Is Malaysia A Nation of Cowards: Lessons From Tunisia & Egypt

Is Malaysia a nation of cowards, who only sit and moan at what is going on around them?

It’s only January and I foresee an exciting year ahead, for me personally and for the bigger world at large. In light of everything going on now, I am transported back to the 1979 revolution in Iran that overthrew the dictatorship of a monarch but which unfortunately instated a new form of quasi democratic theocratic dictatorship. While I am not claiming that theocracy has to be undemocratic, the complexity of syaria’s history and other forms of religion codified-laws makes it difficult to negotiate the hermeneutics of these laws within the parameters of Enlightenment democracy.

Of course, many countries have undergone many revolutions, some beginning as a fight for sovereignty before transforming into resistance against cruel  rulers.

What would Tunisia’s fate be? There are talks in the media about how suppressed Islamist groups are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They overthrew a dictator, but I hope a vacuum is not left behind to cause a worse form of dictatorship to take over. But as long as the people are adamant about freedom and democracy, and as long as they can keep all forms of millitary-led coup at bay, they have a fresh new start ahead of them. Social media is said to be one of the main media that fueling the revolt in Tunisia. If I get a chance, I would love to visit the country in the aftermath of the revolution, to see what it has sparked off.

Tunisian pro-government demonstrators hold a national flag during a protest on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis January 25, 2011. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Tunisian pro-government demonstrators hold a national flag during a protest on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis January 25, 2011. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Now, Egypt is on fire, and the people are revolting regardless of what Mubarak does to them. Incidentally, I met a Lebanese graduate student at my room-mate’s birthday party and we commiserated over the state of politics in our respective countries.

If we look closely at what is going on there, we know that much of the revolt is fueled by the educated class. The last time Malaysia had a revolt, it was fueled by the incumbent government’s sponsored thugs. But not so in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt. Ironically, Malaysia sent tonnes of its “religion-studies” students to Egypt to Al-Azhar but none of them have ever imbibed or learnt anything from that cradle of civilisation with thousands of years of history because they spent much of their years there immersed in their own little ghetto, trying to simulate the life of the different little villages they came from in Malaysia.

These countries saw a revolution led by the intelligentsia, and the intellectuals. One of the main fuel is Tunisia’s horrific economic and unemployment problem at this time, while Egypt is strangled by its iron-fisted dictator who did not even bother to be nuanced about the way in which he is trying to control his people (he probably thought he could do it ala North Korea, whose people had spent generations under a gulag-like dictatorship). Or Iran. Iran has clamped down on access to much social media. A friend of mine studying there is completely incognito now, as the last email I received from him informed me that he has very little access to the cyberworld.

It is also interesting that in most news reports on Tunisia, they always prefaced the story of the revolt with the remark of how successful Tunisia’s education system has been (with the revolt as one of the domino effects of it) yet how underemployed the young people are (it would be interesting to study more closely how and what is the cause of that underemployment, beyond to-your-face economics). There are a number of Tunisian Fulbrighters in the US, and from what I have heard from some of the Middle-Eastern Fulbrighters, many were concerned about returning home to no jobs. I heard first heard of all these in 2008. But I also suspect that they didn’t want to return to the politics of their country. I distinctly remember a guy from Tunisia who voiced the concern of economics, as did also a Lebanese woman, as being the cause of their desire to be able to remain in the US (even though US financial crisis was beginning to escalate at that time). Both these countries have remarkable European influences to this day, and this shows by the dual cultures straddled effortlessly by the more educated citizens.

Egyptian demonstrators protest in central Cairo January 25, 2011. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

Egyptian demonstrators protest in central Cairo January 25, 2011. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

Where does Malaysia stands in on this?

Well, we probably should think of Malaysia and Malaysians as people living in the Matrix. They believe they have the freedom, that the economy will improve with all these economic transformation plans, that they can still enjoy material excess and progress, that they will continue to live in comfort. I think I have written about this more than a decade ago and the situation still has not changed, not one mite.

People are still lulled by a false sense of security, not understanding that the carpet will be pulled out from under their feet anytime, at any moment.  They are not unlike North Koreans in general, minus the physical deprivation and visceral torture, because they believe in much of what is fed to them. The government is smart in creating a quasi welfare state, and in creating a false sense of us going somewhere, when in reality, we are just going in circles, as what I have seen from the time I was a freshman in college, more than a decade ago.

We think that since Google is coming to Malaysia, we are being acknowledged. Well, Microsoft is in Malaysia. So is Intel. I once worked for the production house of a large publishing company with offices worldwide that relocated to Cyberjaya, the Malaysian government’s failed project at creating a “Multimedia Supercorridor” (it hasn’t really taken off more than when it first started out, has it?). Did they bring about epistemic shifts and change? Did the people suddenly become more creative and smarter? Not really. I knew people who work in these offices in Malaysia. Most are glorified support staff.  The heart of these companies, the exciting work being done by these companies. are NOT in Malaysia. For that, I think they would rather go to India and China before Malaysia.

We like to think we have a good system of education. We sure do, to a certain level, in creating people with good technical abilities (at some level too) without any ability to reflect on the work they do (and I am talking about high level work here, professionals, even many in academia). Our cream of the crop kids probably exemplify a parody of what Amy Chua, the “misunderstood” Tiger Mother, tried to instill in her daughters. I grew up with high achievers around me (I was the underachiever) so I do know what I am talking about. This is not the case of sour grapes either since I am exactly where I have always wanted to be for the longest time and am no longer an underachiever.

I would like to bring up Syed Hussein Alatas, a former VC of University Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and a scholar both conveniently forgotten or uncritically worshipped (depending on who you speak to), even though he had said this in 1970s, at a time when I wasn’t even born. He had stated that most of the people holding leading roles in society were unfortunately bebal/moronic. You can be paper smart, you could have been the top kid in your school, you could even have gotten a government scholarship to study abroad, but that did not preclude you from bebalism. I think this could not have sat well with the regime or the public at the time (and it certainly still stings today).

But truth of the matter, when you do not quite gaze beyond your navel, when you parrot what everyone around you is saying because that sounds smart and may even earn your brownie points with them, when you revel in momentary distractions in a false sense of freedom and self-adulation, this is what you are. You may refuse to acknowledge how all these will soon pass away, as what has been going on in so many other countries are a case in point. But probably while other countries are moving on, Malaysia will always be the spineless, static, entity it is, and I feel sad for the country. We have intelligentsia in our countries but we have no real (or extremely few) intellectuals (I will be writing more about this in another article). Do we have any legacy for the world? Zilch. We blame the government for everything but all we do is just sit on our fat asses and moan, doing nothing.

At the same time, I am heartened by the fact that there are some university students in Malaysia who are fighting to have their voices heard and rights recognised. I hope that this small group would one day be the herald for change, since I have lost faith in much of my generation (those in their late 20s and 30s).

Why do I say that?

Because we are a nation of cowards.

Even when we know something is wrong with the system, we just sit and moan. We have been since 1957 and until we understand even a minutiae of what is happening in the world today and take a hard look at where we are, we will always be one.

I too am tired of being a coward.

Clarissa is a Malaysian graduate student of the humanities in the US trying to make sense of the world politics through what is going on in Tunisia and Egypt right now, and other revolts in times past and in the future, both physical and epistemic. This is time for soul-searching in Malaysia and to ask how Malaysia and Malaysians are being affected by the turn of events in the past one year. Social networks is the center where the revolution is unfolding, and she hopes that this could also bring about positive change in Malaysia, whatever the form and shape that takes. This post has been previously been published on Clarissa’s blog, Unquiet mind of an academic libertine.

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Posted on 31 January 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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