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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Of independence, myths and make-believe

by Martin Jalleh

It's Merdeka. Patriotic songs permeate the air. Snippets of the past on our TV screens pull at our heartstrings. Touching and tear-jerking advertisements are played over and again. Of course the unspoken prime preoccupation of many Malaysians is the Mega Sale or the Merdeka Sale - where no powerful persuasion is needed to solicit a response.

The pomp, pageantry, parades, presentations by personalities and plastic flags fluttering in the air - they are to prompt us to ponder on the progress we
have made as a nation for these past 48 years.

Has Bolehland been the promised land and the matchless paradise the government has tried so hard and passionately to portray? We are expected to be
'positive' and to share in the platitudes plastered on the pages of our newspapers.

Sophisticated society?

Over the years Bolehland has successfully evolved into a sophisticated society. Naturally courteous, caring and conscientious Malaysians have become cold, cutting
and 'couldn't care less' citizens.

A nation of sophisticated self-centered snobs snubbing, snapping and snarling around will however be quite detrimental to the tourism industry. And so we now have a Courtesy and Noble Values Campaign - to coax and cajole, especially the civil service, into a compliance to be courteous.

Parliamentarians and assemblymen are to lead by example and to refrain from using "rough and foul" language in the August house. But Kinabatangan parliamentarin Bung Moktar Radin says that as a wakil rakyat he needs to "ensure the message is delivered".

"In chasing after development, we have to be firm and sometimes, using such language reflects our firmness,"
- is Bung's pure bun(g)kum.

Meanwhile the powerful machine of crass materialism continues to churn out an inward-looking and indifferent progressive people preoccupied only with
personal gain and gratification.

Petty Parliament

Parliament has also gone through much transformation. The August house has a relatively new speaker after his predecessor who held the position for a stretch of
22 years, had passed away whilst still sitting in the chair.

Our MPs whom we expect to dwell on and debate over vital issues concerning the people have proven to be very adept at verbal brawls and vulgar jokes or
remaining virtually silent. Some have shown great vigor in venturing into the cafeteria, or in becoming part of the varnish, and still others appear from the
woodwork only to vote when and as instructed .

There are some MPs who try hard to make up for their lack of depth by being very versatile in being dramatic. Can anyone match the theatrics of the minister in the PM's Department who shouted 'racist' 41 times at two MPs in a space of several minutes during a debate?

This very same man, Mohd Nazri Aziz sincerely believes that: "Compared to other Parliaments in countries of equal development as Malaysia, our quality of debate
is still relatively low."

And when the intelligent veneer of some MP begins to fade and fall off, they would veer off into the crude and childish.

A good example of this is backbencher Badruddin Amiruldin (BN-Jerai) who in July this year yelled "this is an Islamic state... if anyone doesn't like it, just get out of Malaysia". Or they would be close to being violent, as was the case of a Perak Barisan Nasional politician who threatened to punch an opposition leader during an argument over a motion on the haze crisis at the state assembly sitting

In recent years, the powers-that-be have grown to be desperately creative in finding the most frivolous excuse to suspend an MP from Parliament. Equally creative are they in their excuses for not wanting parliamentary proceedings to be telecast live.

Then there was of course the historic moment of April 28 this year when the chambers in parliament got all wet as a result of a leak in the parliament's roof, and the sitting having to be postponed. It was described as being very symbolic of the state of affairs in the House - especially when one takes into consideration the fact that it happened after Parliament was renovated for RM85 million and that the
final cost could be as high as RM99 million.

Endangered environment

Our leaders have in the past quite bluntly told the West that they have no business commenting on the way the government handles the environment in Malaysia. After 48 years of self-rule, the powers-that-be have done just as well as the West in allowing the degradation and destruction of the environment. They have repeated the mistakes of the West.

Air quality has deteriorated drastically. The haze has become an annual affair. Rivers are drying up and dying, protection forests are being de-gazetted for logging or luxury housing; the land resources of indigenous and local communities are damaged and their livelihood disrupted; animal species are disappearing
and on the route to extinction.

