Thursday, February 14, 2013

William Leong: Najib would be livid if he knew Oppan Gangnam Style’s subversive message

If Dato Sri Najib Tun Razak was red-faced by the crowd’s resounding “No!” to his “Are you ready for BN” question at the BN Chinese New Year Open House, he would be livid to know the song of his star attraction, “Oppan Gangnam Style” pokes fun at the rich, the wannabes and ruling establishments such as the BN. The first message in the hit video is the ostensible parody of imposters and wannabes. The second message is a hidden subversive protest against inequitable policies of ruling governments.

The 1.3 billion YouTube viewers of Psy’s “Oppan Gangnam Style” may have been attracted by the catchy song, horse riding dance moves and silliness but few, including Najib, may not have realized that “Gangnam Style” is a social and political satire.

Psy has a political following. The song has been appropriated in North Korea to ridicule South Korea’s ruling conservative party. The parody Yushin style refers to the Yushin system of autocratic rule introduced by South Korean President Park Chun-hee. The song has other political champions, UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon is said to have declared the song a force for world peace[1]

The parody on imposters and wannabes acting like the rich and famous of Seoul’s richest and flashiest neighbourhood is obvious from the first scene. Psy is reclined on a sunny beach of what looks like an exotic resort until it is revealed he is actually in the sand box of a children’s playground. In looking for high living, he ends up in a cheap sauna with gangsters and pimps. He appears to be swimming in an exclusive club but is really in a common bath house. He is looking for a girlfriend but goes to an irreverent place like under a bridge. So, the song is a comic satire about people who bluff, pretending to be rich and trendy when they are not. When the old and wise, such as the two old men playing chess under the bridge, see through the façade they get blown up and the pretender has to run away.

Psy is making fun of people who are vain and materialistic. Most Koreans are fed up with the “nouveaux rich” in Gangnam. Many are the princelings of the new rich. It has been said the haves in Gangnam are so materialistic and philistine that they hardly have a real organic relationship with the world outside Gangnam. Just as much as the have-nots admire the wealth, status and lifestyle of those in Gangnam, the rich look down on the have-nots outside. Thus Psy is being sarcastic and taking the Mickey out of those who are enamored by the idea of “Gangnam Style.”[2] The scorn by the poor for the excesses of the rich is universal hence “Gangnam Style’s” global success.    

It is ironic that Najib and BN in trying to win the hearts and minds of Malaysian voters are using a song teaching the public to reject those who pretend to be what they are not. The song reminds the public to reject the excesses of the powerful and privileged. These are the very images BN have been desperately trying to shrug off as they prepare for the coming polls.

Park Jaesang’s second more subtle subversive message is a protest about the growing income gap between the rich and the poor.[3] Gangnam is the wealthiest, most powerful and privileged single district in South Korea. It is described as 15 square miles in Seoul where Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Beverly Hills, Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Miami Beach are all rolled into one. It is the headquarters of Korea’s largest corporations, from Samsung to Hyundai, host of the bulk of the financial and banking institutions, home to a great number of its elected national officials and preferred home of movie and pop stars. Gangnam is a symbol of Korea’s success where it is the home for some of South Korea’s biggest brands, as well as $84 billion in wealth as at 2010. The kids in the neighbourhood are not Silicon Valley self-made millionaires. They are sons of the new rich and princelings.  

If all the heirs of America’s most profitable corporations lived in one district and went to the same school that would be in Gangnam. If the most subway lines and national bus routes converged in one location, again that would be in Gangnam. Imagine if 41% of Harvard University’s undergraduates came from one single neighbourhood, this would be Gangnam.

None of this happened by chance. It was by deliberate government policies since the 1970s. By 2008, South Korea was number 3 in income disparity among OECD countries and the income disparity has not lessened. Times have only gotten tougher for the poorest in South Korea, but the wealthiest 20 percent have seen a rise of more than 20 percent in their disposalable income.

This is why Psy in the video goes to town on the yoga classes, stables, party buses and tennis courts. He is showcasing forms of leisure that are not accessible to most Koreans. Seoul has the distinction of being the city where the people work the most hours a year among all OECD countries, at 2111 hours in 2010, more than 50 working days over the OECD average. For blue- collar workers, a 12 hour day is normal. More than half the workforce finds employment in contractual and temporary labour. For young professionals, getting out of the office before 10 or 11pm is a rarity.[4]
In the 1990s’ the Korean government made borrowing easier and encouraged private spending to climb out of the Asian Financial crisis. One of the effects of the Korean government’s policies is the high household debt. Korea has the highest household debt in Asia. It is a staggering 155 percent of Koreans’ disposable income.

Psy’s Oppan Gangnam Style video portrayed Gangnam as a symbol of South Korea’s national aspirations and policies as nothing more than materialism and about people chasing rainbows. Psy is latching on to the backlash among South Korean youth that the government may have push the nation to make extraordinary gains in terms of GDP and income generation but the growth and income distribution has not been equitable. One of the South Korean commentators on the video said there is a huge amount of resentment among the youth about their economic circumstances. Psy in writing the song and shooting the video is depicting the contemporary mood of the tension among Korean youth realizing where they are at, how they got there and what they need to do to move forward.

