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Is Malaysia a Nation of Cowards: lessons from Tunisia and Egypt

January 29, 2011

It’s only January and I foresee an exciting year ahead, for me personally and for the bigger world at large. In light of everything going on now, I am transported back to the 1979 revolution in Iran that overthrew the dictatorship of a monarch but which unfortunately instated a new form of quasi democratic theocratic dictatorship. While I am not claiming that theocracy has to be undemocratic, the complexity of syaria’s history and other forms of religion codified-laws makes it difficult to negotiate the hermeneutics of these laws within the parameters of Enlightenment democracy. Of course, many countries have undergone many revolutions, some beginning as a fight for sovereignty before transforming into resistance against cruel  rulers.

What would Tunisia’s fate be? There are talks in the media about how suppressed Islamist groups are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They overthrew a dictator, but I hope a vacuum is not left behind to cause a worse form of dictatorship to take over. But as long as the people are adamant about freedom and democracy, and as long as they can keep all forms of millitary-led coup at bay, they have a fresh new start ahead of them. Social media is said to be one of the main media that fueling the revolt in Tunisia. If I get a chance, I would love to visit the country in the aftermath of the revolution, to see what it has sparked off.  Now, Egypt is on fire, and the people are revolting regardless of what Mubarak does to them. Incidentally, I met a Lebanese graduate student at my room-mate’s birthday party and we commiserated over the state of politics in our respective countries.

If we look closely at what is going on there, we know that much of the revolt is fueled by the educated class. The last time Malaysia had a revolt, it was fueled by the incumbent government’s sponsored thugs. But not so in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt. Ironically, Malaysia sent tonnes of its ‘religion-studies’ students to Egypt to Al-Azhar but none of them have ever imbibed or learned anything from that cradle of civilization with thousands of years of history because they spent much of their years there immersed in their own little ghetto, trying to simulate the life of the different little villages they came from in Malaysia. These countries saw a revolution led by the intelligentsia, and the intellectuals. One of the main fuel is Tunisia’s horrific economic and umemployment problem at this time, while Egypt is strangled by its iron-fisted dictator who did not even bother to be nuanced about the way in which he is trying to control his people (he probably thought he could do it ala North Korea, whose people had spent generations under a gulag-like dictatorship). Or Iran. Iran has clamped down on access to much social media. A friend of mine studying there is completely incognito now, as the last email I received from him informed me that he has very little access to the cyberworld. It is also interesting that in most news reports on Tunisia, they always prefaced the story of the revolt with the remark of how successful Tunisia’s education system has been (with the revolt as one of the domino effects of it) yet how underemployed the young people are (it would be interesting to study more closely how and what is the cause of that underemployment, beyond to-your-face economics). There are a number of Tunisian Fulbrighters in the US, and from what I have heard from some of the Middle-Eastern Fulbrighters , many were concerned about returning home to no jobs. I heard first heard of all these in 2008. But I also suspect that they didn’t want to return to the politics of their country. I distinctly remember a guy from Tunisia who voiced the concern of economics, as did also a Lebanese woman, as being the cause of their desire to be able to remain in the US (even though US’s financial crisis was beginning to escalate at that time). Both these countries have remarkable European influences to this day, and this shows by the dual cultures straddled effortlessly by the more educated citizens.