The country's marine ecosystem, among the world's richest in terms of biodiversity, is rapidly deteriorating. Our fishery resources are being depleted and coastal wetlands such as mangrove forests and coral reefs increasingly destroyed.

'Development" has produced severe water shortage,flash floods, "collapsible" highways, landslides, toxic waste dumps and of course "sterile" official speeches, statements, studies, stern warnings, strict measures and sound policies on environmental protection. We are told it's all part of development.

Dysfunctional families

The country's success has been defined by its magnificent skyline and mushrooming mega monuments. Many prefer to ignore the backdrop of a strained and soiled social fabric. We have towering buildings but very few towering Malaysians. We have taken on the West's obsession with industrialisation, modernisation and urbanisation. Yet we do not know how to cope with the unbridled changes these processes have unleashed.

Divorce and dysfunctional families are being accepted as part of the price we would have to pay for "progress". The failure to meet their aspirations has resulted in many (especially the young) looking for forms of escapism, resulting in rural to urban migration and substance abuse. Bolehland can boast of having a new drug addict every 29 minutes, the highest smoking prevalence in the world and being the 10th
largest consumer of alcohol in the world.

We have matured into a sex-saturated society where one in three men are sexually active, one in 10 married men have casual sex, one in five youths in Kuala Lumpur who date have pre-marital sex; and 80 percent of those who watch blue movies are below 18.

Perhaps nothing rips away at Malaysia's social fabric so tragically than greed and corruption. If one were to tally the amount this nation has lost through corruption and the mismanagement of public funds, it would no doubt be a world record beater.

Are we safe?

After 48 years of self-rule, the citizens of this country do not feel very much safer. Between 1973-2003, the police crime index registered a 230 percent increase in the number of reported cases of crime - from 40,053 in 1973 to 156,315 in 2003.

Taking into account population growth, this averages to about 3,875 cases per year or about 11 cases a day. Quite disturbing also is the fact that over the 30-years period violent crimes increased from 3,192 cases to 22,790 cases, i.e., about 2.7 times higher than for all crimes taken together.

Between 1997-2001, 6,884 rape cases were reported. Only one in 10 rape survivors reports the rape. Half of rape victims in Malaysia are under 16. A total of about 90 cases of wife battery take place per day nationwide.

The findings of the Royal Commission on the Police Force provide ample justification for the public's perception that the police itself has been a threat to public safety and its well-being. Will the government adopt the 125 recommendations made by the commission, or is it meant only for its safe keeping?

Everyday an average of three to four people die and 30 are permanently disabled - as a result of accidents in the workplace. There were 85,869 industrial accidents in the country in 2001. In 2001, an average of 16 people died every day as a result of road accidents.

Of 11,302,545 registered vehicles, there were 265,175 road accidents which killed 5,849 people in 2001. The total number of accidents last year (2004) was 326,817 with a total of 6,223 fatalities.

Lifestyle diseases

We have become world record beaters in terms of "lifestyle diseases". Every hour, four Malaysians discover they suffer from cancer; 25 percent of Malaysians are overweight and obese (the highest in Asia) and about 800,000 Malaysians are suffering from diabetes. Three million suffer from hypertension, while 15-20 percent of the population suffer from some form of mental problem. More than 10,000 people in the country die each year from hypertension, stroke and heart attack.

The government spent RM7.56 billion on health care in 2003, or 6.9 percent of the national budget, compared with 6.6 percent in 1998.

In Malaysia, the HIV-Aids situation has developed into a "generalised epidemic" with the virus having spread beyond high-risk groups. About 65,000 people had been
diagnosed with HIV by the end of 2004, but the United Nations believes some 81,000 Malaysians could be infected.

(Malaysia has more HIV-Aids cases compared to Australia with almost the same population.)

About 40 percent of those who took part in a HIV-Aids survey believed that beautiful women cannot get infected. A mufti has suggested that HIV/Aids sufferers be banished to an island.

