Walking the narrow path
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 20 Jul 2012
I had the privilege of speaking to a group of young interns under the Otak-Otak Internship Programme this week.
Otak-Otak recruits and places 50 interns in a range of corporations, thinktanks, political parties and non-governmental organisations with the aim at building an alumni of young Malaysians who interact across sectors and are exposed to a range of experiences and training.
It was, as usual, refreshing to speak to young minds ready to take on the world to explore avenues to create change in society.
This particular session was held at the headquarters of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, with other colleagues state assemblypersons Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad and Hannah Yeoh, where all three of us shared our respective journeys into the field of politics and policymaking.
What is unique about this platform is that we were all in our twenties when we were propelled relatively quickly into the serious and sometimes risky world of politics.
Throughout the evening’s dialogue, however, one question raised from the floor piqued my interest and I have continued to ponder over this issue.
The person asking the question is currently employed by Pemandu, the arm under the Prime Minister’s Department tackling key areas of crime, corruption, education and so on.
The issue is this: that there are good people who genuinely want to work for change, but because of the way things are structured in the country, even positive efforts are often shot down in the “politicking” of it all.
One assumes she refers to the neutral officers within government who are regularly accused by the opposition of certain wrongdoings or agendas, and vice-versa.
Let’s face it. It has become increasingly difficult to adopt a non-partisan approach to anything. Whatever position you take on an issue, be it book-banning or education reform, you are immediately compartmentalised into either being a pro- or anti-government supporter.
This has largely to do with the fact that politics has encroached into every corner of life as we know it. Every interaction an individual has on a daily basis - on the roads with poor traffic conditions, selecting the school of choice for your child, and so on – has a definite connection to a political motive that the decision-maker of that policy has chosen to push.
Just think about our history textbooks, the Biro Tata Negara indoctrination course, the lucrative contracts of the toll concessionaires, and so on, and you’ll get the idea.
So, we have established that it is realistically impossible to escape the clutches of a political environment in Malaysia. But what of individuals who genuinely want to make a difference? What route can they take? What assurances can be made that they, too, will not be sucked into the very same ugly and mudslinging-type world they detested in the first place?
It is important to firstly establish that the system is structured such that any individuals being absorbed into it would unlikely be able to change things significantly unless they are privileged enough to be key decision makers. Unless you change the system, you continue to dance to the same tune as that set out for you.
So the next question is, how does one change the system and what is the most effective route of doing so?
The easiest answer is political will. But then, are we saying that none of our current leaders have such political will? Or is it because the system is so structured that by its very nature it self-implodes whenever a leader initiates reform? For example, perhaps, the current prime minister’s inability to win over the hearts of his own party members in his reasonable attempts at correcting the lethargy of his administration?
Having read several pieces on transition in government, I am convinced that whenever there is new leadership, the changes must come about quickly and effectively for it to be taken seriously by all levels of government – right up to the rank and file civil service.
But back to the question of those individuals really pushing for change in whichever positions they occupy – be it within government or civil service or NGOs or as professionals – is it possible to perform their duties without becoming disillusioned by the backlash received?
First, any job taken up will have its risks and rewards. One must evaluate one against the other and calculate if it is worth the time.
Second, the real challenge is getting systems to change, and so every effort must be made to initiate true reform such as passing laws that ensure the independence of the institutions that are meant to protect the safety and sanctity of citizens in a fair and just manner.
Finally, it takes great strength to put aside one’s differences in approaching an issue on a bi-partisan stand. Much respect is owed to politicians within both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat who admit the flaws of their own coalition and are willing to reach across the divide to work on issues of common concern such as electoral reform, education policy and crime.
It is hoped that more Malaysians, young and old, will not shy away from challenging careers that may place them in positions of possible criticism. This comes with the job.
And any real, meaningful vocation that has the potential to spark change in society must after all be accompanied by its equivalent obstacles.
This should not be reason to give up one’s ideals – no, despite the setbacks, young Malaysians should always strive forward and occupy that space that is increasingly narrow.
Cynicism is the worst possible enemy in such times.