A nation is like a boat on a river. Face the craft in the wrong direction and it would end up downstream in the marshy delta in short order, with minimal or no effort. It would languish there in the mud, at the mercy of the tides and floods. Face your boat sideways to head for the comfort of the nearby shore and you risk being broadsided by the current. Even if your boat were to face upstream, you could still end up downstream, albeit more slowly, for lack of paddling.
By facing our boat upstream and paddling hard, Malaysians have achieved much and traversed many superior fishing grounds as well as enjoyed numerous beautiful sights. Malaysians have also met and mingled with many upstream people, folks used to and comfortable in waters that are fresh, cool, and clean. Now we too aspire for that; we too want the waters around us to be free of the jetsam and flotsam. However, we can only get that by going upstream.
In the past with our preoccupation with moving our craft upstream we have forgotten the elementary caution of keeping it steady. The faster we paddle, the more we need to do so lest we risk capsizing our craft. Further, the steadier and more streamlined our craft is, the faster we would progress. If we rock our boat we have to expend the extra effort to maintain its stability and speed. Eddies and other turbulences impede the flow as well as jeopardize our craft’s stability; likewise, if our hull were encrusted with barnacles.
Malaysia was rudely reminded of this grim reality back in 1969. Then the ship of state was moving forward quite steadily, but not fast enough to the satisfaction of some. Those dissatisfied began rocking the craft instead of helping paddle it forward faster. The consequence was disastrous; the nation was torn asunder by a vicious race riot. No sane Malaysian would want to repeat that experience.
Today the ship of state that is Malaysia is not moving upstream as fast as we were used to or are potentially capable of. Malaysians are rightly dissatisfied. This frustration is made more acute when we see neighboring ships that were once by our side or way in our rear now fast overtaking us.
Our collective response thus far to this unhappy turn of events is anything but inspiring. It is downright frightening, echoing with frightening eeriness what we did during that dark period leading to 1969. Now, as then, we are preoccupied with who gets to steer, be on the top deck, and to sit at the captain’s table. We are busy rearranging the deck chairs and not paying attention to where we are headed. The lookout person has abandoned his post and is busy lobbying for the best spot on deck. Little did he realize that when the ship is broadsided by a rogue wave, even the best spot would be swamped.
All on board are busy looking inwards, not to study and solve the problem but to blame each other, that is, when they are not busy elbowing each other to get the choicest spot. I wonder when the Titanic was listing dangerously whether those pampered guests in the upper deck were still frenetically trying to secure dinner invitations from their captain.
In a boat you are either help, or by default, load; there is no in-between. Likewise in society; you are either an asset or liability, part of the solution or part of the problem, contributor to or dependent on the state. Ballast is necessary for stability even though it slows down the craft. One could argue that the sultans are a heavy unnecessary load (financially and in many other ways) thus slowing our nation-boat, they serve as a necessary ballast to keep the ship of state stable. However, it is worth reminding that ballast in a ship is put at its lowest point to effect maximal stability. If you put the ballast on deck or way high up, you invite instability.
In a democratic ship of state, all on board have a say on who gets to be skipper, be in the upper deck, or even be on board. To the extent that the Malaysian ship of state is now facing the wrong direction, being skippered by a less-than-competent captain, heavily weighed down by freeloaders, and slowed down by encrusting barnacles, citizens have only themselves to blame.
There are only two options for Malaysians. One is to jump ship. That option is available to only a select few, those fortunate to have the skills needed by the other faster and more gleaming ships. For the rest, jumping from one slow, leaky, and rat-infested craft to another is no progress, quite apart from the risks involved. Even those fortunate enough to land on a sleeker ship, there is no guarantee that they would be on the same deck level; far too often they would be consigned below deck. Only the lucky few would have upgraded cabins in their new ship. Even for those fortunate few, the thoughts and memories of those they leave behind cannot help but diminish the pleasure of their upgraded status.
For the vast majority, the more sensible solution would be to work at getting their ship in Bristol condition, facing the right direction, and being skippered by a competent captain. We cannot achieve those goals if we remain insular or eye each other with suspicion. Collectively we have to scan the wide horizon, study the other ships, and read the waves below. We have to discern the clouds as well as feel the wind, its force and direction. Most importantly, we have to exercise our best judgment in picking our captain and insist that he picks a competent crew.
Then after having done our due diligence, even if we do not agree on the final destination chosen by our skipper, at least we could enjoy the sail. At the very least our journey would be safer; we would not likely be stranded on a dangerous reef or be swamped by a rogue wave. Who knows, while we may not share the same final port of call, there may be many along the way that we would like to visit together.
That is what an unshackled mind could do for us. A free mind would give us the serenity to accept things that we cannot change, the courage to change things that we can, and the wisdom to know the difference, to quote Neibuhr’s serenity prayer.
Malaysia achieved political independence more than half a century ago, but mentally Malaysians are still very much entrapped. The battle cry for this new century should be, “Merdeka Minda Melayu!” (Liberate the Malay Mind!), and we should pursue this noble goal with the same vigor, passion, and determination as our forefathers did with Merdeka Tanah Melayu.
Today Malaysia is in disarray; its skipper corrupt, incompetent, and far from being diligent; his crew tired, distracted and indifferent. The ship of state is headed in the wrong direction, and there are many shoals and reefs ahead. The wind is building up and the water increasingly choppy. The wakes of overtaking ships are battering us. Worse, those ships were once way behind us. We are being shackled by needlessly intrusive and abusive rules that were meant for a different era when the ship was skippered by other than our own people. Now our own leaders are exploiting those rules to further their own nefarious needs. On deck, the ballast is rising to the top, threatening our stability.
We fail to appreciate these cruel realities because our minds are trapped into thinking otherwise; hence my call for Merdeka Minda Melayu. We have to have a free mind to appreciate the stark realities we are under and not let our leaders delude us into thinking otherwise. We need a free mind to work ourselves out from under these myriad burdens lest we condemn ourselves and future generations along the same perilous course that has led us to where we are today.
A free mind cannot be willed upon; there is no magic wand out there. We have to strive hard – very hard – at liberating our minds, just as hard, if not more so, as we did in liberating our native land. It is a worthy and noble pursuit; a closed mind is the worst prison.
We should disabuse ourselves of the false comfort of life underneath the coconut shell. That world with its coziness, familiarity and predictability is no heaven; it is in fact a prison, and a very cruel one at that. That shell is no protector, it is an oppressor. It prevents us, as Allah’s vice-regents in this temporal world, from enjoying His Many Blessings that is this vast universe with all its beauty, bounty and diversity. Remaining underneath the coconut shell means we are not appreciative of Allah’s gift. And that would the greatest show of disrespect.
WRITER: M BAKRI MUSA