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Merdeka: When I’m sixty-four

Hopefully, we can look to our younger leaders to take us into a new era and rectify all the wrongs in our country

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WONG SOAK KOON/ALIRAN

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In 1967, The Beatles released a hit song When I’m Sixty Four, for which Paul McCartney had written the music 11 years earlier, when he was just 14.

McCartney later added lyrics to this song, presumably to honour his father, who turned 64 in 1966. The lyrics focus on a young man anxiously looking ahead towards old age. The vocals were sped up in the studio to make them reverberate with more energy and pace.

On 31 August, Peninsular Malaysia will celebrate 64 years of independence and Sabah 58 years. Sarawak too marked 58 years of independence on 22 July. Sixty-four or 58 is old by any measure. We have come a long way since our humble beginnings in 1957 and 1963.

When Malaysians like me reflect, we find much to rejoice about, but sadly, it is also interspersed with despondency. The 1960s Malaysia I grew up in is today beyond recognition, with little semblance of its carefree past that was filled with heady expectations of a bright future.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since the 1960s. For those of my generation, many of the happy times are etched in our memories. We grew up in an era where ethnic polarisation was non-existent. Back then, we were truly ‘1Malaysia’.

But nostalgia is now blended with other reminiscences that mar those positive thoughts. Many today fail to realise that Malaysia draws its strength as a nation from its multiracial mosaic. It is Malaysians of all ethnicities and religions – not any single group – who have made this country what it is today.

Diversity is always a source of strength for any country. We can tap from the richness of our potpourri of work ethics, cultures and traditions. And who can ignore our variety of cuisines, which often mesmerises us and is the envy of many foreigners.

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A dark chapter in the history of Malaysia unfolded with the horror of May 13 in 1969. But we pulled our socks up and moved forward with determination and resilience with the help of successive policies and plans.

At one time, Malaysia was the only functioning democracy – an oasis of stability – in a troubled region. Our neighbouring countries were cowering under dictatorships or unsettled by communist insurgencies. Even a neighbouring country that nominally subscribed to democratic values was, in fact, under an authoritarian leader who mercilessly mistreated his political opponents.

Somehow, Malaysia bucked the trend, emboldened by our democratic credentials, much to the chagrin of many developing countries where parliamentary democracy was rare.

We enjoyed some measure of democracy apart from another aberration: Operation Lalang in 1987, when over a hundred activists and opposition MPs were detained under the draconian Internal Security Act. That sad episode was another tarnished chapter in our country’s history.

(From left) Ishak Mohammed, Dr Burhanuddin Al-Helmy and Ahmad Boestamam

Malaysia’s opposition stalwarts of the past, such as Ahmad Boestamam, DR Seenivasagam and Dr Tan Chee Khoon, were on par with their counterparts in Western countries with their razor-sharp and objective criticisms.

Passion for justice: DR Seenivasagam remembered – Photo credit: ipohworld.org

Later, we saw the emergence of leaders like Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh and the legendary ‘Tok Guru’ Nik Aziz Nik Mat. Criticisms were rarely anything personal but mostly in the best interests of the country. All of them were genuine patriots.

Nik Aziz Nik Mat of Kelantan by Fayez – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia’s economy boomed for many years, chalking up impressive annual growth rates averaging 8%. We were a nation in full employment, and soon we had to depend on foreign labour to cope with the economic boom.

Poverty rates plunged. In the first decade of independence, poverty in Malaysia was widespread – a staggering 49.7% in 1970. But that plummeted to 8.4% in 2020 (going by the official figure).

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Foreign direct investments flowed into the country from all over and our global trade soared. Carefully managed economic policies ensured the country’s development plans could be carried out with little hitch. Sure, we had challenges from economic downturns, but we deftly navigated ourselves out of them.

Over the past six decades, Malaysia has had its fair share of problems: corruption, cronyism, nepotism, mismanagement and a decline in educational standards, including English, science and maths proficiency. Unfortunately, the government does not appear to be taking concrete measures to tackle these critical dilemmas.

Since 2015, Malaysia has been thrown into the international spotlight for the wrong reasons: scandals involving 1MDB, Felda Global Ventures and Tabung Haji have hit global headlines. The negative publicity surrounding such scandals has dented Malaysia’s international image.

The 2018 general election marked a renaissance for the people of Malaysia. For the first time in our post-independence history, we had a change of government. Many Malaysians walked tall after that election, marvelling at the evolution of our democracy.

It was a signal to the government, whichever party is in power, that the people could not be taken for granted anymore. An increased level of education has raised awareness, knowledge, understanding and wisdom. That has transformed our ability to think and evaluate issues rationally and objectively.

Malaysia’s peaceful election in 2018 and the smooth transition of power with no untoward incident reflected the political maturity of the people. After that election, few developing countries could lay claim to such a political history with the giant stride we made towards greater democracy.

We were optimistic that the election had laid the foundation for a vibrant two-party system in the country. But the euphoria with a change in government was short-lived: the Pakatan Harapan government was denied its right to complete its full five-year term.

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What a disappointment it was for Malaysians when PH ruled for only 22 months before it was replaced by an unelected government with an even shorter shelf-life of about 18 months. In just over three years, we now have a third government in office.

What a setback for Malaysia’s democratic credentials if an elected government is unable to serve out its full term. The country sent the wrong signals to the foreign corporate sector, as the nation is interlinked to the international business community.

WONG SOAK KOON/ALIRAN

Malaysia badly needs dynamic and visionary leadership, especially now that the country is confronted with a host of problems from the Covid pandemic to economic and employment woes. We face an uphill task to regain the glory days of the past.

Malaysia has been – I still believe it is – a country of immense possibilities but sadly also of squandered opportunities.

Hopefully, like in New Zealand and Finland, we can look to our younger leaders to take us into a new era and rectify all the wrongs in our country. Many of them – like my Lembah Pantai MP, Fahmi Fadzil – show immense potential to lead Malaysia out of its current predicament.

People of my generation are fortunate that the governments of the past incorporated the old-fashioned idea of permanent care in retirement. In the song When I’m Sixty Four, there is a line that goes: Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four? The worrying thing is that the younger generation may not be as fortunate as my generation has been.

Happy Merdeka and happy Malaysia Day everyone!

Thanks for dropping by! The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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