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4 October 2023 (Wednesday)

“Call Me Abah”: The Politics of Infantile Paternalism

Paternalism is a recurring feature of authoritarian regimes, which frequently invoke familial sentiments to enhance their legitimacy. From the Kim dynasty in North Korea to countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, “father figures” are metaphors used to prop up the image of dictators. While most countries do have paternalistic titles, they are usually devoted to founding fathers who led them to independence. It is bizarre, then, that Muhyiddin Yassin, the 8th Prime Minister of Malaysia, referenced himself as “Abah” (a colloquial term for daddy) on multiple occasions including a televised address in 2020, six decades after the country’s independence. Some Malaysians reacted favorably to “Abah”, while others lambasted it. This article asks, what are the functions of “father figures” rhetoric invoked by Muhyiddin and senior members of his cabinet?

Manufacturing “Abah”

Muhyiddin was sworn in as Prime Minister in March 2020 after the week-long Sheraton Move standoff. It speaks volume of his tactful impression management that till this day, the 73-years old has yet to take questions from the media. So is “Abah” organic or manufactured? Was it a spontaneous reaction or a coordinated impression management?

To begin, we must determine when Muhyiddin’s men embraced the “Abah” persona. There is no sign of “Abah” rhetoric for the first three months of Muhyiddin’s administration. There were spattering comments by netizens remarking that Muhyiddin’s style of speaking is like a ‘caring’ old man speaking to his ‘children.’ Whatever it was back then, things started to change in June.

Bernama, the national news agency, published a slush of articles, and video endearing Muhyiddin as “Abah.” (See this, this, this, this, and this.) Note that the sources are all from Bernama even when published elsewhere because Bernama’s wire services supply and distribute content to local and international news agencies.

It is likely that Muhyiddin’s inner circle embraced the father figure image as a charm offensive to mark his 100th day in office. The blitzkrieg produced the desired agenda-setting. Non-state media reproduced and doubled down on Muhyiddin’s reincarnation as “Abah” (See this, this, and this.) While “Abah” may have been a casual, spontaneous reference to Muhyiddin prior to June, the scale of production and the extent of coordination after that point to a deliberate campaign.

It was not just Muhyiddin who was given a makeover. News and posters circulated on social media portrayed his senior minister in charge of security, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, as “Pak Long”, finance minister Tengku Zahrul Aziz as “Pak Su”, and the popular health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah as “Pak Ngah.” (These are kinship terms in Malay. See this for reference.) We are but consumers of this production.

Uses and abuses of “Abah”

Now that we know how they do it (context and production), the question next is why they do it (functions and effects). If “Abah” is the signifier, what does it signify? I list possible answers below, which are not exhaustive or mutually exclusive. They are all related to enhancing legitimacy.

  1. Endearing oneself to the electorate and playing the protector. A classic authoritarian playbook is to create endearment to the leader. If a stranger hit you, you are likely to retaliate in anger. But if he or she is someone dear to you, you might forgive – and even justify – the abuse. When an authoritarian “father figure” leader transgresses certain democratic practices, it is usually rationalized as “The father looks after us, and he knows what’s good for us.” In such a scenario, the leader encourages infantilism of the masses, who imagine him to be a reluctant leader who shouldered great responsibilities for their sake.

  2. Co-opting and neutralizing dissent. When a leader is adored by the citizenry, it is harder for dissenters to criticize without coming across as breaking apart from the collective. In this familial portrayal, “Abah” is the leader of the household (the nation) who is working tirelessly. Anyone who criticizes “Abah” is cast aside as “politicking” and failing to appreciate the hard work of the father figure. Although the allegory has no place in a democracy where leaders are elected and held accountable (Surely you sign up for the job and cannot demand the electorate to praise you for the bare minimum), it can be emotionally appealing particularly among some members of the Malay audience. This is not an argument for cultural reductionism and the so-called Malay (and to a larger extent, Asian) values. However, the way that power structure, institutions, and conservative ideologies work in some parts of Malay society are fertile environment for paternalism to be internalized. In addition, the co-optation of the popular DG as “Pak Ngah” is a shrewd move for the whole campaign to gain wider acceptance.

  3. Establishing distance and hierarchy. While invoking “Abah” generates warmth and familiarity, it also serves to highlight power distance. If you accept “Abah” as a father figure, you are expected to act appropriately and politely towards him. It is rude and inappropriate to explicitly condemn a father figure. You also implicitly accept the hierarchy between you and him. “Abah” is no longer just a Member of Parliament and Prime Minister which you helped to elect (In this democratic representation, rakyat is the boss.). He has metamorphosized into the family elder to be revered – almost an idol – whom you must respect and guard.

Note that the above three reasons also apply to those who present Dr Mahathir Mohamad as a “grandfatherly figure.” The Mount Everest of this representation is this campaign video which depicts “Atok” talking to two children about his ‘final mission’ to rebuild the nation. Unfortunately, it is not possible to measure how much tears were shed by the viewers.

Nevertheless, I think there are two differences between “Abah” and “Atok.” The immediate difference is that the production of “Abah” involves state resources and state machinery (e.g. the national news agency) and is a much more coordinated effort. The other difference is this:

  • Enforcing discipline and control. Unlike “Atok”, the presentation of “Abah” occurs in a context of Covid-19 national emergency. There is a lot more emphases on order. If you have time to run a comparative linguistic study between “Abah” and “Atok”, you will probably find that “Abah” is associated with more words pertaining to discipline and punishment. Hence, the allusion to cane and constant pestering to “follow my order” and “obey Abah’s advice.” (There is even a t-shirt for that made by members of his party.)

Be that as it may, “Abah”, “Atok” and “Pak Long” all have one thing in common.

  • It’s all about achieving the desired political outcomes. If the intended effect is not obvious enough, it’s ultimately about winning and keeping power. Muhyiddin’s campaign in the Sabah state election revealed the political utility of the “Abah” gimmick (see this, this, this, and this.). Amidst the infighting over seats and positions, his coalition ran an entire campaign centered on “Abah.” Given that the formula worked in Sabah, Muhyiddin’s men might run an “Abah” presidential-style campaign in GE15. This is supported by another premise: that “Abah” is more popular than his coalition. A survey by Merdeka Center (conducted in August) found that Muhyiddin’s approval ratings is higher than that of Perikatan Nasional.

One may be compelled to ask, “All of that for what?” Why the need to create legitimacy and popularity for the leader to gain and keep power? Power to do what, exactly? The answer is probably that some men have long planted in their head the thought of achieving power. Having desired, planned, and finally arriving, then letting go, desiring again, planning again. They don’t have to do anything with power. Power is magnetic, and the chase is addictive. If keeping the masses infantile and reinforcing paternalism is what it takes to gain and keep power, so be it.

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