From M Bakri Musa
Regardless of the outcome of the current lethal conflict in Ukraine, this much is indisputable. Ukrainians, nationalists, pro-Russians as well as the vast majority who just want to pursue a peaceful life are already paying a severe and unrecoverable price.
They will continue doing so for a considerable time beyond, even if a peace treaty were to be signed today. As for the soldiers killed or maimed on both sides, well, not to be callous, theirs is an occupational hazard.
The consequent global gyrations, as with Wall Street jitters and increases in gas and food prices on Main Street, are trivial. Even to mention them seems insensitive, if not obscene.
Ukraine may be thousands of kilometres away from Malaysia but to Malaysians, it is much closer emotionally. A routine Malaysian Airline Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down there on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 on board. That scar is still raw.
Beyond raw emotion, Ukraine holds many eerie similarities with Malaysia. Malaysians ignore these at their peril. The world may refer to Ukrainians by that term but to them, the old, ugly and perennial ancient tribal dynamics of “them” versus “us” are very much operative – the “us” being ethnic Ukrainians, “them” those of Russian ancestry and speaking that language.
Malaysians may have difficulty differentiating between these Eastern European sub-varieties of people and view both the Russian Cyrillic and its sub-variant Ukrainian script as chicken scratch. Those differences are surface ripples, but they hide dangerous treacherous reefs just underneath.
What the world labels as Ukrainians applies to 70% of the population. They are proud of their culture, heritage and language. They also have their own heroes.
A substantial minority, however, are Russians; they, too, are proud of their ethnicity, culture and language as well as having their own separate heroes. Worse, their heroes are but villains to the majority of their countrymen.
Yet another disconcerting demographic reality that Malaysians should take note is that ethnic Russians are concentrated in the eastern part of the country, bordering Russia. In Malaysia, while Malays are the majority in the west or the peninsula, the picture in East Malaysia is far different.
The mother tongue of the majority there is not Malay, the national language, but their own, be it Iban or Hokkien. Yet another volatile element – while Ukrainians and Russians share the same Orthodox Christianity, Malaysians do not share the same faith. Even Muslim- Malays are divided in our interpretations of Islam.
As for Malaysian “Russians”, the Chinese, the paranoia of “Ketuanan Melayu” notwithstanding, have seen the fate of their kin in Hong Kong and share the anxieties their brethren in Taiwan have for their “motherland”.
Demographic demon aside, there are two other eerie similarities between Ukraine and Malaysia. One is geographic destiny. Former foreign minister Anifah Aman asserted that Malaysia has the same potential dynamics vis a vis China with respect to the brewing South China Sea conflict, as Ukraine to Russia today.
A simplistic assessment. First, land borders are intrinsically more problematic than maritime ones. Besides, the South China Sea is a wide stretch of water, even without factoring in the unpredictable monsoon.
Second, Malaysia is not the only party to that dispute. There are other and far greater powers with direct interests. Japan for one; likewise Europe and America. Over 30% of global maritime trade flows through that stretch of water.
Anifah’s observation applies more to Laos and Myanmar. Vietnam also shares a long land border with China and is also a party to the South China Sea dispute. Vietnam had bloodied the Chinese nose more than once.
If a crisis were to erupt in the South China Sea today, Malaysia would be but a minor player in all respects. We would, of course, be forced to take sides but that would be a separate issue.
Malaysia’s relationship with Indonesia, a country with a long land border with Malaysia, a la Ukraine to Russia, is more relevant. Recall “Konfrontasi” of the early 1960s.
That crisis was more the consequence of the conflicting personalities of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Sukarno. Notice how quickly that conflict was resolved once both protagonists were pushed aside.
Likewise with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelinsky. Even if they were not national leaders, it would not be difficult to visualise the two being drawn into a bar brawl with minimal provocation.
The last eerie commonality between the Zelinsky administration and the one in Putrajaya is that both are corrupt and incompetent, a lethal combination. Ukraine was an economic basket case before the crisis, it will be worse afterwards.
As for endemic corruption, just follow the current trial related to 1MDB now being played out in a New York courtroom. As for incompetence, well, ask the man in the street.
Far more consequential but less commented aspect to the current leadership in both countries is this. Kyiv has its share, albeit small, but still influential enough cadre of ultra-rightwing, nationalist, white supremacists, enough for Putin to exploit it.
The pro-Russian secessionist movement in East Ukraine did not develop de novo. Those “white supremacists” in Kyiv have their local variant in Putrajaya, the “Ketuanan Melayu” types. Only their sheer incompetence made them less destructive than they already are.
Unlike the earlier demographic demon and geographic destiny, this third blight is man-made and thus at least theoretically much more remediable. Perversely, the reality is far different.
I am struck by this observation of one Kyiv resident. On Tuesday evening, he was having a nice leisurely dinner with friends in a restaurant. On Wednesday evening, they were scrambling for their lives, hiding in an underground subway station.
That is the central lesson for Malaysians and citizens everywhere. If we do not pay attention to our leaders’ greed, incompetence and shenanigans, that is what we can expect. This was true in Kyiv on Wednesday, Feb 23, 2022, as in Washington, DC, on Jan 6, 2021 (when a mob of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol building).
As for being Russia’s neighbour, I am certain that the restaurants in Sweden (like Ukraine, a non-Nato member) are full this evening with patrons enjoying themselves.
That is my way of saying to Malaysians to worry less on what is going on in Beijing or Washington, DC, and focus on the people now at Putrajaya.
It is one thing for them to plunder the nation for their greed, it is another for them to put Malaysians at loggerheads with one another.
Dr M Bakri Musa is a US-based Malaysian surgeon, author and political commentator.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.