By Kee Thuan Chye
Free Malaysia Today
January 13, 2014
Come 2020, Najib – if he’s still PM then – might have the dubious honour of proclaiming Malaysia an advanced nation, but the reality could be far from that.
As we begin the new year and realise that we are only six years away from the magical 2020, when – as Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has promised – we will become an advanced nation, it might be apt to speculate whether we are ready for it.
From where we stand today, it doesn’t look likely that Malaysia can meet the per capita income and GDP criteria to be considered an advanced nation by then, but if – by some miracle – we manage to, does it mean that, economics aside, we will truly meet the grade of what being an advanced nation is?
I’m looking at it from the layman’s point of view, and what I see now doesn’t convince me that we will. Where we will fail miserably is in the socio-cultural aspect.
We are too tidak apa (in the Malay sense), too chhin chhai (in the Chinese sense), too lax. And while this may be a virtue when it comes to personal relations and avoidance of bickering over trivialities, it is a failing when it comes to performance, achievement and continued success.
We also prefer to take the easy way out, also to avoid conflict. And we generally like to lepak, some even to ponteng.
The culture is fostered in the home, and also in schools. Teachers who are strict and demand perfection are loathed, so they are not encouraged by the system. Students are also not encouraged to think critically. Merely to be spoon-fed and to regurgitate what they have learned by rote.
For a major examination like Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), the passing marks for important subjects are even lowered to allow more students to get through.
According to Leanne Goh, writing in The Star of Oct 27, 2013, “One SPM Add Maths examiner believes that the passing rate for the subject could be as low as the mid-teens … teachers say that they have come to the conclusion that the passing grade for certain subjects could be as low as 20 marks, or possibly lower, especially for Maths. … It gets easier to score and harder to fail.”
In the workplace, except for those who serve multi-national companies, banks, accounting firms or private companies that are tightly run, employees can generally get by with minimal work and mediocre performance – and even get promoted! Many are in the civil service, which, significantly enough, is staffed by 1.4 million Malaysians.
We celebrate mediocrity. And mediocrity results in low standards, low expectations. Many of us are merely satisfied with doing what’s needed and not more. We don’t take enough pride in our work, and we don’t strive to do better. Without the attitude of wanting to improve, to innovate, to even think, would we be able to help this nation achieve true advanced status?
And what about our notorious disregard for a maintenance culture? Former prime minister Abdullah Badawi once said that we had “First-World infrastructure, Third-World Mentality”. He tried to upgrade our mentality but failed. We continue to come up with beautiful government buildings only to see them decay to a sorry state after just a few years.
In some cases, the buildings are probably Third-World from the start, like the Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium in Kuala Terengganu. A major part of its roof collapsed in 2009, and early last year, while undergoing repairs, it collapsed again.
Another example is the Serdang Hospital. Between January 2011 and December 2013, the ceilings of numerous sections of the hospital have collapsed five times!
The root problem lies in the lack of accountability and the granting of projects to people who are not qualified to carry them out. This stems from a political culture that is corrupt and unjust, and seen by the public as so.
Political leaders are also noted to abuse their power, to have been exonerated for crimes they allegedly committed, and to make millions through dishonest means.
They also bend the law to allow for double standards. Thus, Negeri Sembilan Menteri Besar Mohamad Hasan got away with allegedly transferring RM10 million to London illegally in 2008 while the moneychanger involved in the transaction got fined and lost his licence.
Unfortunately, the political leaders’ disregard for the strict application of the law rubs off as well on the populace. We see wrongdoers getting away with crimes, murder, corruption, and we say to ourselves, “Well, if our leaders can go unpunished, why should we follow the rules?”
The most obvious manifestation of that attitude is our disregard for traffic rules. You could be driving normally in your lane while nearing a traffic light and suddenly have a car from the next lane cut into yours so it could squeeze past the light without having to properly queue up.
Or you could come across a large SUV double-parked right at the corner of a busy junction and causing a nuisance, blocking traffic. You try to ease your car out from the adjacent road and manoeuvre around it to avoid crashing into cars coming from another direction, simultaneously cursing at the bloody inconsiderate driver of that bloody SUV.
Worse, you could be driving along a one-way street and suddenly find a car approaching from the opposite direction!
Or walking on a pedestrian pavement only to encounter a motorcycle coming up behind you and honking to get you out of its way. When it goes past you, you notice there are three passengers on the motorcycle, one of them a child sandwiched in between and not wearing a crash helmet.
You shake your head. How do we achieve advanced-nation mentality?
I could go on. About people showing no respect for no-smoking zones, like the toilet of a cinema or a shopping mall.
About derelict areas in affluent cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang that look decidedly Third World, like those behind the City Stadium off Jalan Datuk Keramat or the Jalan Perak-Jelutong vicinity.
About ad hoc stalls that can pop up overnight, with no business licences and no regard for standards of hygiene. About the odours and the filth in commercial places due to poor drainage and rubbish disposal.
In Selangor, even in affluent areas like SS2 and Puchong, you can smell rancid odours in the air where food shops are located.
You don’t get this in advanced countries like Singapore or Taiwan. I’ve been to small towns in Taiwan like Yuanlin and Lukang and didn’t see or smell this kind of filth there. Even the street stalls look clean. And of course in Singapore, you’d be hard-pressed to find mosquitoes!
Culture. Mindset. Political leadership. Rule of law. Civic consciousness. These count as much as economic criteria in determining the status of a nation.
Come 2020, Najib – if he’s still prime minister then – might have the dubious honour of proclaiming Malaysia an advanced nation, but the reality could be far from that.
By then, we might be a First-World country, but one with a Third-World mentality.
Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the book The Elections Bullshit, available in major bookstores. This article first appeared in the January 2014 issue of ‘Penang Monthly’