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Tuesday January 1, 2013

People to the fore

We are a
different
country today.
What has
changed in the
last four years
is that there is
a sense of
empowerment
in us, like these
Malaysians
protesting
against the
construction of
the Lynas earth
plant, in
Gebeng, during
the ‘Green
Gathering 2.0’
event in
Kuantan in
February last
year. — AZHAR
MAHFOF/The
Star We are a different country today. What has changed in the last four years is that there is a sense of empowerment in us, like these Malaysians protesting against the construction of the Lynas earth plant, in Gebeng, during the ‘Green Gathering 2.0’ event in Kuantan in February last year. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

It may have been four tumultuous years since the 2008 general elections, but we can look forward to 2013 optimistically, safe in the knowledge that while the Malaysian people have become vocal about many issues, they have remained largely civil about it.

PART of my instructions for this piece was to write about my hopes for the future of politics in this country. After giving it some thought, I came up with one big New Year’s wish.

I wish that some boffin would invent a device all politicians have to wear.

It would be akin to a large ugly hat. It should look like something which is desperately trying to appear “high tech”. Kind of like the props that you find in a particularly bad episode of Star Trek.

Apart from the advantage of being able to identify politicians from afar so that you can either approach them or run away, this device would give off electric shocks every time the wearer lies, makes a hypocritical statement or raise God’s name in vain. In this way, we can wean out the dodgy ones right away.

But then, looking at some of our politicos, I think quite a few of them might actually enjoy the occasional kinky electric shock.

Oh, well, back to the drawing board.

Actually, I am being unfair to our politicians. They are not all unbearable. Since the last general elections, there have been a few bright sparks (on both sides of the political divide – though more on the opposition side, I must admit) who have been making intelligible and intelligent sounds. A refreshing change from the usual Neanderthal grunts we are used to. Mind you, those grunters still exist, but there is more of a counter-balance now.

The fact that this new batch of politicians are relatively young, bodes well, in that one can hope that when the aged obtuse retire or get voted out, their replacements will at least have greater-than-average intelligence. And political debate will be logical, reasoned and smart minus the sexist, racist and circular arguments that drift up from the gutter every now and again.

The biggest change over the past four years, though, is not in the hallowed and leaking halls of parliament, but on the streets. The people of Malaysia have changed. The most obvious indication of this change is the fact that street demonstrations are starting to become almost a normal thing here. From the massive Bersih and Himpunan Hijau rallies to the smaller demos and sit-ins like the Occupy Dataran movement.

What is amazing about these gatherings is that a very large number of the participants are not youthful rabble-rousers but middle-class, middle-aged gents and ladies who a few years ago would rather be at home sipping tepid tea and watching cookery shows rather than braving the Malaysian rain – both natural and chemical-laced.

It seems to me that the cloak of fear that has retarded any thought, let alone expression of displeasure aimed towards the powers-that-be, has been lifted. After decades of hushed whispers and furtive glances over the shoulder when being critical of the government, for fear that the Special Branch has somehow managed to infiltrate even private living rooms, Malaysians are being pretty darned vocal.

The status quo is being challenged and in a way never before seen in Malaysian politics. The challengers cross ethnic, religious and class boundaries. And this, in my opinion, indicates that issues are now the cause celebre for the Malaysian people, not narrow ethnic views or individual idol worship.

Of course, the Malaysian bug bear of race still exists. It is impossible to think that a few years can see to the end of the country’s favourite political weapon. And there are those who will shamelessly churn out the race ticket for their own agenda.

And from underneath rotten logs of wood and damp rocks, there have been groups crawling out into the sun to have their day in the spotlight; groups which are blatantly racist and divisive. It is of no surprise, of course.

They have always been there but the events of the last few years have shaken their comfortable existence.

Personally, I am glad it has come to this. There is nothing more annoying than a pimple that lies under the skin. You can’t really pop it because it can’t be seen and you risk scarring your skin. Far better to have it burst forth in all its pus-filled glory so that you can identify it, and deal with it with a dollop of cream and a nice squeeze.

The same goes for those with deplorable ideology. Far better to have them where they can be seen and challenged in the open.

Staying on this theme of racial divisiveness, one must say there have been some serious incidents in the last four years. Fire-bombed churches and severed cow and pig heads have vied for our attention on top of the shrill, hate-filled speech we are more accustomed to. Once again, none of this is particularly surprising, but what is surprising is the reaction to such incidents.

There is a calmness that tempers the expected feelings of anger, and this speaks volumes. It shows that, on the whole, the vast majority of the Malaysian people will not be provoked and will not rise to the bait.

We have reached a point where what matters is good governance, clean politics and the respect for democracy and human rights. Communalist thinking is taking a back seat to these things and no matter what a few mindless idiots will do, by and large we will not lower ourselves to their level.

And I think that the government has noticed this. They can’t be so blind as to not notice. Therefore the Internal Security Act has been replaced; the Peaceful Assembly Act introduced and the printing Presses and Publications Act amended. Whether these changes are purely cosmetic or substantial, I do not have enough space here to delve into. But what is certain is that without this newly expressed political maturity from the citizens, such changes, as superficial as they may be, would not have happened at all.

We are a different country today. What has changed in the last four years is that there is a sense of empowerment in us. What I hope for in the future is that it will continue and grow.

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