Where does Malaysia stands in on this? Well, we probably should think of Malaysia and Malaysians as people living in the Matrix. They believe they have the freedom, that the economy will improve with all these economic transformation plans, that they can still enjoy material excess and progress, that they will continue to live in comfort. I think I have written about this more than a decade ago and the situation still has not changed, not one mite. People are still lulled by a false sense of security, not understanding that the carpet will be pulled out from under their feet anytime, at any moment.  They are not unlike North Koreans in general, minus the physical deprivation and visceral torture, because they believe in much of what is fed to them. The government is smart in creating a quasi welfare state, and in creating a false sense of us going somewhere, when in reality, we are just going in circles, as what I have seen from the time I was a freshman in college, more than a decade ago. We think that since Google is coming to Malaysia, we are being acknowledged. Well, Microsoft is in Malaysia. So is Intel. I once worked for the production house of a large publishing company with offices worldwide that relocated to Cyberjaya, the Malaysian government’s failed project at creating a ‘Multimedia Supercorridor.’ (it hasn’t really taken off more than when it first started out, has it?) Did they bring about epistemic shifts and change? Did the people suddenly become more creative and smarter? Not really. I knew people who work in these offices in Malaysia. Most are glorified support staff.  The heart of these companies, the exciting work being done by these companies. are NOT in Malaysia. For that, I think they would rather go to India and China before Malaysia. We like to think we have a good system of education. We sure do, to a certain level, in creating people with good technical abilities (at some level too) without any ability to reflect on the work they do (and I am talking about high level work here, professionals, even many in academia). Our cream of the crop kids probably exemplify a parody of what Amy Chua, the ‘misunderstood’ Tiger Mother, tried to instill in her daughters. I grew up with high achievers around me (I was the underachiever) so I do know what I am talking about. This is not the case of sour grapes either since I am exactly where I have always wanted to be for the longest time and am no longer an underachiever.

I would like to bring up Syed Hussein Alatas, a former VC of University Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and a scholar both conveniently forgotten or uncritically worshipped (depending on who you speak to), even though he had said this in 1970s, at a time when I wasn’t even born. He had stated that most of the people holding leading roles in society were unfortunately  bebal/moronic. You can be paper smart, you could have been the top kid in your school, you could even have gotten a government scholarship to study abroad, but that did not preclude you from bebalism. I think this could not have sat well with the regime or the public at the time (and it certainly still stings today). But truth of the matter, when you do not quite gaze beyond your navel, when you parrot what everyone around you is saying because that sounds smart and may even earn your brownie points with them, when you revel in momentary distractions in a false sense of freedom and self-adulation, this is what you are. You may refuse to acknowledge how all these will soon pass away, as what has been going on in so many other countries are a case in point. But probably while other countries are moving on, Malaysia will always be the spineless, static, entity it is, and I feel sad for the country. We have intelligentsia in our countries but we have no real (or extremely few) intellectuals (I will be writing more about this in an article). Do we have any legacy for the world? Zilch. We blame the govt for everything but all we do is just sit on our fat asses and moan, doing nothing.

At the same time, I am heartened by the fact that there are some university students in Malaysia who are fighting to have their voices heard and rights recognized. I hope that this small group would one day be the herald for change, since I have lost faith in much of my generation (those in their late 20s and thirties).

Why do I say that? Because we are a nation of cowards. Even when we know something is wrong with the system, we just sit and moan. We have been since 1957 and until we understand even a minutiae of what is happening in the world today and take a hard look at where we are, we will always be one. I too am tired of being a coward.

The post is also republished here, here, here, and here with comments from different readers reading off these specific sites.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah Joan Mokhtar permalink
    January 29, 2011 10:17 pm

    Thank you for writing this.

  2. abbylatif permalink
    January 29, 2011 11:51 pm

    I don’t think we’re cowards. It’s evident from history, we are people who are very courteous. Some very obliging, while others, just don’t dare to rebel. We need to see the positive side to this. Although I am very amused and happy for the revolution that is happening in the Middle East, I am looking back at my country and seeing the things that we can fight for can be done in a very smart intellectual manner because for me, aggravation can also victimise other innocent people.

    We must speak out. Voice out. We must make known that the super power of the world is the voice of the people. But, peacefully. Aung San Suu Kyi and Gandhi did it peacefully and look how the world respect them.

