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General election 2018: Don’t underestimate scale of reforms needed

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Do not underestimate the extent and degree of reforms needed, writes Mary Chin. The road ahead will even be tougher than defeating a regime in an election.

“Everything will be put straight; we will stop all corruption; all resources will be fairly distributed.”

Such an assurance only shows how naive the campaigner is, not knowing what he is talking about. Fundamentally, the show of sincerity is unconvincing. Without prioritising, phasing and strategising, the task is simply insurmountable.

If we think Wan Emdeebee is the most corrupt ever, that shows how we have lost sight of the big picture. Zoom out a bit. Consider the complex entanglement with international syndicates, for example. We have some dark, dark underworlds to tackle:

  • 20 December 2017: New Straits Times reports, “The secrets of Wang Kelian exposed”
  • 20 July 2017: Al Jazeera reports, “Malaysia’s migrant money trail”

Switching to a smaller scale, some cases make it to the news, and we get a peek into how certain enforcement officers’ were held over taking bribes.

These and other corrupt individuals within their corrupt capacities might count themselves nothing but small fry – nothing compared to Wan Emdeebee, relatively harmless so to speak. Among them, many openly attack Wan Emdeebee with an air of self-righteousness too – some even code themselves yellow and consider themselves bersih.

We’ve got corruption on wholesale, folks! Now almost everyone can be corrupt.

The question is: why don’t those people so obsessed with Wan Emdeebee hardly ever worry about Wang Kelian? “Let those poor souls suffer, I only care to recover the billions and get my share”?

In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking wrote of a woman claiming our world to be a flat plate resting on the back of a turtle, which is in turn is supported by “turtles all the way down”. In Connectome, Sebastian Seung describes how our brain works as “neurons all the way down”. In our systems, we’ve got problems all the way down.

That gives us an idea of the extent and the degree of reforms needed, whoever forms the next government. A reform of this scale would require strong leadership, which we can’t find from those who are the loudest.

Capitalising on the mess for propaganda, without a blueprint for reform, is a big mistake. One who cares for the nation wouldn’t rejoice in the mess that we are in.

Celebrating and capitalising on the mess for propaganda is, unfortunately, all we see.

A far-reaching genuine blueprint for reform is, unfortunately, what we haven’t seen.


Like healthcare, education entities too are working hard to generate demand (that had not existed) before having sufficiently caring for local would-be students. The big industry is busy luring clients from abroad.

Dropouts are left uncared for. Vocational training hasn’t flourished in the same way that universities have sprouted over the past decade.

Except in isolated cases of first-hand parents, a commitment to greater accessibility is absent. The contemporary challenge of a fast-growing ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) population is not on the agenda. What are we waiting for? Do we act only after the ADHD population overwhelms the non-ADHD?

Genuine academic interests are limited. Subjects available are strongly biased towards money-making domains centring around management, business, accounting, dentistry and medicine. No arts; no science.

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Even in well-established universities, academic rigour is limited. Apart from some great teachers and researchers, many are marred by glamour: there is the glamour of professorial appointments upon returning from overseas education sponsored by Malaysian universities (even if they took extended years to complete their doctorate).

Enticed by lucrative positions that sharply differentiate them from the rest of society, some are powered by a personal ambition rather than any passion for their subject or any conviction to serve the country. This explains why after decades of sending staff abroad for postgraduate studies, local universities are still in the shape they are.

And then there is the glamour of flying here, there and everywhere attending international conferences – sometimes without giving any oral presentations, sometimes using poster presentations to gain free trips.

Do not underestimate the extent of the revamp necessary. Bear in mind that those locally sponsored postgraduates return without have done a post-doctorate (which, elsewhere, is as standard as ‘housemanship’) and have not competed in any international job market. The local environment they return to is highly protected.

The time has come to wean off Third World features, provide a healthy habitat and set a good tradition to be passed on to the younger generation by:

  • honouring copyright, subscribing to journals and paying for software licences (rather than resorting to “the students will know what to do!”);
  • advancing research rather than spinning out project after project, supervising student after student, producing shelves and shelves of ‘similar-but-not-identical’ theses;
  • typesetting manuscripts (using LaTeX) rather than word-processing using Microsoft Word
  • processing and presenting data in ways more credible than Microsoft Excel;
  • submitting to competitive journals and giving oral presentations at competitive conferences.

Complacency is dangerous here. This explains why without a massive overhaul, pumping in more funds will not help. In fact, funding approval is easier and more generous here than many other places.

Weaknesses should not be exploited for finger-pointing and propaganda. Anyone who is genuine about wanting to rebuild the nation wouldn’t find any of this funny or laughable.

Bersih can be more collected

Bersih should be non-partisan (otherwise, change the definition). It must be distinguishable from the opposition. Leaders and members from any party should be free to attend and support Bersih events, but opposition leaders should not be opening ceremonies and giving ceramah – unless there is a programme organised to balance, with reps from each contender.

Bersih activists should be on guard and prepared for detention. No, they shouldn’t be detained. But we know the possibility is not zero, and at this point, it is not something within our means to prevent.

If the top person gets detained, there should be a second person to issue statements. If both get detained, there should be a next-in-line. Particularly for an organisation of this nature, Bersih should never be caught so unprepared. Stand up and calm your supporters; assure them that you are prepared, and the next steps have already been marked out.

