We need the leaders we truly deserve

WE have a national flag, national anthem, and these days we have a National Pose too. It’s the palm of the hand slapped against the forehead, preferably with the head hung low and cheeks reddened.

When we see our flag fly or sing NegaraKu, our hearts swell with pride, tears might spring in our eyes. But with the National Pose, our eyes may water as well, but only out of shame.

What brought about this new stance? Tell me how you else you would react to this?

• “Logging is good for tigers.” Kelantan Forestry Director quoting “an expert from Sarawak.” (The National Tiger Survey 2016-2020 states that there are now less than 200 Malayan tigers left in our forests. There are no tigers in Sarawak.)

• “My brother used my account to buy the shares.” Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Chief Commissioner. Kinda like letting your kids use your Netflix account to watch movies?

• “We can’t conclude if he did anything wrong.” Securities Commission. (We’re not sure if two plus two equals four.)

• “Help us fight graft, MACC urges public after drop in Transparency International ranking.” Memimpin melalui teladan?

• The Wall Street Journal says we’re the most corrupt place to do business in. What a surprise!

• And so on...

Palm slams forehead, cheeks burn. What is going to hold our heads up high again?

I’ve been through embarrassing moments abroad when our politicians have said something stupid and then tried to cover it up. In the late 70s when we had many Vietnamese refugees landing on our shores, our then Deputy Prime Minister announced that we would shoot any that washed up on our beaches. Predictably, outrage ensued around the world. He then gave the standard politician’s excuse, that he was misquoted, that he actually said he would “shoo” them away. Did anyone believe it?

But at least in those days, these gaffes were few and far between. You had a respite from them during which you could stand tall. These days however, they come fast and furious until you develop a perpetual crick in the neck as you hold your head down so that you don’t have to face the raised eyebrows of disapproval from your overseas friends.

There’s a saying that we get the government that we deserve. That’s probably true. But at least if we did vote fools in, we can take responsibility for them. But we didn’t vote for this lot. Can we imagine any of them standing on a world stage and people coming away thinking wow, he/she is impressive? What do we say when our foreign friends give terrible reviews of our policies?

It makes you wonder how people get to be our leaders at all. Obviously, there are no minimum qualifications, except for being male. Educational attainments are mostly miniscule, professional experience doesn’t seem to count for much especially when we remember we had a medically-trained Health Minister who gave out dubious medical advice. But most of all, what our leaders seemed to lack is heart. That organ on the left side of our bodies that tells us to empathise with those unluckier than us and then gets us to reach out and help.

How else do we explain the lack of sympathy with those folks who almost drowned in muddy water in their own homes and had to wait days shivering of cold and hunger for help to come? Or those advocating for people to drain their already meagre EPF savings despite knowing they won’t have much to live on in their old age? Or being devoid of concern at schoolgirls facing sexual harassment in schools, or the cursory attention paid to the outrageous period checks that the same schoolgirls must endure.

If our leaders don’t much care about us as long as they get their Alphards, how can we expect them to care about other human beings in our country like migrant workers and refugees? Every time some scandal involving our government erupts, which is often these days, migrant workers and refugees get raided and arrested. Are they meant to be distractions, like whisky label non-issues?

No wonder that so many of us no longer want to follow the news. It feels masochistic to subject ourselves to constant insults to our intelligence. We hunger for stories of good leadership and find them through the strength and resilience of ordinary Malaysians. None of them had to be voted in to mobilise to help their fellow citizens.

They relied on their own hearts and instincts, their own humanity. The rest of us did what we could, even after two difficult years when we were already called upon to dig deep into our pockets. We just knew that none of us would survive if we turned a blind eye to those who were suffering.

Meanwhile we watched those who imagined themselves our leaders fighting among themselves to claim the title they don’t deserve.

Marina Mahathir is a Malaysian sociopolitical activist and writer. The views expressed here are solely her own.

Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that in the late 70s the then Home Minister announced that any Vietnamese refugees washed up on our beaches would be shot. The announcement was actually made by the then Deputy Prime Minister. The writer unreservedly apologises for her error.

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