The most unhealthy development that has taken place is the government's decision to privatise the country's healthcare system - one which for so long has received
praise from the World Health Organisation.

Marginalised minorities

Forty-seven years after Independence, the Orang Asli community, who have the longest history in this country by virtue of them being the earliest inhabitants of Malaysia, continue to be shortchanged.

Till today, they are represented not by one of their own choice but by a senator appointed by the government. Eighty-one percent of them still live below the poverty line. At least 50 percent of their children drop out of primary school. More than half of the Orang Asli reserve land in the Peninsula has yet to be gazetted.

Another indigenous community who wish they could wave away their troubles away is the Penan, a native of Sarawak. They have been increasingly dispossessed of
their native customary lands. Their plants, food and wildlife resources have progressively disappeared.

Their forests and property damaged by logging companies aided and abetted by agents of the state.

Then there are the rubber estate/plantation workers - described by S Samy Vellu as 'engines for Malaysia's economic growth - who are given eviction orders, paid
a pittance as compensation or dragged into a tedious court process intended to break their resolve for justice. Each day, they worry about how are they going
to survive with a meager RM350 monthly salary. It becomes more worrying as the prices of basic and essential goods continue to soar.

There are other minority groups who have been displaced, deprived, disempowered and dislodged from their social environment and/or natural resource support system, and who have become disillusioned and dysfunctional. If only they could flag away their
troubles this Merdeka.

Racial polarisation

Malaysia has so often been presented in the showplace of nations as a shining model of a multiracial society. One can expect many moving photos of racial integration this Merdeka. Yet, after 48 years of independence "racial polarisation and religious
intolerance are becoming worrying trends in the country" - reveals the National
Unity and Social Development Ministry.

The ministry further reveals: "What is even more worrying is that such trends have taken root in our schools" (Star, March, 20, 2003). This claim has been reinforced by former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who, during his tenure, had expressed concern over the development in local universities "where students were keeping to their own race, did not live in the same dormitory, sat apart in lecture theatres and did not
mix around during extra-curricular activities".

Mahathir had also opined: "The education system has failed in its main objective of achieving national unity."

After 48 years of Independence, we are still very much one nation - a nation politically represented by predominantly one Malay party, one Chinese party and
one Indian party. Alas, the continued existence of racially-based political parties and race-oriented policies - after all these years - makes the journey towards national integration a race backwards.

More make-believe

There are many more areas of Malaysian life that have been projected and portrayed in a very positive light and considered as the perfect and added reason to
celebrate Merdeka, but at a closer look they make us wonder what have we actually achieved thus far.

The national education system for one is in a sad and sorry state. Endless controversies have plagued the system. Each new education minister introduces his new pet projects and short-term solutions, both of which
are often race- and politics- based.

Another major concern which has often been glossed over is that of inter-religious dialogue. The premier's decision not to support the establishment of an inter-religious council and his directive on Bahasa Malaysia Bibles having to be stamped with the caveat,

'Not for Muslims' contradict his tear-accompanying sermons on dialogue, moderation and tolerance among religions.

There is also the issue of the gradual erosion of the fundamental rights of the people, and a parallel increase in the powers accumulated by the executive.
This is especially done through the executive's honing to perfection and amending the laws left behind by the colonial master 48 years ago, making the laws even
more repressive.

After 48 years the people are made to believe that ultimate political decisions lie in the hands of the ruling elite and Malaysians cannot handle political
liberties without killing each other.

We have no doubt come a long way as a nation, but it is very obvious that we have a very long way more to go to be truly what the government so loudly professes
this nation to be. True patriotism calls for honest soul-searching as a nation.

A country is only free when its citizens have the inner freedom of being courageous enough to stand up and speak up for what is true and right and just. It
would be a Merdeka feat that we could indeed be very proud of. Happy National Day!

MARTIN JALLEH is a writer and researcher in a non-government organisation. Not affiliated to any political party, he believes that every Malaysian should care enough for his/her country by speaking up and standing up for the truth.

Also by Martin Jalleh - Come one, come all to the Bolehland bailout bazaar!


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