Over the last few months, I have been living my life from outrage to outrage.
These are all siding up one against another like little pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. The picture that these little pieces are making is not pretty.
Yet, here we are, caught in this frustrating position of wanting to change that picture, fully aware it would be a Herculean task. Where do we start? Or is there already too much water under the bridge?
Recently, one of these little pieces was about the ‘Singapore-based’ company Grab. Grab has just been listed on the technology-heavy Nasdaq platform in the US.
I felt all kinds of things at once. For starters, there was envy. Countries like Singapore that were once our equal, suddenly have progressed so much more than us.
Then my envy morphed into humiliation as I realised that of late, we seem to be losing out to countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, which were once poorer than us.
Underpinning all these emotions was grief. You see, Grab was once our baby. It was Malaysian before it became Singaporean. And we let it go!
Like Grab, both my children have left the country too. Ask any middle-class Malaysian family who are not bumiputra, and you will find a common trait – ‘losing’ a child or more to another country.
Yet, I had hope, and so one day, I asked my daughter to think about coming back home.
But all she said was “How Ma? Malaysia does not want us.”
That was when my grief cut the deepest. I could not stop the pain.
Today, I feel it all the time. It gnaws like a dull ache but one that sits in my heart and twists every time I yearn to see my children or to hold them close.
Knowingly or unknowingly, letting go of many precious things to other countries seems to be what Malaysia does best these days. Grab, to me, is just a metaphor for our losses because of our misplaced priorities, wasteful policies, indecisiveness, corruption and most of all, our insecurities over race and religion.
Some say Grab left Malaysia because of inadequate funding in a financial ecosystem not sufficiently conducive to start-ups. But some of those familiar with the Malaysian system are likely to wonder if the outcome would have been different for Grab, if its founders had been bumiputra. It is certainly food for thought.
Besides losing some of our home-grown companies, foreign investors too are leaving Malaysia. Several big names have already left us. Apart from the slow rollout of 5G technology, these international companies have also cited a lack of qualified local talent, (especially digital talent) as one of the main reasons why they have left Malaysia.
So what is happening? Why aren’t we responding swiftly and efficiently to these critical market demands? As for the 5G internet speeds, our zeal to leap into the fourth industrial revolution era is already a little too late. South Korea, Singapore, China and even once war-torn Vietnam have internet speeds much quicker than us.
The lockdown in 2020 saw Veveonah Mosibin scaling a tree for her internet connectivity to complete her online exams. This is not only embarrassing, but points to our leaders’ complacency and failure to surge ahead so that we can be more competitive.
Yet, we seem to be more responsive in other matters – matters that have to do with whisky with a ‘Malay’-sounding name, matters that have to do with 4D gaming outlets, matters that have to do with a crossdresser. It was indeed amazing to see how swiftly we saw a nation shift into readiness to deploy our government machinery to try to haul a harmless transgender woman back from Thailand.
I am also ‘impressed’ with the way we have been channelling our resources to look relentlessly, again and again, at vernacular schools and their constitutional right to exist.
Meanwhile, those calling for the abolition of vernacular schools seem to have missed two critical points.
First, they are unable to see that our national schools are hopelessly floundering under the weight of increasing Islamisation, which has marginalised and alienated many non-bumiputra students.
The declining quality of many school leaders and teachers who are only appointed because they are from the preferred race (and not because they are the best) has compromised the quality of our education system.
We see the declining standards of skill sets in multilingualism, critical and creative thinking and problem solving. Our rankings in the global Pisa education tests (which measure students’ ability to apply their learning to real-life problem-solving in reading, maths and science) are below average too.
Second, because of the declining standards in national schools, vernacular schools ironically have become more popular with many non-Malay parents – and interestingly, with some Malay parents too.
What I have noticed about Malaysia is that whenever there is an opportunity to challenge, to compete and to raise the collective standards of all players in the field, narrow-minded xenophobic politicians will cite affirmative action or some other excuse to roll out new regulations or policies that crush or remove the competition. Several major corporate players seem to be victims of such moves.
When crushing the competition seems too uneconomical, the easy and lazy alternative has been to seize the lion’s share of the business through legislative or other means. We saw this happen with an attempt to force the transfer of at least 51% of the equity of freight forwarding companies to bumiputras – a practice which is not only unethical but which, to my mind, is nothing short of blatant ‘robbery’.
Once again, our leaders seem to be shortsighted and miss the long-term impact of such laws. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Skin in the Game, says that when business people do not have their skin in the game, when they do not cut their teeth in the business, or when they have not invested their blood, sweat and tears, they are highly unlikely to sustain efficiency and growth or to ride the uncertainties, unpredictability and the randomness of life and business.
They will fail. Just look at many of the bumiputra contractors who are too used to being spoon-fed by easy government contracts: after five decades, they are still unable to compete if the government does not support them. These contractors are so used to the entitlement that they forget that the pool of those paying taxes to feed them is already shrinking.
Becoming wealthy the easy, lazy way in the name of affirmative action has spread into all other areas of our culture. In some twisted way, kleptocracy has emerged as an increasingly acceptable cultural practice perpetuated by politicians and their enablers.
However, blessing or not, in 2016, the practice exploded globally in our face, as 1MDB became “the world’s greatest financial scandal”. Yet another embarrassment and what a burden for taxpayers to bear!
Inevitably, we are now haemorrhaging – and haemorrhaging profusely. Every year, we are bleeding billions through graft. We are haemorrhaging local home-grown companies; we are haemorrhaging foreign investors.
The full impact of these skewed policies and practices has resulted in the worst haemorrhage of all – the loss of our children, and with them, our best talents.
The loss is not only about those who can afford to leave but also about those who are forced to remain. For every one child who leaves, thousands of others are ignored or neglected or not developed to their fullest.
I am referring to all our children – the Malays, the Chineses, the Indians, the Kadazandusuns, the Ibans, the Melanaus and all the other children of this country, who come in so many beautiful different colours. We are losing them too. When we lose the children, we lose any hope for a respectable, prosperous future.
If something is not done, if our people do not wise up, if affirmative action is not reviewed and reconstructed to help the low-income group regardless of ethnicity, this country will be irrevocably crippled.
We need to grow together. We need to be one people. No one prospers when another is left behind. We can make it happen if we can find new paradigms.