  3. January 30, 2011 12:10 am

    we are a nation of cowards and love living a lie. We are being lied to on a daily basis that lying to oneself that al is well comes naturally. You and I should hide now. I think agent Smith and the Sentinels will be hunting for anomalies! haha

  4. Arif Ahmad permalink
    January 30, 2011 1:23 am

    tl;dr

  5. Clarissa Ai Ling Lee permalink*
    January 30, 2011 3:00 am

    THanks for the comments, peeps, and thanks for taking the time to read this. I am all for a peaceful revolt, since I don’t see violence as the panacea for our ills. But we have to revolt, whether in peace or otherwisebecause we have live in blissful complacency for far too long. India understood that and so did Burma.

  6. Weiyan permalink
    January 30, 2011 11:15 am

    this certainly is a good read, friend of mine sent me the link.

    I think in Malaysia’s case its also a result of a rather fragmented society. It would be needless for me to say that race, religion, the NEP and other factors have long contributed to this, and because of this the word “class” is usually substituted with other terms as the is always a demographic to it.

    Leading up to the PMN (Perhimpunan Mahasiswa Negara) I approached my university student council as to whether they would support the cause (but i also wanted students in this particular university to engage with the outside world as most private institutions function in isolation and with various operating stigmas of public universities, vice versa); next thing I get called up by a resident lawyer and the student council president with a copy of AUKU being thrown at my face.

    Needless to say I still attended PMN and I can say the future seems optimistic for Malaysia.

    What couldn’t escape my thoughts was the various similar issues that were raised by university reps at PMN, which were real issues on my campus but weren’t big enough a bother for people to… well bother with.

    an increase in fees means more money regardless to how you look at it, to most in private universities, the past few decades has thought them somewhat to engage in achieving financial immunity.

    From what I have experienced at this level of society, its not so much that the mismatch of class interests hasn’t reached that sparking point where both have a common goal but rather where that point sits in the minds of different classes is very much different.

    In terms of revolution, when we did discuss how PMN was to be carried out, it was between an outdoor and indoor event, the former referring to a traditional protest. We agreed to the latter with (amongst other reasons) an understanding of how it would be reflected by the public. A traditional protest as we know in Malaysia usually gets depicted at people demanding for the government to take action, but with an indoor assembly and student parliament it changed that image to.. “yes, we are not satisfied, but we are going to deal with these things on our own as students, as people” where not only do we see a sense of empowerment, but also a maturity in society.

    I do agree that you are right to say that Malaysians resort to cowardice, probably with the element of fear of the ISA and whatnot has very much manifested itself in the hearts of many, but the fragmentation of society doesn’t help things either. Nevertheless there is still hope, with activist circles becoming more aware of one another both in the peninsula and East Malaysia its a matter of educating and changing culture, which can’t happen overnight, but will happen eventually.

    Have faith 🙂

    • Clarissa Ai Ling Lee permalink*
      January 30, 2011 3:37 pm

      Hi Wei Yan, Sorry I missed out on a reply to you. I am glad that students like yourself, inspite of the social conditioning you were subject to, are courageous enough to make the change, and reflective of the state of affairs and the greater world. I am glad that there is a growing maturity, however small, taking place within the current generation of university students, even if only a small group is involved at this time, but I could see that momentum is slowly gathering. My peers and I only ever engaged in backroom activism, if we even thought of doing anything, because we allowed ourselves to be cowed, not so much by the ISA, but by AUKU, and later, we busied ourselves with our lives and careers, forgetting how we are building all these in flimsy foundation. Consequence of it is that we did nothing that could set the ground for real change.

      I don’t think running away and out is the best answer. Sure, you can get out of the country, as some of my friends did (when I said get out, I don’t mean leaving momentarily to pursue something, but leaving with the intention of permanent residence elsewhere) whenever they got the chance. Many left for differing reasons of their own, which I respect. But that does not mask the fact that being cowardly in our own country will not make us less cowardly elsewhere, especially when our position there is even less certain than in our homeland.

