How do we create Malaysian truths?

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Bala Pillai

Aug 1, 2006, 9:48:29 AM8/1/06
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

How "truths" are produced and propagated

Dr Azly Rahman

Our heartiest congratulations and thanks to the active and well-focused discussants of the last topic on "power", namely:

Orange thesis, Dr. Mong H Tan, umnoputras, matkilat, humanspecies, loganpal, Warna_rainbow, brotherlone, yma88, pontianak, bumi non-malay, burhan, rhan, passer_by, d_bigfoot, call-a-spade-a-spade, liumx.

A warm welcome to our last two discussants.

We explored the notion of positive and negative power and how to analyze these concepts to our everyday lives. As I write this, my mind is playing with the idea of "truth" as neither self-evident nor non-existent by as "constructions of consciousness" close to one's desire.

Truth might be rooted in language. Or, language itself is one's truth. One clear example is the language of the scriptures. Another would be language of the scientific and technological institutions that helped advance the "civilizing mission" of "neo-colonialism".

Some may argue that language unshackles the mind, define our humanity, differentiate us from animals, and help us express thought that would otherwise have been confined in our "mind and consciousness".

But then again, does language liberate… or imprison? Is our consciousness limited by the language we speak/write? How close is the relationship between language and reality? How well can the language we use explain and define our existence?

The historian of literacy Walter Ong in his seminal work "The Technologizing of the Word", writes about the development of language and literacy in its Oral, Print, Broadcast, and Digital form and how human beings too evolve from the economic system shaped by these forms of literacy.

Let us now explore the relationship between "truth" and language and the notion of "borrowed truths" to help us understand the nature of how ideas colonize humanity through the march of progress.

I propose the thoughts below for our focused scrutiny.


Our existence is based on 'borrowed truths'. I shall explain what 'borrowed' means as a transcultural phenomena rooted in materialism'.

Let us first look at the fundamental character of truth.

The dominance of one truth over another or over many others depends on how much that truth is packaged and next, propelled by force. Scientific knowledge, scientism, belief systems, political ideologies, myths and superstition, Grand and subaltern narratives of one's culture, are products of 'truth-force' authored by human beings.

Let us look at some examples of how truth is produced and broadcast either gently or by force. We begin with the idea of diversity of truths that has, in history, become conventional wisdom.

The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas urged us to look into "knowledge-constitutive" interests in analysing the nature of claims to truth.

In looking at the structure of institutionalised truth called "ideology", Habermas prescribed the use of "ideologikritik" or the critique of ideology to dissect knowledge that helped build the foundation of truth.

Inspired by the Habermasian proposition, I would further suggest that we need to analyse how truth is a product of a transcultural flow of idea that it has colonising properties acquired in the process of its growth.

Borrowed truths

How a truth is "borrowed" and how is it "hegemonising"? Here are a few examples.

The experience of the Malays is a case in point. The foundation of Malay civilisation for instance, is arguably among others, based on a set of canons of "truth" such as 'Sejarah Melayu', 'Tuhfat al-Nafis', the grand and subaltern narratives that manifested in the form of the hikayat or the epics and creation myths that glorified the traditional Malay Kings. Modern Malay thoughts too are based on certain truths such as 'Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah', and in later days, the popular text 'The Malay Dilemma'.

These truths become knowledge base that becomes ideology that drives political philosophy of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno). The truth is hence exclusively Malay and is considered foundational to the state's basis of power and dominance. It remains 'a' truth nonetheless, presenting itself as 'the' truth.

Then there is a regime of truth that has its roots in the Arabic culture. The idea flowed transculturally into the region of Southeast Asia and into the Malay lands and into the consciousness of the natives. It is called Islam.

It becomes another layer of the genealogical sub terrain of Malay thinking. It gets transmutated into the cultural stem-cells of the philosophies in vogue.

But the truth embedded in the variety of Islamic experiences in Malaysia, over the generations and as impacted by the patterns of economic production and reproduction is not a 'homegrown truth'.

It is not derived from the knowledge and experience of the native. It is borrowed truth, just like the way the other cultures of Southeast Asia have been an amalgamation of philosophies in vogue – from Hinduism to Hindu-Buddhist traditions to Dutch and British ideological installations to folk philosophy that survives in some parts of the consciousness of the native.

As the modernisation ideology colonises Malaya, more regimes of truth developed based on the varied responses to the pleasures and pains brought into the mind of the otherwise pastoral peoples.

Regimes of 'truth'

We saw truth developed into a regime of truth – into an ideology as embraced by another radical Malay party which called itself, Parti Islam SeMalaya (PAS). Another embodiment of a truth was born and, like Umno, wants to become dominant.

