It’s 54 years since we got together as Malaysia. That is already more than half of a century, a long time indeed.
Our forefathers came together desiring “in the true spirit of brotherhood and love of freedom” amidst all sorts of threats from everywhere.
Their imagination was stronger than even threats of war.
Indeed, the Tunku himself spoke about how the “ideal of Malaysia caught the imagination of all the peoples concerned.”
It was an imagination which dreamt up a great nation and a great people.
In these long years, we have gone to the stars, together; from becoming some of the best in sports to literally sending one of our very own into space.
The questions before us now are: Where are we today and what’s next?
How do we imagine Malaysia moving into our second half a century?
Malaysia today: Selfie politics, political theatrics, and a weak imagination
Our current situation can be illustrated by three recent incidents all which happened within the last two weeks:
The first incident, about two weeks ago, just before our National Day celebration, MCA President and federal Minister, Liow Tiong Lai starred in a short film where he played two characters engaging in a dialogue. Somewhere in the movie, Liow not only recognised but admitted all the weaknesses of his party and government.
I have written a thorough analysis on the short film when it first came out. But this is a classic example of what I call selfie politics, politicians trying to appear “human just like the rest of us”. This used to be exemplified by actions such as carrying babies but for a while now it has moved on to taking selfies and posting personal anecdotes on social media.
This is really a postmodern phenomenon — the return of “humanness,” the peculiar individuality in all of us, how we have our highs and lows. So that now, even the most corrupted or oppressive leader is really a good father and a good son and he loves cats and perhaps is even a vegan. As if his human-side redeems him of his crime so that he can go on sinning. As if incompetency in public office can be forgiven if a Minister confessed his sins. No, when a Minister admitted to wrongdoings, the proper response is to remove him from office.
Sigmund Freud wrote a book about jokes, and in it he told a joke of a Jew so wont of lying that in order to really lie to his friend, he had to tell the truth.
“Where are you going?”
“What a liar you are! If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow.
“So why are you telling me that you’re going to Cracow when you are indeed going to Cracow?”
“Why are you lying to me?”
What is the lesson for us here?
I think it is clear. We must never allow a corrupted government imagine it can get away with mere confession. I know some of us after watching the film may began to think, oh, what a humble posture of confession, what a gentleman that Liow owned up to his mistakes.
Think about it: Our question for Minister Liow should really be, so why are you telling me that you screwed up, when you indeed did screw up!
The second incident happened on the eve of our Merdeka Day. Taking advantage of the holidays, thousands of Rohingya refugees gathered in Kuala Lumpur to protest the atrocities done against them in Myanmar. In December 2016, Prime Minister Najib Razak and PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang joined forces to attend a mega rally in solidarity with the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The government of Malaysia has not done anything substantial since then.
Clearly, the UMNO-PAS rally in December 2016 was meant as a political show here in Malaysia rather than to assist Rohingya there in Myanmar. When a sitting Prime Minister joins a public protest – usually reserved for those alienated from power and state apparatus – something is clearly wrong.
Curiously, it was the same state apparatus which blocked my fellow MPs and I when we wanted to visit the Rohingya boat people in Belantik depot back in May 2015.
On the Rohingya issue, we imagine that by some deep magic we can resolve the crisis through a shadow play (PM’s rally) or through mere charity (let’s bring them all into our country).
The Rohingya crisis is a humanitarian problem yes, but ultimately it is a political problem. Without dealing internationally with Myanmar, the source of the problem no matter who is right or wrong over there, and without dealing domestically with the presence of the refugees and our immigration crisis in general; we are looking at a time bomb for our own country.
And when I said we have to deal with it, I mean real political action, since it is a political problem. We cannot sufficiently resolve the problem through political theatrics nor through political correctness.
The third incident of course, is Prime Minister Najib’s visit to President Donald Trump earlier this week. In his visit to the White House, Najib, perhaps in an attempt to pull off a diplomatic savoir-faire, told President-Make-America-Great-Again-Trump that his (Najib’s) visit was to “help you (USA) in terms of strengthening the US economy”. (We must note that part of the PM’s savviness included his choice of hotel in Washington DC: the Trump International Hotel). The Prime Minister then went on to reel off the numbers: over RM90 billion worth of investments for USA.
Within the next five years, Najib told Trump, Malaysia will purchase 50 planes of the 737 MAX 10 type and eight 787 Dreamliners. “So… the deal will be worth beyond $10 billion”.
I do not want to go down the path of ridiculing Malaysia’s investment in USA, but think about it:
The government can buy new planes, even doubling the existing purchase order, spending beyond RM42 billion in USA, yet, it dared not imagine spending a minute fraction of that amount on education and healthcare for Malaysians when the self same Prime Minister cut spending of our public varsities by 20% (RM1.5 billion) and public healthcare by 16% (RM0.24 billion) in this year’s budget.
Something must be very wrong here.
Our imagination is not too strong but too weak.
54 years later, Malaysia is plagued by selfie politics, political theatrics and lack of imagination, the kind which dreamt up a great nation and a great people.
We are then left with substandard ideals which substituted greatness with mega projects, HSR and MRT; competency with complacency, “be grateful that we are better than Zimbabwe”; justice with power and control; rights with charity and generosity; and solidarity with mere tolerance.
To paraphrase an example often used by philosopher Slavoj Zizek, if we accept all these, then even if we see a light at the end of the tunnel, we may actually be looking at the headlight of an oncoming (HSR) train.
Thinking the unthinkable
What then should we do?
Most rational Malaysians today will not think that business as usual is the way forward. Most of us will also not think to support the existing regime even though we do not fancy the opposition.
It is then very tempting to say that our country is hopeless. And as such, let us protest by rejecting the system itself, i.e. refusing to vote or voting with our feet by migrating.
Alas, we too, our imagination is not too strong but too weak.
We dare to uproot ourselves and our families, travel to a faraway country to start anew in a strange land to build our own paradise, but dare not imagine that one day, if we work hard enough here in our home country, if we can find courage in this hopelessness, and if we do not give up, we can make Malaysia into the paradise she once meant to be.
Think about it for a moment.
Imagine if we would not give up. Imagine, or at least pretend, democracy exists, and then act as if it does exist, even here in Malaysia. If enough Malaysians dare to imagine that democracy exists and act as if it does, that is, we put in our best effort to campaign for change and then go all out to vote for change despite the all-around cynicism, surely we are going to see something powerful happen in the coming election.
The historian Howard Zinn reminded us that,
“to be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness”,
and yes, of the great moments our founding fathers who came together desiring “in the true spirit of brotherhood and love of freedom” and when the “ideal of Malaysia caught the imagination of all the peoples concerned”, the imagination which dreamt up a great nation and a great people.
“And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.”
One and a half year ago, I learnt that imagination is not solely the industry of the young. In March 2015, when the country was facing a deadlock with a fractured opposition, and an impending new regressive Goods and Services Tax (GST), with the escalating 1MDB crisis unfolding in the background, 74-year old Lim Kit Siang called on Malaysians to “think the unthinkable” and Save Malaysia.
More than ever, it is now time to accept Kit Siang’s call to save Malaysia, from substandard imagination.
Selamat Hari Malaysia.
Article by Steven Sim Chee Keong in Bukit Mertajam on Friday, 15th September 2017