  7. muhsin permalink
    January 30, 2011 12:23 pm

    how long we would like to stay silent…we the youth,bloggers,rebellious people need to lead at the front row…never give up to have faith that we could bring our country better…we have been fooled by our leaders who made up the system that produced many people who just being a Yes Man till death…stop all these…we are the agent of change…

    i would like to repesat your line at the end of the article
    “we are a nation of cowards. Even when we know something is wrong with the system, we just sit and moan.”
    *slap on the face

  8. disagree permalink
    January 30, 2011 1:50 pm

    Nation of cowards?I totally disagree….I will only agree if you’ve been to Egypt and India.In my case I temporarily live here(7 years) .We can have riots almost anytime because everyone here thinks they have to voice out together and destruct to get attention whenever they disagree with something.I don’t blame them because they’re our 70’s and that is how I differentiate uneducated person and educated with good mentality. Nobody is perfect and that you have to put in mind.But I’m really glad because in Malaysia I don’t have to wake up and realize theres a riot for pfft..a million times and I don’t have anything to eat since all the shops are close. Just like what I always experience here.Bottom line is,I wouldn’t call our nation a coward.That is just ungrateful of you.Lazy is more likely.Because we have INTELLECTUAL ways to express it but we’re just too lazy and instead moan at home.So,ITS LAZY.not coward.

  9. disagree permalink
    January 30, 2011 1:58 pm

    Someone once told me,the quiet ones are more dangerous.So,don’t provoke or encourage because things can get really ugly and I’m sure there will be no more safe place after that.

  10. Clarissa Ai Ling Lee permalink*
    January 30, 2011 2:04 pm

    I should probably clarify that when I said India and Burma understood revolt, I wasn’t alluding to the postcolonial violence. I was responding to Abby’s example of peaceful revolt. For me revolution is not about burning cars or looting. That’s just plain thuggery (I mentioned that in post above) that you can see in the aftermath of any disaster. For me, to revolt represents the bearing of arms (I meant this metaphorically, even though the US constitution has an actual provision for the physical bearing of arms) to demand for change, for epistemic shifts, for reform in a true sense of the word. Alas, Malaysia in general does not, and I hold to this opinion, the intellectual werewithal to do so. I used the words of SH Alatas rather than that of Edward Said or Foucault or Nietzsche any other intellectuals of the western world because I wanted to use an example of a late intellectual who lived and worked in Malaysia. I wanted to demonstrate how far we have NOT come by the fact that what he said in the 1970s had never been taken up, criticized, expanded or taken in any new direction by any of our many ‘intellectuals’ (and there were many generations of them after him). True revolt stems from wanting a real difference for the world and country you live in. It’s not to suit any personal dissatisfaction. I never said what is going on in Egypt or Tunisia is right or wrong, but am using them as focal points to see what is wrong in our nation. I professed I have never been to Egypt or Tunisia yet, not because I never wanted to but because I wasn’t able to do so before, though this will change in the very near future, since it has been my mission in the last three years to go to as many new places every year as I can, not for touristic reason, but to observe and learn. For me, cowardice and intellectual laziness (I agree with ‘disagree’ that Malaysians tend to be intellectually lazy) are both chicken and egg issues; which comes first?

  11. Clarissa Ai Ling Lee permalink*
    January 30, 2011 2:22 pm

    Actually, I wanted also to add that it is untrue that Malaysians have not demonstrated since the 1970s. We have, just that our numbers are small for an even small nation. But demonstrating without a mental revolution doesn’t bring much change.

  12. disagree permalink
    January 30, 2011 2:58 pm

    I guess you posting this at this time is a bad idea since everyone is really tense about Egypt.And feeling grateful with the government.(Trust me,i hate the government)But that is how grateful I am now.
    But I’ve been a victim of racism here.Example,my friends and I were swimming in my own apartment’s pool here in India,the security guard came and told me MALAYSIANS are not allowed to swim.
    I’m not the type that complain much(yes i admit I’m lazy and i dont care about anything),but that time i really feel like standing up for myself(not LAZY).So we went straight to the head of association.
    Basically, I strongly think coward and lazy is a totally different thing.No chicken or egg.
    They just complain and not do anything about it is because deep inside,they dont really care that much or maybe optimist about everything.
    So,instead of using the word coward,it’ll be more ‘a slap in the face’ when saying Malaysians just don’t really care and lazy to participate and think about their country because that is the truth.

