As I see it … after 60 years of independence

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Why have we allowed the present situation to deteriorate to such a worrying level, wonders Benedict Lopez.

Come 31 August 2017, it will be the 60th anniversary of Merdeka for those of us on the peninsula.

Merdeka every year is an auspicious occasion for me: a time when I proudly display our flag in front of my house.

We have come a long way since 1957. Our country has made some remarkable strides in many areas, albeit a lot more could have been achieved.

Like everyone else, I grow older by the year. I take it in my stride as advancing in age is an option-less game for all of us. It is not my age that gives me a sense of trepidation, but what is happening in our country as we celebrate 60 years of independence.

Why should I be concerned at my age? After all, I have passed the prime of my life and I enjoy a reasonably comfortable life. The reason I worry is for posterity.

As I ponder over events of the past few years, I see the country I live in as being ambiguous, reticent and bogged down in self-made problems, which should never have cropped up in the first place.

The Malaya and Malaysia which I grew up in the 1960s and 70s is today beyond recognition. I always ask myself what has happened to our country.

When I was growing up, children of all races: Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians used to go to school, play games and celebrate with merriment all our festivals. We were really One Malaysia then! No catchphrase required!

I am proud to have belonged to such a generation and call myself a through-bred Malaysian as I still have friends who are Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, Dayaks and Kadazans. Not many among the younger generation can lay claim to such a diversity of friends.

Today, I see our country as a highly polarised society, where our children and adults usually mix and associate with only their own kind – definitely a disturbing trend in our country. We allow racial polarisation to permeate all levels in society and it seems to be moving along this gradient with no one trying to halt its rise.

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The minority seems to be trampling over the majority with their narrow-minded and bigoted views under the guise of nationalistic, racial and religious agendas. Sadly, we have some in media even condoning and propagating these nefarious characters. Open-mindedness, understanding and mutual respect for one another seem to have gone out of fashion.

There should no place in Malaysia for anyone who is out to destroy the very fabric of our society. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his speech on India’s independence on 14 August 1947, said, “We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.”

It was Malaysia’s multiracial population who were responsible for our country’s accomplishments, peace, progress and prosperity, and it will be this melting pot of races that will determine our country’s future.

Malaysia draws its strength as a nation from its multiracial mosaic. Diversity in any country, including Malaysia, is an invaluable asset, which should be capitalised on. We should always celebrate our differences and value our oneness and not look upon one another with suspicion and contempt.

As in other multiracial societies, it is a norm for issues and problems to surface from time to time in Malaysia, but there should always be a room for compromise even for complex issues, if we are willing to be magnanimous.

Compromise, after all, is a sign of strength in one’s character, definitely not a weakness, just as honesty is the mark of self-respect in any human being. Only those without it will indulge in boosting their self-esteem at the expense of others.

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Why have we allowed the present situation to deteriorate to such a level? Sadly, only few of the good and gracious Malaysians who make up the majority of our population have spoken out, but they often seem to be voices in the wilderness.

Being an eternal optimist, I would like to see light at the end of the tunnel. I would like to think that better days are still ahead of us.

Malaysia continues to offer its citizens a reasonable good quality of life, despite the escalating cost of living.

As a nation, we are blessed by the Almighty, having been spared from catastrophes unlike so many countries throughout the world. Even our neighbours have not been as fortunate.

With our scenic tourist spots, affordable hotel rates and reputation as a shoppers’ paradise, we should be a haven for tourists, but sadly we are not. Sadly, we fail to adopt innovative and aggressive marketing strategies to effectively promote Malaysia. I don’t see the synergy between tour operators, airlines and hotels working together towards attaining this goal.

Seldom do we realise that even the weather has been kind to us, and this is despite the high humidity and the heavy downpours which at times can result in flash floods. We don’t have to endure the harsh winters of the Scandinavian countries, where I experienced temperatures falling to as low as -20C!

And to our credit, and for all our grumbling and despite the deplorable conditions at some of our public hospitals, no one is ever turned away from free medical treatment at any of our public hospitals or health centres throughout the country. Still, a remarkable feat by any standards, I should say.

For all the criticism levelled at our civil service, we must acknowledge some improvements in the public sector delivery system since the inception of Pemudah in 2007. I don’t know of any country where you can get your passport done in one hour, and where a senior citizen only pays half the actual passport fee.

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I also am unaware of any country where a senior citizen is treated like a VIP like when going to the Road Transport Department in Petaling Jaya to renew his or her driving licence. I was surprised to see a special air-conditioned room at the department in Petaling Jaya for senior citizens to wait while renewing their driving licences, with an officer attending to them.

Despite our disappointment in not winning a gold medal at the Rio Olympics, Nicol David has put a smile on our faces and made us feel very proud when she was named as one of the 20 greatest athletes in the world alongside the likes of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.

As we move forward, we have to be pragmatic and acknowledge the problems we face as a nation, and the need to repair our dented international image. We cannot afford to live in a denial syndrome.

The character of any country is not seen by how much it leans towards the strong, but to what extent it espouses the valiant efforts of the minority surmounting the uphill odds for the sake of the advancement of the majority.

Nelson Mandela in his inauguration speech as President of South Africa in 1994 said: “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white – will be able to walk tall. A Rainbow Nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Someone once told me that Malaysia is a country of endless possibilities and missed opportunities. An apt description, I should say.

God bless Malaysia and its people. Happy Merdeka to all my fellow Malaysians.

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