Change Doesn’t Have to Take 400 Years to Happen
Posted Nov 11, 2008

Change Doesn’t Have to Take 400 Years to Happen

By Farish A. Noor

The electoral victory of Barack Obama as the new President of the United States of America is long overdue, and many of us are thankful for it. No, its not because the rest of us are racists who hate white men; and no, its not because we are captive to the essentialised idea that black Americans are all victims and are necessarily good and innocent, in toto. Its simply because change is refreshing and we believe that change is good and healthy for the nation and humanity in general.

I recall taking a flight from Frankfurt to Kuala Lumpur once, when the pilot spoke to the passengers before take off. Suddenly there was a collective gasp of surprise when we realised that our pilot was a woman! I was suddenly gripped by an overwhelming sense of relief and curious pride, for somewhere in my settled conscience the idea had been sedimented that all pilots (like all doctors, scientists and Presidents) had to be male. Throughout the flight I had to resist the temptation of bursting into the cockpit to congratulate her, and to tell her how proud I was to be flying in a plane piloted by a woman for a change. (Though of course because Im Muslim I would have been arrested immediately and handcuffed for fear of being a terrorist!)

That’s how change happens. It takes us by surprise and in a second its over and the historical moment has passed. But it requires that one vital element that makes change possible in the first place: human agency. There would not have been a woman pilot on my flight if this woman had not pursued her ambition to become a pilot relentlessly, never giving up on her dream despite the obstacles she may or may not have faced.

I am only raising this point now as I have noticed a rather disturbing, and potentially dangerous, narrative that has and is being spun in the wake of Obama’s victory. This is the narrative that the change that has come to the United States is due to the long historically determined and linear process of evolution; that we are told takes time, time and more time. We are fed the line that “Of course America has finally changed because it took four hundred years for black Americans to rise to where they are today.”

This sort of non-historical nonsense is served to us warmed up as a pseudo-scientific account of how and why historical progression needs to follow its own appointed destiny, and work within a fixed template that is set and determined in all cases. But this, the historian would like to add, is also utter nonsense.

The French lived under centuries of feudal rule by despotic Kings and Emperors like other Europeans, and for centuries they tried again and again to release themselves from the yoke of feudal domination. Until the time came when contingent historical factors occasioned a radical opening that allowed for revolutionary change at last. Likewise black Americans have been struggling against racism as soon as they were enslaved and brought to America in chains, and it wasn’t just yesterday that they realised that one of them could run for President.

For this reason we should not see Obama’s victory as a sudden and novel development of American society, but rather as one of those openings that allow for rupture from continuity and the historical progression of the same. Historical moments like these are always contingent, radical and unexpected, but they happen because there are human beings who exercise their free will and agency to will and fight for change; rather than to sit by and let history takes its course. History may always be a repetition of sameness, but historical moments take place when that sameness is challenged and successfully ruptured.

Therefore let us not swallow the silly argument that just because it took Americans 400 years to elect a black man as President every other country on the planet needs to wait 400 years before we can do the same too. No, change does not take 400 years to happen. In countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and others, change has been on the boil for some time now and there is ample evidence that the old crumbling structures of governments and institutionalised power are falling apart. Will Malaysians have to wait 400 years before they see a woman as Prime Minister? Or a Malaysian-minded Prime Minister who breaks away from the outdated structures of racialised politics? Will countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, India also have to wait 400 years before we see real change?

The narrative of history threads together elements of the same and the familiar to form a story that is consistent and intelligible, but the historian will tell you that history is replete with contingencies and ironies that broke the mould of the past and charted a new course for the future. For that reason, America’s success and Obama’s success should inspire us not to repeat history, but to go against it. Obama’s struggle against the tide of time makes him a man of our times; and let us hope that for so many other countries in Asia that same untimeliness will prevail as well. We can start by exercising our will for change, and by saying ‘No, we will not wait four hundred years before we dream of a better world today.’


Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor
Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore