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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Perkasa’s Tribal Worldview

APRIL 11 — Like them or loathe them, Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Negara (Perkasa) captures the imagination of supporters and detractors alike given their sheer audacity.
In the news — and discussed on Twitter — almost on a daily basis, theirs is a race-based affirmative action movement (they of course call it ‘struggle’) which I suspect nearly all of us understand at a gut level, whether we care to admit it or not.
We can argue all we like about why the movement is incompatible with the pressing realities of globalisation or plural nation-building; but in Perkasa, we have a genuine grassroots movement that has successfully tapped into the most primal of emotions and motivations by invoking a backs-to-the-wall sense of group loyalty.
It’s a potent, combustible mix.
Artificial construct or not, the ‘Malay’ race exists culturally — even if poorly defined genetically.
And if the recent Merdeka Centre survey was anything to go by (with two-thirds of the Malays surveyed sympathetic to its cause), Perkasa has managed to capture the imagination of the majority of Malays by simply playing to the gallery eager to latch on to a faceless bogeyman.
Having gone through our much vaunted Biro Tatanegara (BTN) indoctrination myself (twice: once in school and once in Uni), I can still recall the raw, almost cult-like appeal of the particular brand of fascism being peddled by Perkasa.
For some, it can be powerfully seductive and comforting: a big brother that ‘protects’ you from the unfair ravages of the world (except that other factions navigate it just fine without any handouts).
Of course — all of the above is the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of Perkasa.
To satisfy my own inner ‘why’ with regards to Ibrahim Ali and gang, I needed to go off on a tangent and hit the books — which I duly did.
One of the more interesting insights from evolutionary psychology and neuroscience is how the human species is predisposed to pattern-seeking, often to a fault.
On the plus side, through our ability to differentiate similar from dissimilar, we’re able to develop complex systems like language and hierarchical societies.
On the minus side, we also have a taste for narrative that’s quite happy to take short cuts and oversimplifications to arrive at temporary ‘satisfactions’. Many supernatural, pseudo-scientific and conspiracy theory-laden explanations tend to fall into this category.
An interesting corollary to all of this pattern-seeking behaviour is a need to assign an agent as the provocateur of something: if we didn’t have an obvious cause or causer, we would literally need to invent one just to fill in the cognitive gap.
I hope you see where I am heading with this.
This pattern-seeking, agency predisposition was an awfully important survival mechanism for our ancestors, coupled with the fear instinct. The combo was incredibly useful — even when that which was feared was irrational. Our genetic forefathers would have immediately thought “possible predator, move faster or get out of sight” when they heard a rustle of leaves in the wild.
Yet on other days, the very same brain synapses firing would also make them see animal images in cloud formations, a face on a tree trunk, or the outline of a religious icon in freshly cut fruit.
All of this anthropomorphic pattern-seeking was a good thing when it gave our ancestors a safer way to live and deal with their surroundings. But it also made them incredibly wary of strangers, outsiders, and those deemed to be significantly “different” in a non pattern-matching kind of way. These external groups represented a threat (back then genuinely so, given the scant resources).
Our pattern seeking tendencies duly kicked in to differentiate friend from foe, marking out groups different in their ways, appearances and cultural norms. We can see this exaggeration in primitive societies in the way they wear body art, decorate weapons and celebrate coming-of-age — all calculated to include some and exclude others from the ‘inner collective’.
The mechanism wasn’t all physical.
In ancient tribal life; the practice of scapegoating, bigotry and making-up bogeymen; and later on with arising sophistication — ethnocentrism, siege mentality and full-on racism — were socio-cultural memes cultivated for the preservation and continuation of the ‘local’ group and their way of life.
The instinctive refrain is familiar: “All outsiders are out to get you. All outsiders want what you have. If you allow the outsiders their way, it will be the end of you. And by the way, we are better than them because we’re we.”
Often, the arguments for preservation of local culture and privileges against outside influence is just an excuse blanket that covers all of those earlier tribal motivations — which when analysed objectively is not dissimilar to the irrational fear reflex that characterises the exclusionary and chauvinist nature of nearly all historical and inter-cultural meetings (think Cortez and the Aztecs, for example).
Today however, it ought to be patently obvious that mindsets and worldviews which may have been useful for early modern Homo Sapiens 90,000 or so years ago in the African Savannah up to the more recent Fertile Crescent is woefully misplaced in a 21st century where we are face-to-face with a globally interconnected, cross-cultural world in the midst of transitioning into homogeneity from heterogeneity, and inclusion from exclusion.
So in my own pattern-seeking way, I suppose I want put to rest my Perkasa narrative. I believe that I quite understand them, and I am clear in my disagreement. Theirs is a backward gazing, narrow and unenlightened worldview which belongs in the dark ages — a time of ignorance when thunder and lightning were very, very frightening.
I suspect Perkasa symphatisers can’t help their irrational fears either, but hopefully by removing their tongkats sooner rather than later we can force them wake up and smell the 21st century coffee. Many among us — both ‘Malay’ and non-Malay alike — have either outgrown or dispelled such tribal sentiments and it’s time the Perkasa folks realise we’re all just one tribe on the same island anyway.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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