Out with the old, in with the new

Malaysia is entering a new era – let’s make it an era of creativity and freedom.

We get excited and feel proud when we hear about Malaysians who do well overseas. In fact, such stories motivate us and are always widely shared on social media.

And almost always, these Malaysians who do exceptionally well work in the US or other Western nations. This is especially so when it comes to creative work.

Why is it that they thrive in such countries? I asked my son who used to work in Silicon Valley, US, and he told me one of the main reasons was that the environment there encouraged creativity and innovation. You get to mix with talented people and it rubs off. Diversity is celebrated as it contributes to the talent pool.

Also, there is no climate of fear, and people are not penalised for expressing contrarian views. In fact, people are encouraged to come up with disruptive ideas. People enjoy freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom to dress as they like, freedom of religion and freedom not to believe in religion. The media is quite free, too. Debate and discussion is encouraged, and conformity kept at arm’s length.

This does not mean, he hastened to add, that a dumb person who goes there is going to become brilliant.

Malaysia is very far behind in terms of creativity. This must change, and for that we must engender a climate of creativity, where our young minds can flower.

It is clear that a restrictive society will not generate creativity or give rise to innovative minds. It is clear that the diversity we have must be celebrated. People must be allowed the freedom to practise their religions and cultures without restriction so that they have a measure of contentment.

To unchain a restrictive society and foster creativity, critical thinking must be encouraged but that is not the case in Malaysia. For too long, critical thinking has been suppressed. Many academics and education activists have said that our environment – especially the education system – stifles creativity.

For far too long, Malaysians have been afraid of their own shadows, largely due to politicians who promulgated laws that discouraged the voicing of differing views, particularly views critical of them.

If a university student, for instance, criticises the government, he or she is immediately branded an opposition supporter and disciplinary action is taken. This has to end with the Barisan Nasional (BN) government that lost in the 14th general election on May 9.

The new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad must ensure greater freedom for citizens so that creativity can be encouraged.

One of the things I would like to see is the repeal of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 which, among other things, prohibits students from joining political parties, taking part in protests and political campaigns and participating in activities that are “unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the university”. And all these years, we know, anything that is against the government has been deemed as “unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students of the university”.

Just repealing it won’t be enough, though. The government must see to it that only academics with spunk are appointed vice-chancellors at public universities, not those who will bend backwards to please government leaders. It is because of restrictions and the subservient and unimaginative nature of many heads of public universities that our universities are light years away from becoming mini Silicon Valleys.

Education must be democratised so that every Malaysian regardless of race or religion gets an equal opportunity to move forward if he or she has the capability. Scholarships must be given based on merit, not on racial quotas. This is one way to encourage the growth of a talented pool of people, and help arrest the brain drain. It’s time to remove discriminative policies in education.

Every Malaysian student, every Malaysian youth, must be assured of equal opportunities to rise in life. Otherwise, there will be no difference between PH and BN. So, there is a need to change policies that have dented the growth of an intelligent, young and creative population.

And yes, bring back English-medium schools. English is the language of international business and science, and the new government can contribute to the growth of an innovative culture by introducing English schools to operate side by side with national and vernacular schools.

This is especially so because national schools have lost their national character and are no longer favoured by many non-Malay parents.

Another freedom that is crucial for the development of thinking minds is a free press. PH has already promised to repeal the Printing and Publications Act 1984, and the sooner that is done the better.

But it is not just this law; there are several other laws that inhibit the growth of a free media, including the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. These were used by the previous government to quash dissent. The latest law, the Anti-Fake News Act 2018, is another piece of legislation that should get the boot.

Journalists, and ordinary Malaysians using social media, must be able to write or send messages or post views without the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, as at present. If a journalist writes something libellous, let him be sued for it but remove the restrictive laws, please.

There is also a need for freedom of movement. It is ridiculous for some Malaysians in the peninsula to be denied entry into Sabah or Sarawak, especially for political reasons. Malaysians should be free to move in any part of Malaysia, as long as they are not criminals.

People should be free to associate with anyone or any group or assemble anywhere without interference from the authorities. If a group of people want to protest over something or other, the police should facilitate such an assembly, not bring in the water cannons and the riot squad as they do now. Enough of that, please. We are entering a new era – let’s make it an era of creativity and freedom.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.

The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.