Malaysia is Not So Special?
One interesting preoccupation Malaysians seem to have with ourselves — possibly due to some sort of inferiority complex — is this idea that our country and our people are incredibly unique — that we have to be different.
This sort of thinking has been used to justify all sorts of policies and silence all sorts of criticisms. Every time a foreigner or even a Malaysian who is overseas or has been overseas opens their mouth to say something critical of Malaysia, they are told they can't really understand Malaysia because of how unique we are. (Of course, nobody ever says those who sing praises of Malaysia do not understand how unique Malaysia is.)
I would not be surprised if one of these days, somebody says that the Never Ending Policy (properly known as the New Economic Policy) is justified because of our unique nature as a country. I would not be surprised if somebody has already said this. While other countries put failing policies to death, in this unique country, the failure of a policy is a sign that it is still needed.
It is true that Malaysia is unique. But every country is unique. You want to know how unique we are? We are a federated state, formed in 1963 from a federated state and three other former colonies (which were, I might add, temporarily independent for the intervening days between 31st August and 16th September 1963). Yet, at the same time, we are a nation which has been independent for 50 years and traces its first recognised roots of unity to the Federation of Malaya in 1948.
That's pretty damn unique, I'd say. We are probably one of the few federations in the world where, even though you need to present identification to legally enter two states in the federation, the central government has stuck its finger in every pie.
We are also probably one of the last countries on earth to not only distinguish but discriminate between our citizens in the Constitution. We're certainly one of the last few where it is not uncommon to have leaders from the ruling regime proclaim the supremacy of one race and threaten ethnic genocide.
There's really no point in enumerating how different we are from other countries. But are we really so dissimilar from other countries that we have nothing to learn from them?
Is there nothing we can learn from countries like Singapore, which have at least managed to run an efficient authoritarian state instead of our inefficient authoritarian state? Is there nothing to learn from ethnically divided countries or former countries like Rwanda, Yugoslavia, etc.? What about countries with sizeable migrant populations which have seen integration of the migrants into the nation's society, like the United States?
Of course we are unique. But every country is unique. Why should any debate, any criticism, be silenced just because we're unique? We are special. So what? Everybody is special. And as the old cynical proverb goes, if everybody is special, nobody is. We all have certain traits we share, and thus all have certain things we can learn from one another.
There are always good reasons to reject a particular argument. We can reject an argument as inapplicable to our country's circumstances. But it is simply not good enough to assert this; we must show it. How is our country different and unique in this circumstance? Is it really unique, or are we just looking for a lame answer to justify our wrongheaded ideas?
The controversial Australian writer Michael Backman was recently interviewed; I need not reproduce or link to it here, as I am sure Google would serve those who have not read it. Although the whole (brief) interview is worth reading, there are a few parts which catch my eye. It would do Malaysians well to understand this:
Many like to travel overseas — but when they do, too many look but they don't see. They don't see how things in Malaysia could be improved. They don't want to learn from anywhere else. They think Malaysia is a special case. They should be bringing back new ideas to Malaysia. Instead they just want to bring back duty free.
There is an idea among Malaysians that their country is particularly special and unique and that non-Malaysians simply cannot know much about Malaysia. That simply isn't true. All countries are complex and have their nuances.