Can something good arise from the ashes?

It is said that the fabulous mythical bird, the Phoenix, can arise anew from the ashes of its destruction.

Aug 20, 2021

By Fr Michael Chua

It is said that the fabulous mythical bird, the Phoenix, can arise anew from the ashes of its destruction. Would it be naive for Malaysians to think that this is possible for our country to rise rejuvenated from the ashes of a failed-experiment of a government, which many thought was illegitimate? Would we see new blood in the upcoming administration or expect much of the same old-thing, which is to say the same old “rot”?

Scepticism is indeed prevalent among many Malaysians. Few would believe that our current political upheaval can be mended by the appointment of Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob as the new Prime Minister, although many would be rooting for “their guy,” as promises would have to be kept and delivered in the days and weeks ahead to placate each and every stakeholder in an evershifting political alliances of convenience.

There will continue to be widespread doubt that any single person or party would be able to lift this country out of the quagmire of its gravest political, socio-economic and public health crises. In fact, Muhyiddin may have the benefit of the last laugh — his detractors and most aggressive critics would now have to prove the point which they have been ceaselessly hammering — that they can do a better job than he and his cohorts.

Will we the ordinary citizens continue to be forced to stand on the sidelines as hapless observers as we witness the destruction of our country through political mismanagement and the effects of a global pandemic that has gone unabated. Despite the fact that many Malaysians are extremely critical of the status quo, few to none are capable of formulating a workable solution to address the multiprong challenges our country is facing.

Is our government or our politicians solely to be blamed for this fiasco? “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve” is a quote often attributed to two persons, Joseph de Maistre and Alexis de Tocqueville. Apart from the controversy of correct attribution, is the controversy concerning the correct meaning of these words — were they spoken as a form of snarky sarcasm? Whatever may have been the original purpose of the statement, we can see the truth of its claims in that we have witnessed so many failed governments and leaders that had been democratically and popularly elected and eventually turned out to be disasters. Democracy, in the form of populism, may ensure that the government has the people’s support, but is no guarantee that we will have good leaders or governance. The bane of the politics of populism is that it is a mere mirror, an echo chamber, for a nation’s culture. Yes, in a democracy, the people do get the leaders they deserve.

This may be the reason why we should stop complaining about the lack of inspiring leaders, and instead take a long look in the mirror, or as Mahatma Gandhi put it, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” A sobering thought as we come to the end of a short-lived political regime only to be filled with anxiety over a new political alliance who must now carry the weight of the people’s expectations. Can we expect change when the dominant culture remains mired in the unholy trinity of values which shape our local politics and society — ethnic-religious identity, money and ambition for power?

Despite our acknowledgement of these capital sins in Malaysian political culture and our incessant complaints thereof, are Malaysians not to be faulted for nurturing and supporting these vices either through our silent acquiescence or tacit to explicit support? Racism, corruption and cronyism will have no traction in a society where there are no takers for the bait. Unfortunately, these vices are fuelled by a culture which not only tolerates but encourages them.

As part of his swan song last Friday (Aug 13), our former Prime Minister delivered a speech which I would describe as one of his best. I know my thoughts on this would be controversial. It would have been a stirringly powerful speech if given under other more favourable circumstances. But when delivered by a man on political death row, it came across as a pitiable begging plea. It obviously fell on deaf ears and was swiftly rejected and dismissed by his political opponents as a desperate attempt to stay in power.

But putting aside the judgment on his real intent and the sincerity of his promises, Muhyiddin’s democratic utopian wish list should have been embraced by any reasonable minded freedom loving person — constitutional amendments which would lead to term limits on the office of Prime Minister, banning of party-hopping for elected representatives, bi-partisan cooperation and consultation, equitable distribution of resources regardless of party affiliation, balanced representation in parliamentary select committees. Let’s be honest — these promises, if carried out, would have led to a radical transformation of our political landscape and culture, making it more fair, inclusive and truly democratic. It is no surprise that the other parties rejected these offers on various grounds. Apart from their stated motives, could it be that it is plainly too hard to renounce the hegemony of the unholy trinity — ethnic-religious identity, money and power?

Most Malaysians would have experienced an extreme pendulum swing of emotions, ranging from expectant hope to cynical despair, with regards to how they view political leaders and parties in this country. Today, what seems prevalent is a dark gloomy outlook over our country’s future which has been compounded by a depressed economy on the verge of collapse and a public health crisis that continues its tight hold on our lives and livelihood without any hint of letting up.

It is perhaps during times like these, times where we feel hopeless and hapless even to the point of thinking that this could be the “end of the world,” it would be good to heed the advice of that great doctor of the Church, St Augustine. Even as his contemporary, St Jerome, gloomily predicted that the world had come to an end with the destruction of Rome by the Visigoths and the collapse of both the Roman Empire and civilisation, St Augustine decided to take a different approach and was inspired to write his book, The City of God. Augustine, just like Jerome, felt he had lost his bearings with news of the collapse of Rome. Once Rome had gone, what sense was to be made of the world? In the reflections that he would record in his book, he would find the answer – the fall of the City of Man does not mean the end of the City of God.

According to St Augustine, the City of Man, which went beyond Rome but encompasses our earthly existence, is shaped by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; whereas the City of God is shaped by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The values of the City of Man may be an apt description of our political class and their sycophantic supporters.

In describing the two cities, St Augustine reiterated Jesus' teaching that while Christians live in the City of Man, they do not belong to the City of Man. Their presence in the earthly city is like that of strangers sojourning in a foreign country. We are to enjoy the blessings the City of Man has to offer, including its rights, its protection, and its preservation of order, but we are always ready to move on. The City of Man is not our true home. No, our true home is in the City of God. And it is to that city that we owe our affections and our ultimate loyalty.

As we picture our beloved country Malaysia, just like the glorious Eternal City, Rome, going up in smoke, its magnificent monuments and achievements being reduced to rubble by the invading marauders (or selfish power crazy politicians), we once again hear the call of St Augustine to take our eyes off the chaotic upheaval below and raise our eyes above to a greater city, the Heavenly City, the true Eternal City, “The Heavenly City outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.” With that vision, we can be assured that new life can emerge from the ashes of destruction and what is broken can be restored.

(Fr Michael Chua a former legal practitioner is the Ecclesiastical Assistant for the Catholic Lawyers’ Society Kuala Lumpur)

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