Monday, December 15, 2008

Answering a clarion call?

I wrote this in 2003 when I flirted with the idea of joining one of the local think tanks. Needless to say, I didn't join any such outfit. I just re-discovered this when I was doing my virtual housekeeping. I must beg your pardon in advance for the sophomoric quality of the piece. It was written with male bovine droppings in mind...

An advertisement by Malaysia’s foremost think-tank that is written in a robust and forward-looking manner resonates with non-indolent Malaysians. The challenge of preparing a hasty manifesto, a veritable wish-list of things one wants to see happen … it IS a challenge. Let’s see how this thought process pans out.

I’m sitting in the study surrounded by books. They are, in many ways, the sum of private reading over the past 23 years of my 41 years of existence. There are books written by Americans that reflect a long fascination one has with the post-World War II era of Pax Americana.

Many of these books focus on the biography of John F. Kennedy, the ones written during the man’s life and in the aftermath of his death having varying degrees of hagiographical slant. Latterly, the focus appears to be directed at the tawdry details of the man’s personal and sexual proclivities which suggests two things about contemporary America; the first, being the “dumbing down” trend of sensationalism and the sheer ennui of American suburbia.

This offers a market to authors who produce pretentious dribble to satisfy the wanton fantasies of suburban American housewives. The second, a more sinister one, suggests a conservative Republican illuminati of sorts that has a singular desire to destroy the most potent symbol of erstwhile American liberalism, JFK the man and the Kennedy clan as a whole.

One recalls the sheer doggedness with which Bill Clinton’s tenure was tainted by allegations of sexual and financial waywardness. Clinton was, it must be remembered, able to parlay an 18-year old’s handshake with JFK into a passing-of-the-torch symbolism that resonated beyond loyal Democrats. It is possible that this same grouping fostered the attacks by the US on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another set of books (almost mandatory for “thinking” Malaysians) are devoted to politics and economics in Malaysia. Many recent acquisitions are on Sarawak. The book that stands out would have to be Gordon P. Means on Malaysian Politics.

Together, the early collection of this category of books generated an adolescent’s impulse to become a lawyer (because politics and policies, in the end, become legislation and, legislation are laws; thus who can better understand the process but a lawyer; or so, the young man thought).

Sadly, it appears that the best writings on Malaysian politics and economics are by non-Malaysians. It would seem that contributions by Malaysians are confined to hagiographical and one-dimensional works that are heavy on rhetoric or, angry works that struggles to rise above the fray to attain a degree of objectivity in analysis but usually fail to do so. Maybe, its is the turn of phrase (or, the lack thereof) that makes local authors seem ordinary. In any event, any work on Malaysia is welcome in my collection since there are so few.

The rest are eclectic; law books (because one ply’s the trade), science fiction (because one cannot accept a bleak unStar Trek-like future), chinoiserie to establish prodigal ethnic roots and so on.

So, here it is, a partial bibliographical summation of readings that, when coupled with the experience of living and working in Malaysia, leads to a desire for the maintenance and perpetuation of the status quo and trends such as they presently exist. Malaysia is a wonderful place despite its imperfections. And, what are these imperfections?

  • A “near enough is good enough” mindset – Our approach to work and play is lackadaisical. There is no pride in what we do. We may build magnificent structures that reflect national ambition, but it is the little details that we tend to overlook or ignore. I had the opportunity to attend a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office at Putrajaya. Upon visiting the washroom beside the waiting room to the PM’s office I noticed to my dismay that one of the washbasins had a leaky and shaky faucet and part of the floor was wet. We build but we fail to maintain. This mindset is reflected in many aspects of Malaysian society, from sports to hospitality to industry.
  • Active engagement between communities – Islamic fundamentalism and Chinese chauvinism are the principal culprits that threatens to create a “one country, two systems” ethos that is dysfunctional and, worse, threatens national harmony. While threat of terrorism and the vast Malay-Muslim population has made the dismantling of madrasahs a priority, in the near-term, the Chinese education problem needs to be addressed. Chinese schools are continuing to create marginalized, non-mainstream Malaysians who are myopic. Just like their Muslim fundamentalist counterparts, their fringe-based perspectives may deteriorate into a social maelstrom that will suck away social stability. Further social engineering need to be put in place and carried out.
  • An open economy and inevitable globalisation has many dangers – As a small country with the psyche enumerated above, we are completely unlike the Swiss nation. We do not have the genius nor the industry to match up with the competition that will arrive in a few short years. The first phase of the WTO paradigm will be our becoming a nation of employees. Many of our industries will capitulate to superior imports, of labour and products. The compelling question is, will it be a case of “two steps back, three steps forward” or will we forever be employees in a neo-colonial design? The increasing flexing of superpower might by the US is provoking a response from Europe. It is likely that a bi-polar world will develop within a decade. But where does that leave the Orient? The likely emergence of a new era of American and European imperialism with China and Japan as cohorts cannot comfort us in sunny Malaysia. Under which “sphere of influence” will non-aligned nations like us end up in?
  • Maintaining Malaysia’s international reach despite a weak economy – As the Mahathir era wanes our collective pride in the ascendant position of influence in international affairs will be threatened not just from the great powers but also from within. A weak Malaysian economy will make us a lame-duck since domestic issues are key to maintaining political power. The key challenge is to be able to successfully parlay our influence vis-à-vis these competing great powers and translate these relations into tangible economic benefits in the form of preferential trade terms and commercial reciprocity.
At the end, my deepest motivation is to secure a sound future for my children who are Malaysians to the core; a motivation from such a deep place as only the emotions of a parent can reach.

There is a call to Life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried
Firm in our beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.

-Robert Frost, For John F. Kennedy-His Inauguration-

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

de minimis,

You are much too humble to regard this piece as 'sophomoric'. :-) While the style is obviously different from your current one, the tone and treatment is from the same erudite mind.

On a positive note, since the time you wrote that piece, there are more writings on our Malaysian scenario and I am sure another one will be from you soon (I hope it is in the pipeline...).

My only lament is the absence of my favorite literary works in your collection...Time to go shopping :-)Just kidding.

As always, I love Frost's writing.
Perhaps you would like to do a discourse on that one used for the inauguration...Lots to write there :-)...

Best wishes to you and yours for this Christmas and the coming new year.