The Great Malaysian Depression

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Unhappy about the past, Malaysians seem gravely worried about the uncertainties of tomorrow. Perhaps that is why this birthday celebration of the nation feels so solemn, writes Nicholas Chan.

Income inequality: Te necessities of life are getting more and more out of reach of normal citizens
Income inequality: Te necessities of life are getting more and more out of reach of normal citizens

Tunku Abdul Rahman, our Bapa Merdeka, once famously remarked during his premiership that he was the “happiest Prime Minister in the world”. Although it is doubtful he left his job with such high spirits intact, that remark actually says a lot about the founding spirit of our country.

No matter secular or Islamic, liberal or conservative; no matter what the actual social contract is, our country’s foundation, at its core, is just as jovial as the Tunku’s temperament, which is fondly remembered by most.

It is that simple. We are a country founded by happy men for the Happiness of men. The Constitution, the Rukun Negara, our values, are all instruments to foster, preserve and actively encouraged this happiness to thrive among all people, regardless of race, gender, religion, predisposition and status.

But after 56 years since our pledge of happiness and prosperity, we seemed to be a nation shrouded by clouds of gloom and misery. Our people are always angry, sometimes at themselves but most of the time at each other. We are like a nation at war despite the Communist insurgency ending decades ago. We are like warriors suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), drawing swords at the sound of wind and the sight of shadows.

But it is very difficult for a warrior to be happy. There is no joy in bloodlust for civilised people. How did we allow ourselves to be embroiled in such struggles of futility and bigotry? The sad memory of 1969 should have served as a keen reminder to everyone that exclusivism would have ended badly. The Emergency was formally ended in 2011, but it is as if we are bracing for a new one to come.

Perhaps that is why the Petronas commercials took on the task of reminding us of that our diversity actually weaved us together in this pursuit of happiness, but the sepia tone of the adverts only highlights the nostalgia of such visions. An expat staying in Malaysia for more than 10 years had referred to such sentiments as the “P Ramlee Melancholy”, the reminiscence of a time whereby our pursuit of happiness was transcendent and universal, with a common ground available at its end for everyone.

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At this critical junction of our nation, after a much polarised election, I can’t help but ask, have my generation inherited a nation far sadder than my forefathers who founded it? Has it come to a point that I am no longer sharing this beloved country with people who are concerned about the happiness of others, but also themselves? That is, to me, the greatest transformation experienced by Malaysia since the first proclamation of Malayan Independence on 31 August 1957.

We have changed from a country that defined our national pride through the measurement of happiness of its people to a country that has its pride fervently invested in the rage of supremacy and in the sadness and desolation of the minors. If we are in fact deriving our happiness from such sadistic pursuits, then how are we not happy with the extent and magnitude of marginalisation, discrimination and disenfranchisement happening in the country? Why does it feel like we are suffering from an internal haemorrhage every time we ask for more blood to be shed?

This is because we, Malaysians, I believe, are inherently good people. We are constantly angry and sad not because we hate each other but because we are confused about the actual reason of our frustrations. Out of confusion and impatience, no thanks to Machiavellian politicians, we buy into the lie that anyone in anyway different from us is responsible for our plight. We think of ourselves as victims of an invasion, an invasion that threatens our values, our religion and our way of life. As a result, we externalise these negative emotions by being unkind to our own brothers and sisters as well as to the foreigners doing hard, mundane work for the betterment of our nation.

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We have conveniently ignored the fact that Malaysia is always a country rich in heritage and culture to begin with. There is no invasion but just integration; this is not a revolution but just an evolution process buoyed by changing times. But our diversity is always our strength, even our tourism pamphlets constantly market our country as a melting pot of everything, that Malaysia is truly Asia.

Hence, are we really angry at one another or are we angry about life in general? I would argue that it is the latter. To have a modest life now for the younger generation is no easy task. Housing is priced beyond means, private health care is slapped with price tags that one would literally need to die for and the current education system makes our children ignominious and irrelevant to global needs.

For urban folks, life is always spent in traffic jams with little public transport to ease the situation; life in general is always a struggle to make ends meet with multiple jobs. They don’t have the means to amass property like the upper classes; instead they are faced with the same high risk of losing them to crime.

For rural folks, their aspirations and dreams seem like trophies locked in an ivory tower beyond reach. Their children can’t sustain an ample and meaningful life in the outskirts, but the cities are too ruthless for the unprepared and unprivileged.

This is why we are really angry. Bread and butter – the necessities of life – are getting more and more out of reach of normal citizens despite hours of hard work, deprived sleep and traffic jams.

But we are diverted from this cradle of unhappiness by those who walk the corridors of power. They talk about race and religion at siege; they talk about conspiracies and distorted histories, they talk about the erosion of our identity (or more correctly, one identity over the other), they talk about retribution by race and oppression by religion – but they never focus on the most pertinent issues that affect our lives the most. Their tridents always pointed outwards but never inwards at the structural problems that truly cost us our happiness.

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But why should these people care? They are not actually worried about money or life although their theatrics suggest otherwise. They live in houses with bathrooms bigger than our bedrooms; their children are sent overseas for quality education when they come of age; their finances are always sustained by multiple directorship appointments with no regard to merit. And they get away with their inflammatory speeches most of the time – all thanks to our 1Malaysia, with double standards.

No matter how poor these rabble-rousers try to look or act (the number one rule of being a politician, throw your fashion senses out of the window), they are not a part of us. They can’t be allowed to speak for us for if they don’t understand our pains and disappointments. They are like lousy soap operas unworthy of our affection.

The Great Malaysia Depression is a grass-roots issue and should not be articulated top-down. Tables must be flipped so that our stories from the bottom gain empathy, solidarity and strength, forcing the people at the top to respond appropriately and efficiently. For that is their portfolio paid for by our tax money.

As our people are ensnared in the middle income trap, it feels like Malaysia is also trapped in a mid-life crisis. Unhappy about the past, but gravely worried about the uncertainties of tomorrow. Perhaps that is why this birthday celebration of the nation feels as solemn as ever. There seems to be no happiness in growing up for Malaysia.

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13 Sep 2013 1.21pm

All that talked about above boiled down to one thing-RACE and abetted by the bigotry of religion.What more in Malaysia where there is such a diversity of race and religion.This is a common feature in countries where especially the economy is not well developed.Is Malaysia heading towards that status(from being a developing country-thanks to the abundance of natural resources-to that of under-developed one)?
It need a great stateman with a long vision than a political leader who just want to rule for the sake of ruling(and perhaps to gather personal wealth for comfortable retirement) to lead the country out of this doldrum.