How to treat ‘Malaysian Anxiety’

I FELT sick to my stomach reading and watching the rhetoric of “Malay supremacy” that flooded my social media accounts in the past week.

A deeper soul-searching however led me to the conclusion that such sentiments came from a place of fear, one that myself as a Malay-Muslim has been familiar with all my life.

Constantly being told that I must work harder and achieve more than my peers have instilled in me the fear of failure. I can still remember my father’s advice all those years ago – that I must “beat the Chinese kids” in all my examinations.

To him, those of Chinese descent are smarter and have an advantage due to their diligence when it comes to studying.

Such thinking could have created distrust and discord, but thankfully, it instead created healthy competitiveness. Furthermore, it allowed for friends of different ethnic backgrounds to learn to understand, tolerate and accept one another.

I just cannot fathom telling my fellow Malaysians, my friends, that my race is superior. I believe that all humans are equal. Perhaps naively, I also believe that everyone is inherently good, that even those who spew hatred do so from a place of fear.

In the recent forum “New Malay­sia Rising: The Challenge of Fulfilling the Dream”, Dr Wong Chin Huat of the Penang Institute used the term “Malay Anxiety” to describe the psyche of fear among Malays.

He hypothesised that the huge turnout at last week’s anti-Icerd thanksgiving rally and the fact that there is still huge support for ethnic, patronage politics, are due to the instigation of this fear.

The panellists at the forum were unanimous in their message – to overcome this fear, the Malays must be empowered economically. The focus of New Malaysia should be on economic growth so that prosperity can ensure empowerment and democratisation.

Is this the magic bullet, though? Listening to Wong and the other panellists left me questioning whether I share the same fear with others of my ethnic background, or there is a common fear that we Malaysians must overcome.

Growing up, I was repeatedly reminded that the privileges I enjoyed were due to good governance and affirmative action. Although it was more tempting to try my luck as a scientist in Australia or Europe, I was told to be grateful and to serve my country that has given me so much.

I was taught not to question the system and its leaders. It was only later in adulthood did I realise the feudalistic nature of the society I live in, and learn to differentiate respect from blind servitude.

I have enjoyed social mobility. From spending my childhood in a single-storey terrace house, sharing one bathroom and toilet with seven other individuals, I am now servicing a mortgage for a small apartment in the Klang Valley.

There are many stories like mine, of Malaysians who have outgrown the places we originated from and are trying to survive in the Klang Valley by stretching our monthly wages the best that we can. At the same time, we send money back to our hometowns when we can.

And from my small sample of friends, it is not only a Malay Anxiety, but a Malaysian Anxiety. The struggle to create wealth, to be able to afford retirement and to have a fund for emergencies is common among us.

Isn’t it time for our government to be a government for all Malay­sians? Economic policies should transverse race, assist the bottom-40 and reduce inequality.

Such policies should also now include sustainability and consider the ecological ceiling. We can no longer rely on traditional economics alone but transform our thinking to face the challenges of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

I fear a country that turns its citizens against each other. I wish to remind our esteemed leaders that with great power comes great responsibility, that their words have impact and influence.

I implore our leaders to prioritise nation-building over petty politics. Instigating fear would not do anyone any good; instead, it risks creating more discord.

As citizens, we must also learn to allay our anxiety. Seek information, have vibrant yet respectful discourse and remember that we have more in common than we would like to admit.

Economic empowerment comes alongside good governance. Good governance can only be strengthened by a system of checks and balances, where the citizens have the freedom to express their fears and in turn, are part of the engagement with stakeholders in finding solutions to overcome and allay those fears.

If there is one thing to learn from the recent anti-Icerd protest, is that ignorance often only breeds contempt. Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike, to paraphrase a quote from Albus Dumbledore.

We must all learn to empathise with each other’s fears, only then can we transition to a New Malaysia together.

Lyana Khairuddin is a virologist turned policy nerd living in Kuala Lumpur. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

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