“The most important light is the light you cannot see.
Darkness lasts not even for one second when you turn on the light.”
That quote caught my attention when I watched the Netflix series All the Light We Cannot See recently, based on the New York Times bestseller and 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Anthony Doerr.
One reviewer said the title suggests that “we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility”.
Another issue highlighted is the perennial question: to what extent are we masters of our own destiny and how much of it is conditioned and predetermined by our surrounding environment?
The series also proposes that the seeming differences that divide society into the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ or ‘us’ and ‘them’, including ethnic and political divisions, are really artificial constructs that ignore the truth of our shared humanity.
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The storyline made me reflect on the state of our nation today. I am trying to understand and reconcile the different – sometimes diametrically opposite – assessments of the performance of the Anwar Ibrahim administration and predictions about the nation’s future. These have come from a range of analysts, political commentators and even civil society groups.
These contrasting assessments are also apparent in ordinary people’s conversations and in social media comments. Sometimes they seem more like assessments of Anwar Ibrahim the man rather than Anwar Ibrahim the prime minister.
Let me illustrate my point.
On the one hand, Khairy Jamaluddin, an associate senior fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, declares that Anwar’s first year as PM was “performative and underperforming”.
Yet, he concedes that much of the PM’s predicament is “inherited and imposed”, ranging from voters’ high expectations to factors beyond Anwar’s control – inherited from previous administrations and imposed by external global forces. But is Khairy being disingenuous when he refers to these factors as “excuses” or can they be seen as valid justifications?
On the other hand, we have Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore, extolling Anwar’s “quiet triumph” while “showing the same zeal as [Nelson] Mandela did for institutional and economic reform rooted in democratic values”.
Kishore predicts that collaboration between the PM and the soon-to-be-installed new King, Sultan Ibrahim, could augur well for political stability and multi-ethnic policies.
But I am sure many do not share his optimism and enthusiasm, especially since the 17th constitutional monarch has indicated he will be playing more than just a symbolic and ceremonial role.
On a recent CNA assessment of Anwar Ibrahim’s first year in government, political commentators graded the administration with scores ranging from 4 to 8.5 on a scale of 1 to 10.
I particularly liked the assessment by Ibrahim Suffian of the Merdeka Center. He graded the administration “A” for effort and “C” for governance and meeting public needs.
On social media, ‘Citizen Nades’ gave Anwar a “D minus” for the unity government’s anti-corruption initiatives.
But then came the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s seizure of Daim Zainuddin’s Ilham Tower over dubious corporate transactions 25 years ago.
Will this move push the analysts to revise their grade for Anwar?
Or will the MACC’s action be seen as a witch hunt against political foes and a pre-emptive strike against potential usurpers?
Polls by various quarters suggest a decline in Anwar’s approval ratings among both the ethnic Malays and the minorities, with economic concerns taking centre stage. This is despite positive and optimistic reports by both Bank Negara and the World Bank.
The minister for the economy, Rafizi Ramli, acknowledged that while tackling structural issues and “turning the ship around will take some time”, the government still has to satisfy voters by giving evidence of some positive policy outcomes.
Some initiatives of the “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government have already shown positive results. Witness the increase in foreign direct investments, cash aid and plans for targeted subsidies; the reduction in hardcore poverty levels and the higher incomes for thousands of low-income households.
One news report even declared that Malaysia “has succeeded in making slow but steady progress toward overcoming the middle-income trap”. In doing so, the report added, the country “will serve as a beacon for other emerging and developing countries in the Global South”.
Can anyone deny that basic measures like repairs to dilapidated school buildings and toilets – long overdue and neglected by previous administrations – will raise the quality of education and widen access to educational opportunities? Perhaps these measures are aimed at ‘low-hanging fruit’, producing results that are palpable and immediately visible to the masses.
At the risk of being labelled a naively optimistic Pollyanna, I believe we finally have a government now, after many decades, with more ministers and deputies who are competent, hardworking, honest, accountable, accessible and reform-minded, even if inexperienced.
But evidently, many others have plenty of grouses about them. Many more (if polls are to be believed) will not be satisfied until we have a theocracy in place, assuming they even know what that entails.
So far, the Anwar administration appears to have been unsuccessful in arresting the trust deficit and decline in public confidence. Does it boil down ultimately to managing expectations and moulding the desired perceptions?
In contrast to this decline in public support, political support for Anwar in Parliament has grown stronger over the past few months. A string of opposition MPs from Perikatan Nasional have openly pledged support for the policies and initiatives of the “unity government”. In doing so, they have apparently prioritised their constituents’ welfare above party interests.
