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For a better Malaysia – Tony Fernandez, Jeremiah and me

In Disconnected, Malaysia on September 7, 2008 at 9:00 am

Just read a letter at MalaysiaKini by I Jeremiah, Irrationality of rational racism‘. After you’ve read Jeremiah’s letter you should also read Tony Fernandezs (yes, the Tony Fernandez) post, Merdeka to All. Both of them make the same point, which is, we cannot keep doing this to ourselves.

OK. I’m going to stop here and wait for you to read the posts if you haven’t.


Right, the first point that comes across from both posts is that racism (for that matter, any form of discrimination) is bad for you, bad for ourselves … simply bad. That’s it. No buts … no ifs … just bad, as a matter of fact.

I may sound like an old broken record by stating the obvious, with all the recent uproar over the behaviour of our politicians, but that’s exactly my point. We scream and shout at our leaders for their misbehaviour but we do not seem to understand what the real issue is.

Yes, we want greater harmony between our friends and fellow countrymen, but that’s really not why we argue with, protest against and sometimes curse our politicians. That’s not the real reason.

The real and primary reason is economic and it affects every single one of us in Malaysia, from Tony Fernandez who runs a multi-million dollar corporation (I really don’t know his numbers) to Jeremiah, an offshore economist, to my local 7-Eleven store clerk who sounds even more angry and frustrated at our leaders than anyone I know. This guy is the everyman I imagine when I see what’s going on online today.

Jeremiah’s well explained post, after analysing a book which refers to research of Prof Becker, the 1992 Nobel Laureate for Economics, concluded with this:

In fact, Becker’s hypothesis was that free markets, through the profit maximizing incentive, are the best way to combat racism and bigotry.

. . .However, the real pressure for reform is not political but economic as higher inflation of five to six percent in 2009 reduces the purchasing power of wage earners.

Tony Fernandez, from his real-world experience of competing against the big boys, is more straightforward and to the point when he says this (with a bit of self-marketing thrown in):

One of the key issues we face today is to stop great talent from leaving our wonderful country. A loss of even one talented Malaysian represents a drain on our great country.

In this era of globalization, I hope that we can put our differences behind us and work as a united Malaysia to combat the many challenges thrown at us.

Let’s look confidently together towards the future and strengthen our bonds as Malaysians to take our nation to greater heights. Look at AirAsia, a company that pays homage to the diversity of Malaysia and which promotes talent regardless of race, creed, gender or social status and in the process built a truly global brand in 6 years.

He means it and so does Jeremiah.

There are many well-meaning Malaysians out there, many who’s actually seen a bit more than most of us and they are saying some really important things – in a typically Malaysian version of non-confrontational ‘advise’ – but no one listens.

Meantime, we are either very angry at or very subservient toward our leaders. For instance, see the salutory, almost fawning, comments to Tony’s post. I don’t think nor believe Tony is going online for these things. Hence, how is such attitude constructive? This Malaysian style of either ‘shout from a distance’ or ‘kowtow infront’ of Malaysian leaders must be an extreme hold-over from our colonial struggle days.

The point of this post is to ask the obvious. Does this really help in our economic development – in your daily life and in your children’s future? Don’t you find that life is missing something here – that ability to be oneself, to be able to interact with friends, family and co-workers as who you really are?

And the reason I’m doing it is this: I have been away (UK, Europe, Australia, China, Hong Kong and Singapore) working in different capacities – consulting and running companies – and I came back recently to take a break. But what I saw, both in the online and offline world of Malaysia – frankly, astounded me.

From corrupt government departments, to out-dated thinking and practises of blue-chip corporations, to the general online population locally, Malaysians as a rule, just do not dare to think, plan and act on what they really believe in anymore. Tony Fernandez has shown it can be done and I believe that’s his point in essence. Jeremiah’s point is our system of vicious cycles won’t end anytime soon. (NOTE: I do not know them personally, nor discussed their views directly).

My point is this: The system is broken. We, the country and its people, are not competitive – you might think you are, you might think you are that 1 in 1000 exception, but what and whom are you comparing yourself with? This includes the many who spent 3 or 5 years or however many years studying overseas – Australia, UK, USA, etc.

Until you’ve had to compete in working life professionally – in London, New York, Singapore, Sydney, etc – studying in a university environment does not get you a pass to being competitive. And to those who’s been in Malaysia, from late 80’s onwards and not tried globalisation, your greatest enemy is the tyranny of conventional wisdom.

I say all these because I have been helping a friend – interviewing staff and talking to business associates in Malaysia.

Potential employees sprout theories and cite books to impress. Don’t do that, you either know or you don’t, but stay honest and you will learn. Weaving and ducking is just a real waste of time and effort for everyone. Potential partners ask me how to cheat the system (avoid tax) and trick the customers. No kidding. Is this why we start a business in Malaysia? Is this the only option available to Malaysians?

In terms of ability (skillsets) and judgement (appreciation of situation), the bar is set so low in Malaysia compared with a globalised world of our peers and neighbours, the bar is underground.

Most developed societies (Asian and Western) realise that they do not know what they do not know and the only way to overcome it is to tell themselves – THERE IS NO BOX. Trick question: How do you ensure you think out of the box? And the answer is: There is NO box!

And what does Malaysia do? We’re too worried we’ll embarass ourselves to even try an answer. So, we still seek the teacher to tell us what the answer is. (Hint: Why ask someone when there is NO box!).

To conclude, I am not very Malaysian anymore, perhaps because I have spent more years outside my own country than in. I’ve been back less than a year and it’s obvious that our civil society activitists, the Malaysian blogosphere, the Malaysian politicians and corporate culture, they all think it’s a popularity contest. It’s a ‘look at me’ kind of thing. If the web and our purpose for living really is for purely personal glorification, Wikipedia would be dead and Obama would still be property to some white guy. We are on the wrong side of history, and I’m sure we don’t want to know how wrong.

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