I am Malaysian. On May 9th, 2018, my country bucked the global trend towards authoritarianism.
At the time, a combination of anger over the 1MDB scandal and the rising cost of living resulted in an unexpected surge of anti-Najib Razak sentiment that brought sixty-one years of UMNO-led rule to a messy end.
Exhilarated by the experience – I was on live TV that night – I returned home the next morning feeling as I’d participated in a historic turning-point, a resurgence of liberal democracy as well as a rare (and peaceful) pivot away from corruption.
How wrong I was.
What happened in Malaysia was just a brief respite from a global swing to the right. What I term the “Triumph of Amnesia” has ensured more and more countries are becoming increasingly inward-looking, nationalistic and frankly, racist.
Let me go back further, to 2016 and democracy’s “annus horribilis.”
Three countries. Two elections – in the Philippines, the United States – and one referendum, in Britain. I was to spend time following each of them, experiencing, in turn, some of democracy’s cruellest ironies.
Initially I thought I was jinxed: what were the odds that one writer would have witnessed such a succession of dramatic reversals? Later, I realised that history is always playing tricks on us and that the liberal democratic ideals of my youth were in danger of fading away.
In May of that year, I was in Manila when Rodrigo Duterte, the trash-talking mayor defying all predictions swept into Malacanang with a huge majority.
The next month, in London, I looked on – in shock – as the British committed an unprecedented act of self-harm by voting to withdraw from the European Union (EU).
And then in November, as winter swept across the American Midwest, I experienced the ultimate chill as I watched a seedy, TV-reality star, Donald Trump, stun all the pundits as he outmanoeuvred Hillary Clinton and secured the Presidency.
Many analysts blamed the ubiquity of data-driven, digital campaigning and the relentlessness of the Twitter-cycle. While I agree that Facebook has become a terrible cancer on society, I knew that there were more troubling issues at stake.
Was I, in fact, witnessing the “Triumph of Amnesia” as country after country seemed to reject the lessons of their very history, as they embraced the most vulgar and ignorant of leaders?
But, of course, not everyone was afflicted by this amnesia.
One moment keeps coming back to haunt me. I was watching a pre-Brexit political chat show as an 86-year-old actress, Sheila Hancock, with a pixie haircut and remarkable poise, explained the historical forces behind the initial formation of the EU.
Drawing from her memories and those of her family, she talked about the horrors of war and death (55,000,000 from WWII alone) as well as the need to keep Europe at peace. As she conjured up a compelling regional vision and the paramount importance of preventing the recurrence of war, it was clear that Ms. Hancock was firmly tethered to history, knowledge and experience.
She represented the opposite of the “Triumph of Amnesia”. However, her Cassandra-like warnings – calm, profound and prophetic – were ignored.
Our collective memories – always weak and short-term – have worsened. Social media has destroyed the hierarchies of knowledge. Figures of authority–historians and economists–are denigrated. Instead, we find ourselves drawn to those who speak the loudest and most provocatively.
Inevitably, these coarse voices (talk radio is their preferred habitat) become the touchstones for our societies. And when we’re faced with momentous decisions – Brexit, Trump’s impeachment or (as in Malaysia) issues concerning the overlap of civil and shariah authority – the advice we receive is skewered by racial prejudice and bigotry.
The amnesia throttles societies. It prevents them from truly progressing. And generally, the eighty-year mark (after two to three generations) is critical.
In the case of Europe and America, the generation that lived through WWII are passing on. All we are left with now is a thin veneer of memories, perhaps a few films (most notably for the British, films like “Dunkirk” that evoke their “fabled” fighting spirit), half-truths, dreams and lies.
The speed of our forgetting has also accelerated our disregard for societal norms and standards of behaviour. Why bother honouring old-fashioned codes of conduct when no one cares about the past anyhow? All that is important is the accumulation of yet more power.
In India – the world’s largest democracy – which went to the polls earlier this year, we are witnessing the extraordinary dismantling of a pluralistic and secular constitution, shaped by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
These men and others such as Dr BR Ambedkar, the Dalit (Untouchable) icon, took heed of the tragedy of Partition as well as the terrible errors of Pakistan. They respected India’s cosmopolitan nature and rejected the creation of a nation on avowedly religious (in this case, Hindu) lines.
In recent weeks, Narendra Modi and his henchman Amit Shah have wilfully broken with this noble legacy. Legislation has been passed that will likely disenfranchise India’s Muslim population (some 190 million people).
Majority-Muslim Kashmir has been under lockdown for over four months. In Assam, there are already camps being built for those who are no longer considered Indian nationals. The scale and the speed are frightening.
The rhetoric emanating from India is beginning to match the vitriol of Rwanda and Nazi Germany, as terms such as “cockroaches” and “final solution” are being bandied about.
I repeat: our resolute refusal to learn from the past means we will repeat the mistakes of the 1930s and 40s.
The “Triumph of Amnesia” is also the “Triumph of Evil”.