Dear Malaysia, the next generation needs you

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Is it a brain drain Malaysia is experiencing – or a heart drain, wonders Cheah Wui Jia in an open letter to her future child.

Dear son/daughter,

I hope that by the time you read this, the state of our nation would have improved. The notion of that sounds ludicrous right now, I know.

The events that have unfolded are akin to an inferior imitation of the plot of an epic soap opera series. In fact, the main characters themselves have lounged away in the European sun all summer and shopped unabashedly at Beverly Hills, such that their lifestyle is reminiscent of the 90210 drama series itself.

Sometimes it is like watching an action-packed movie. The hero gets away with ramming the cars of innocent bystanders with his sleek, shiny car, dodging bullets with Matrix-like precision while he hunts down the ‘real’ enemy who vrooms ahead. All this even while he looks suave in his suit and tie and manages to keep his hair smooth like Legolas’ (in the movie Lord of the Rings).

Some of our politicians are trying to do the same thing. An exotic fashion model was murdered, money from a state investment fund is channelled here and there, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) officers investigating the matter are hauled up and interrogated, and subordinates or potential successors who raise questions on the mismanagement of those funds are fired.

All this while, the politicians appear unruffled and serene, recite doa at the Pray for Malaysia 2015 event and take pot shots at Jews and Christians.

Nothing new, I must add, as the roots of such bizarre behaviour and this racist agenda sprouted out of Malaysian soil during the reign of another prime minister (hint: he is presently the current PM’s most vehement critic). So fascinating a specimen of quirkiness is he that the rest of us Malaysians chew voraciously on our popcorn and gleefully await the headlines he makes with his dogged jabs at the PM and his outbursts of a “stolen” government.

I’m not sure what others think, but this “stolen” line reminds me of the obsessive hold that a strange ring had over Gollum – he with his horrific sore throat and creepy bulbous eyes in the same movie. “We wants it. We needs it. Must have the precious. They stole it from us. Sneaky, little hobbitses!”

Indeed, Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad has been questioning Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak with similar earnest desperation: “What have you got in your pocketses?”

Except that this isn’t Lord of the Rings or some soap opera that we can passively consume from a flat screen and stuff our faces with sugar while we laugh at some minister linking the ringgit’s deterioration to hopeful tourism growth in Malaysia.

Foreign investors are just as perturbed by the murky waters surrounding “what is wrong” with 1MDB, and these guys are certainly not laughing.

When a leader remarks “you cannot say what is right and what is wrong, okay?”, it not only means that he has run out of excuses. The missing money from the 1MDB state investment fund is no fun to all of us. It means that there is no clear sense of “what is right” about stocks in the nation anymore.

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Aside from the Goods and Services Tax introduced in April, the risk of higher prices at petrol pumps, restaurants and grocery stores that we face when the ringgit depreciates is totally unfunny.

At the moment, your soon-to-be Dad and your soon-to-be Mom (me) are making wedding arrangements. This means that couples like us will be paying a greater cost when it comes to booking the wedding venue, paying for decorative flowers and bearing the bill for the food catering services.

Cheah Wui Jia

In future, after we move into our new home, your Dad and I will also begin to fret over other bills that we will have to pay such as electricity and water, food, petrol, childcare and education, in addition to the monthly instalments.

What is even more difficult to face, however, is the increasing pressure your Dad and I are facing from concerned family members to leave the country, all for your sake. This makes me incredibly upset.

I love where I come from because I grew up here. The stories that breathe and pulsate within me, all of which drive the meta-narrative that I call life, take form in this place. The people dearest to me, all of whom cheer me on and inspire me to be better at life, live in this country.

My undergraduate lecturers at the local campus of a foreign university are the best mentors I have ever had, for they pushed me to challenge ideologies that support unequal systems, to fight for the rights of the invisible marginalised and to understand and appreciate the diversity of life according to their relevant socio-historic specificities.

One of my lecturers was even arrested in 2009 for writing ‘seditious’ articles, and he continues to be an inspiration to his students, who gathered in front of the campus, all dressed in black as a protest against his arrest.

Even the jokes about politicians, crosses and donations, all of which I trade with colleagues or church friends in online or offline gossip, find their roots here. Most of my ‘epiphanies’ and transcendent moments of life unfolded here. Praying for powerful people in denial of their crimes is tedious but fun when it ends with mamak supper after night meetings at church.

The weather here is tolerable on most days. I prefer skipping over occasional puddles and getting my skin scorched by the sun to drowning in ridiculous, multiple layers of clothing and shivering in the wintry cold.

Sidewalk demonstrations that involve wearing yellow, yelling at the cars that whizz by and waving signs at random pedestrians aren’t so bad either.

You may ask, what will Bersih 4 achieve? We have had three rallies so far, but the government is as obstinate as ever about keeping power while being as corrupt as it can possibly be. And according to some weary supporters, things seem to have gotten even worse

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But Malaysians are now bolder and they can speak out and think for themselves. More of us are rejecting an unfair government. The last general elections in 2013 saw 80 per cent of 13.3m registered voters cast their ballots. We complained about the long queues but we stuck it out in the hot sun.

