How much do we really know about our mindset?

On July 20, Perak’s Sultan Nazrin Shah urged the Malays to change their mindset to deal with the social, economic and political changes in Malaysia. He was referring to the recent change of government.

Sultan Nazrin said Malays who want to progress and gain the respect of others should not allow themselves to be slaves to wealth, to the point of being eager to give up their principles and values. His message was loud and clear, and I would like to see it reverberate with all Malaysians, not just the Malays.

The truth of the matter is, a grave Malaysian mindset has seeped into our culture, putting us at risk of going the same way as the dinosaurs. In Sultan Nazrin’s words, “Dinosaurs have large bodies and small brains… eventually, their population shrank and they became extinct, leaving behind just their fossils for exhibition in museums and as study materials.”

I do not think that the fossils of Malaysian society will end up at the famed American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan within the next century or so. But really, what is this “mindset” that we have been tossing around like a tennis ball, from side to side and back and forth?

Allan Bloom, in his book “The Closing of the American Mind”, wrote: “Liberalism, the kind that we knew from John Stewart Mill and John Dewey, taught us that the only danger confronting us is being closed to the emergent, the new, the manifestation of progress.”

Bloom’s message actually goes one step further than the liberal versus super liberal debate. He said openness paradoxically results in conformism – the understanding that there is a drab diversity out there that teaches only that values are relative. This means that groups of people within a society have the freedom to exist in an “us and them” mode. It is covered in a veil of “openness” but in reality, this great opening of the mind is a great closing.

Using this analytical canvas, let’s paint it in the Malaysian context.

Concerned members of civil society, activists, academics and (some) politicians have spoken and written on the feudal mindset, parochial thinking, and slavish, “lembab” mentality afflicting our society.

This narrative was resurrected post-GE14, first in the hope of furthering our newfound democratic success in overthrowing the excesses of corruption and cronyism. The new administration keeps telling us that the dawn of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has and should bring with it the dawn of a new mindset.

Secondly, the narrative has also been hijacked by the defeated regime and its various parties in the hopes of bandwagoning on what they think can sell. Both forms of the narrative, though, appear to be irresponsible cliches.

The Malay Economic Action Council (MTEM) recently said China contractors and sub-contractors should hire local workers to form smart partnerships. MTEM was responding to a statement by the director of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, who said “local firms and workers were not suited to the practices and general working culture of China contractors”. MTEM went on to say that China should be fair because the work cultures between China and Malaysia differ.

I am no expert on China’s corporate or business culture, but I am experienced with the Malaysian work ethic, more so within the civil service than the private sector. But never the twain shall meet? On the other hand, a similar mindset traverses both the civil service and private sector. Datuks and Tan Sris in both sectors are revered. Each sector feeds off the other. Whether a person is a civil servant or in the private sector, we still debate on whether a decorated or titled Datuk Seri (who might be a criminal of blue whale proportions), should don the orange lock-up garb. In a truly open mindset, it should be understood that crime must be punishable and criminals treated the same way (humanely, while sternly imposing basic regulations), regardless of titles, honourifics or previous employment. Only those with a feudal mindset would think otherwise.

Another aspect of the mindset that continues to set us back post-GE14 is the perpetual “call for a study by experts” on a particular heated issue of the day. There have been numerous complaints from civil society organisations and individuals. But really, who are these experts? Where are they being recycled from? Are they experts merely because they have the right political connections or the right titles, or play golf at the most canggih club?

Similarly, I wonder if the appointed experts are committed to the issue at hand with no strings attached. For example, the Malaysian Research Assessment Instrument (MyRA) enables higher education institutions in Malaysia to set ethical standards for academic publications and the performance of these institutions. Sounds highly professional, doesn’t it? MyRA is filled with pristine objectives: to enable universities to attain world-class status, and to produce graduates who can meet the country’s socio-economic aspirations.

But since its development in 2006, which public university has produced a pool of world-class scholars? Many will probably agree that our graduates are not aspiring to the expectations of the global economy. I am left with the tiresome question of how qualified are the MyRA auditors, really?

In ending this article, I would like to cite a recent event which I attended. The topics of research and publications were discussed. The moderator said a faculty of a particular university was unhappy with the dearth of publications and research projects suggested by certain departments. So strategies were suggested to increase the number of each. There was no discussion on the content of such projects and publications, just the quantity.

First, it was not mooted how we, as educators, can and should focus on feasible issues such as how these projects could affect society, whether locally or regionally. In addition, academics were strongly urged to cite each other’s publications in order to enhance the credibility of the respective faculties or universities as well as whatever publications those citations were sourced from. The journal publications which we were urged to cite were, again, from a particular list of journals produced by particular university presses.

Thirdly, we were strongly urged to co-author, preferably with foreigners. Examples were given of a few countries, notably Indonesia (obviously because its academics write predominantly in Bahasa).

Next came some other suggestions such as working with foreign regional universities which had produced a small number of high quality, indexed journals, such as in Taiwan. In the feedback that ensued, an academic told the audience, among other things, that he was in the process of writing an article with his PhD student who is an African. The general response was predictable but unacceptable. There were chuckles, a few tasteless jokes were made, then came the mother of all deathblow comments: “Why an African, or Africa, of all places?” This was met with laughter from many of the participants – but not me.

So do we really know what it is about our mindset that we need to change? And are we able to separate the victory over corruption and cronyism from a true opening up of democratic ideals?

Malaysia now faces damaging social and religious changes, mainly concerning racism, bigotry, sexism and corruption. We should stop our chest-thumping victory dance and start understanding the critical need to round up true intellectuals to solve our mindset crisis.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.