Of starfish and #BantuMembantu


While we keep thinking about the best ways to do system-wide aid, let’s not forget the power of inspiring each other to do small good deeds.

WHAT a start to the week it was.

Emotions seemed to run quite the gamut. There was something depressing, discouraging, and debilitating about being hit by a double whammy so early in the year: a new movement control order and a full-on Emergency.

Malaysians fighting for civil rights over years and decades might have felt particularly fatigued at this latest development.

A lot can and has been said about these unprecedented moves, the political calculations behind them, and so on.

It took me quite a bit of time to process through what was happening. Had to sit with those emotions quite a bit before the dust cleared.

When it did, I guess things came back to the principle of differentiating between what we can control, and what we can’t.

I expect political shenanigans will continue. I expect politicians will find the words of people like me some of the least relevant words out there, especially next to words like ‘power’ and ‘money’.

I only started to breathe a little easier when it finally dawned on me: there’s still a lot the rest of us can do.

Changing the way the government in Malaysia behaves is a long term project - one that is never really all that far from my mind.

With restriction after restriction being placed on us, however, it seems unlikely that game changers will happen in the short term. That arena will likely merely see the usual suspects going more and more rounds around the same old merry-go-round.

While that is going on, I realised there is still plenty of work we can do; indeed, there is already plenty of vital work being done. Work that impacts the lives of everyday people here in Malaysia, in life-changing ways, if not always in far-reaching or wide-ranging ones.

I realised that activists and people who want to make big changes often think in terms of the big picture, and in systematic solutions.

This too is absolutely vital. There must be those among us who are thinking at such a level, or we will never make major changes.

In my personal journey, however, I realise that this mode of thinking all the time can sometimes blind me to the value of making small changes.

The father of a university mate of mine once remarked to us: The perfect is the enemy of the good.

These thoughts have helped remind me that while we keep thinking about the best ways to do system-wide aid, let’s not forget the power of inspiring each other to do small good deeds.

Maybe it’s as little as raising RM500 among friends to help a family that has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

Maybe it’s as little as helping to spread the word on social media about someone who lost their job and is looking for a new one, or needs to advertise a business they’ve just started.

It may even be as little as checking up on a friend or relative who may be especially isolated during this second MCO.

As they say, "sikit-sikit lama-lama jadi bukit" (every little bit counts).

These are just a tiny sample of how we can help one another.

Some believe the MCO is good, some believe it is terrible. Some believe the Emergency is good, some believe it is terrible.

These are all valid questions to debate.

Personally, I’m a little tired of going round and round with those particular sets of questions, and the way in which those making those decisions seem further and further from the reality on the ground.

It then falls to people like you and me I guess, to try and find ways to get closer and closer to that reality, and to focus on what we can do and influence, rather than on what we can’t.

I recall the story of a colleague of mine, who was particularly affected by the Sheraton Move, and his subsequent parting of ways with someone he had looked up to for such a long time.

The whole episode affected him, his career, and his livelihood - not to mention the devastating effects of experiencing what was in essence a betrayal.

Over the days and weeks that followed, he shared that what finally got him out of his depression was going back to his roots in grassroots-level work, and getting his hands dirty to put in effort and sweat into the most basic work of distributing aid on the ground.

Maybe he was now only helping tens of people instead of the thousands he might have had in his previous position, but in that work, he slowly found his way out of depression.

It also reminds me of another tale I keep coming back to.

A man walks down the beach after a storm, to find hundreds of starfish washed ashore, sure to die under the hot sun. He comes across an old man, throwing the starfish back into the sea, one by one.

The younger man asks: “Why do you do this? You are only throwing the starfish back one by one, surely you won’t throw back enough to make a difference.”

The older man only smiles a sad smile, throws yet another starfish back into the sea, and says: “It made a difference to that one.”

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR), a civil society organisation that just launched a small #BangsaMalaysia #BantuMembantu campaign. He tweets @NatAsasi and can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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