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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], The Edge

A Malaysian Spring for its Intelligentsia?


By Ooi Kee Beng, for The Edge Malaysia, 24 June – 1 July, 2018. Republished in the “Picking on the Pas” column in Penang Monthly, August 2018.

I know Malaysia is a tropical country, but let’s adopt a concept from temperate zones without having to be politically sensitive about it. We are in the midst of a potent Malaysian Spring, and the way things are looking, a proper summer is to be expected. And by the time winter comes along many months down the road, we will all be– or on the way to being – properly nourished, physically safe and pleasantly housed.

In my experience, Spring signals the arrival of an overpowering sense of hope. In Sweden, they call it “vårkänsla” – the Feel of Spring during which the need for all living beings to create and procreate, and to rejoice, is in painful excess.

Spring always makes the self-piteousness of the Winter seem pathetic and irrelevant. And yet, the negation of the reasons for dark depression does not mean that the reasons for hope will naturally bear fruit. Even if the proverbial Spring is a gift, the approaching Summer is not. Instead, the Summer has to be actively embraced; it is a time that calls for action if promise is to be fulfilled.

Freeing the Malaysian Tongue

One sad long-term effect of the excessive control of free speech in Malaysia over the last few decades is that the culture of discussion and debate which we once enjoyed has been stifled. A new era may be beginning, but a new ethos of fearless yet responsible voicing of opinions will appear only if actively encouraged and cultivated, and by as many Malaysians as possible.
In an ideal country that’s free and bold, public discourses would be stimulated by its universities and by its journalists. In the far-from-ideal country that Malaysia has been where student life for decades was dissociated on pain of serious punishment from public expressions of interest in politics, the ability to engage in subtle and thoughtful discussions about such matters was naturally stunted. The Universities and University Colleges Act of 1971 made sure of that.

For journalists, there exists a broader spectrum of legislations for their persecutors and prosecutors to choose from. If the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act of 2012 that replaced the Internal Security Act (ISA) of 1960 did not suffice for some reason, then there was always the Sedition Act of 1948. Furthermore, most newspapers are owned by political parties which has acted as an effective muzzle on its once best and bravest newshounds.

No doubt, some concrete changes where freedom of speech is concerned will be taking place under the new government that took over in May this year.

But Malaysians must now learn to break the bad habits that decades of timid living under an authoritarian system has forced upon them. Aside from the need for journalism to recover its lost professionalism, passion and ideals, it must now compete with the loose-cannon quick-satisfaction style of writing that the blogging era has released upon society. Sensationalism was already a bane long before social media made it possible for every man, woman and child to express themselves without the inconvenience of filtering their words. The need to opine is now much stronger than the wish to carry on an intelligent conversation.

Much is also expected of the new Minister of Education, Maszlee Malik, in his attempt to remodel the school system. He will need every ounce of his reformist passion to stay the course and achieve visible and tangible results in the next few years. He needs all the help he can get from the rest of us.

We are All Journalists and Debaters Now

But journalists and academics do not the whole country’s intelligentsia make. Malaysia is full of well-educated people still, and what they now need to do is to consider the Malaysian Spring as an incredible chance to redevelop a culture of healthy, intelligent and dispassionate discussion and debate.

First off, let’s bring our present ceaseless commenting on blogs and on WhatsApp and on Instagram and on Facebook out in the open. Let’s organize debates and give a face to all the opinions we now express in the shadow of cyberspace.

To me, the important thing about expressing opinions openly is that you will have to tweak them and polish them. That is part and parcel of becoming publicly articulate, psychologically accepting of constructive criticism, and likewise tactically efficient in offering criticism. In the process, we are emboldened and we become confident about our ideas and we become cognizant of what the creative intellectual process actually looks like and feels like.

Debates can become a cultured affair and a central part of Malaysian culture, where the idea is not to win points but to have one’s ideas mutually polished and one’s ability to say what one thinks as concisely and precisely as possible. We should not have to pussyfoot around our diversity if we are embracing of it.

Secondly, let’s all help to raise the standard of journalism in this country through contributions as writers and essayists on the one hand, and through putting higher demands on journalistic writing in the country on the other.

Finally, let’s make our universities a place where young minds are brave enough to express ideas even when they may be half-baked and honest enough to acknowledge that they are half-baked. That is all par for the course. Nothing gets properly baked without being half-baked along the way.

Literacy and articulatory skills, like charity, start at home. So the making of a new Malaysia requires that each citizen realizes that the change has to start with him or her, and with how he or her breaks out of the fears of the past. There are no more excuses.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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