Malaysia and the optimism deficit
IT'S December 2016 and I'm in Manila's tech-hub, Bonifacio Global City with the KRA team.
We're having brunch at Wildflour—a hip cafe-cum-breakfast joint—before heading off to a meeting.
One of my Malaysian team members returns ashen-faced from the moneychangers: "The Ringgit has fallen 10% against the Philippine Peso."
The others chip in:
"Yeah it’s really dropped against the Rupiah."
"...and the Dong!"
There's a moment of silence as we digest the information.
"Sheesh, times are BAD. Everyone's complaining in KL."
Fast-forward to Hari Raya Aidilfitri 2017 (the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, the fasting month) and the financial situation has changed.
The Ringgit has become one of region's best-performing currencies – and this is exactly twenty years after the Asian Financial Crisis.
Moreover—and for the first time in many years—I'm in Kuala Lumpur to join the celebrations.
Needless to say, Raya is also a time for contemplation.
This year’s festivities seem subdued.
Malaysians are struggling with rising prices, new taxes, a stuttering economy and an unending series of scandals.
The author’s current home is a stone’s throw from the house he grew up in. - Karim Raslan Photo
For me, temporarily occupying a house just a stone's throw from my childhood home, on a hill overlooking the city, there's a sense of coming full circle, of traveling so far and yet having gone nowhere at all.
I'm haunted by a sense of deja vu, of history – at least my personal history—repeating itself.
I used to be a great fan of Thomas Friedman and Francis Fukuyama, of writers and historians that trumpeted the inevitability of the liberal democratic state, of tolerance, globalisation and technology. Those books are gathering dust.
Instead, I spend my days watching squirrels and birds in the trees that surround the house, not to mention the occasional troop of monkeys.
The profusion of wildlife reminds me once again of my past.
Certainly, Malaysian public life is little changed.
Some fifty years ago, a man called Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad needled the elites – accusing them corruption and mismanagement.
Twenty years ago, he fought-off the world's financial markets and his ambitious deputy.
Today, he's still strutting the stage, conveniently forgetting the nearly twenty-three years he spent as Prime Minister undermining competing institutions – from Parliament to the judiciary and police.
And the mood in KL?
'Ceritalah 1: Malaysia in Transition' is Karim Raslan’s first book under the Ceritalah title. Karim Raslan Photo
For all the new-fangled MRT lines (with stations seemingly in the middle of nowhere), the dynamic skyline and proliferating toll-roads, the mood is surly, with everyone complaining about food prices.
The Raya feasts – the traditional selection of rendang, lemang and other delicacies – appear more modest, although the generosity and hospitality of Malaysians remains strong.
Everything feels pinched, less exuberant.
It’s not just the allegations regarding 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and the political fortunes of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak that are preoccupying people.
There are sighs and recriminations whenever talk turns to the Ringgit.
When I interject and say “Hey the currency's up and things appear to be improving”, my comments are dismissed, which makes me realize that it's the initial depreciation that matters most.
No one notices a subsequent rebound.
Indeed, prices that were hiked because of the depreciation haven’t been readjusted.
It's as if people are refusing to look on the bright side – a resolute negativity seizing the national mood, reinforced by a series of high-profile murder cases—of young men fatally beaten by mobs for their alleged criminality or lack of masculinity.
I would like to say that everything was hunky-dory back in the 1980's when I started working.
The 1980s were not a golden era. Instead, it was a time of hope, of great expectations.
'Ceritalah 2: Journeys through Southeast Asia' is Karim Raslan’s first compilation of travels across the region. Karim Raslan Photo
Journalists, worked under severe restrictions. They witnessed corruption and abuse of power. They couldn't write about certain things and the elite lived separate, privileged lives.
But despite all that, everyone was excited by the prospect of what the future would bring.
The middle-classes were satisfied with the Malaysian trade-off: everything was growing so fast domestically that the curbs of personal and political freedoms were a small price to pay for the prosperity.
I don’t think anyone shares this outlook today.
What has gone wrong?
Malaysians are facing an optimism deficit.
In the past, we felt that things would and could get better.
Today, we know to our cost that this may not be the case.
This is the difference. The optimism has disappeared.
'Ceritalah 3: Malaysia, A Dream Deferred' is a compilation of articles by Karim Raslan from the 2008 Malaysian general elections. Karim Raslan Photo
Malaysia had long been a country of the future – offering its great wealth and vast natural resources to its people.
But now, that future is diminished.
Malaysians are baffled by how things have turned out.
We expected so much and yet at every corner, there are more disappointments.
It is true that we are better-educated, live longer and are more prosperous compared to past generations.
But that’s old news: our neighbours have outstripped us.
Jobs are scarce and we’re not producing young workers who can compete regionally—much less globally.
The youth are facing a lifetime of debt and poor prospects.
We are surrounded by leaders who are rash, impetuous, uncivilised and dishonest.
Our politics seems to be in an endless loop with the same names and issues.
There is impatience and disillusionment with even the limited, nascent democracy that we have.
What has happened to us?
Economic growth has not made us more equal or happier.
The marvels of smartphones and social media have not made us more interconnected and tolerant.
Indeed, we seem have lost our sense of purpose, of a grand national narrative to bring us together.
Merdeka, the formation of Malaysia, the New Economic Policy (NEP) and Vision 2020.
These were things that could unite us regardless of our diverse backgrounds. Our leaders have not given us anything to replace them moving forward.
I am sure numbers can be pulled out that will show that things are better than they seem.
But things don’t FEEL better and at the end of the day, that counts.
You cannot govern without taking sentiment into account, as the liberals of the West discovered last year.
It's as if we’ve lost our way.
We’ve squandered years of easy “catch-up” growth.
Writer Karim Raslan.
The next stage – with its emphasis on innovation and creativity—is going to be much harder to achieve.
Succeeding with these challenges requires us to respect education, knowledge and professionalism – things we have tossed out long ago.
So while you're working through the rendang and lemang, I'll be watching the birds, wondering whether there's still room for hope...