On this 65th anniversary of Merdeka, let’s reflect about how the country has changed. Let’s focus particularly on one aspect of change, that of our national culture.
But first, let’s look at another national culture. I once worked with some Nordic people as bosses, peers and even subordinates. They’re very direct (though that’s not the same as being open), and easy to get along with.
When new arrivals come to Malaysia, within a short while I’d hear them returning from a holiday, or even just a weekend, in Sipadan, Taman Negara, Gunung Kinabalu, Pulau Redang etc.
I’ve been to those places myself, but it took me years to check them off my list. There are many Malaysians who’ve been to London, Paris or New York, but not to these places.
One time, in a group climb up Gunung Kinabalu, a seemingly unathletic Norseman easily made it to the top while some of our locals failed. He had a deceptively large reservoir of stamina and fitness in him.
Many have identified the Nordic peoples – Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Finns etc – as being outdoorsy and nature lovers. We’re even trying to learn how to walk their way – the Nordic Walk!
Is that due to the cold and their rugged landscapes? But Americans, Canadians, Russians and many Europeans have those too, yet aren’t generally associated with fitness and love of the outdoors.
So, it’s not really a winter thing, a northern latitude thing, or even a “gwailo” thing that explains this lifestyle and culture.
This culture is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Of course, life there has always been harsh, and you can’t help but be tough and be outdoors a lot in your daily life.
But over time this love of the outdoors has been rebranded as a unique part of their culture and traditions. Every Nordic person now feels it’s a natural part of their life, and it’s their duty to cherish this “heritage”.
If something that’s already there, albeit not in an organised way, can be sold and deeply acculturated into society within a few generations, can other aspects of life be transformed that way too?
Yes, it can, both for better but also for worse.
However, to change or create a new culture, all the “signals” must be right so they reinforce each other. By “right”, I also mean “wrong”, as the opposite signals can produce the opposite results.
Changes happen without there ever being a mastermind or evil genius driving it, whether on something as simple as following traffic rules or keeping litter off the streets, to something as momentous as corruption and abuse of power.
Malaysia certainly had corruption earlier on, but the corrupt ones then were called “Mr. 10%” on account of the size of their take, which shows things weren’t that bad.
Back then, while palms sometimes needed to be greased, stuff got done. There were some leakages but roads and airports and bridges still got built.
Things started to go south in the ‘80s, however, even if economy-wise things looked up and we were then one of the Asian Tigers well on track to become a developed nation.
Unfortunately, in our quest to speed things up, corners were cut, one or both eyes were closed, and the ends dictated the means. The powerful got away with grabbing huge chunks of the economic cake.
While the cake itself was growing, it certainly wasn’t growing as fast as it could have, or as fast as the other Asian Tigers’ cakes. But the corruption grew even faster – by then you’d be a joke if you were only Mr. 10%.
You didn’t have to deliver either, whether ships or submarines or sovereign funds or the environment. Let the hills crumble, let phantom ships be launched, let villagers die – you just sapu, sweep up everything.
How did we get here, where corruption has become normalised in our everyday life?
We were never a nation to respect principles, but rather one that respects relationships and feudal loyalty. Democracy became a convenient beauty pageant to reach the top of society, where winners act like monarchs or autocrats and take all before them.
When our leaders indulged in corruption, we didn’t question them. We condoned it, and after a while, even partook in it, with gusto.
You’d have thought with the increasing entry of religion into society, and into politics, we’d have become more honest and faithful, both to principles and to God. That didn’t quite happen.
Religious observances are showy and ostentatious acts of piety that mask our fears and insecurity. The rituals help us to ignore the rot. Being repeatedly told we’re easily confused and under attack actually made us confused and paranoid.
In the end, culture can indeed change if the appropriate drivers are applied. In our case, there’s easy power and wealth if you weaken the checks and balances and rule of law of democracy, ironically enough using the political powers obtained through democracy itself.
Just like the Nordic people of today who think being outdoorsy and in love with nature as a natural part of their life, so, too, we Malaysians of today accept corruption as being a natural part of our own life.
The young people don’t see corruption as wrong, as many surveys have shown. The religious establishments perform acrobatics so as not to have to confront it. Many unquestioningly enjoy the fruits of corruption and see it as their entitlement.
How would the coming generation fare? Unfortunately, there’ll come a generation that pays the price for all of our malfeasances. There’ll be a hard landing then, and they’ll suffer for the culture of corruption encouraged and perpetuated by their forebears – us.
It’ll be as cold and dark a day then as that of the Norwegian midwinter’s night, and our descendants won’t enjoy it the least bit.
On that sobering thought, let’s hope and pray we can be free and independent from this horrible culture too!
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.