A Scathing Look at the “Bangsar Liberals”

alaysia is a hotbed of dissent, and when the word “liberalism” is used, passions are ignited on all sides of the political spectrum. Many people have a hard time defining this word because it can signify different things for different people. But the word “liberal” has become a political swearword, full of bad overtones, and has been so demonised that it has lost its real meaning.

However, some self-proclaimed liberals don’t grasp their own ideas. I am a great advocate of critical thinking and self-expression, which are values that are commonly associated with liberals. Nevertheless, I’m not a stereotypical “Bangsar liberal” — the phrase doesn’t even appeal to me, but in order to critique it, I’ve had to use this term.

The definition of liberalism is “a political ideology based on the ideas of individual liberty and equality” (Oxford Dictionary). Liberalism has freedom at its heart: a liberal would argue that individuals should be allowed to act freely unless they impede other people’s liberty in the process.

With our understanding of liberalism in place, let’s dive into the notion of ‘Bangsar Liberal’ (as a political faction) and figure out what it means.

Bangsar Liberals are essentially Anglophiles

The ‘Bangsar Liberals’ are given this name since it is thought that they reside in the upscale suburb of Bangsar in Kuala Lumpur. The area is famous for its open and socially liberal atmosphere. Although it isn’t a formal title, the name “Bangsar Liberal” defines particular kinds of people.

A famous place for tourists is Bangsar, where they go for Kuala Lumpur sightseeing. A lot of people think it has ‘something special’. The entire region feels like a night out clubbing, where everyone is having a great time enjoying drinks at local nightlife establishments. As a result, the neighbourhood tends to draw younger individuals, although the point should be emphasised that just because people are young, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are liberal.

Many expats move to Bangsar because of its international appeal. In Bangsar, majority of the expats are Britons and Australians. Some Americans and Canadians have also moved into the neighbourhood. These expats, who have been brought to Kuala Lumpur from throughout the world by large international corporations, have mostly found job as professionals. Because of this, Western organisations such as PR and advertising agencies, management consultancies, and other similar companies are all clustered in the area. The people are welcoming to the expat community. One interesting example is that there are plenty of bars and clubs that are frequented by both the expat and local communities.

It’s unclear why many expats love Bangsar, but there are various theories as to why. Nightlife and lower cost of living may play a role. Regardless matter how many characteristics of a country or city would affect where people go, in the past, expats always wind up living in the same neighbourhoods.

To put it another way, Bangsar has the distinction of being more than just another neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur. It is the “new” Malaysia’s epicentre. It serves the rich, educated, young professional population that was born in the post-colonial, comfortable Malaysia. While it is popular to consider this group liberal in thinking, the stereotype is not always true.

Many individuals of this demographic come from conservative backgrounds. Their traditional Malay roots contrasted with their modern, liberal lifestyle, which is most seen in the struggle. Many Malaysians are split between their yearning for a more moral lifestyle and their fascination with a hedonistic, consumerist culture.

The label “Bangsar Liberal” began as an insult. It was used to define liberals’ more superficial characteristics, such as hedonism and a “open borders” mentality. Lastly, the word is applied to “locals” who think they are liberal but are really only conservative elites with Western views. In fact, their real agenda revolves around using their support for liberal values like social progress and inclusivity as a way to cover their motives. Motivations of this kind typically revolve around preserving their standing in society (class, education, etc.) and criticising other groups that pose a danger to their status.

Bangsar Liberals are terrified by how quickly society is changing. Islamism, for example, has dominated their public discourse. They make the absurd claim to be defenders of secularism and liberalism, but in reality, they have no arguments to back this up, just making vague accusations that wearing a hijab or niqab implies oppression. Defending “liberalism” is just a cover for their continuous sense of superiority towards other groups, even as they fear Islamization.

I know I’m generalising, but this thinking is prevalent, and it’s more prevalent than people believe. Though they could have a point, no one is listening to them since they sound like they think they’re better than everyone else. While I am not someone who thinks groups like this are great, I can comprehend the rage and motivations behind some of the violent incidents recently, and I can see why people are becoming involved. However, it’s vital to analyse why these horrific events keep happening.

