Finding hope for Malaysia in 2015

By Bridget Welsh
Jan 1, 2015

COMMENT Difficult is an understatement for the year Malaysia had in 2014. Today marks a new beginning, an opportunity for assessment and moving forward.

With so many Malaysians suffering from bouts of despair with the national leadership on both sides of the political divide, I wanted to take an opportunity to share some positive observations on the present situation and the country’s future.

Despite all the challenges the country faces, it is vital not to be blinded by negativity. Doing so will let the dark forces that have been fanned since 2013 win. Malaysians deserve better – a hope for change and the promise of better governance.

While acknowledging the devastating tragedies of last year as well as the deterioration in race relations and the woefully inadequate performance of political leaders, I highlight here developments and lessons that are strengthening, and can further strengthen, Malaysia.

Caring Malaysia

There were important bright spots in 2014 that should be recognised. On multiple occasions Malaysians came together across faiths in their shared humanity.

Malaysians are a generous people in giving and empathetic with others. Malaysians regularly stop when a person is in trouble, and this is often in spite of real concerns over crime. They also open their purse strings when there is need, as we are seeing with the bounty of contributions to those suffering from the flooding.

There is a deep sense of community that even in the face of adversity binds Malaysians together. Outreach across faiths and genuine caring for others’ well-being was more evident in practice than the politicised racial vitriol. This was most obvious during the airline disasters and flooding emergency, but illustrated elsewhere as well.

Recall the outrage over the attempted closing of the homeless shelters in Kuala Lumpur, or the multiple incidents where the country’s Twitter network reached out to help find a missing loved one. When it matters, Malaysians come together for one another.

No longer silent majority

2014 was also the year the silent majority found its voice. It is speaking in a noisy room, but there nevertheless. After almost two years of dangerous extremist language, growing irrational anger, and often sheer stupidity, more are coming out to advocate the views of those of the largely silent majority.

Much has been made of the Eminent 25, an important group of the Malay elite. They are not alone. Pharmacist Syed Azmi Alhabshi, whose well-meaning ‘Touch a Dog’ programme to promote understanding across faiths, was appreciated (as testimony of the crowd) and the abuse and threats he faced for doing so were not well-received.

There is also strong public support for much-needed checks on the abuses of the unaccountable religious authorities who continue to think they are the ‘chosen’ ones to persecute innocent people like the Borders bookseller. There is similarly broad disdain for confiscation of other faiths’ holy texts, their desecration and endorsement of the urging to ‘burn’ religious texts – a shameful disgrace for any human being, least of all supposed leaders.

This is just not right, and ordinary Malaysians acknowledge it, even if the political environment is such that it is hard to say so in public without facing a battery of attacks. From the excessive cancerous corruption to everyday criminality, Malaysians are concerned and speaking out against these problems.

This is not new. Voting patterns since 1999 show that citizens want a fairer and better government, one that respects and listens to them. This is not going away, even if the Election Commission is acting in a non-transparent manner to further manipulate the electoral system by offering greedy political parties new seats.

Lessons from disasters

The list of problems the country – any country for that matter – faces is always long. What matters is how the leadership responds to it – the solutions.

Sadly, Malaysian political leaders are increasingly not meeting public expectations. The opposition has failed miserably to work together as a viable political alternative last year, and remains on the brink of division.

The premier has faced a growing rebellion in his own party. If Umno’s party elections were held today, it is unlikely that he would win the presidency.

Najib Razak has often been the ‘absentee PM’, prioritising a photo-op for a meeting on a trade deal that is effectively dead over the suffering of his people in one most serious national emergencies the country has faced since independence – an event that has not even yet been declared an emergency.

The ineffective actions of state governments, particularly Kelantan, whose menteri besar was briefly trapped in his own house instead of helping and leading rescue efforts, were equally disheartening. Now however is the time to look ahead.

The key is to learn the lessons from these disasters. Whether it is with regard to missing airplanes or flooding, these problems can be better addressed through pro-active, early measures.

This year offers Malaysia opportunities to lead in these areas – to use Asean as a forum to enhance regional airline security, to form a domestic and international task force for flood prevention and relief.

Lessons can be taken from steps adopted in Jakarta and elsewhere. These measures can range from simple more environmentally aware waste management and better effective storm warning systems, to harder but as essential toughening on corruption and illegal logging.

With crisis there is opportunity, and 2015 is a year for finding the silver lining and assuring that more lives are saved in pro-active action rather than reaction.

A time for healing

Part of the solution lies with bringing in more independent expertise. It is said knowledge is power, and we learned over the last year that learning can lead to better responses to crises. An example is the response to airline tragedies.

One reason for this is that more technocratic knowledge was brought into the assessments. It is essential to have people who understand not only the problems Malaysia faces, but to include those who can offer solutions.

Technocrats can offer more insights. The Najib mode has been to throw money at problems, but this is not enough. More needs to be done to look at the underlying causes and options ahead. This extends from flooding to development challenges. Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M) is clearly not enough to address the needs of poorer Malaysians.

Part of the change towards knowledge involves changing mindsets. Good government is not about a photo-opportunity on a golf course or standing on the back of a garbage truck. It involves cooperation and compromise, which have been largely absent in much of last year’s political life.

This new year is a time for healing. These are not easy to do, especially in Malaysia’s diverse and politically fragmented society. They take courage.

The year ahead will indeed show whether Kelantan’s ulama leaders recognise that they do not have the skills to be in charge of this devastated state and make way to more capable leadership. The year ahead will also reveal whether those not engaged in dialogue will start talking to one another and moving past differences.

The year ahead will see whether politicians put aside politicking for the people. Many do not have faith in any of these developments, and frankly I too am not optimistic on the political front.

Where my hope lies is with the reality of greater pressure on leaders to buck up, to live up to expectations and importantly in the inherent caring character and spirit of the majority of Malaysians who have a clear sense of priorities – the needs and well-being of their fellow human beings.

With my faith in the wisdom of ordinary people, I remain hopeful in the prospects and possibilities of the new year.

BRIDGET WELSH is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University and can be reached at [email protected]

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