This is the printable version of an article from Infernal Ramblings (infernalramblings.com). The original web-optimised article is also available.

Malaysians Can't Take Criticism

It's all too common for Malaysians to say that we should not criticise our own country. Is it more harmful to pretend we have no problems, or to work towards solving them? The problem with Malaysians is that we are not used to dealing with criticism.

Written by johnleemk on 4:30:00 pm Aug 5, 2008.

Many Malaysians often lash out at criticisms of internal Malaysian problems. It is bad form to criticise one's own country, so they say. A common fear is that we will look ridiculous to foreigners for badmouthing our own land, and directly harm our own country. But this makes no sense: who perpetuates a wrong, the person who tries to right it, or the person who pretends it doesn't exist?

In the first place, I think we often exaggerate the effects of criticism. When I railed against the education system a few years back, people tried to take me to task for possibly discouraging foreign tourism. Last year at the height of the BERSIH rallies for free and fair elections, the government-controlled press criticised dissenters for driving away foreign investment. Do foreign investors and tourists really care about our education or electoral systems?

In an abstract sense, maybe, but these are not going to be dealbreaking issues for them. I don't decide where to vacation based on the quality of the schools; I don't decide where to put my money based on how many (or few) public rallies there are. Anyone who says that criticising Malaysian schools or protesting in the streets discourages foreign tourism and investment must likewise believe that praising Malaysian schools to the heavens and crushing all public rallies will encourage tourists and investors to flock here.

Of course, criticism will have its effects, and that's too bad — but are we doing the country a service by pretending problems don't exist? If our schools, our roads, our systems of governance are broken, do we really do Malaysia a favour by shutting up?

I cannot understand the mentality of those who say "we should never criticise Malaysia" — I simply can't. There are of course times when it is prudent to say nothing, but there are also times when it is better to voice what's on your mind. To say we should always shrink from criticism is just as wrong as saying that nothing positive should ever pass our lips.

The main problem as I see it is not criticism, but understanding how to deal with it and build on it. Malaysians often can't deal with criticism because those who criticise only know how to criticise, and the criticised don't know how to respond. Because we are so averse to dissent and disagreement, we do not know how to handle it gracefully, and we rarely see the right response as fixing the problem which led to the issue in the first place.

There is a lot of criticism out there that is simply not right — criticism from people who are just out there to be jerks and assholes, rather than actually contribute. But that does not invalidate criticism from people who do want problems solved. The trouble with our society is that we often appear not to realise this.

The appropriate response to criticism is to see if the problem is real, and try to solve it. If we can do something about it — whether that be writing to the Education Ministry or organising a dialogue with a local councillor — great. If we can't, too bad. Let's not take criticism personally; let's not take it as an insult, even when it is. Ignore the useless criticism, and be glad for the useful brickbats you do get. Our country will be much better off for it.