As a liberal, I believe we must face this truth since it is ripping the liberal cause apart. In a country where a class-based mentality pervades, class consciousness erodes any opportunity for unity. We must remember that our opinions aren’t universal and that others may disagree with us. Not everyone has the experiences that have shaped us, and doesn’t always value the things we value. Most people don’t really care about individual rights as we do. Not everyone believes in gender equality with the same zeal that we do. It’s time for us to be honest about the fact that we are a minority and that we must prove ourselves to others in order to earn their trust. Our political aims will remain nothing more than daydreams without that.

They claim to be inclusive, but they are not

Another example of the elitist mentality of the Bangsar Liberals, which is linked to exclusivity, is the perception that certain groups are superior to others. The logic for this goes back to their exclusive attitude; they want everyone to agree with them. They are positive that they have the right thoughts and ideologies, and that non-compliance deserves expulsion, mockery, and even violence. This is a hazardous worldview. You can’t believe everyone thinks the same as you, because there are people who don’t share your beliefs, whether by accident or by design. This is an inherent aspect of mankind that we can never expect to shake.

The community is completely insular and opposed to any other ideas, and as a result, has tunnel vision. This is the crux of the issue with the Bangsar Liberals. Because they haven’t come to terms with the fact that there are individuals who think differently from them, they are antagonistic to those they perceive as being against them. They were brought up to feel superior to others and to treat them as beneath them.

There is no cause for exclusion and why we should aim to engage a wider swath of people. We need to address the source of the problem: the unyielding intellectualism and tribalism that appears to characterise the political culture of the Bangsar Liberals.

The first step toward overcoming this is to cease alienating those who do not share our beliefs. This does not imply we give up our principles or convictions, but rather that we shed the arrogance we possess. The advantages Western liberals in the first world enjoy, we in Malaysia, as liberals, do not. The fact that we have no robust legal or political infrastructure at our disposal means that, if things become contentious, we are at risk. We must be inclusive because dividing society would only aid the current corrupt regime we aim to topple.

On a few points, Bangsar liberals have themselves walked into the same trap that they believe the religious conservatives they oppose have gone into. They are certain that their approach is the only one that is viable, and they expect everyone to be like them. Self-righteousness, arrogance, and the urge to judge other people all arise out of this point of view. Liberalism promotes freedom of opinion and expression, thus that kind of culture flies in the face of everything liberalism stands for.

New ideas and experiences should be welcomed because we all live in a diverse society. In the liberal spirit, we ought to embrace everyone’s freedom of thought and let people decide for themselves what to believe.

On the day people from all different backgrounds can calmly discuss a matter and resolve their differences without anyone feeling anger or hostility, we will know that full inclusivity has been accomplished in Malaysia. It’s important to respect others, but we also have to respect ourselves enough to not let people walk all over us.

Despite saying they’re not racist, they really are

Did you know? The Bangsar Liberals have been shown to be a lot more racist than people think. Even while they claim they do not perceive colour and base their opinions only on character, it is obvious that they are doing the opposite. Their worldview holds that Western culture and everything associated with it are desirable, and that anything other than Western or white is necessarily inferior.

Basically, they are beholden to the concept of white and Western supremacy. Because they have no idea how to deal with anyone who isn’t a part of their social circle, it makes sense why they would behave in such a rude manner. They have a very narrow viewpoint, and it’s clear that they’ve not ventured outside of their comfort zones.

Their racism isn’t the overt kind we’re used to seeing on the news, but it’s racism nevertheless. It is shown in things like overpriced cups of coffee and unpleasant music. The former is caused by a desire to look sophisticated, whereas the latter is caused by attempts to appear sophisticated. That was a joke. They just use something else’s culture and have no meaningful identity of their own.

While most of these things are common over the world, the Bangsar Liberals refuse to believe anything is universal. They regard these items as purely “Western.” The Bangsar Liberal is obsessed with all things Western and acts more worldly than they really are.