Members and supporters should exercise restraint. A little restraint could have stopped that virulent and triumphant sharing on social media depicting Red Shirts as barbaric. Red Shirts are Red Shirts – have those videos taught us anything new or made us any better persons? Those videos served only to divide and incite hatred. Those videos reflect on the sender before they reflect on the Red Shirts. By making a fool of others, we first make a fool of ourselves.

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Cleaning up after rallies? Yellow or red, we are Malaysians. Some Malaysians litter, others don’t. There’s no need to capitalise on others’ misbehaviour. Likewise, among ruling or opposition parties, sabotage and vandalism do happen. It all depends which corner we point our camera to.

Don’t take things into our own hands by rounding up voters who ‘look like foreigners BN gave ICs to’, only to find out later that what was apparent was in fact one’s own illusion. This is where Bersih can show some leadership to members and supporters. Bersih shouldn’t just recruit supporters just to win by the numbers. In our midst, so many claim to be Bersih. How bersih are they?

Challenge of wealth distribution

Let us imagine a scenario where we are the cucu-cicit of atok Wan Emdeebee, who is ailing and might pass away within a month or so. The biggest question is, who are the waris (heirs); who has the right to those billions?

So far atok’s name has been pronounced most loudly by the middle class. Who are the middle class? The elites. The middle class is less of a definition, more of a self-identification. It is just neither upper nor lower class.

The middle class may feel they deserve what they have – unlike the scandalous and undeserving upper class. The middle class may feel they have the right to have and get more — unlike the undeserving lower class, who should stay where they are in their rightful place.

Feeling horribly short-changed, the middle class demand to have the billions back. When asked, they assure us of fair distribution. The sincerity, however, hasn’t been convincing.

The challenge of wealth distribution has been grossly underestimated. If these people know what it is all about, they wouldn’t have dared give the assurance. They think they can leapfrog ahead of Scandinavia? Sadly, people can be that naive.

Look at the state of Penang: the island and mainland feel like two different worlds. Note the gulf of difference. The same state; just separated by a bit of water. I am citing examples from Penang purely because I live here and I get better samples. I am sure we can find concrete examples from other states, ruled by whichever party. After all, the chief minister did apologise for leaving people out, without naming who and without suggesting corrective actions though.

Here, I take the liberty to name a few: the voiceless, the environment, migrant workers, refugees and pedestrians.

The massive floods in November 2017 set into motion round-island drain-widening efforts, racing against the clock, all out to prevent another paralysis. That feat reminds me of China, back in 2003, springing up Sars hospitals within a very short time – after wasting some time defending and denying the reality. They did it, impressively, when they finally decided to.

Despite repeated warnings by environmental groups, Penang has long been in defensive denial mode too. But like China, it sprung into corrective action when it finally decided to. It is a matter of will.

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The Penang Bangkit flood relief actually singled out migrant workers (who built us our homes) and refugees as non-persons. These non-person flood victims were denied the RM700 their next-door neighbours and the rest of their kampung received. We are creating dangerous gaps that crack our communities.

Don’t underestimate the challenge of fair distribution. We see gaps, gaps and gaps everywhere. Not least the gap between car owners and pedestrians. The Penang heritage zone is a tourism gold mine but look at the overhead bridge in front of the ferry terminal. Which decade was it last refurbished? Steps made of multiple, poorly levelled wooden planks, with discontinuous handrails — how safe is the bridge for pedestrians?

The middle class speak the loudest. Pedestrians are somehow seen as a separate group quite safe to ignore. Walk around Seri Tanjong Pinang, the upscale neighbourhood. We find consecutive manholes with broken covers, one after another – effectively a series of booby traps lying in wait for the pedestrian. At a new township, there is no excuse for not factoring in safety and not investing in durability.

Spice arena is another new landmark, a grand presentation, a local pride and front-face for the state. But who cares about pedestrians in a state dominated by elites? Pedestrians have to crisscross between moving cars to reach the exhibition halls from the bus stop. Walkways would have been one of the most basic design features of a facility of this scale and age.

That is why it is important to be explicit about the mechanisms for Wan EmDeeBee’s waris. Strangle him to death if you will, but know that the challenges ahead will be far more difficult than the strangling. We can’t afford to strangle first and worry about waris later.

Handling the waris issue requires sincere and long-ranging commitments. Things are simply not going to fall into place just like that. We need to know the safeguards against hoarding by any particular group speaking the loudest and claiming to be the most deserving.

Let us ask campaigners for a better deal: unless the waris issue is sufficiently addressed, we actually don’t mind Wan Emdeebee living longer. There is no point reaching for the eraser to rub off racial boundaries, then proceeding to draw a new set of boundaries which would push us to the worst of capitalism.

Gross Domestic XXX

Your cheating empowers me to cheat. Your stealing inspires me to steal. So now everyone can cheat and steal?

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measures goods and services produced within the borders of a country. Usually measured per year, it is closely related to national income.

Consider parallels such as Gross Domestic Hatred, Gross Domestic Lies, Gross Domestic Meddling and Gross Domestic Suspicion. Capitalising on each other’s wrongs, countering one extreme with another will not produce any neutralising effect. They only add up.

Let us refrain from matching hooks with crooks. Hooks and crooks do not cancel each other. The net effect will just sink the nation – everybody sinks together. That is what reacting to others with knee-jerk reflexes costs.

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