To all the lonely Malaysians


It is a very human condition to seek those who are most similar to us. 

“I ALWAYS feel that I have achieved very little. My conclusion is that when you’re a true Malaysian, you are a very lonely person.”

This famous quote by Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim published in The Straits Times on Tuesday, Feb 21, 2006, resonates profoundly.

This is also one of his more popular quotes, used as a postscript to his 2017 autobiography, I, KKK The Autobiography of a Historian and following news of his passing on Tuesday, shared on social media in his memory.

It is a very human condition to seek those who are most similar to us.

This sense of belonging provides firstly a security blanket (i.e. people who are like us will not hurt us), secondly, a groupthink (i.e. if they are like us, they will think like us) and thirdly, a sense of power (i.e. safety in numbers and forming a majority).

When one bravely sought to put forth an idea that defies groupthink or act in a way that is not stereotypical, one will experience what can only be said to be the action of “other­ing”.

This is what I think Prof Khoo meant by his quote.

As a student of Science, I have not had the privilege of learning under the tutelage of the esteemed professor.

As a Malaysian, however, I followed and read his works when and where I can, especially so after my first return from a sojourn overseas.

I have never felt like I belonged in Malaysia, perhaps my head has always been full of dreams of lands and lives so distant from my reality; a side effect of reading too much.

More so after living overseas in my early to mid-20s, I had issues with fitting in the ste­reotype of a good Malay, Malaysian woman.

What was expected of me was to be demure, subservient and silent.

Who I am is anything but any of the listed traits.

Add to that the narrative of never being enough – for some circles I am not Malay nor Muslim enough, for others – am too Malay and too religious. This only exacerbates the feeling of loneliness, of not fitting in.

This extreme feeling of loneliness, of having been “othered” can have psychological impact – I think there is a joke that said such “different” individuals are going to end up being either a genius or a psychopath.

When your spoken truth denied and you had to live within a conformity of stereotypes, this should come as no surprise.

Political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat in a forum on electoral systems reform recently questioned the narrative of unity, where his hypothesis points to the need for divisions in order to uphold democracy. Unity, he argued, is a form of authoritarianism, and he cited North Korea as an extreme example.

He further argued that divisions, when made along ethnic lines would create extremism and tensions.

The audience then voted for the type of divisions they wanted, with many agreeing that divisions need to be across ethnic lines, with a focus on cross-cutting issues like the economy, quality education, and issues affecting the environment.

However, what we failed to discuss during the forum was “othering” is a division too; sadly what we currently have is a society divided along racial lines, further divided into socioeconomic class, then into ideological groups and so on.

When we divide based on racial lines, then prevent these groups from understanding each other and living together, we create fear and anxiety of “the other”, therefore we can no longer see the cross-cutting issues that affect each and every one of us.

Further, who decides what is the accepted norms for a group, and what is “other”? How then can we rebuild trust and alleviate fear and anxiety?

In his autobiography, Prof Khoo lamented our need for sloganeering.

I have to agree that the time has passed for slogans – can we all please just start talking to each other?

Can we please all be a little less lonely?

We have lost a towering, true, yet lonely Malaysian. We must now continue his work.

“But I do not despair: for as long as I am around, I will endeavour to do what I have always done – help us understand and appreciate each other better.

“The future, after all, can only be brighter than what it is now.”

I cannot promise that no Malaysian will feel lonely ever again, but what I can promise is that similar to Prof Khoo, as long as I am alive, I will always try to help us all understand and appreciate each other better.

And if someone younger than me continue on, then we will keep this cycle going.

For that one day when all of us truly appreciate the beauty of our human connections and identity by being rakyat of this nation, of being responsible citizens of this earth.

Sounds like utopia, but without hope, there is no desire for action, therefore we must hope.

Rest in Power, Prof. From a fellow lonely Malaysian.

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

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