For most people, racial colorblindness only matters if it is beneficial to them. Despite the Bangsar Liberals screaming that they are not racists, their refusal to take any action about the matters proves otherwise. In Malaysia, refusing to recognise communal differences is a type of racism. According to the Bangsar Liberals, everyone is equal, although some people are more equal than others. There is no other way to put it.

Everything is assessed in terms of how liberal it is socially

It is true that the Bangsar Liberals have a tendency to use social issues as a yardstick to measure other issues. Basically, supporting one stance on a polarising issue like same-sex marriage makes you “enlightened” and fits you into their concept of enlightened thought. And if you don’t think like way, then you are considered “narrow minded” or “worse.”

This is the Bangsar Liberal worldview. The truth is that it is in no way “enlightenment”, but a vulgar tribalism disguised with false sophistication. They employ “progressive” ideals to disguise their extreme intolerance and dogmatism. When it comes to issues that do not affect their worldview, the Bangsar Liberal can be exceedingly conservative (at least not immediately).

Being concerned about the issues of LGBT and feminism means that these subjects are intensely personal to them. That’s why they preach it from a moral high horse. The trouble is that they disregard so many other critical topics, especially if they are conservative. The Malaysian conservatives may be overly religious and “outdated,” but that doesn’t make their principles any less significant or relevant than the Bangsar Liberals’ issues.

On a daily basis, most with these so societal issues do not impact the majority. For the average Malaysian, keeping their work and ensuring their family has enough to eat are their primary concerns. Unfortunately, the Bangsar Liberal falls short in this regard. It has its priorities messed up and ignores the fundamental problems that are going to have serious repercussions for real people, prioritising the culture war and fighting it with the wrong weapons on the wrong battlefield. So much virtue signalling and sloganeering has come forth as a result, while it’s failing to adequately address the people’s needs.

And since they don’t know about most Malaysians, it ends in them being entirely disconnected. This disinterest in the lives of others contributes greatly to why their opinions offend so many people. Who would want a group of morally condescending elites, who ignore the needs of the people and instead just shout buzzwords? It’s almost as if they’re a group of monks banging drums to warn people that the world is about to come to an end in Malaysian culture.

This is why the Bangsar Liberals are doomed to failure. Their point of view is not only skewed, but also incompatible with a society like Malaysia’s. It’s important for them to be more open-minded if they want their liberal beliefs to be accepted by the public. It’s important that both sides put a great deal of effort into listening to one another’s concerns. Compromise is the only way others will feel comfortable working with them. To view the world differently, so to speak.

True liberalism must be accepted by all political parties in order to take root in the hearts and minds of the people. It needs to deal with real concerns that matter to people, instead of using emotionally charged subjects to push an agenda. An active economy with plenty of job possibilities, inexpensive healthcare and education are among the main priorities of Malaysians.

“Bangsar Liberal” is not quite a fitting name. It’s apparent that the group has shifted further away from the mainstream view by embracing increasingly radical and divisive ideas over time. The needs of the average Malaysian and the working class are irreconcilable with these ideas, in a way that is deeply ingrained.

Liberalism is not an infallible philosophy. None of them are. Neither does every member of the Bangsar Liberals stick to every principle of liberalism. They, however, are all united under the same underlying worldview, which is also radically different from the way most Malaysians think. Malaysia has never been known for its liberal attitudes. Instead, it’s actually quite the contrary. We must accept that our country is influenced by a complex history and culture that is unlike any other in the world. Such a reality also implied a rigid class system, a sharp divide between rulers and peasants, and a “Us against Them” mentality. Just because we have gained our independence from Britain does not mean that we are suddenly free of those confining ideas. The fact that we’ve done as well as we have, in spite of the problems we’ve faced, says a lot about the resiliency of the Malaysian spirit.

Liberals everywhere should reject Bangsar Liberalism. It is not a mindset that will help Malaysians, but rather a step backward. It is crucial that we learn from our past and implement what we have learned. We must also have the humility to recognise that we don’t know everything and that we need to better ourselves. We will be forced to continually repeat our errors if we don’t learn from our blunders.

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Fayyadh Jaafar

Business writer at The Malaysian Reserve. I write other things here too, you know.