I also feel saddened by a friend’s comments on Malaysians who wish to stay back in the country and make a difference. This friend and I were both studying in the same local-based foreign university, an alternative we non-Bumiputeras chose. He had wryly remarked: “People like that don’t really know what is going on in the country. If they knew, they would definitely leave.”

In fact, the talented ones are said to be those who have left the country to study abroad and stay put there, hence the brain drain that occurs.

“It is hard to be trapped between your brain and your heart. As for me, I think I will stay for now. And even if my brain drains to the farthest corner of the world, I know my heart will carry my country with me, wherever I go.”

This was written by Binnaz Saktanber, a young, bright, Turkish girl, about how she felt when she watched Erdogan’s draconian clampdown on civil liberties once she decided to return to her homeland.

My life in my homeland has not been difficult. My parents worked hard and long to finance my studies, prioritising quality education. Your grandparents have borne the full burden of my private education, since it is not subsidised by the government, unlike public universities, which have limited places available.

Hence, I grew up comfortable, heavily supplemented with books, English cartoons, and a pair of highly intelligent (and talkative) siblings.

It was customary (it still is) to eat together at the dining table. It was then that, over mouthfuls of brown rice and leafy vegetables, that your Grandad would talk to your Grandmom, with much passion, about the emasculation of the judiciary and the cronyism of Umno.

In my little child mind, I watched wide-eyed as the fork and the spoon clashed, the rice grains flew and the world of Mahathirism unfolded before me. I decided that whatever all those big words meant, Mahathir wasn’t a nice person at all, and the word crony was not really the name of a cereal brand.

There was something hideous lurking beneath the shiny veneer of that photograph with the subtitle “Bapa Pemodenan Malaysia” that gleamed from the pages of my Kajian Tempatan book – and I was about to find out why, in time to come, as I grew up and learned of power relations, race politics and its historical effects on policies in Malaysia.

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My parents have fought for me and taught me well, so that I can love others, stand on the side of truth, and reap the benefits of education. I too want to do the same for you. I am not a prophet, and I am unable to see what truly lies ahead for our family.

But I want you to know that your Dad and I dislike running away from the problems that we face. As a couple, we have fought with each other frequently, but we talk things out and try and fix issues that crop up in our lives and relationships. This is the legacy we believe in.

We are not famous people. The low salary scheme right now also means that your Dad and I are not going to be terribly rich. We are not politicians, and we are not Harvard graduates. To prove my point, it took me more than a week to put this writing together, along with all the facts and significant details involved. I am not a genius and I do not have all kinds of statistics or theories at my fingertips.

We do not have all the answers. But we want to do what is right for ourselves and what we believe is right for the country now. As someone who hails from Generation Y, I know I am not alone in this.

A country’s development will be impeded by a constant outflow of highly skilled, well-educated citizens. Between 2000 and 2010, one million Malaysians migrated, which implies that each day of that span of ten years had 278 people leave.

No one ever said that doing the right thing was going to be easy. William Wilberforce, the English social reformer who was highly influential in the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, became member of parliament at 21 and introduced anti-slavery motions, persevering until his health suffered. The act to free all slaves in the British Empire was passed just three days before Wilberforce died.

The famous Amazing Grace hymn was written by Wilberforce’s mentor, John Newton, who encouraged Wilberforce “to serve God where he was” in parliament. We have an idea, and that idea is to bloom where we have been planted.

I came across a quote somewhere:

“Almost any idea is good if a man has ability and is willing to work hard. The best idea is worthless if the creator is a loafer and ineffective.”

The next generation in Malaysia must see people with brilliant ideas who work hard and invest themselves fully in lives that matter.

So here I am.

Cheah Wui Jia, a former Aliran intern, believes that she is not defined by her profession but by the motto of her life – which is to love God and love your fellow (wo)man. She looks forward to raising a family of ‘mobsters’, together with her fiancé, and ‘polluting’ vulnerable young minds with her weird quirks and zany ideas.

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Michael Maguire
Michael Maguire
26 Aug 2015 9.57am

My dear Cheah Wui Jia, Thank you for saying in your own words what you feel about the situation in Malaysia now. Because you spent a week writing this piece, it rings true. Often the disappointing thing about Harvard graduates or Oxford graduates or any other graduate of a university is that they often don’t think with their heart, they often don’t understand anything at all. To use a letter to your son is a wonderful mechanism to order your thoughts, simply because you love your son. When someone loves another that is the most wonderful thing, because that love comes from God. So through writing to your son, you speak to all of Malaysia, in fact to the whole world. This situation is not about loses of billions of ringgit and it is not about the state of the economy. The situation is a natural consequence of the miraculous ideas of caring, sharing, joy happiness disappearing from people’s lives. The economy will be okay when leaders do not steal money meant for people and when leaders turn back to their true reason for wanting to… Read more »