Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The biggest problem is apathy — Jun Watanabe

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The biggest problem is apathy — Jun Watanabe

February 05, 2013

In spite of the fact that Malaysia has just plunged to record lows with the latest international ranking on press freedom, we now possess better access to information with the advent of the Internet and social media than our parents ever did in the dark decades they lived through since Merdeka.

The veracity of the information, however, is always suspicious. While it is easy to dismiss mainstream media, with manipulation as its main agenda, as biased and selective, alternative media has not fared much better. It is at best a contrarian voice, and at its worst suffers the same lack of journalistic integrity as its counterpart.

Though this fault is untenable, because of its intrinsic association with official media, there is a two-fold problem — that the powers-that-be are subjecting information to spin and misdirection to suit their purposes, and thus facts and figures are not readily verifiable, and the system simply renders everything suspect.

But this essay is not about the media or the freedom of the press. It is the recipients of information who worries me, because the citizenry are cavalier with the information they receive. We blindly digest information we want to hear, no matter what our personal agendas are or which side of the political divide we are on. 

We take them often at face value and we do not subject them to rigorous scrutiny. That in schools we are not taught to think, that as a culture we are nurtured to avoid confrontation, that as a nation we have been programmed to not question authority, and as a people we have become the risk adverse; all devastating ingredients in turning us into an apathetic lot.

While encouraged by the recent showing in the 2008 elections and with Bersih, we are as a general population distracted easily. This distraction is easily explained — that the average Malaysian is just too caught up in their daily lives in the middle-income trap of a country we are. We make too little money to afford imported items and overseas vacations and we pay too much for transportation to spend too much time in traffic and too much for decent housing. We have so many other short-term things to worry about than to worry about something as abstract as leaving the earth for our children.  

Whatever furore we conjure up — with news of police beatings, MACC suicides, white-collar crimes, corruption scandals, misuse of public funds, Bible burnings, territorial disputes, abuse of power, judicial injustices, university rankings — dissipates from public consciousness almost as fast as they enter it. There will be small groups of people who would always work to keep the issues alive, but the majority of us will have discussed and complained in coffee shops, cracked some “Malaysia boleh” jokes and accepted the anal penetration as the prevalent way of life.

We do not know our neighbours, we do not volunteer for anything, our idea of supporting a cause is to like a Facebook page, but yet we do not contribute money to the cause. We worship titles and luxury cars. We lead shallow lives, governed by traffic conditions and Astro programming. Our kids are encouraged to memorise and score in standardised tests. We do not care if our kids speak badly mangled English, Malay, Mandarin or Tamil that someone from England, China or India would see as acutely bastardized. (Veronica Kaiser: My German husband who has grown up in a culture that emphasizes on pronounciation sees my pronouncition of English and Mandarin is horrible & unbearable!) We complain about AirAsia yet we ride on its planes. We do not stick to our principles and accept the RM300 summons, preferring the RM50 bribe. We hide behind the computer and sign off with fake names. We vote for the hot-looking contestant in a reality show. We have collectively lowered our standards.

That the majority of us have chosen to not to fight for equality in this country, to stand up to racists and bigots and history revisionists. That we do not protest when the civil servant instead of true public service is in the position to betray our trust, to hold us to ransom. That he can be unreliable, mercenary, partisan, unscientific, unprofessional, irrational, wittingly or unwittingly part of a patronage system that is characteristically weak of ideals and accountability. The average civil servant certainly does not think he is accountable to the public, he thinks he is owed a living by the government; he does not readily make the distinction between government-of-the-day and the public he serves. 

Like the rest of us, he also thinks he is able to get away with prolonged coffee breaks and leaves of absence. He was not taught by his civil servant teacher in school that as the civil servant he is supposed to be holding himself to the highest of standards. The description of the civil servant is interchangeable for the judge, the university professor, the prime minister, the policeman, the clerk in the Land and Survey Department who if you protest too strongly will conveniently “lose” your file and asks you to resubmit.

Why is it so difficult to understand that for the off-duty policeman in his squad car that if he were to be speeding beyond the limit in a non-emergency without the sirens and the flashing lights then it would constitute an abuse of power? And the civil servants in the car with “Jabatan Warisan Negara” logo on the door panels, when they speed at 160km/h on the Karak highway, are abusing public property.

Why is it so difficult to understand that there should and must be a double standard? A private citizen who speeds at 160km/h on the highway risks his life and others on the road, and faces the consequences on his own and the responsibilities are his and his only. But public servants who do the same with public assets must be held to a higher standard simply because his purposes are much bigger and more consequential than any single individual’s.

Malaysian society in general does not require the civil servant to commit hara-kiri, but perhaps it should. That society condones by way of apathy is the biggest crime of all, and we are all guilty of it.

In most elections, most people vote anonymously. For some of us, it will not be. From the longhouses of Sarawak who face sanctions if a particular candidate loses, to whole states denied federal funding, the upcoming GE13 will probably have the most painful repercussions in Malaysian history. A likely BN victory will make it unlikely that necessary reforms be made to keep the country off the path to financial and moral bankruptcy. 

An unlikely PR victory will likely see influx of the vast wealth of BN trying to wrest back control, interest groups and the partisan civil service resorting to subterfuge and sabotage to destabilise the government, and/or a larger outflow of capital from our shores than what we have already experienced; whatever it is, it will keep the PR government in its rightful lame duck place. Voting either party in may potentially leave the country tethering on the edge.

Therefore what is more important in the coming years than the results of GE13 will be the ability of grassroots and non-partisan organisations like Bersih to galvanise the public in the spirit of fraternity and justice and equality, to actively take part in the improvement of our society. Our participation will have to start from a paradigm shift.

We have to first accept that we the ordinary citizens have the power to change the world we live in. That our words and actions mean something; that our votes mean something. That we do not take for granted the relationships that tie us to fellow human beings. We must learn the true meaning of hard work and sacrifice. We must take calculated risks. We must learn to question authority, to question the newsmakers, to decide for ourselves if something we choose to believe in is based on hard evidence rather than hearsay or just faith. That because of the differing preferences in the population we must inculcate altruism as the leading actor to meld the religions.

Instead of waiting for someone else to call for help in an accident scene, we do it. Instead of waiting for someone else to report a rape in a parking lot, we do it. Instead of waiting for someone else to improve the cleanliness of our neighbourhoods, we do it. Instead of waiting for someone else to accept the gay friend first, we do it. Instead of waiting for someone else to bring down the illegal tree-logger, we do it. If we were Muslim, we defend our Christian friend. If we were Indian, we let our daughters convert and marry a Malay. 

To be a good son first, a good mother first, a good worker first, a good employer first, a good neighbour first, a good policeman first, a good land and survey clerk first, a good prime minister first.

To be Malaysian first.

When we improve our surroundings, our workplace, our family lives, we improve our standard of living. We will become more exigent with how we want to live — the whole of society benefits.

We must realise that we do not want real power in the hands of idiot politicians from both sides of the divide, that we must maintain our voices and our rights in a democratic government.

We must learn that the nation’s fate will not be dependent on any political party but the change within ourselves.

“To know and not act is not yet to know.” — Wang Yang Ming, 12th-century philosopher.

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