As we welcome 2017, many Malaysians are wondering what the New Year will bring. Of course most people are praying for a better time. But I must say that most people I met are expressing concerns rather than a sense of positivity.
The general sentiment is that we continue to head in the wrong trajectory. This is not a new phenomenon but it has been the trajectory for quite some time. Despite so many people calling for a change of course, we seem to be fixed on that wrong direction.
We are heading into a situation where those seeking political power intentionally divide the nation. They don’t have the political will to make the hard changes our nation requires. So they resort to winning by divide and conquer strategy instead. As a result, until today, we don’t see any real effort to solve the longstanding challenges our nation faces.
The primary challenge remains on defining the role of ethnicity and religion in society. This is an issue that permeates through almost all other challenges and policy discussions. I am not just talking about political and social policies but economic policies and business regulations too.
Do you remember the polemic surrounding Auntie Anne’s pretzel dog? The hot dog itself is halal but they were refused halal certification because of the word “dog” in the name of the food. That is a good example of religious edicts applied into public policy in a stupid way.
The failure to properly identify the position of race and religion in public policy is holding us back in a big way. Every time a reform is proposed it gets stifled by ethnic and religious politicization of the issue.
We need to identify the proper position of ethnicity and religion in our society and start nudging the nation towards that direction. It needs to a position accepted by our multiracial society, not by just one group within society. We need to reach a stage where race and religion is put into its proper place so that these issues will not be raised at the wrong time.
The second challenge we have has to do with the nature of our political system. To put it simply, there is no political competition in our supposedly competitive electoral democracy.
We claim to be a democracy but our political “market” is monopolized by one big cartel to the extent that there is no effective competition. We have become so used to the existence of this cartel such that we are obsessed with demanding another cartel is created to compete with the existing one, instead of breaking up the existing monopoly. I don’t think this is healthy.
I would rather see proper competition where many competitors can enter the political market and partnerships are formed after elections rather than before. I think that is the only to create a healthy political competition so that even smaller parties have a chance to win, and partners are properly respected rather than bullied.
The third challenge we need to address is how to restore trust in our institutions. So much work needs to be done because over the last few decades our key institutions have been pillaged by successive administrations. As a result the level of public trust in the institutions have been eroded even more.
Among others, we need to enhance the effectiveness of the MACC, separate the role of Attorney General from that of Public Prosecutor, separate the Prime Minister from the post of Finance Minister, devolved the powers of the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), improve transparency in political financing, and make government procurement (including public private partnerships) more rules-based, competitive and transparent.
All these require serious and honest examination of where we are today followed by true commitment to chart a new course. It will not improve overnight.
Fourthly, we need to restore citizens’ faith in their own ability. Our government has been increasing in size week by week. The government has taken over responsibilities that are supposed to belong to individuals and families.
To give a simple example, education is, in reality, the responsibility of families. But how many of us today treat schools as dumping grounds for our kids, so that we can take a half-day break from our parental responsibilities? When our kids don’t do well at school we blame teachers and the government, as if we don’t have any role at all to educate our own children. When did we lose the confidence in our own roles to educate?
Our citizens today don’t realize this problem because we have lived only in the era of big government. Many of us feel that the government must do everything, and we don’t even ask what is the proper role of government. We have lost confidence in our individual abilities to take charge of the situation and fix things. The problem is particularly pervasive among the underprivileged and their dependency on government is bad for the nation.
Lastly, I also feel that the middle class and the elites must join the ranks of the common people in championing improvements for the country. I have met and spoken to so many of our elites, every one of them complaining in private about the problems besetting the country.
But the comments remain as gossips in the lobby of 5-star hotels and trendy cafes. Nothing is done after that and the elites continue to live their lives as normal, including by “beautifying” the very problems they claim to be unhappy about. They know exactly who are behind the problems, but they continue to build a beautiful façade for the culprits to hide behind.
I don’t know how to change this, but I do hope to see at least a few of the elites take some risk and walk the talk, or, at least finance the walk. Money needs to be put where the mouth is, not just to pay for the mochachinos.
These are my hopes for Malaysia in this New Year. I pray that at least some of them will come to fruition.