Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Ad Hominem: How Malaysians Lose the Plot

Written by johnleemk on 2:43:31 pm Sep 14, 2006.
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Take a look at any argument among Malaysians about politics where a foreign-residing Malaysian has given his views, and one thing becomes painfully obvious: Malaysians can't resist presuming that the views of Malaysians who don't happen to live here anymore are worthless, and ought to be given short shrift. In particular, this applies when said foreign-domiciled Malaysians are being critical of their home country, or when what is said is simply unpalatable. As one such criticism states, "Just stay away, do not confuse the laymen like us and make it more difficult for us to have a decent plate of nasi lemak in the mornings of tommorrow and day afters."

The reason for the prevalence of this argument is obvious. Malaysians seem to think that anyone not living here would be wholly unacquainted with the nuances and peculiarities of Malaysian life. As such, any criticism or advice from these people would be imperfect at best, and thus ought not to be heeded.

The problem with this approach is that it overlooks some basic problems with its conjecture. Someone born and bred in Malaysia can hardly be completely unfamiliar with the situation here. Yes, things change over time - but how much change can occur in the span of half a decade? A decade? Two decades? Quite a lot - but at the same time, perhaps not much. In either case, it seems irrational to dismiss out of hand any criticisms of a Malaysian living overseas.

Another approach is to imply these people have been corrupted by the Western values of the countries they have taken up residence in, or simply do not love their country. This certainly has some prima facie grounds; many Malaysians living overseas do tend to be more liberal, or in some cases, spiteful. It is not uncommon to run across inane tirades written by people with little better to do than smear mud across what little good name Malaysia has, and cook up conspiracy theories on the flimsiest of evidence.

The spiteful rants masquerading as thought-out criticisms are worthy of being ignored. They can contribute little, if anything, to a discussion of Malaysian politics or society. The problem that arises is that some people seem to categorise all liberal-minded Malaysians, and all criticisms of Malaysian society/government in general, under this label. As stated by one "vincent" in the first document linked to earlier, "what do you plan to achieve by telling the whole world what you fear about your ‘beloved’ homeland?"

The answer is simple. By constructively criticising the state of affairs in Malaysia, and comparing them with that of other countries, we develop a point of reference for ourselves that allows us to gauge our situation relative to other countries and peoples. Of course, some of the things liberals enjoy criticising will strike us as petty and unworthy of comment. Certainly, I've found many proposals of theirs to be unsuited for the situation here, and far too idealistic to ever be practically implemented in the present social climate.

Still, the freedom of expression granted legally by our Constitution and in practice by the Internet means that we shouldn't shut these people up. As long as their agitation does not rise to levels that pose a threat to Malaysian stability, there is no reason to abridge freedom of speech. It is better to have a little too much freedom than too little (although then again, this tends to be the kind of liberal statement that throws some conservatives into a mini-frenzy).

The last argument we will examine today is also from "vincent": "Malaysians living overseas have no right to complain about things going on at home, because if they really did care about things back home, they would be here like the rest of us trying to fix the leaking roof." In other words, put your money where your mouth is and practice what you preach.

While this certainly is a good exhortation, it has no impact whatsoever on the quality or credibility of the criticism being addressed. Whether one is willing to stand up for what one believes in has no direct effect on whether one's beliefs are right or wrong. The only impact it has is on the reputation of the fellow who is being critical. Even so, this rebuttal still fails to account for other possible reasons one might remain overseas. One might have established a family there already; one may still be studying; it is possible one is on bond due to past scholarships. It is unfair to expect such people to return home just so they can practice what they preach.

The more greyer fields are where we have people content to remain overseas, with little intent of ever returning to Malaysia. Such people can't be condemned outright - there must be a reason they still cling to their blue ICs and red passports. And even if they have given up Malaysian citizenship, they still remain inextricably bound to Malaysia by their heritage. It would be unfair to expect these people not to pass comment on a country they have cultural and emotional ties with.

In the end, these three defences for ad hominem attacks on criticisms of Malaysia share similar loopholes. The first is the fact that any ad hominem argument is a logical fallacy and is inadmissible in any real debate. The second is that foreign views are never entirely subjected to the attack of being unreliable. It is only foreign criticism that feels the brunt of such attacks.

Malaysians are eager to lap up any praise in store for us. We don't mind making comparisons with other countries, as long as these comparisons are sure to be favourable for us. (Look! We're ahead of Ghana!) And if someone from overseas, Malaysian or otherwise, has anything good to say about us, we don't mind. It's only when people start pointing out the pimples on our face and the scars on our body that we get irritated.

One counter-argument is that praise is fine, as long as foreigners don't take credit for it, while criticism is not because "Complaining just means that you want someone to fix that problem so your life would be nice and dandy when you do decide to return one day."

The issue with this response is that it assumes it makes sense to cut off your nose to spite your face. If you see a problem, you should shut up because telling other people about it would bring you personal benefit? (Even if these other people would also benefit were the problem fixed.) Somehow that isn't very logical. In the first place, the underlying foundation of today's global economy is that greed is good. Self-interest is the only reason anything gets done. Perhaps you're a socialist, but even so, would it make sense for someone who sees a problem not to tell anyone about it in a socialistic economy? I doubt so.

In the end, all we can say is that criticisms of Malaysia by foreign Malaysians are not deserving of outright dismissal. If there are issues with their credibility, there will be enough holes in them for them to be rebutted without hitting below the belt and attacking the loyalty, work ethic, or honour of those criticising.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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