Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Ideas, Not Just Ideals, Are Necessary For Change

Written by johnleemk on 11:20:09 am Feb 14, 2007.

The quality of socio-political discourse in Malaysia is, as I have remarked before, severely deficient. As a lot of cynical wags have pointed out, far too much energy is expended on worthless ranting, and far too little on meaningful action.

Most exhortations to act, however, presume that the only meaningful action one can take is an overt sign of protest, such as being politically active (in the sense that you join a party and canvass for it, etc.). However, I think that this view overlooks the contributions that sensible and reasoned discourse can make.

The reason I started this site was simple — to fill the niche I perceived on the scene of Malaysian commentary, where most comments were really nothing but angry rants. At the time, I saw that what was needed was some form of commentary which could present new ideas and constructive criticism.

Most of the time, what we see and read in Malaysian commentary is nothing new. The ideas put forth are not really innovative, because all they do is trot out some form of dogma. The mainstream media is a fine example of this — inevitably, their dry commentary merely serves to bolster the present regime, and the ideas are really all just different takes on the same basic concept that the government is sound and the status quo is fine.

The alternative media, I noticed, also tend to be somewhat dogmatic, albeit less so than the mainstream press. Those who run counter to the prevailing schools of thought in alternative media such as blogging tend to be vilified for their controversial ideas — if anything, these people have it the worst since their ideas are often hardly favourable to the government either.

Generally, if you are a participant in what some have labeled the fifth estate (mainstream journalism being the fourth estate), you are left-leaning socially and economically, and are either predisposed towards the opposition, predisposed against the government, or both. If you do not fit this mould in any way, you are a misfit — perhaps exemplified by the Muslim radical MENJ and the libertarian (i.e. left-leaning social, right-leaning economic) Rajan Rishyakaran, to name two of the once most infamous Malaysian bloggers.

My aim was specifically to avoid the dogmatism that continues to dog the fourth and fifth estates, and to instead steer an objective and generally middle-of-the-road course. My ideas may radically swing one way or another, but in the aggregate, they are neither here nor there. I have definite stands, but I cannot be pigeonholed into one of two opposing dogmatic camps.

The other problem I noticed was the severe dearth of constructive criticism. Malaysians are very good at the criticism bit, but when it comes to contributing constructive ideas, they cannot be depended upon. If anything, Malaysians seem all too content to play the blame game. They would rather attempt to apportion blame for the ills that chronically plague our society and community than attempt to solve these issues.

There are of course some Malaysians who don't conform to this all too unfortunately true stereotype. One of them is Dr. Bakri Musa, who I think has provided more potential solutions to very potent problems in Malaysia than most of our local leaders from both the government and opposition. Another is a Malay who goes by the nom de guerre of __earth — as an environmentalist libertarian economist, he provides interesting ideas that won't be found anywhere else in Malaysian commentary.

Unfortunately, such people are the exception rather than the rule. Most Malaysians will complain and harp and whine, but in the end, not lift a finger to change anything. This apathy feeds on itself, creating a vicious cycle. We get angry, and so we stoke each other up in anger — but where do our mindless rants lead us?

At the same time, there are a minority who have admirably decided to act on their convictions and become politically involved. However, these same people often don't recognise that constructive complaining can be just as helpful as direct action. The result is that all who criticise, whether their complaints are constructive or otherwise, usually get unfairly lumped into the same category.

The fact is, an effective society should have all three types. The whining complainers would be absent in an ideal society, but unfortunately in the real world, they won't be going away any time soon. A comparable analogy might be friction — a simplified model would omit friction, but in the real world, there will always be some force reacting negatively. At the same time, in society, there ought to be civil activists participating in public life, because they are the engine that drives change. And since no engine can run without fuel, there needs to be constructive commentary so the people campaigning for change know what they want to change and how they want to change it.

One thing I've noticed about our country is that we, more or less, know what we want to change. Practically any Malaysian can provide you with a long list of complaints about our country and society. Similarly, ask the typical opposition activist, and she'll tell you she wants to change the government. But the question of how to change things is a question that far too few people are working on — and of course, the little fuel for change that we currently have is diluted by dogmatism, which unnecessarily rejects ideas simply because they run counter to the established paradigm.

