I didn't light any candles on my birthday this year. No candles, no cake and definitely no party. How to celebrate in such grim times? If I had lit a candle at all, it would have been for those who have died from the dreaded C-disease. There would have been more than 17,000 candles at that point if I was to mark all Malaysians who have lost their lives to the pandemic.
Instead, what I did on the day was to mull over the state of the nation since we share the same birthday. Malaysia's National Day on Aug 31 also felt muted this year. It felt like the country was limping through its birthday as a shell of its former successful self. A once-roaring Asian tiger is now staggering, badly wounded in the war against this virus, shouldering a battered economy, growing poverty and a fragile leadership, with the third prime minister in office in three years.
Malaysia is hurting this year. The vision we once had of being developed by 2020 looks deeply ironic now, with businesses folding and people going hungry. And the way forward will be rough and rocky.
Leadership matters. Some of us may be looking towards the government, hoping for a small miracle. Wake up and smell the coffee, people. Our politicians are not going to be our fairy godmothers who swan in and wipe away our woes with a wave of a wand. The weaknesses of our political system are only too apparent now.
We can be our own leaders, at least in our own communities. We have to roll up our sleeves and do what we can or give what we can. Be the change we want. It’s time we become participants, not simply observers.
Actually, some of us are already doing just that – just look around and see the many people helping the poor cope. Neighbours. Volunteers. Companies. Community organisations. There are so many people I could name, even among my own friends and family, who have stepped up. Malaysians are responding, realising the need for action, as seen by the #WhiteFlag, #KitaJagaKita and #RakyatJagaRakyat movements, among others.
We should not be afraid to make our voices heard. We should speak up for what is right. Change happens when a groundswell of people push for it. Indeed, it was movements on the ground that led to real change in civil and women’s rights. Never believe you have no power.
We should push our MPs to act – some will respond to public pressure. I’d say every MP should be tasked with tracking who needs help in his/her constituency to have a better idea of who needs what help, where. We cannot sit idly while people struggle to put food on the table.
Offering a lifeline to those struggling to survive should be a top priority. Of course, our economic recovery matters but what’s the point of nice shiny numbers if people are starving? Our recovery needs to be real.
Going back to the same old, same old will not be a solution. As some have called for, we need a national reboot or reset. This cannot be decided behind closed doors but should include the input of people. Our voices must matter.
And I would add this: our recovery plans should take on the other huge looming threat in front of us: the climate crisis.
The latest landmark scientific report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last month, highlights the need for urgent action. The Earth is now likely at its warmest in 125,000 years. Global surface temperature has increased since 1970 faster than in any 50-year period over the last 2,000 years. Concentrations of carbon dioxide are probably higher now than for the past two million years. And the melting of glaciers and warming of oceans are occurring at unparalleled levels. All of this is causing extreme weather events and changes – ecosystems are disappearing and biodiversity is collapsing.
A “green recovery” is being attempted by a handful of countries: Pakistan has hired tens of thousands of people who lost their jobs in the pandemic to plant trees; France is devoting a third of its €100bil (RM490.2bil) recovery package to “greening” its economy; New Zealand is setting up 11,000 environmental jobs and Britain is investing £40mil (RM229.4mil) in a “green recovery” fund to safeguard jobs in nature conservation.
Malaysia’s green recovery should involve the people who know the local environment best: the Orang Asli and other indigenous peoples. There is tremendous untapped indigenous knowledge, says Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar, chairperson of Kamy (Klima Action Malaysia). But as yet, the Orang Asli are increasingly marginalised, fighting bitter battles to keep their land and struggling to survive.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that our own health is deeply tied to the community’s. So it is with our environment. Ignoring that in the way forward would be catastrophic.
Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.