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Book review Finding Malaysia: Making Sense of an Eccentric Nation, by Zairil Khir Johari. Petaling Jaya: SIRD.

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The Enemy that is Ourselves

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Compilations of articles have in the past decade been a popular format through which political analyses and discussions about Malaysia are publicised. This is a clear reflection of how informed public debates take place in the country, and how serious readers choose to examine ideas put forth by their fellows.

And so, for anyone who prefers stimulation beyond blog entries and commentaries, informed articles make fruitful reading. In the larger context, they have come to embody public intellectualism since the digital media age in Malaysia began at the turn of the century. Malaysiakini was a major player in this development, and it was followed by others such as the news site The Malaysian Insider and the essay-based The Nut Graph, among many others.

What should worry Malaysians as much as the 1MDB scandal is the fact that The Malaysian Insider and The Nut Graph have both folded. This has narrowed the avenues for Malaysians to air their views on the country’s political situation and history, leaving survivors such as Malaysiakini and Malay Mail Online to provide digital public space for educated debate. To be sure, the actors are still many, but the aforementioned sites have enjoyed a level of public and journalistic credibility that digital media, more than others, require in order to be effective and influential.

Alongside this have appeared publishing houses that provide affordable books written by young and old Malaysians wishing to impart their knowledge and insights about the difficult times the country has gone through since 1997-1998, and earlier.

Well-produced and thoughtprovoking books such as Finding Malaysia are proof of Malaysian society’s vibrancy, and they contribute towards the understanding of where the country finds itself today and how it is to heal itself.

When the Reformasi Movement began in 1998, Zairil Khir Johari was only 16 years old. But being the son of Malaysia’s first Education Minister, politics and nation building were perspectives that he would have been introduced to early in life.

Finding Malaysia, a collection of articles written by him from 2011 and onwards, is a good reflection of this young man’s political development. In 2013 he was elected Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera, so the chapters in this volume – exemplarily edited by Gareth Richards and neatly published by SIRD, which I daresay has been Malaysia’s most influential publisher for quite some time now – present his political views just before and after he joined the growing ranks of vigorous political debaters and public activists in the country.

The sections into which the articles lend themselves to be ordered are revealing in themselves of what the author has been most interested in. Apart from a filial need to express his deep respect for his father Khir Johari (1923-2006), which he does most touchingly in the preface and the epilogue, Zairil argues fervently against Islamist extremism, for “A Malaysia for Malaysians”, for good governance and rule of law, for the liberation of federalism from excessive central control, and – what to his mind may be the taking over of the baton from his father – for reforming Malaysia’s education system.Along with many from his generation who entered politics after the Mahathir period ended in 2003, inspired by the powerful idea that Malaysia needs to transcend the political fetters of earlier decades, Zairil became an opposition MP, but he did that in a state run by the federal opposition. This is a vital point to consider. Unlike opposition politicians of earlier decades, young men and women in such a situation tend to exhibit a sense of optimism and a belief in possibilities that older generations of reformists found difficult to retain.

Intelligent debates do take place often in Malaysia, even if the political squabbles publicised on a daily basis in the country may suggest otherwise. Civil society continues to flourish in all manners and forms in the big cities despite serious attempts by ruling parties to infiltrate and undermine that space.

Well-produced and thought-provoking books such as Finding Malaysia are proof of Malaysian society’s vibrancy, and they contribute towards the understanding of where the country finds itself today and how it is to heal itself; but more significantly, they reveal the vibrancy of the society from which the articles emanate.

This book shows Zairil to be no ordinary analyst. Positioned as he is between Penang, where he can exert political influence, and Parliament, where the debilitating excesses of the ruling parties are unashamedly on display; his articles do not disappoint. They are

tightly written, and whatever the extent to which one agrees with his confident and competent ideas, they most definitely exude a gravity and an optimism that are sadly in short supply today.If I am to state what I consider the gist of his arguments, I would quote a line Zairil uses in his epilogue, taken from a play written just after the war by the Saberkas movement that had Tunku Abdul Rahman as its patron: “Sometimes our greatest enemy is ourselves.”

To the extent that is the case, knowing ourselves therefore becomes an undertaking vital for the success of any lasting change that Malaysian society may be longing for. To that end, this compilation contributes commendably.

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