Increased hindrances to nation building

We are at the tail-end of the season of Merdeka, and the country seems to be enjoying a respite from the usual heated political goings-on.

Sep 15, 2023

We are at the tail-end of the season of Merdeka, and the country seems to be enjoying a respite from the usual heated political goings-on.

With the state elections behind us, the road to healing the country’s divide and return of the focus to the economy, livelihood and the people is surely next on the agenda.

We can finally return to building the nation.

Or can we?

Widening political divide
Plenty of things were said during the runup to the state elections. Most of these were not addressed by either side running, and have widened the gap between communities, particularly between Muslims and non- Muslims. Christians, used to being the political bogeyman, have been accused of all and sundry, from covert proselytisation, to having a clandestine agenda for the country.

For “evidence”, politicians offer very little, like video clips of people praying for the country. It is alarming that these small things may be drastically misconstrued to support a flimsy argument.

Using that as a base, anything less than complete majority dominance in the political sphere, including voting, is seen as a direct challenge to the special position of Malays and Muslims as per the Constitution, which is a rather convoluted argument.

It is sad that some statesmen have denigrated into cheap politicians to play up these sentiments, driving Malaysians apart both on basis of race/religion and politics, which have intertwined. It would not be an exaggeration to say, the hope is for the two to remain so, to encourage the confusion and increase the efficacy of emotive arguments used in both.

There is an urgent need for dialogue, and the opening of channels that facilitate this.

Yet, opening such channels are seen as a challenge to the majority, as our social institution has deteriorated to such a point, due to several factors that have accumulated over the years.

Growing socio-economic difference
One chief reason is socio-economic inequality.

For example, the Bumiputra community have been at the fringes of Malaysia’s economic gain. Most are employed in the Government sector, where wages are artificially low. Another segment is employed in farming and fisheries, which are seasonal and highly volatile, depending on prices of commodities, weather and yield.

Although land and equity ownership in this community have increased, it is mostly on reserved land, where the net capital increase is lesser than non-reserved types.

Similarly, other B40 communities are stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty, unable to break free from its shackles, despite various aid programmes — SME start-up funds, education scholarships and grants, and so on.

Even if one does manage to obtain requisite education to get a white-collar job, starting salaries have remained largely stagnant and unable to meet fresh graduate requirements, especially those from poor families and those who are looked upon to look after ailing parents and to educate their other siblings. Many of these relent and revert to blue-collar, better paying jobs, or resort to gig economy type arrangements, sometimes foregoing a longterm career to fulfil immediate needs.

The results are the rich get richer, and the poor remain poor.

Parents lucky enough to have amassed some savings or properties pass it on, together with the advantages they confer, to their kids, while those who did not make enough to save, pass the disadvantages of non-ownership to their kids as well, causing them, and the unhappiness associated with it, to be passed down, generationally.

Poor, worsening communication
The diversity of channels available for communication have both democratised, as well as cheapened its value. What was to be presented previously as fact, would have had to pass through various sieves to determine its authenticity. Today, opinion, often biased, and speculation, often completely made up, are presented as Gospel truth and its perpetrators, sometimes anonymous, are allowed to get away with it.

This breakdown follows in the trend of the era of personalised communication, where content online is customised to its reader, where algorithms determine what you like to hear or read, not necessarily what you need to, or even if it is true.

The idea was probably noble — to gather like-minded people, enhance qualities of discussions and produce meaningful output. Advertisements would be targeted at specific groups and less would go to waste.

These have, though, effectively created echo chambers or opinion bubbles where our thoughts are shared within groups of people with similar thoughts.

Now, however, even divisive propaganda is being broadcast as news, which is deeply detrimental to our social cohesion.

Juxtaposed against our already split communities, this only widens the gap between communities.

Return to Rukun Negara?
The government has a tall order ahead of it if it wishes to restore our country to her former state of harmony.

The first steps of reintroducing the Rukun Negara is wise, though it would be hard, as the concepts found therein could seem alien to some, and incompatible to their idea of a religious-centric state.

Words like “liberal”, “progressive” that are in it have become anathema, no thanks to certain people with onomatophobia, including even university professors!

There needs to be a gradual re-introduction of these values, of nation-building and community ties, which have taken a backseat in the past decades, in favour of the economy and more recently, politicking.

Of equal urgency, is to keep the political temperament in check and to address bread and butter issues that risk tearing these efforts apart, before they even had a chance to begin.

(Emmanuel Joseph oversees IT as his 9-5 job and from 5-9, he serves a few NGOs, think tanks and volunteer groups. He serves as an advisor for Projek Dialog and is a Fellow with the Institute of Research and Development of Policy.)

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