow this leader. And he looks back at me, and he knows who I am, and I am known. It was about identity.

I don't know when I last saw my MP. I don't know when he came around last, if he ever did. Actually, I'm not sure which ward I'm in, to which ward I belong. I don't know when he last spoke in Parliament, if he spoke. I don't know if he thought of me when he was speaking. I'm not sure if he would know where I stayed, even if I gave him my address.

I don't even think he lives here.

I bet Mr Chiam lives in Potong Pasir.

How do I know that I belong to this greater thing called the nation if I don't know who my MP is? How can the government represent me if my MP doesn't know who I am? The government is this big confusing place filled with rules and regulations and faceless parliamentary secretaries and party whips and I don't know what that has to do with me and what it means and will someone help me out and tell me how i belong?

Mandala. It's not some ancient weirdo concept that belongs to 14th century Southeast Asian kings that pierced their penises, it applies to the hear and now. The thing about these people who get votes based on personality is this: they get it because of recognition factor, that's true. But they also get it because they put a human face on the government, and because of that, manage to do what they're suppose to do - functions a link between the governers and the governed, between the grassroots and the greater sky.

And in doing so, they tell people who they are, and where they belong, one more anchor to the soil.

Daulat/Derhaka, mandala, personality cults and loyalties and nationalism - they never got discussed at the IPS forum. It's understandable, there were other things, and it's too soon to tell what role they played. And perhaps we'll never know - this isn't the US, where entire industries sprung up around polling data.

But as long as we're making tenuous links between ancient concepts of kerajaan and politics today, we might as well dig this one up as well: the story of Demang Lebar Daun. He was the one whom, in the Sejarah Melayu, coined the concepts of daulat and derhaka, and in doing so gave his unconditional loyalty and that of his descendants to Sri Tri Buana, better known to us as Sang Nila Utama, fabled founder of Singapore.

What often goes unmentioned was that it was not a gift of loyalty and unquestioned obedience, it was a covenant. An agreement, with two parties, with God as witness and judge. Demang Lebar Daun gave his loyalty.

And in return, his king was never to fail to serve their interests. He was to care for their needs. And most of all, he was never to shame them in the eyes of God and Heaven.

Daulat and voting - it goes both ways.
And the king replied:"I agree to give the undertaking for which you ask: but I in my turn require an undertaking from you, sir... that your descendants shall never for rest of time be disloyal to my descendants, even if my descendants oppress them and behave evilly. " And Demang Lebar Daun said, "Very well, your highness. But if your descendants depart from the terms of the pact, then so will mine." And Sri Tri Buana replied, "Very well, I agree to that covenant"...
... and that is why it has been granted by Almight God to Malay rulers that they shall never put their subjects to shame, and that those subjects however gravely they offend shall never be bound or hanged or disgraced with evil words. If any ruler puts a single one of his subjects to shame, that shall be a sign that his kingdom will be destroyed by Almighty God."
- from Chpt 2 of Sejarah Melayu, or the Malay Annals, CC Brown translation of the Raffles MS 18.


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