What the World Should Know About Malaysia
Just over ten years ago, the world was dazzled by the stunning economic rise of the "Asian Tigers": Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand and even Indonesia were the new players on the global economic stage. Then came the economic crisis of 1997. Most of those countries were hit and bounced back. A few never did.
It seems to me that far too many of us are still living in those halcyon days, when the intervention of the Malaysian state covered a multitude of sins, and as long as Malaysian rice bowls were full, nobody cared too much.
Malaysia is continually represented as a paragon of democracy and development, both to insiders and outsiders, by her government and foreign observers. A Malaysian upperclassman at my university remarked to me how incredible it was that students, even after carrying out research about our country, came away impressed by the progress we have made.
It is true, of course, that we don't have civil war. We don't have people starving to death in the streets. We don't have any of the hallmarks of a failed state or a failed society.
But our thin veneer of respectability is just that — a thin veneer. Not a few Malaysians were horribly embarrassed when our Information Minister made a fool out of himself when Al-Jazeera interviewed him about a recent rally for electoral reform:
We have the trappings of democracy, we have the trappings of development. We have elections, we have a glittering capital city. But these things, they mean nothing.
How can we ever have been a democracy when attempting to effect change, to sway minds and hearts by peaceful means is considered unlawful? How can we ever have been a democracy when the government can lock you up for practically forever without even bringing you before a judge?
Worse still, how can we be developed when much of what we have is a facade, propped up by state intervention in the economy? Even worse, how can this facade be sustained when the state itself is all but completely reliant on oil money?
Within the last two weeks, there have been two major rallies held in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. One was organised by BERSIH, an informal coalition of non-governmental organisations and political parties calling for electoral reform. The other was organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), an organisation for the advancement of the rights of ethnic Indian Malaysians.
Both rallies were labeled illegal by the government; both have met with violent retaliation from the police. The world is now looking at Malaysia and taking a second look.
I don't hate my country. I daresay I would be hard-pressed to find a much better country on the face of the earth, and I've been to three continents, visiting countries and localities dispersed across the spectra of democracy and development.
What I despise is how the potential my country holds has been wasted by an ineffective, inefficient, undemocratic and tyrannical administration, led by pretty much the same people for over five decades. What I despise is how till today, your chances for success, economic or political, are determined by the colour of your skin. What I despise is how as I speak, your right to worship the God you choose (or not worship at all) is determined by the religion someone else chose for you. What I despise is how if you have a good idea, your chance of seeing that idea put into practice depends entirely on who you know, not what you know or how hard you work.
The sum total of this is that the opportunity for the people of my country to pursue lives of fulfillment and happiness is determined entirely by things they have no control over, and things they could control if not for the government of the day.
Sure, Malaysia bears the trappings of success. Malaysians bear the trappings of happiness. But we can be so much more than what we are now. Malaysia is where the world's most powerful and influential cultures — Anglo-Saxon, Muslim, Chinese and Indian — meet. Malaysia is where you have unique ties to some of the world's most influential countries, in what is bound to be the most influential continent of the next century. Malaysia is a country of almost 30 million people with more territory than the United Kingdom. It has more natural resources than most countries could desire.
And yet, all these resources are going untapped. The riches of this country, both natural and human, are either wasted and discarded by the policies of the ruling regime, or abused and raped for the benefit of its cronies. The mechanisms for governance and the freedom of private enterprise — the means by which any Malaysian with a good idea should be able to see that idea implemented for the good of the country — are distorted to ensure the dominance of a select few.
Most gallingly, when it comes to something as simple as the right to worship the God you choose, learn the things you'd like, or even say what you dare to think, such rights are curtailed arbitrarily, and for no reason better than the government thinks it should be so. When it comes to things as fundamental as these — things basically necessary for a human being to be fulfilled and happy — Malaysia and Malaysians come up short.
And so, this is what I would like the world to know about Malaysia: don't hate us. We have enough problems of our own. But for the love of God, please don't love our government. And please, please, don't deceive yourselves, thus deceiving us, by thinking Malaysians can afford to rest on our laurels — because we can't. For Malaysians, the journey to democracy and development has only just begun.