About a month ago, I found myself at a gathering of family and friends, finally catching up after the long months of lockdown.
As usual, the conversation drifted towards the sorry state of our fraying country.
During our discussion, someone threw a hypothetical question: “What would be that one thing we would choose to do, to make a significant difference if … if we had that imaginary executive power?”
The question reminded me of the compositions we had to write when we were schoolchildren. Only this time, we were all adults, and this particular question had all kinds of multidimensional conundrums for us to consider. Where does one start if not at the problems?
While each of us took home this tough question to ponder over, floods swamped swathes of the country. Overnight, rapidly rising waters devastated parts of Selangor – and, in the days that followed, parts of Pahang and Johor as well – displacing thousands from their homes, racking up millions in damages, and taking dozens of lives.
The floods also washed up an unbelievable volume of these ‘problems’. It was easy for anyone following the floods on social media to conclude that our government lacked empathy, a commitment to integrity, and competence in the way it managed the floods.
We learnt that a critical water pump at the tidal gates in Shah Alam had not been maintained for months despite repeated reminders. Apparently, several water retention pool sites, earmarked on developmental blueprints, had mysteriously and suspiciously been converted to construction sites.
The unforgivable delay before the government finally acted to provide flood relief, rankled flood victims. Ironically, it was ordinary people – including migrants – who first had the flood victims’ backs, responding far quicker than the government could.
When the government finally acted, it soon became apparent that it had no idea how to be lithe, lean and swift. Instead, political leaders fell back on their tired old ways of organising charity dinners, printing T-shirts and posing in front of cameras, while thousands perched on the rooftops of their almost submerged homes, waiting to be rescued.
These stories were just the tip of the iceberg, among many that went viral on social media platforms. Each one pointed to some serious afflictions affecting our political leaders, many of whom suffer from an endemic culture of complacency and incompetence and are prone to abuse power.
Leaders and civil authorities, suddenly caught with their pants down, pointed their fingers at anyone else but themselves. Clearly, we were experiencing an absence of any serious leadership.
How did we get here? These revelations – the incompetence, the irresponsibility, the lack of integrity and transparency – were serious issues. Perhaps we needed to change the entire government instead of looking for that single elusive thing that could make a difference.
The same political party has dominated Malaysia for much of the last six decades. It was inexcusable that it had become this sluggish. Perhaps it had been in power for too long. Perhaps the line between the nation and the government had blurred so much that loyalty to the former also meant loyalty to the latter.
Within such a culture, questioning, criticising or challenging the political structures, regardless of how unethical they are, is rarely done. Why, doing so might even be perceived as acts of sedition!
I wondered, too, if this situation could have arisen because of an incongruity between Malay adat – that beautiful thing that is a subtle non-confrontational tradition of culture and language – and the democratic system, which demands conflict, confrontation and argument for it to function efficiently.
Within this context, I could understand why Siti Kasim’s rhetoric against the leadership is so easily despised.
I could also understand why Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam’s accusation against her teacher was not so widely embraced.
In the same way, I could understand why the civil service sometimes seems to be so paralysed. It almost appears lacking in resourcefulness and empowerment to think out of the box, without any instruction or permission cascading from the top.
I could finally understand why some of my Malay friends found my criticism of our civil systems on our shared chat groups so offensive.
Somewhere along the way, the entire civil system has become so warped we now fear the police when we ask too many questions about the actions of the leaders. Or we hold our breath anxiously when each controversial case goes to the courts because many of us seem no longer sure about our judicial system.
Our systems do not seem to be fortified by democratic values, especially when it is supported by an education system tipped heavily towards religious studies. Free and open debates are not usually a part of the religious classroom’s dynamics.
So what was that one thing we could change? How do we reset this country? Do we change the education system? Do we force integrity from the top? Should we flex our muscles and enforce laws that are already outlined in the many civil service guidelines and procedural documents?
As I contemplated these, political economist Dr Edmund Terence Gomez resigned as a member of a Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission panel. At once, we found ourselves standing at the brink of a different kind of flood.
The face of Azam Baki was now splashed across all our social media platforms in a powerful wave of outrage – like a relentless blitz! Here was a man – the MACC chief, no less – who was alleged to own a ridiculous amount of company shares.
Not only did he appear to violate the Public Officers Conduct and Discipline Regulations of the civil service, his actions raised searching questions about the sources of the funds used to buy these shares. These questions hinted of much more than met the eye.
Such suspicions are good. They clean up the system by providing opportunities for those suspected to provide evidence to clear their names. Surprisingly, nowhere in any of Azam’s explanations did he offer satisfactory proof of his innocence, other than denials.
Above all this, the confidence with which Azam allegedly bypassed the procedural checks within the system baffled many of us. The civil system around him, instead of correcting this glitch, one by one fell in line behind him.
That he had allegedly violated procedures and civil service regulations was overlooked, even glossed over. His action in going after a whistleblower was ignored.
At one point, the circus threatened to become a Malay versus non-Malay one. Interestingly, both Terence Gomez and Lalitha Kunaratnam (the whistleblower) are both non-Malays, somewhat validating my initial speculation about Malay culture and its reluctance to rock the boat and Azam’s apparent overwhelming confidence in that culture.
Regardless of whether we think Azam is innocent or otherwise, it is clear he must have thought we are all fools. Perhaps he overestimated the extent of the prevailing culture of looking the other way. He must have thought we would all be blind.
I no longer think we can rely on any executive to begin any significant change from the top. The system is too saturated with a culture of complacency and corruption that roadblocks along the path to reforms are inevitable.
Instead, change has to come from the bottom. It has to come from the collective, from you and me.
However, such change will take time – because it shapes the future by exerting pressure from the bottom – by first focusing on the common, on what we each do not want. Hopefully, the system will gradually correct itself.
It is gratifying to see many young Malays speaking up over TikTok and YouTube. They have begun to understand we can no longer afford to remain blind or unquestioningly mute. Perhaps this is the beginning of change.
Azam, meanwhile, has been summoned to appear before a parliamentary special select committee, thanks to the relentless upward pressure from the collective, from the many petitions, from the civil society joint statement and from the many ordinary voices on social media.
Where this goes from now depends on how vigilant we continue to be. Perhaps someday soon, we might begin to redefine our worth as a nation and discover ourselves again.Sukeshini Nair
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
18 January 2022