010: The Indecent Thing About Decency Campaigns

By Farish A. Noor ~ October 4th, 2006. Filed under: TOM_Main.

‘Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction, nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians.’
(Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?)

‘First World mentality’ indeed.

As the American fascist war-machine lumbers its way across Iraq, bringing misery to the lives of countless innocent people, we in Malaysia seem more obsessed with stories of sex and personal scandals that are dragged out of the mouldy national closet. But in the midst of the routinised repression, ‘moral policing’ and campaigns to uphold ‘public decency’ by the state, Malaysian society continues its slippery slide towards authoritarianism in the most subtle of ways. Orwell’s thesis in his book ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is as relevant to us today as it ever was, if only some of us would read it. For we now live in a country where young couples (or even old ones for that matter) caught holding hands in public are deemed a moral nuisance and are regarded as ‘indecent’ in the eyes of the powers-that-be.

Sex and Power

Sex sells, and the owners of the tabloid press will be the first to confirm that simple truth for you. Asian societies pride themselves on their bogus claims to cultural essentialism and the facile argument that Asian societies are different because Asians are different. This convoluted take on multiculturalism is then used by Asian leaders and despots all over to justify a myriad of repressive laws that forestall the democratic process and keep the masses in check on a daily basis – all on the simple justification that ‘Western democracy’ is not suited to ‘Asian society’ and that detention without trial is a safeguard for multiculturalism.

Linked to this is the equally hollow (and empirically unverifiable) notion that Asian societies are more conservative and less tolerant of outward expressions of love and intimacy between individuals, hence the need for laws that regulate both public and private displays of affection and love; keeping all modes of public expression within the regulated economy of state-sanctioned behavioural norms and accepted modes of conduct. Our ‘leaders’ (and I use that term cautiously) remind us time and again that we Asians need to show respect to others, behave ourselves while in public, be careful about the way we dress, speak, write and think. The subtext is this: The State now wants to control us in every way, including how we love and express our love. Love has become a concern for the state in its quest for more power over its citizens.

From this simple premise of Asian essentialist identity has sprung forth a veritable columbarium of restrictive laws that govern every aspect of our lives, from the public to the most private. In case one needs proof of this one just has to look to our southern neighbours in Singapore who have been taught how to use public toilets by their political masters, as if they were not toilet trained by their mothers during their infancy. (And to add insult to injury, the meek and docile Singaporeans who have totally internalised the condescending logic of the ruling elite did not even see fit to protest against this affront to their sense of personal pride and dignity!) Again Immanuel Kant’s observation on the mode of social conditioning of the masses comes to mind: “After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are tethered, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone.” Presumably without the vigilant presence of the all mighty Big Brother state, Singaporeans would be making a mess of their toilets every time they used them!

The same patronizing authoritarian mindset is also prevalent here on our shores. Some of us might recall that prior to the launch of the National Service programme there were even some prominent columnists in the mainstream press who argued that National Service would be a service to the nation’s toilets at least - on the spurious grounds that a judicious measure of state-imposed discipline may induce Malaysians to clean up after they use the lavatory (1). One wonders how this form of discipline can actually improve the toilet habits of the young, when thus far all we have heard and read are sordid tales of mass hysteria in the jungles, bullying and alleged cases of rape and violence.

Modernisation and State Power

As Orwell has noted decades ago, the state’s desire to control every aspect of the citizen’s life is the clearest sign of the maximalist potential of modern governance. Modernity may have given us the internet, handphones, microwave ovens and the other mod-cons that modern Malaysians can’t live without, but it has also helped the ruling elite create a modern hi-tech panopticon state where the movement, thoughts, speech and feelings of every citizen can be monitored and policed effectively. Modernity’s arrival in Asia on the back of the Western colonial adventure – while Asians were already labouring under the yoke of centuries of feudal despotic rule – has led to the diminishing of the frontiers of the private space and the expansion of the scope and magnitude of the state instead.

In Malaysia, this quest for totalising power and control has been made worse thanks to the incessant ideological war between the two biggest political parties in the land: UMNO and PAS. As both Malay-Muslim parties battle for the hearts and minds of the Malay-Muslim populace, Islam has come to the fore as the marker of identity and difference that distinguishes between Malays and non-Malays, as well as ‘good’ Muslims and counterfeit ones. Hardly a surprise then that along with authoritarian laws like the ISA, Sedition Act, Police Act and others, we now have to contend with squads of ‘moral police’ trawling through the nightspots of our cities in search for ‘deviant Muslims’ to snare.

The recent case of the young couple accused of ‘indecent behaviour’ in Kuala Lumpur (in the shadow of that phallic icon of deflated national egoism called KLCC of all places) is even more striking for the reason that it involves a couple of non-Muslims; an indication of how far the so-called ‘moral agenda’ of the state has advanced, and how it has begun to creep into the private space of groups once relegated to the margins of the state’s concerns.

If the ‘moral police’ was primarily occupied with the task of policing and controlling the private lives of Muslims in the past, the situation has now evolved to the point where even non-Muslims will not be allowed to escape their all-encompassing judgemental gaze. And while young couples engaged in the act of expressing their love for each other are caught, humiliated by the gutter press, dragged to court and judged, the American war machine continues to devour more victims in Iraq as the Israeli war machine eats up more Palestinian land and blights the lives of thousands of innocents. Something has gone dangerously wrong with our understanding of ‘decency’.

The skewered evolution of ‘decency’

The root of this is our problematic understanding of ‘decency’ itself. The essentialist narrative of Asian identity is premised on the belief that Asians are somehow ‘naturally’, almost essentially, decent. Yet the very concept of decency itself is and has always been relative – not only for Asians but also for the rest of the human race.

