Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Nothing Has Changed

Written by johnleemk on 1:10:44 am May 9, 2007.
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Some people may find my constant harping on the need for change annoying. Humans have an innate preference for the status quo, and Malaysians in particular often find things to be absolutely peachy.

I used to be comfortable in my delusions about the way things are as well. At the worst, I figured we might need to tweak things around the edges a little. But then one day, I woke up and realised the terrible truth about our country.

One of the best books I have had the pleasure to read about the future of Malaysian society is Malaysia 2001: A Preliminary Inquiry, with a commentary by Bruce Ross-Larson. Before summarily rejecting the opinions of an alien mat salleh, it is actually worth reading the book, because it is a complete eye-opener.

Quoting at random, Ross-Larson states:

What can be done to increase the respect for law in Malaysia? It is difficult to engender this respect when every schoolboy knows that [money] discreetly slipped to a traffic policeman will result not in a charge, but in a verbal warning.
The method used for [education] is to herd students into barn-like structures, line them up anonymously behind desks, and keep them there for 10 to 15 years to teach them what educational administrators think they should be taught.
Malays value the myth that Malaysia is the land of the Malays. When this is challenged, they react viscerally.
The 30 percent goal has become an article of faith...
Employers complain that many [PMR and SPM] holders do not possess even the basic skills of reading, writing, and computing.
How many non-Malays feel that the Malays won the country in 1969 and have since been rubbing every non-Malay nose with their new confidence and aggressiveness?
Today, nothing is Malaysian. Instead, actions and objects are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban or western. This explains in part the alacrity with which things western are adopted — these are not loaded with ethnic overtones nor sensitive to traditional ethnocentric manifestations, but instead are essentially neutral.
Try to guess when "Today" was for Ross-Larson. Go on, give it a try. Ten years ago? Twenty years ago? Here's the answer: Thirty years ago. The book I am quoting from was published in 1978.

Of course, not everything in the book is relevant to today. For instance, Ross-Larson originally wrote of the LCE and MCE (Lower Education Certificate and Malaysian Education Certificate) rather than using their Malay acronyms. And the "money" in the quote was "five (now, 10) dollars". That's how long ago this book was written — when you could bribe the policeman with ten ringgit.

The few instances of real change have been for the worse, in terms of development and progress. For instance (and I seriously find this hard to believe, but it is what the book says), Ross-Larson wrote:
It has been suggested that Malaysia will have a nuclear capability by the mid-1980s.
While this of course was a victory for the peace movement and the hippies, and I certainly don't mind the fact that we are not a member of the nuclear club, it still shows that insofar as things have changed, they have not changed for the better in terms of development.

And most terribly, so much has not changed. Look at every one of those quotations — if I did not know better, I (and I'm sure most Malaysians) would swear that they were written by someone this morning!

This is why I am so credulous and unabashedly ashamed that people still think there is a reason to vote for the Barisan Nasional regime. This coalition has been ruling our country for 52 years, and virtually nothing has changed for the better (unless you measure improvement in terms of megaprojects which benefit only a tiny minority) in the past 30.

Our institutions remain just as corrupt as they were. Our education system is just as bad. And there are still Malay politicians talking about questioning the citizenship of non-Malays and spilling their blood.

Some people insist on blaming our country's problems on Mahathir Mohamad and/or Abdullah Badawi. To a certain extent, they are correct — both men, combined, have presided over our complete and total stagnation for 25 years.

And yet, the more you read about our country's past, the greater sense you get that even before them, our earlier leaders were not doing that much when it came to change. Lim Kit Siang's book, Time Bombs in Malaysia could be republished today with the names changed, and almost nobody would think it out of place.

And if you don't trust Lim Kit Siang, there's always one of the least-liked Ministers in Malaysia today, Rais Yatim. His PhD thesis is a powerful critique of the dictatorial tendencies possessed by virtually all our former Prime Ministers.

The fact is, much as we would prefer to otherwise believe, our country's institutions remain virtually the same as they were thirty, possibly even forty or fifty years ago.

It doesn't take a genius to realise that if you're still operating the same way after three decades, if you're still hearing the same complaints, you're doing something wrong. And it doesn't take a rocket engineer to realise that if you're doing something wrong, you need to change what you're doing.

That's why any choice we make is not going to be between changing and staying the same. The choice we make is between changing for the better, and dying. A country can't be run the same way it was run thirty years ago when the rest of the world is constantly changing and improving. Something's got to give eventually, and if we don't change now, it's our country that's going to go down the drain.


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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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