Malaysia: Not Too Great
I sometimes keep in mind certain interesting news tidbits which might be worthy of comment in the future, and one certainly struck me as fitting tody — Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak's assertion that "Malaysia is great."
Najib's remarks were actually made over a month ago, in late October 2007. The choice of words &mdash: "Admit that Malaysia is great", ran the Bernama headline — in itself conveyed something: might this government actually be afraid it is losing the battle for public opinion?
In any event, that is a moot question now. After the government's heavyhanded and wasteful response to peaceful rallies in the last month, it is difficult to argue that this administration is not in some sort of trouble.
But why would Najib say Malaysia is great? Let's look at some of the factual, indisputable statements he made. There was the Malaysian spaceman, something he credits as a triumph for Malaysia, but something that in reality did nothing for the Malaysian scientific community. While we are burning money on pointless exploits, other countries are investing in building their schools and maintaining their infrastructure.
(Speaking of maintenance, will this Malaysian space programme be a one-off? Are we ever going to get beyond launching Malaysian citizens into space with Malaysian taxpayers' money, and calling it a success for Malaysian science despite no Malaysian science being involved?)
Najib also cites the Scorpene submarine as a Malaysian success. The trouble is, this isn't a Malaysian submarine. Scorpene submarines were jointly developed by French and Spanish companies — all Malaysia did was pay them a bucket of money to order the submarines.
You can't buy greatness, Najib. You can buy the things which you can use to become great, but being able to buy things doesn't make you great. Saying that it is a wonderful "great" achievement to buy a submarine is basically saying "We are great because we have enough money to buy submarines!"
We all know having a lot of money doesn't make you great. It's what you do with that money which decides whether you are great. If you can parlay it into a larger sum, or alternatively devote it to the service of society, then you are great. We remember men like John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates not because they happened to own obscene amounts of cash, but because of how they obtained that money, and how they then spent it — for the good of society.
How has Malaysia got her money? By taxing her citizens, yes, but our economy isn't stellar. We've achieved tremendous development, but contrary to popular belief, we did horribly compared to what we could have achieved. And, of course, the other fly in the ointment is that half the government's money is derived from oil. An accident of birth doesn't make you great. Paris Hilton was born into great wealth and we don't consider her great. We got lucky and God gave us oil — how is spending this oil money on submarines a sign of greatness?
Najib's most interesting statement is this:
As Malaysians, we must be proud as the country has enjoyed stability not only politically but also economically, with good racial ties and strong national security not found elsewhere, making the country the envy of many others.Let's parse that. Political stability? Countries generally pride themselves on having a somewhat unstable political system — the whole point of democracy is that in five years, a completely different bunch of people could be deciding where the country goes.
Maybe Najib's referring to the fact that we've never had a revolution or coup, but a lot of "great" countries have had this. Britain? They had a civil war, beheaded a couple of their monarchs, and as recently as the 18th century deposed their King to let a Dutchman rule. The United States? They had a revolution and a civil war. France? Revolution, a tonne of political changes (there have been five different French Republics). Japan and Germany had America install new governments after World War II. South Korea has had five republics as well. I could go on and on. How does political stability assure greatness?
Economic stability — that's a bit debatable. We sort of know what to expect from the Malaysian government, so in that sense things are stable, but its economic policies are hardly the soundest around. A stable economy is one where the government controls everything, sets all the prices. That isn't a great economy, though — it's a basket case. And incidentally, that's what we have — we still have five-year plans (how much more socialist could you get?), and the government intervenes heavily in many markets. The largest firms in the country are either owned in part or totality by the government, or controlled by those with ties to the government in power.
Good racial ties? Let's see, we have publicly-operated segregated schools, racial polarisation is such a huge problem that the government used it as an excuse to start drafting youth into a ridiculous national service programme, and the government constantly warns us that another racial riot like the May 13 Incident might be on the horizon.
Najib thus seems to be deviating from the standard party line — or, rather, he is sticking with a party line that is blatantly hypocritical. I'm inclined to think that the truth lies in between — I highly doubt many Malaysians (well, except for UMNO leaders) are interested in killing people from another race, ruling out another racial bloodbath. But at the same time, it's clear we have racial problems — we're not meaningfully united as a nation. We don't exhibit a unique bond as a Malaysian nation — we're all still Malay, Chinese, Indian, or lain-lain (as many government forms have it). I'm not sure having a multicultural country where people don't regularly kill each other over race is that huge a success.
Strong national security? Who is Najib kidding? We're not at war with any country, but that's the case with most other countries. When it comes to protecting its citizens, the Barisan Nasional government is a complete failure. Malaysians live in fear of snatch thefts, rape, and burglary. We hire private security guards to keep our homes safe. There is no greater indictment of the government's failure to protect its people.
Malaysia isn't great, Najib. It's no paradise. Rather than denying these problems, if this government "will always strive to make it better for the people", then it should be trying to fix them. The very fact that Najib can delude himself into claiming that Malaysia is great smacks of irresponsibility and negligence on his part, and the part of the administration in power.