From Europe and the Americas to Africa, the Arab lands, Asia and the Far East, the notion of decency has always been an empty signifier, a general overloaded and overdetermined term that has been associated with a variety of shifting values and ideas. Each generation’s understanding of decency is different from the one before and after, as social norms and modalities ultimately evolve and adapt with the passage of time. Slavery, which was once regarded as a social norm in practically all parts of the world, is now not only redundant but also – rightly – maligned and condemned. Likewise the casual mistreatment of children as mere objects or extensions of their parents has gone down as a footnote in history. The most significant advances we have seen undoubtedly relate to the empowerment of women and their entry into the public arena – though this advance has not proceeded unchecked by scores of male reactionaries who inevitably fly to the safe asylum of tradition, culture and history to seek reasons to keep women out of the public sphere.

Likewise our understanding of what constitutes public decency should be tempered by a close reading of history and a respect for alterity and difference. The prudes among us may scream and shout when they see young couples holding hands in public; but they are even more vocal when the couples happen to be of the same sex. But let us not forget that in Asia, as in many other parts of the world, such relationships have been culturally instituted for centuries and no amount of sanctimonious sermonising is going to reverse human nature. And in any case men holding hands and hugging each other in the Arab countries and South Asia do not have the same connotation as it does in San Francisco, Sydney or Bangsar. The ancient hikayats (epics) of Malay and Indonesian literature like the Hikayat Panji Semarang for instance openly talks about homosexuality and gender-unspecific relations in an open and adult manner. Closer to present-day realities we have the pioneering works of modernist-reformist authors like Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, whose novel Hikayat Faridah Hanum was the first instance of a proto-feminist Malay novel which talked openly about a woman’s right to love and sexuality. (Though the ulama of his time accused Syed Sheikh al-Hadi of being an immoral propagator of pornographic literature and called for the novel to be banned and burned in public.) (2)

In other parts of the non-Western world we see a similar tolerance for plural modes of behaviour and social conduct in the not-too-distant past as well. In his study of the Siwan community in the north-western Siwa oasis region of Egypt, the Egyptian scholar Ahmed Fakhry (1973) notes that homosexuality was a common occurrence among the men and that the practice of gay marriages between men (and often between older men and younger boys) continued up to the 20th century (3). Tolerance for open demonstrations of love and affection was also seen in North African, Arab, Persian, Indian, Central Asian and Chinese culture and tradition in the past – until the advent of modern modes of social control and mass conditioning which allowed the State to penetrate into the private sphere of the individual’s love life.

So as we watch the developments around us today unfold, it would be prudent for us to bear in mind the historical antecedents of the not too distant past and the manifold possibilities that still lie ahead of us. Living in an age where repressive laws and the exercise of power have become commonplace and justified in the name of ‘anti-terror’ as well as good governance, let us not forget that government is there to serve our needs as individuals as well. We vote our politicians into office not for them to serve us stale lectures on public morals (after all, who are they to teach us?), but to administer the state on our behalf. Modernity’s positive potential still lies in its ability to create a system of social management where the individual is not a hostage to the mob or the fears of the herd. Its destructive potential lies in its vulnerability in the hands of pedagogues and demagogues who use and abuse the rhetoric of morality and ethics only to disguise their naked thirst for more power and control. To prevent this from happening, the enlightened modern citizen has to stand up to those who claim to be his ‘moral guardians’ who want to keep him under lock and key, ostensibly ‘for his own good’. In the words of Kant:

‘Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another Sapere aude! “Have coverage to use your own reason!” — that is the motto of enlightenment.’
(Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?)


  1. The columnist in question was the late Harun Hashim, who wrote that “Perhaps the most noticeable instances of lack of discipline are with regard to the condition of our public toilets arising from poor toilet habits of the users and lack of discipline on the part of the caretakers. In most shopping complexes, a small fee is charged but the toilets are filthy nonetheless. A good toilet habit is simply a matter of cleaning after use which should begin at home. This should be followed at school and become habitual as adults in the interest of public health and preventing the spread of diseases.” See: Harun Hashim, Benchmark: National service can create a disciplined society, in New Straits Times, 31 October 2002. (With thanks to Birthday Girl for the reference- F)

  2. For an account of the life of Syed Sheikh al-Hadi and the debates over his work, see: Alijah Gordon, The Real Cry of Syed Sheikh al-Hady, MSRI press, Kuala Lumpur, 1999.

  3. Ahmed Fakhry (1973) notes that: “Up to the year 1928, it was not rare that some kind of written agreement, which was sometimes called a ‘marriage contract’, was made between two males; but since the visit of King Fuad (of Egypt) to this oasis, it has become completely forbidden. Orders were issued to inflict the severest punishments on those who dared to commit such a crime. However, such agreements continued, but in great secrecy and without the actual writing, till the end of World War II. Now the practice is not followed. The celebration of marrying a boy was accompanied by great pomp and banquets, to which many friends were invited. The money paid as mahr (i.e. dowry) for a boy, and the other expenses, were much more than what was spent when marrying a girl. For this abnormal (sic) marriage, see G. Steindorff, Durch die libysche Wuste Zur Amonsoase (Bielfeld und Liepzig, 1904) p. 111-2. Steindorff’s visit took place in 1904.” [See: Ahmed Fakhry, The Oases of Egypt, Volume One: Siwa Oasis, American University of Cairo Press, Cairo, 1973. pg. 43. n. 2.]

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