Objective and Rational Analysis the Way Forward
Malaysians are exceptionalists. We donít often realise it, but we are. We are fond of the belief that we are special, that things which apply to other peoples do not apply to us here in Malaysia. I donít expect that a whole people will disabuse themselves of this belief overnight, but I hope we can start thinking about whether this belief is really justified as frequently as we seem to think it is.
There is of course no denying that we are a unique country. Our geographic location at the crossroads of Asia, between South Asia and East Asia, combined with our rich cultural heritage rooted in both South, East and Southeast Asia ensures we can draw on synergies which more homogeneous countries like Indonesia or Singapore lack. Policies which would work in countries of different climates, be they political or meteorological, may be hardly as successful here, while policy failures elsewhere might prove remarkably effective implemented in Malaysia.
It is never enough, however, to say that something is unsuitable for Malaysia, and that is the end of that. Something is not true just because you say it is so. Where is the evidence?
The government is fond of turning down policies and laws which happen to have found use in other countries for the reason that they are not Malaysian, or that they are too Western, or what-have-you. Rarely does the government explain what makes these things intrinsically unsuitable for Malaysian use.
After all, is democracy a Malaysian idea? Certainly not. Yet we have readily adapted democracy ó hardly anybody thinks of questioning the virtue of holding elections on a regular basis.
The standard answer is that we have to take the good while rejecting the bad. Yet I have never quite understood what is so bad about giving opposition candidates the chance to have their views heard on the campaign trail, or about giving elected opposition leaders the right to appear in publicly-funded media outlets. I have never found the flaw in making government processes and accounting transparent to the public. In spite of this, the government persists in rejecting these so-called trappings of liberal democracy as not sufficiently in tune with Malaysian sensibilities.
We are far too fond of reinventing the wheel , it seems. The government acts as if we constantly have the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads ó an ill-suited comment from an irresponsible opposition leader (because government leaders are never irresponsible) could spark a racial riot, or the accidental release of a military secret could jeopardise the security of Malaysians. It never seems to occur to the government that we are not the only people with these kinds of problems, and that maybe we could learn a thing or two from other countries.
Nobody is asking for the freedom to do whatever they like, after all. Transparency laws in most countries have clauses specifically protecting military secrets, without precluding the release of information about government conduct in other areas. Laws against incitement of violence can cover those who seek to abuse racial tensions for their own gain, without impinging on responsible exercise of the freedom of speech. Solutions to our own problems can sometimes be found from the experience of others.
That is not to say it is just our leaders who have their perception of foreign policies skewed; public opinion itself is often rather exceptionalist in its approach to Malaysia. There is a virulent strain of thought amongst many which argues that the non-bumiputra communities can never aspire to be considered as full Malaysians, apparently completely unmindful of the experience other countries have had with treating some citizens as "more equal than others," as George Orwell put it. Another line of thinking suggests that maintaining a public education system which segregates primary school pupils according to race (at least by de facto) can have no detrimental effects on social cohesion, again ignoring the experience other multiracial societies have had with such school systems. We obstinately refuse to learn from the examples of others.
We should never blindly adopt a particular course of action simply because it worked well elsewhere, or blindly avoid something because it failed in another country. What we should do is objectively weigh all possible factors contributing to the problem we want to solve, and see whether ó considering our own circumstances ó the proposed action does more harm than good. An objective and rational analysis should trump emotional exceptionalism.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.