Imagine Malaysia Anew!

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It’s been 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 “in the true spirit of brotherhood and love of freedom” amid all sorts of peril. Their imagination was stronger than even the threat of war.

Indeed, Tunku Abdul Rahman himself spoke of how the “ideal of Malaysia caught the imagination of all the peoples concerned”. It was an imagination that 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 its second half century?

Malaysia Today: Selfie Politics, Political Theatrics and a Weak Imagination

Our current situation can be illustrated by three recent incidents – all of which happened within the last two weeks.

Fifty-four years after its founding, Malaysia is plagued by selfie politics, political theatrics and lack of imagination. We are left with substandard ideals that substitute greatness with mega projects, HSRs and MRTs; 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.

In the first incident, which happened just before our National Day celebrations, MCA president and federal minister Datuk Seri 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 wrote 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 now, even the most corrupt or oppressive leader is really a good father and a good son and he loves cats and perhaps is even vegan. As if his human side redeems him of his crimes so that he can go on sinning; as if incompetency in public office can be forgiven if a minister confesses his sins. The answer is no – when a minister admits 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?”

“To Cracow.”

“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 corrupt government to imagine it can get away through a 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 Liow is to own up to his mistakes.”

Our question for Liow should really be: why are you telling me that you screwed up, when you indeed did screw up!

The second incident happened on the eve of Merdeka Day. Taking advantage of the holidays, thousands of Rohingya refugees gathered in KL to protest the atrocities done against them in Myanmar. In December 2016 Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and PAS president Datuk Seri 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 rather than to assist Rohingyas 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 that blocked my fellow MPs and me when we wanted to visit the Rohingya boat people at the Belantik depot back in May 2015.

On the Rohingya issue, we imagine that by some deep magic we can resolve the crisis through shadow play (PM’s rally) or mere charity (let's bring them all into our country).

Rohingyas waiting in line at a mobile clinic in Sittwe. On the eve of Merdeka Day, thousands of Rohingya refugees gathered in KL to protest the atrocities done against them in Myanmar.

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 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 say 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 Najib’s meeting with President Donald Trump in early September. 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 (the US) 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 RM90bil worth of investments for the US.

Within the next five years, Najib tells Trump, Malaysia will purchase 50 planes of the 737 MAX 10 type and eight 787 Dreamliners. “So… the deal will be worth beyond US$10bil”.

I do not want to go down the path of ridiculing Malaysia’s investments in the US, but think about it: the government can buy new planes, even doubling the existing purchase order, spending beyond RM42bil in the US, 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 on our public varsities by 20% (RM1.5bil) and public healthcare by 16% (RM240mil) in this year’s budget.

Something must be very wrong here. Our imagination is not too strong, but too weak.

Fifty-four years after its founding, Malaysia is plagued by selfie politics, political theatrics and lack of imagination. We are left with substandard ideals that substitute greatness with mega projects, HSRs and MRTs; 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.

Oddly enough, 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 headlights 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.

MCA president and federal minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai starred in a short film where he played two characters engaging in a dialogue.

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 and start anew in a strange land to build our own paradise. But we 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 the paradise she was once meant to be.

Imagine if we do not give up. Imagine – or at least pretend – that democracy exists. And then act as if it does exist, even here in Malaysia. If enough Malaysians dare imagine and put in our best efforts to campaign for change and then go all out to vote for change despite the all-round cynicism, surely we will 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 years 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 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 Lim’s call to save Malaysia, from substandard imagination.

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam.



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