The refrain from the song finds a resonance in Malaysia because our household debt at RM677 billion is the second highest in Asia after South Korea. While our household debt at 78% of the GDP may not be exceptionally high, it is of concern because when household debt is compared to our disposable income it is 140%. It is clear that there is cause for concern when we compare to the other countries. USA was at about 135% just before the sub-prime crisis, Thailand is 53%, Indonesia 38% and Singapore 101%. This is one of the reasons Malaysians are struggling as household debts soars.[5] Some of the reasons for the high household debt in Malaysia are the high price of cars which is a necessity because of poor public transport, high price of houses and low income or wages.

ERA Consumer Malaysia and FOMCA reported in the November 2012 issue of the Ringgit that a recent survey found 47% of the young workers and professionals have serious debt problems. More than 30% of their monthly income or salaries are used to pay loans for housing, car, personal loans and study loans. 37% of the respondents admitted that their monthly expenditure exceeded what they can afford. One of the problems revealed in the survey is that many have to borrow a substantial sum to hold the wedding ceremony and functions. The eventual financial stress is the reason for the high incidence of divorces among young couples.[6] The effect of borrowing beyond their means is bankruptcies. Malaysia has seen an increase in the number of bankruptcies in recent years.      
The South Koreans’ complain about income inequality in the video is shared by Malaysians. The BN government’s policies of direct intervention in business have produced a small group of very rich; some 22 billionaires while many others are barely scrapping by. According to statistics the income inequality gap is a major problem in Malaysia. 

·         The bottom 40% of households have an average income of RM1,222 while the top 20% earn an average of RM8,157;

·         58% of the households earn less than RM3,000 per month in 2009 and that 7.3 million Malaysians qualified for BR1M 2.0;

·         Since the 1990s, income growth has only been strong for the top 20% while it has stagnated for the rest at 2.6% for the past 10 years.

The Gini coefficient is the measurement of income inequality where 0 represents absolute equality and 1 represents absolute inequality. The Malaysian Gini Coefficient in 1990 was 0.442 and this increased to 0.462 in 2004 which means that the income disparity gap had widened. It has dropped back to 0.441 in 2007 which means that there has been no improvement in resolving this problem since 1990.[7] Malaysia’s income inequality is second only to Papua New Guinea in the Asia Pacific region. 

Psy’s message of income inequality and social injustice in Gangnam Style are themes that form Anwar Ibrahim’s daily ceramahs throughout Malaysia. Anwar has been speaking about Malaysia’s problems on good governance, social and economic injustice to the thousands that throng his rallies. Anwar Ibrahim has lamented the glaring income gap many times in his speeches and brought home the point in his opening address at the Tokyo Conference on “Globalization: Inequality and Social Justice”. Anwar said that globalization has generated great wealth but the benefits have come with a heavy price-glaring inequality. He said that the growing inequality of economic outcomes within developed and developing countries are like “ticking time bombs” that must be defused by prescriptions with emphasis on social justice and economic equity.[8] Anwar’s message like Park Jaesang’s have struck a chord with the people the resonance of which will see a tidal wave in 2013 stronger than 2008.  

Park Jaesang’s message in Oppan Gangnam Style may be fun but it sounds more like Anwar’s message of social justice and economic equity. It’s a far cry from Najib’s sanctimonious rhetoric on 1Malaysia while corruption, crime, cost of living and income inequality soar unchecked. Najib’s words just ring hollow like the wannabes Psy is mocking. His furtive call asking whether the people are ready to accept BN was rightly answered by a roar in the negative.

As the people dance to Psy’s sensational hit, my comment on the meaning of Gangnam Style would be remised if I do not refer to the symbol of the horse riding movement. Psy spent 30 nights without sleep to come out with this move. The horse is the universal symbol of freedom without restrain, because riding a horse make people feel they could free themselves from the restrains that bind them. The horse riding movements in Oppan Gangnam Style may just put Malaysians into the mode to break free from BN’s rule and put the people back on the saddle.

The next time BN invites an entertainer to boost their votes they better not horse around.                     

William Leong Jee Keen
Member of Parliament for Selayang
14 February 2012.

[1] Dancing Gangnam Style editorial by Anoma Pieris 1 January 2013 LMD The Voice of Business
[2] My Dear Korea, What the heck is Gangnam Style?
[3] Gangnam Style Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation-Max Fisher-The Atlantic
[4] Beyond the Horse Dance-Open City Mag by Sukjong Hong February 13 2013
[5] Malaysians struggle as household debt soars by Anil Netto 4 March 2012
[6] Ringgit November 2012 issue
[7] Need to resolve the income disparity gap-SM Idris The Malaysian Insider August 22 2010
[8] Tokyo: Anwar Laments Glaring Income Gap 17 June 2012

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