“IT used to be so much better.”
It’s a refrain you hear everywhere. People comparing music of the present with that of the 60s and 70s. Footballers now to Pele and Maradona. Even the cendol you eat isn’t as magical as the cendol of yesteryear!
And you know what? ... In many cases they may well be right.
Organic ingredients, mass production, artistry over technology, less of a fixation on the profit and maybe even a lack of choices have contributed to this.
One common complaint is that race relations used to be smoother.
But are we really sure? Globally you don’t have to travel far in the past before you encounter segregation, colonial exploitation and outright slavery.
Malaysians tend to do it too. As we come up to the 61st anniversary of Merdeka, I am sure that our hearts will be warmed by well-timed ads portraying noble and united Malaysians from bygone eras. How we joined hands for sporting triumphs and economic progress.
And by some accounts it was true that we were more united in the past. Certainly when I go and pick my children up from a school in the heart of KL, there is a distinct lack of racial diversity compared to when I hark back to my time in school, or that of my father in Victoria Institution.
Years of politicians playing us off against each other and institutionalising racial, religious and regional divides are going to take equally long to reverse.
But at the same time, if you compare the Malaysia that I was born into in 1973 with the Malaya that my father was born into in 1945 .... do you know what they had to deal with that they we didn’t?
A brutal Japanese occupation under which we were ruled by fear and the lives of our people were deemed disposable.
Colonial rule by the British who used our natural resources and labour to rebuild their country after World War II.
A bloody Communist insurgency that killed tens of thousands and also exacerbated the racial divide.
There was extreme political instability with our neighbours in the form of the Konfrontasi with Indonesia and a failed two-year marriage with Singapore.
And it all built to the climax of the bloodbath of the racial riots of May 13,1969.
So just how sure are we that it was better back then!
You know what I think?
I think there has never been a better time to be a Malaysian. Thanks to the general election result of May 9, we have given ourselves the chance to re-write our destiny. Most of us recognised that we were in danger of floundering under a kleptocratic police state.
We should also recognise that the terms of our social contract and the foolish notion of unquestioning loyalty are also what brought us to this juncture.
I remember interviewing our current Deputy Minister of Rural Development R. Sivarasa for Merdeka 2004. “True Merdeka is yet to come,” he told me. And that article was suppressed. It was actually repackaged in 2013 for an online-only piece. Now I can write it in print. Our true Merdeka is yet to come. We went from colonialism to neo-colonialism to a sort of neo-liberal economy.
But for all the nationalist rhetoric and posturing of the past and present, have we as progressive Malaysians taken our destiny by the scruff of its neck, and marched unerringly towards a better future? I think not.
We can learn the lessons of the past by all means. But do you know when we need to stand up and be counted? As citizens, as activists, as journalists. We must not squander the golden opportunity that is before us.
Yes, in some ways, it is old wine in new bottles, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice buzz from it still.
We really have to be proactive. The yardstick for mainstream media press freedom was way off. Let’s redraw it where it should be. Same goes for agendas that are the very basic foundation of our status as an evolving democratic and economically developed nation.
We can’t make all the changes happen at once, but let’s start with ratifying conventions against human trafficking. Safe-guarding the rights of orang asli and other endangered minorities. Outlawing politics of hate, be it against those of a different sexual orientation, race or religion. Taking a serious stand when it comes to our environmental resources.
The power, as we have seen, is really in our hands. It does not come from above. We have to identify these changes and make our voices heard. There is no guaranteed outcome to this battle to make Malaysia a better place in which to live, but apathy and complacency will guarantee failure.
I for one, have been waiting for a Merdeka like this all my life. Let this be the first, and not the last Merdeka in which Malaysians realise just how good things can be.
News editor Martin Vengadesan is used to being jaded but nowadays he has to temper his enthusiasm with doses of reality.
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