It is time, I think, that educated Malaysians begin to consider the important question of how we are going to change things. We cannot just demand better public transport, lower toll rates, subsidised fuel, or better governance, without having a roadmap for how we are going to accomplish these things. (Note that a roadmap involves some amount of planning for every stage — it is not enough to simply say you will solve the problem of a corrupt electoral system by, say, reforming the Electoral Commission, because all you are doing is substituting the problem of "changing the EC" for the problem of "fixing the electoral system".) Presently, Malaysians seem divided into just two camps — one perpetually criticises and attempts to pinpoint who is to blame for a particular problem, while another is trying to solve the problem, but not thinking about how to do this.

If you look at the media of many developed countries, you'll find that the press often has a lot of ideas about how to get things done. For instance, I have read several proposals on how the US ought to handle North Korea, or how to reform its Social Security system. These proposals did not come from some think tank, nor did they emerge from the bowels of some bureaucracy. Rather, they hailed from the fourth estate.

One might argue that it is one thing to come up with an idea, and another for a real change to come into being. However, it is really an indisputable fact that the media shapes society. The best leaders don't necessarily come up with their own ideas, but abstract them from other sources (for instance, Sam Walton, the founder of the Wal-Mart multinational company, didn't come up with many of his own innovations; rather, he combined the innovations of several of his competitors into one package for his own stores). One of the most natural sources for such ideas is, of course, the press. Even if leaders ignore the press, ideas are the fuel of the engine of change, and it is far from inconceivable that a grassroots campaign could arise in support of a particular proposal (although I highly doubt we will see a grassroots campaign calling for the US to negotiate with North Korea any time soon).

Furthermore, it is important to note that constructive commentary need not be the germ of any new ideas. Refining fuel is just as important as mining it, and pointing out the pros and cons of a particular proposal is in itself an important contribution. For example, solving the Iraqi civil war is not just a matter of identifying possible solutions such as "siding with the Shia against the Sunni" or "splitting the country into three". Rather, you need to think through the consequences of these possible solutions, and again, the press is indispensable in this regard.

In the end, of course, many ideas never go anywhere, much in the same way that the inefficient combustion engine wastes much of its fuel in driving the piston. I certainly don't expect most of my thoughts to make a major impact, although I certainly hope that a few of them will. The important point to note, though, is that because of how the wheat gets separated from the chaff, it is important that there be an abundance of ideas. Ideas are the raw fuel, and if we don't have enough raw fuel, by the time we have refined and combusted it, we will find the engine of change moves at a glacial pace.

I don't expect the whiners to get up and contribute ideas, although it would be nice if they did, especially since they make up the bulk of commentators wherever you go. But I know that there are a lot of thinking people out there, and if they long for change, it is imperative that they devote their efforts to first identifying how we can effect that change. That is why I started writing — because dogmatism and playing the blame game will not get our society anywhere, and if I can do my small bit to combat these perils, it is incumbent on me to do so.

You don't need to be the engine of change — the demonstrators in the streets or the fiery political activists in the ceramahs. If anything, considering the sore lack of fuel, I'd say our engine can't go anywhere, so there is no point in adding more horsepower anyway. To work for change, to build a better society, you can just help mine the raw material that forms the fuel for change. You don't even need to be a voter — if you can think of ways for the engine to win over a hundred more voters, the positive impact of these votes would far outweigh the negative effect of you not voting (although this is of course just a hypothetical, and in real life if you worked for change but didn't vote, I'd call you crazy).

Many have asked me to do something concrete about the state of things in Malaysia, perhaps becoming an activist. I have always been, and remain non-committal in this regard, mainly because I do not know if there will still be a significant chance to change things once I am of a suitable age and disposition for such pursuits. But even if I do not take up the metaphorical sword, you can expect me to be wielding the pen for a long time to come — as long as the niche I first saw remains unfilled.

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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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