Friday Jottings: Empathy of the feet


IT GETS scarier by the day as it becomes more and more apparent that more and more of those leading the nation are getting more and more disconnected from those they lead.

It has yet to probably reach the oft-attributed Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” proportion but truth be told, the mannerism and attitude of the political elites are under greater scrutiny – if not by the cross-section of the populace – but definitely by the critical segment.

Otherwise, how does it explain the frequent expose of the political elites’ excessive lifestyles, from handbags to watches and clothes to shoes?

Such affluence may not be of essence when a nation and its citizenry are in the pink of wealth but given the inflation, the high cost of living and unemployment, ignoring the impact of excessive display of wealth may be detrimental to the well-being of those in power.

As a side dish, firstly, the quote being attributed to Antoinette may be incorrect and secondly, the “let them eat cake” is also not correctly translated into English from the original French supposedly to read as “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” which should have been “let them eat brioche” and brioche being an almost cake-like bread enjoyed by of course, the then aristocrats.

Regardless whether it was Antoinette’s or a narrative from Rousseau’s writings, the phrase was an effective revolutionists’ propaganda to rile peasants, plebeians and proletarians to affect the French Revolution, the epochal political transformation for France and the rest of Europe.

Simply put, such display of public disconnect can be disastrous for those entrusted by the citizenry to look after their welfare and needs especially when the majority suffers from poverty and shortcomings.

Actually, the Malaysian elites do not need to look too far – the events unfurling in Sri Lanka should serve as a reminder that no one is going to allow Nero to continue fiddling while the nation burns.

The island nation’s president Gotabaya Rajapaksa may have tried to check the 50% inflationary rate but the storming of his residence proved that public anger was not confined to the fact that they did not have enough food on the table under his watch, but much more over the lavish lifestyle that he and his family seem to subscribe.

In some ways, given the fact that Malaysia has always been a land of plenty and the level attained by Sri Lanka may never be replicated here, the nation’s elites actually managed to get away with ludicrous responses to public displeasure though tell-tale signs had already been on the wall since 2018.

Contemporary history shows that prior to the fall of the Barisan Nasional elites in the last general election, public disaffection towards the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was not confined to the 1MDB scandal.

Apart from the Hermes’ Birkin handbags, the spending spree and golfing holiday in Hawaii when the people were nearly flooded out of their existence and insisting the price of kangkong (water spinach) was low when public outcry was over the price of basic food items, was an affliction of a disconnected leadership.

And instead of standing up such leaders, fellow elites and pandering court jesters cracked their puny brains to defend such leadership, giving rise to professor kangkong and his ilk.

That was before 2018 and the polls that year saw the rise of the disgruntled population leading to the fall of the BN/Umno leadership which not many believed was possible.

Today, after a series of political upheavals and change in leadership, the nation is back to where it was.

And the leadership is back to what they were – wearing thousand ringgits Burberry shirts at a time when chicken prices soared, or Roger Mille watches which prices ranged from five to seven figures in ringgits at a time when the necessary eggs are becoming luxury and the latest, five-figure priced shoes against a backdrop of debates over food subsidies.

Ironically, the reaction to the five-figure shoes is truly reminiscent of Antoinette’, though not as devoid of empathy, it was no less hurtful.

First, the Menteri Besar wearing the shoes justified his insensitivity on grounds that they were a gift from the Sultan of Johor intended as a motivation.

The acting Sultan decided to back the Menteri Besar, first by telling him to ignore the critics and focus on his job. To add insult, the acting Sultan sarcastically wondered if the Menteri Besar should only be wearing slippers.

By all counts, these responses and reactions only proved disconnect if not utter disregard afflicting the elites including the top civil servant who suggested the ordinary folks eat less eggs if they found the price to be too high.

In the first place, should the Menteri Besar accept five-figure priced shoes from a constitutional monarch particularly when the former’s ascension to the state’s top post is on the behest of the latter?

Secondly, prior to this, when an Opposition MP from the state pointed out Rulers should not be engaged in business, the argument put forth was that the royal allowance was insufficient.

Given the reply, affirming the royal ventures into business, the ability to disburse five-figure priced shoes to political elites, and supposedly not the only one, meant that business must be so good that it would have been beyond supplementing the “meagre” Royal allowance.

If gift as motivation is of essence, then the Rulers and Menteri Besar should have stuck to the investitures power and right of the monarch to honour those he deemed had contributed much to the well-being of the nation.

Unless, the joke that if someone throw a stone into a crowd, chances are it would hit a Datuk, ring true and has somewhat diluted the value of honours bestowed by the monarch, then bestowing expensive shoes may be supplemental.

For the rest of the nation, they however need to pray that when they next cry out is a despair for rice, no political elite will rise to the occasion and suggest:

“Let them boil quinoa.”

Shamsul Akmar is Editor of The Malaysian Reserve.