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The Star - Musings - A tale of three countries (3 November 2016)
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A tale of three countries

THREE old friends, an American, a Filipina and a Malaysian, recently sat down to have coffee.

After a long session of catching up on family news, the talk turned to current issues.

Naturally the issue of national leadership came up. One bemoaned the fact that an orange-skinned self-confessed groper was actually running for president, another complained about her uncouth and seemingly deranged leader while the last could only blush with embarrassment when asked by her friends why her own leader was still there.

All three agreed that there must be some strange cloud hanging over our countries that we should all be saddled with men who are as imperfect as leaders as we have.

Of course, for one of us, there was still a good possibility that another leader might be elected, someone less imperfect.

For another, she only has to put up with him for six years although during that time he can inflict severe damage on her country.

But for the final one of the three, the possibility of the country going down the tubes because of an avaricious leader was all too real, with no end in sight.

It was interesting that when discussing our individual national situations, the one most familiar with dictatorship immediately recognised the signs of impending danger.

The creating of internal and external enemies, the getting rid of all those who know too much, the silencing of critics, the demonising of unsupportive former allies, the use of state enforcement agencies against citizens.

All these have been used before by other authoritarian leaders, and my friend’s eyes widened with alarm when I described what was happening back home.

In our country, there is a large number of us who are willing to overlook major faults such as kleptocracy as long as our elected leaders make laws that basically reduce us to infants with brains too undeveloped to know what’s good for us.

I read an article about our neighbouring leader’s assertion that nobody need fear if they hadn’t done anything wrong. He was referring, of course, to the killing of thousands of alleged drug sellers and users but I still shuddered with the familiarity of it.

The trouble is, when there is no standard process of judging who has committed a crime or not, how does anyone know if they have done something wrong?

The rule of law as determined by a Constitution that everyone respects is the only true protection for the innocent.

But in our case, when people can be arrested for wearing t-shirts, throwing balloons, drawing cartoons, making private comments or making public comments in their professional capacity, when labels are used to demonise people and there is little opportunity for them to clarify what they stand for, just about anyone can be considered to have done something “wrong”.

The only “right” people are those who say that yes, the emperor’s clothes are beautiful. Are we living in North Korea?

How come, my friends ask, we don’t say anything about all these injustices? Some of us do, I say, but not enough. Most people are busy trying to make a decent living and putting food on the table for their kids.

But, they also said, there will be no decent living if your leadership gets it wrong and you have no idea how long it will take to get back on track.

I know, I said, but we Malaysians are submissive people who’ve had it pretty good for so long that we can’t imagine having a different life. And it may well be too late for us already.

It got awkward when my friends asked if all the weird things that happened in my country – such as the banning of the words “hot dog” – were normal.

No, I said, it’s not normal at all. Once we were a sensible and calm people, not quick to take offence at shadows invented by our masters. But perhaps these are but distractions from the many real crimes taking place, for the media to have something to talk about since they cannot talk about really important stuff.

Or perhaps the real crime is the infantilisation of our people, so much so that we have to be constantly told that we are confused.

To be protected from being offended by a sausage is apparently more important than to be protected from those who would steal from us. Such is the upside down world we live in today.

Perhaps the only thing we can cling to is that in this gloomy world, what doesn’t change are friendships amongst people, across communities and nations. I at least take comfort in knowing that despite decades of separation and political winds and whimsies, friendships can and do last.

3 November 2016

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