This is an unexpected development, considering the opposition’s manoeuvring and threats to topple the unity government. While the recent shifts in MPs’ allegiances show up loopholes in the law to deter such defections, Anwar’s stronger hand in Parliament should satisfy those anxious about political stability and the survival of his government. It should also allay their concerns about its ability to push through key reforms in Parliament.
All this makes me wonder about the ‘diversity’ and divergence in public opinion and even ‘expert opinion’.
Is it due to a lack of accurate information in the public domain on the Madani government’s initiatives and policies?
Or is ‘objectivity’ in such short supply? Perhaps it is constrained by our own subjective value systems and measurement criteria, on top of our personal dispositions and experiences, resulting in skewed and less-than-accurate assessments and conclusions.
Maybe it is my diminishing amygdala [a part of the brain] function that makes me focus more on the positive rather than the negative – “The optimist sees the doughnut; the pessimist the hole!”?
But my thirty-something daughter tells me Malaysia needs more angry young men and women, even those with skewed perspectives. They are needed to highlight the oppression of marginalised groups and minority rights violations.
Yes, we absolutely have a duty to speak truth to power and be a voice for the marginalised and oppressed. There is no such thing as being ‘neutral’ or ‘non-political’; our silence would render us complicit and supportive of the status quo. To quote Howard Zinn: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
However, it is neither helpful nor accurate and patently unfair to proffer skewed conclusions and sweeping statements about public policies, public figures, public institutions and even the future of our nation based on premature assessments, limited evidence and incomplete information.
Not that we should be lulled into complacency or quiet compliance and acquiescence. But there is a fine line between constructive criticism and cynicism.
Instead of always throwing stones at the other, we could instead foster greater understanding and dialogue by engaging constructively and positively.
Our engagement should not be just with like-minded individuals and groups but should extend to even the ‘bad guys’ on the other side of the fence. We could interact with an open mind and offer more viable, mutually accepted alternatives. This could be done without resorting to personal, below-the-belt attacks or unjustly imputing wrong motives to others.
For a start, individuals and groups with the requisite expertise should take advantage of the opportunities and avenues made available now by the Madani government. They could engage and consult with stakeholders on how to quicken the pace of reforms.
The multi-ethnic reform movement Aliran, which promotes justice, freedom and solidarity, has worked hard to raise social consciousness and encourage initiatives that promote social justice through peaceful means.
Now we need to consider novel and more effective means of engagement and collaboration across the various divides. We need to dismantle artificial constructs. We also need to broaden our perspective over a vast spectrum of possibilities in our bid to promote our common humanity.
On top of the list should be efforts to bridge the divide and build trust between the Malay-Muslims and the non-Muslims.
Many Malay-Muslims, despite their political dominance and entrenched “special position”, still feel threatened and exhibit a siege mentality.
And many non-Muslims perceive the increasing religious conservatism among Muslims as a threat to their basic rights.
Yet, many Muslims themselves are also dismayed by how some quarters misrepresent or even hijack Islam to promote a Malay supremacist agenda.
Perhaps we can then bridge the division between the “walauns” (Pas supporters) and the “walanons” (Pakatan Haparan supporters). This is not a pipe dream, considering how once sworn enemies are now able to work together under a unity government.
Why, even the Islamic political party Pas recently wished Christian Malaysians a Merry Christmas, embracing “diversity as both a cornerstone of Islamic teachings and a defining trait of the society”. It looks as if the PM’s “compassionate Islam” is catching on! Anyone heard anything from Zakir Naik?
Hopefully, political commentators will be able to distinguish between policy failures that result in unjust outcomes at a systemic and societal level, and policy distortions caused by some ignorant or overzealous little Napoleons within the system.
It is understandable to see people riled up over incidents involving these little Napoleans.
But let’s recognise and give credit when those in authority address such policy distortions immediately. For instance, it was encouraging to see the education minister accepting responsibility, apologising and taking immediate remedial action following a few reported incidents in schools.
Contrast this with the practice of passing the buck or maintaining an elegant silence or worse, justifying it, as often happened during the Barisan Nasional and PN eras.
We should “turn on the light” to showcase the many ordinary people who, with the help of social media especially, have exposed bureaucratic excesses or unjust social conditions. Many have fought back to reclaim our basic rights – and proved how we can rise above our limiting circumstances and be transformed into a source of inspiration.
So, as we enter a new year, let us not carry despair and hopelessness in our hearts. Instead, let us be bearers of optimism and hope for our nation, as we work together to build a better Malaysia. This is our collective responsibility.
To quote organisational psychologist Adam Grant: “Dissatisfaction says things could be better; wisdom says they could be worse.”
We who want a better Malaysia need to do more to turn on the light to dispel the darkness so that we can become masters of our own destiny and reclaim our nation.
Mary Magdaline Pereira
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
31 December 2023