    This is my humble opinion.

  13. Weiyan permalink
    January 30, 2011 7:57 pm

    @ Disagree

    Hello there, well I won’t use the term “riot” unless I were a police officer. One I have observed in Egypt is the more proper behaviour of military staff in handling te situation, there is a line and its definitely alot highter than it is in Malaysia, if a protest is peaceful (and it always is) the police would ensure that its reflected as a riot by taking immediate action and forcing action out of the crowd. Perhaps in Egypt’s case its because the people massively outnumbered the police, but nevertheless there is a difference… Bersih 2008 anyone?

    As for those who are deemed too lazy to do anything, it is true however it doesn’t account for the majority of the population. As i mentioned earlier, the fragmentation of interests contributes to this. YES its a result of the NEP and YES was always a race issue because with income group comes a racial demographic. To move away from this would be ideal and i bet we’d all like to have it so, but all this remains as long as THIS government remains. I am no advocate of PKR, I feel that they are more disorganized and to have a secular and fundamental party in the same coalition sort of tells us what would come if PKR did win.

    That aside, its a cultural thing and culture takes years to develop. We are starting, slowly and minds are opening, Malaysia isn’t a country under dictatorship, however it is one of divided oppressions rooted to the same seed that most fail to see and act upon.

    I think what you experienced in India is more ultra-nationalism rather than racism and Malaysia does have that as well. I recently signed up to that 1Malaysia.com Facebook rip off site to pry in to the type of people I might find in there. When someone in the chat room mentioned that he/she was from the States, or at least claimed to be…. BOOM!

    Hidop Malaysia!

    This if for Malaysians only!

    and so on….

  14. January 30, 2011 10:43 pm

    Are you arguing that Malaysians are more complacent than the people from the other countries you compare it to? Although I think it’s a plausible hypothesis, I don’t think it’s supported by your argument. After all, Tunisia and Egypt are economically significantly worse off than Malaysia, so their people had more reason to revolt. Maybe they would have revolted anyway, but I think most people agree that economic hardship was a major factor. So it seems like they also waited until it was ‘too late’ to change things.

    I suspect that it’s much easier for Malaysians to emigrate to a rich ‘Western’ country than it is for Egyptians. In which case, perhaps complacency comes about because those who are unhappy find it easy to leave, and the ones left behind are self-selected to be satisfied with the status quo. Whereas Egypt may have more unhappy citizens just because the unhappy ones have difficulty emigrating.

    • Clarissa Ai Ling Lee permalink*
      January 30, 2011 10:54 pm

      Nope, I am merely arguing that Malaysians are complacent, whiners and cowards. 🙂
      Then I try to see what is going on in Tunisia and Egypt, and draw certain areas of comparisons between thought and actions, and also pointing out certain issues going on there that should set us as Malaysians (overseas or locally situated) to think about our own histories, socio-economic circumstances and our attitudes. There are much I left unargued, since this is a blog-post to explore some thoughts I have that are still underdeveloped and would require more research and thinking. I was reading Foucault again the night before and some ideas were forming that I felt I should write down. I ended up with a provocative piece but one that could still be further strengthened through philosophical argumentation, historical analyses and suppport and more careful parallels/contrasts. In the aftermath of 9/11, I do agree that it is harder for Egyptians to get out, and since they are a much bigger nation, there are less resources to go around for them, since they are still Third World, socioeconomically. But in terms of intellectual achievements, they have managed to surpassed Malaysia, and I am referring to the 20th and 21st century. But as my mother used to say, you do not want to compare yourself to someone worse off than you to reinforce your self-complacency, only to be grateful for what you have. But in being grateful, it is also one’s ethical duty to prevent things from sliding down the slippery slope, and to reflect on one’s position in relation to the circumstances one is standing on. Now we are entering in the terrain of philosophical and ethical argumentation…:)

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