Are we really having a conversation about the concepts of individualism vs collectivism?

Blog / Sunday, November 8th, 2020

We need to talk about Trump’s popularity in Asia. 

I remember having a conversation with a female student four years ago, who had come into my office and noticed I was monitoring the US election results. She had casually asked who I supported, so I said Hilary Clinton. She made a face, so it prompted (what to me then was) a shocking conversation. She claimed Clinton only defended the rich (and thus, this made her no different than Najib in Malaysia), whereas Trump was doing an honest man’s job (I’m cringing even as I type this) and would be good for the economy. Subsequent conversations with some colleagues thereafter revealed they believe he’d be a shock to the system. What kind of shock, and what/whose system, I have no idea. 

I did not have a good comeback then. Last week, I had another opportunity to have an almost similar conversation when students asked if they can stay online after class, and we can just chat like things are normal. So we did, and they asked me about my thoughts on Trump and Biden. I told them if you vote thinking only about financial and economic returns, then you’re not voting for the good of the people, you’re voting for yourself. Voting for the leader of a country is different than voting for a CEO of a company (even then, do you really want your sisters/wives/daughters working in an environment where they can be subjected to sexual harassment at the whim of the CEO because he thinks he can? Ask yourself this honestly). A leader of the country would have to take into account social welfare, diversity, migrant communities, women, children, those who have no access to affordable health care and countless other issues and communities — it cannot, and should not, just be about financial returns. And inadvertently, it will come back and haunt you, because Trump will still pay $750 worth of tax while he continues to earn billions, and you’d likely pay more tax while earning less. 

I also find it very interesting, when observing a lot of current debates (in Kuching, online and off) about Covid-19, and in the last couple of weeks or so, notions of class have very much entered the discourse. And one of the things that consistently comes up, is the commentary on individualism vs collectivism. Those accused of not abiding by the visible safety measures set in place by health ministries and WHO (social distancing, mask-wearing, no gatherings) are chided for being individualistic and “Western” (and by Western, they really mean American here), driven by selfishness and complete disregard of the community. Which, as argued by these concerned citizens, is in opposition to the community-driven Asian culture, which prioritises the collective good. Of course, I’m generalising and glossing over a lot of details and observation — the toxicity of misogyny and in particular, inner misogyny, for one (too long a story that would undoubtedly require another post) — with regards to the discourse on Covid-19 and community infections in Kuching. This reminds me of a recent article by de Kloet et al. on biopolitical nationalism, which uses and adapts Foucault’s biopolitics to understand the current national (and international) climate surrounding the fight against Covid-19. 

But it just struck me how contradicting these two inter-related views are. Loud (local) supporters of Trump, who think he’s an astute businessman and that it’s great he’s representing the ‘business world’ when governing a country is prioritising individualism too. They’re not thinking of the collective good of the people who actually do live and work in America. They’re thinking only of their own benefits, and how Trump’s supposed success is a representation of their (business) views, and isn’t that then also a rejection of Asian collectivist values that some of these champions purport to support? If you look at the big picture, it doesn’t make sense: the Asian collectivist values are extremely fraught with contradictions. Everyone is thinking of themselves first. And Trump’s (in)actions with the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement violates the collectivist ideals most people here claim to embrace. So when they are decrying the injustice and preferential treatment and attitude of those so-called “Western”-influence, individualistic class of people (in Kuching), it renders their outrage as a sham because their support of Trump already cancels out the collectivist argument. A collectivist argument entrenched in racism, misogyny and anti-blackness.

It bears reason to look at the big picture. These issues are all connected, and if you want to be aware and concerned about international politics, you can’t cherry pick one position over the other. And let’s not mince words here. If you’re OK with the damage Trump has done, because you think he’s a shock to the system in which China can thrive or you think he’s funny and/or he’s a joke, then you’re perfectly OK with what Trump stands for: white supremacy, misogyny, racism, death. If you’re perfectly OK with these things, what does that say about you?

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