Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why Lower Our Standards?

Written by johnleemk on 1:38:14 am Sep 12, 2007.

One thing people love to do when we compare Malaysia's standing with other countries is to argue that Malaysia is unique in some way and that such comparisons are thus invalid.

But another thing they like to do to justify our errors is to argue that problems exist elsewhere, and that we should therefore not beat ourselves up too hard about having such problems here.

Now, this is perfectly applicable to, say, an idealist perfectionist who expects the perfect Malaysia here and now — an idealised country where everybody is happy, there's full democracy, the economy is humming smoothly, the schools are brilliant, the civil service efficient and ethical, and so on.

But is this really the case for those who argue for some level of change? I am really hard-pressed to name anybody whose head is that far up in the clouds.

Let's try to move the argument to neutral ground. Singapore seems a good choice — after all, Malaysians have an embarrassing inferiority complex when it comes to Singapore.

I once witnessed an argument between two Singaporeans. One argued that Singapore was not a democracy but an oppressive authoritarian state. The other pointed out that even "democracies" can be undemocratic, citing instances where civil rights were blatantly infringed in the United States and United Kingdom.

Does this mean what Singapore does to its citizens is justified? Is it really reasonable to have a country where a family of six picnicking in the park constitutes an illegal public gathering, and a group of tiny four activists demonstrating is broken up by lorries of riot police?

So why then do we pat ourselves on the back and reassure ourselves that all is well when billions of ringgit are embezzled and stolen by those in power (the Auditor-General just released his report for the year, so you can see for yourself), just because in the United States there are also billion-dollar scandals?

Does it justify having several huge scandals in our country, since other countries also have a handful of huge scandals? Why are we holding ourselves to such low moral standards?

We know that two wrongs don't make a right. So why is it that when our own mistakes are pointed out, we justify them by pointing to smaller-scale mistakes in other countries?

We may not be extraordinarily different from other countries, but that does not mean we shouldn't try. We pussyfoot around the fact that Singapore, a country with a somewhat similar ethnic composition as ours, and even less natural resources, has managed to run a more successful economy and a cleaner government.

The fact is, for all their authoritarianism, Singapore gave its people a better deal than we got, even when they had no reason to get such a great deal. Why are we incapable of achieving this?

Is it because the Chinese-dominated population of Singapore is genetically superior to the Malay-dominated population of Malaysia? I really doubt it.

It is our culture and administrational systems which have not stood up and faced the challenge the way Singapore and our other neighbours have. We don't have any excuse for our poor systems, our poor management cultures, our poor way of thinking. We only have ourselves to blame, for if not for these, we would be far ahead of where Singapore is today.

We will always be plagued by problems. As long as man is imperfect, that is inevitable. But we can reduce the scale of these problems — and we simply have no excuse for not doing so.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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The growth of ideas is an international process, and only those who fully take part in the discussion will be able to exercise a significant influence. It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.
— Friedrich Hayek