I am Malaysian but am not certain anymore what that means. On a daily basis, I am being told, directly or indirectly, that in having been ‘given’ the right to label myself a Malaysian, I have no right to a view. I am told that I should be more respectful of my context, of the tolerance that is being shown to me and my 'kind'. I am told to be satisfied with what I have been ‘given’ and if I am not, I should go back to wherever it is I came from, ‘pendatang’ that I am.
I come from Penang. I am not clear how going back there is going to make me feel any different.
The civics classes I had to attend (thankfully, compulsory religious classes were not in vogue when I was in primary and secondary school) must have had some impact. I have, like others, a certain level of public spiritedness. I have like others, a certain level of desire to be active in shaping the society around me into a fair, just and productive one. With the Creator’s grace, I have been given the means to do this, in part by having become a lawyer, a state of being which puts me into direct contact with one of the key aspects of how we organise ourselves in this community.
However, I am no longer certain whether I am to do this at all, and if so, how it is I am to do it. I am being told by things happening around me that some of us are more Malaysian than others, and that that some Malaysians (these more Malaysian Malaysians) are quite happy with the way things are, and if the country is headed in a direction that I do not particularly like, it does not matter, as even if the country is driven to ground, it is a decision made by persons having a bigger entitlement than I do.
The “I deserve to be here more, and my views are weightier” approach is worrying. It does not recognise a very basic feature of our constitutional democracy; that we are all equal stakeholders. The approach seems to have become more prevalent in recent times. The reason for this is multi-layered but I believe it starts with the fact that we are all concerned with the way things are going. The metaphorical pie is getting smaller and competition for that reduced resource stiffer. Competition within the ethnic groupings is intensifying, perhaps now outweighing competition between ethnic communities. When things get difficult, it is easier perhaps to cast a stone outside the community, at the 'barbarians' at the gate. The UMNO reaction to the AP scandal last year year showed this clearly. Any other approach would necessitate having to accept difficult truths. And as a nation, we find it inordinately difficult to accept such truths.
We live in a society in which our racial and, more recently, religious differences are emphasised on a daily basis. And though to a significant extent multi-racial Malaysians have found a way in which they can live with each other, this does not translate into the picture of multi-racial harmony that our administrators attempt to characterise it as. Every so often, we are reminded that for those of us that may be bold enough to think about expressing a view, let alone actually express it, there is a particular sensitivity that we might offend, and a law which might be used to sanction and a cell with our name on it. It is unsurprising that some, if not many, feel disenfranchised and even disillusioned.
This state of affairs has led to a non-partisan, non-involved approach to life on the part of many a Malaysian. With pressing concerns about communal politics, (for all purposes and intents) one party rule and the right to meaningful access to meaningful justice, it is unsurprising that citizens have their backs to the wall even as they dream of a better place to live in. The sooner we realise this state of affairs and begin dealing with it, the better.
There is another layer to this. Sad as it is, and as difficult as it is to say, we are no longer the learned or mature society that we perhaps once were. In place of sophisticated and objective analysis of crucial issues, there is now a regime of sensationalist ignorance and belligerence.
Worse still, we live in a state of denial, insisting that we are more advanced and intellectual than we really are. Look at the issues that figure prominently in the arena of public discourse. How many of these relate to the fundamental aspects of our lives as Malaysians. Admittedly, civil liberty issues such as nude squats and burial rites are important, but where do a lack of coherent economic policy, a lack of coherent governance, a lack of political foresight, an overemphasis on vested interests, institutionalised and crippling corruption and a lack of direction for this great country of ours figure? They do not, in any meaningful way. In having allowed these crucial issues to fall by the way side, in having allowed ourselves to become more interested in being titillated by insane billionaires, sex scandals, Mawi and Academia Fantasia, we have begun throwing away our future.
I used to think that this was due wholly to a media block by the authorities, implemented in tandem with a policy of de-education. I have reconsidered my view and believe that a large part of this is due to an inability, and a lack of desire, on the part of Malaysians to articulate themselves anymore. This is why our media is devoted to gossip and our broadsheets reduced to tabloids. We are all to blame.
By taking sensationalist positions, be it on racial or religious grounds, we are perpetuating the context that has led the country to where it is. And where is it, some of you might ask. Take a look around you. We are somewhere near the bottom. Stock market performance indicators suggest that as an emerging market, we are far behind Mexico, Argentina, India and China. In the Southeast Asian region, we have been left behind by neighbours who we traditionally condescended down to. In Indonesia and Thailand, effective economic policies have created amongst other things a potential powerhouse of agricultural based SMIs, increased revenues and the GDP. Sweeping democratic reforms have allowed for a meaningful reshaping of the economy and political landscape. Important issues are being debated; openly and with the hope that the dialogue will have some bearing on things as they stand.
As Malaysians, we can rest assured that with proposed Islamic snoop squads, even more regulation over our personal lives, and the continued vigilance of our censors and their censors our moral futures are intact. Even as we delude ourselves into believing that spending then kind of money we do on our daily needs, from foodstuff to electricity and water, is perfectly justifiable and fair. Even as we delude ourselves into believing that inflation is not a problem in this country. Even as we potentially plunge headlong into a financial crisis which may take us down the road towards non-emerged nation status. Ethnic and religious bigotry will provide no solutions then, just as they provide no solutions now. Sloganeering will not take us any further.
We have only one country. It is ours. As tempting as it might be for some to believe, and to perpetuate the belief, the majority of citizens are not about to abandon this country when it hits rock bottom. And it will not be surprising that of those of us who actually ultimately flee to greener pastures, or abandon ship, a significant number will be made of up those who, according to popular logic, have no place to go except their ‘tanah air’.
It bears restating: we validate the impression that we do not have a stake in the country if we do not act like stakeholders. Malaysians of all races and backgrounds are to blame for what is that is happening.
If effort can be made to stay up and watch Akademi Fantasia, then should we not be registering as voters and exercising that one most fundamental of all rights? Should we not be familiarising ourselves with the critical issues from more than just a sensationalist perspective. Why is that I would stand a better chance of getting a head to toe analysis of the Razak Baginda case than I would a view about water or toll concessions, or a judicial appointments commission.
Isn't it time we all woke up to reality?