The truth that was inscribed through a transcultural process of the flow of ideas from the deserts of Arabia and later from Egypt, India, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, became appealing to the consciousness of the Malays by virtue of the power of fear and promise of salvation neatly crafted into the ideology.

The signs and symbols and significations and representations of Islam – for instance, the white moon against a green background – become a symbol of the regime of truth. Nonetheless, it remains 'a' truth struggling to become 'the' truth.

Not only the nationalist-Malays and the Islamist-Malays were engaged in the production and reproduction of their own truths, but other ethnic groups were constructing their own truth in an economic system founded upon Social Darwinism, or the survival of the fittest.

We have also seen other regimes of truth produced to organise human beings into more varieties of modern to post-modern industrial tribalism.

We saw social-democracy in the Democratic Action Party, Fabian socialism in the early Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia, Ghandian-inspired nationalism in the Malaysian Indian Congress, and Chinese political pragmatism in the Malaysian Chinese Association. These do not include other regimes of political truths authored from the world views of other Malaysian natives.

As we approach the next general election, we now have the "political reconstructivism" of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) that is characterising the mahabharatha or 'the great war' in Malaysian politics. The PKR has produced another regime of truth to counter attack the existing coalition of sub-regimes of truth called Barisan Nasional.

We therefore are seeing multiple truths at war. We are all made confused by the fragmentation of ideologies and the multitude of the claims of truths we are bombarded with. The more truths get multiplied, the more we see society gets fragmented.

At every political campaign season, we are presented with the display of the signs and symbols of these fragments of society and the politics of identity in a nation controlled by the invisible powers of global oligopolies.

The Center-Periphery thesis of World Systems Theory is still useful for our analysis.

Twin cities

How might inscriptions become installations and become ideology?

Language becomes a tool of domination and colonisation of the consciousness of the people. One's existence in the regime of truth becomes embedded in the language used. Language colonises and creates the economic condition which in turn creates the means of subsistence. National needs and wants cannot be easily differentiated.

Language no longer mirrors reality but creates subjective realities. Borrowing from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, one lives in the habitus. Borrowing the title of a movie, we live in 'The Matrix'.

In Malaysia there is an interesting example of how a new reality was created in the economic boom years of 1990s. This is a good example of how human beings are not only conditioned by signs and symbols that pre-exists, but become the signs and symbols of international corporate dominations themselves.

I shall now illustrate the idea of Malaysia's twin intelligent cities.

The cities of Cyberjaya and Putrajaya, inhabited by hyper-modern, cybernetic Malaysians exemplify the primacy of language and how it creates a truth that in turns creates two 'technopoles' or 'wired cities' that define the way people in these cultural-industrial-complexes live, work, and play. The name of the city, Cyberjaya itself exemplify the glorification of the ideology of cybernetics.

Like the flow of "Arab consciousness" and notions of nationalism and supranationalism onto the minds of Malays that hence created the Islamists, cybernetics as a truth-force and an ideology is creating the new 'cybernetic Malays'.

The citizens of Cyberjaya and Putrajaya are a product of a postmodern transplantation of an ideology that originated, no longer from one brought over by the assassin-prince Parameswara, or a Marco Polo or a Zheng He (Cheng Ho), or Arab or Gujerati trader, or a Frank Swettenham or a JWW Birch; but an ideology right out of California's Silicon Valley.

It is a transplantation of the Stanford University-inspired form of hyper-modern developmentalist paradigm that utilises the commodity called 'information' as both base and superstructure of human existence.

The human self is now created anew using the signs and symbols and a regime of truth hyper-modern in character; one, borrowing from Habermas, whose truth and knowledge-constitutive interest lies in the truth produced by cybernetic and transcultural capitalism.

There is no ultimate truth. Our existence, as I have argued is constructed from 'regimented truths' that transforms kaleidoscopically like a Mandelbrott set. We need Chaos or Complexity Theory to understand this proposition.

Truth is produced by those who own the means of constructing and disseminating it. Such truth is called 'the truth' when it is actually 'a truth'. A certain truth therefore can be advanced through gentle persuasion or through brute force.

How then do we deconstruct our understanding of what to believe when we are constantly ushered from one truth arena to another?

How might we discover the nexus of knowledge/power within ourselves as a way to become architects of our own habitat of truth and not become inmates of the prison-house of truth constructed by those who own the means of producing bigger and more fearful truths?

Let us now argue on the transcultural nature of "truth"

NEXT TOPIC: How We Get Indoctrinated

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