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Friday, February 15, 2008

Cult of Personality

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You may or may not remember a band called Living Colour, which was quite popular back in the late 80's, while Walski was in college. And their most well-known song is called Cult of Personality...

Who said African Americans can't rock, eh? Remember Jimi Hendrix? Okay, some of you are probably too young to even recognize that name, but Hendrix is definitely one of the more iconic African American rockers to have graced the music world. And boy could that guy play the guitar...

In any case, part of the lyrics to the song, around about the 1:46 time marker, is this (emphasis by myAsylum):

I sell the things you need to be
I'm the smiling face on your T.V.
I'm the Cult of Personality
I exploit you; still you love me
I tell you one and one makes three
I'm the Cult of Personality

(complete lyrics can be found here)

What struck Walski while listening to this song (apart from the nostalgia of a fun-filled, hedonistic life in college), was that the phrase Cult of Personality pretty much sums up how the typical Malaysian mind operates. Be it politics, leadership in general, or even religion. It's the person, and not necessarily the substance the person brings, that attracts us.

More specifically, it's the case where a leader is made larger than life, and becomes the central reason why the organization he/she belongs to is supported. In politics, it's the support for the party based on the adulation for the leader, or the central icon of the party. In religion, it's taking everything that a particular religious leader says as truth, without question or critical analysis. In general leadership, it's where a particular leader is adulated to the point that his/her actions are always right, regardless of whether or not they actually are.

And looking at the situation today, particularly in Malaysia, this Cult of Personality syndrome is very much alive and well.
(dissecting the various cults of personlities, in the full post)

So, what does Walski mean by "cult of personality"?

Wikipedia defines this phrase as

A cult of personality or personality cult arises when a country's leader uses mass media to create a heroic public image through unquestioning flattery and praise. Cults of personality are often found in dictatorships but can be found in some democracies as well.

A cult of personality is similar to general hero worship except that it is created specifically for political leaders. However, the term may be applied by analogy to refer to adulation of non-political leaders.

(full Wikipedia entry)

What perpetuates this? Let's take the political example and look at that first. Remember the huge banners and billboards that were put up to commemorate Malaysia's 50th year of independence last year?

Image hosting by PhotobucketCult of Personality, Malaysian style
(image taken from Joe's Ramblings)

Walski always wonders why the over-emphasis on the 5 Prime Ministers, and not on the Malaysian people who helped build Malaysia to become what she has become today. Yeah, granted they were/are great men in their own right: Father of Independence, Father of Development (and Najib), Father of Unity (and Keris-man), Father of Modernization, and of course, Father-in-Law of Khairy.

For UMNO, the Cult of Personality has almost become institutionalized. Which would explain how a political party in a so-called democratic country can get away with not contesting top leadership posts. The official reason, is of course, to prevent in-fighting. The end-result, whatever the real reason may be, is to perpetuate a Cult of Personality within the party.

But UMNO is, of course, not unique in this respect. All the major Malaysian political parties suffer from this syndrome to one extent or another. MIC has Samy, PKR has Anwar, and so on... And those who try to oppose the icons within these parties will soon find themselves ostracized. The personality becomes more important than the organization.

When it comes to religion, cult of personality is perhaps the only explanation for why certain individuals hold so much influence, so much so that whatever the person says is taken as the gospel truth. Take, for example, this letter, "Book ban: who are we to question gov't?" published on , touching on criticisms pertaining to the recent banning of books on Islam, by the Ministry of Insecure Internals.

The writer essentially supports the ban on the 11 books because, according to him, the decision was advised by a "panel of experts".

Furthermore, they can refer material to Islamic Development Department (Jakim), a division under the Prime Minister’s Department, or state religious departments and muftis.

In fact, as I was told, a well-known mufti Harussani Zakaria chairs the Jakim's censorship committee. He is also the chairperson of the National Fatwa Committee and the Perak mufti.

(source: Malaysiakini letter)

And if there ever were a Cult of Personality surrounding a cleric in Malaysia, it would be one that surrounds Harussani Zakaria, who definitely has a lot of influence over the mindset of a good number of Malay/Muslims in this country. So influential, in fact, that whatever Harussani says is taken without even the slightest analysis, much less, critical analysis, by many. Walski won't go into any indepth analysis about Harussani (aka Fatwaman) in this post - suffice it to say that the guy represents a very conservative, traditionalist and somewhat rigid view of Islam. It therefore comes as no surprise that he is part of the advisory body to KKDN (if what the letter-writer states is true) when it comes to religious book-banning. Another surprise - Jakim has a censorship department?

Malaysia, of course, is not unique, although the phenomenon of Cult of Personality is usually more pronounced in totalitarian governments. Err... wait... Malaysia is rather totalitarian in certain respects... Nevermind then... the shoe does fit.

Walski thinks that the modern-day Cult of Personality we see in our country is has its roots in our feudalistic past, where the people feel they are nothing without a central figure, and the central figure capitalizes on the adulation to remain the central figure. That's just a gut-feel guess of Walski's, by the way, and not really based on any empirical data.

But Walski does see change - aggravatingly slow change - but change, nonetheless. He's seeing more focus on issues rather than personalities these days. Which is a good thing, he thinks. But there is a danger that although issues are the central focus now, other personality-wannabes may capitalize the situation to prop up new cults of personality around themselves, slowly making themselves more important, with the issues becoming secondary, over time.

For the present, one key issue that weighs heavy on everybody's mind is personal security, due to the sharp increase in crime. While this is a serious issue, for some, mere pacifying from prominent political figures seems, for some, to be enough of a panacea - the cult of personality rearing its ugly head, yet again. Nevermind if the plans stated ever get implemented, or if they are, prove to be successful - what's enough for many is that a plan came from these key personalities.

Being that the 12th General Elections have been announced, BN has proclaimed that only it can take Malaysia forward, and is asking for our mandate. Yet again.

As we've seen the past four or so years, some promises have remained simply promises, that BN thinks they can carry forward to a next term, like figures in an accounts ledger book. The odd thing about BN however is that it, too, has a Cult of Personality surrounding the entire organization. Particularly of late, since the prominence of individuals seems to be on the wane, the importance of BN itself gets elevated.

Revisiting the Living Colour song, one of the refrains, which follows the lines quoted above, also struck a bolt of realization in Walski's mind, particularly the last line...

Neon lights, Nobel Prize
When a leader speaks, that leader dies
You won't have to follow me
Only you can set you free

In the end, it's entirely up to us - only we can set ourselves free. It matters not how powerful the various personalities, around whom we've collectively built cults of adulation... What matters is how we make use of what little democratic voice we have remaining, and to use it wisely.

Lest, of course, we're content to perpetually live within a Malaysia that continues to be built not so much on substance, not on real gutsy leadership that's not afraid to do the right things right, but in a nation hobbling limply on, flip-flopping from one direction to the other, depending on how the winds of sentiment blow, with a leadership that's more concerned retaining their own influence, rather than tackling the issues and problems.

Until we ourselves are courageous enough to elicit change, we'll continue living within a system governed by the Cult of Personality... and not by leadership with real substance.

And the time has come to set ourselves free...