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

Malaysians Must Surely Be Tired to Death of Racialism By Now

By OOI KEE BENG, for THE EDGE MALAYSIA, 28 June – 3 July 2022

The Covid-19 pandemic experience has brought with it profound changes in the mindset of all of us who have had to rethink their lives, their work, and their ambitions.

The term The Great Resignation has been bandied around to denote the strange phenomenon in the early months of this year—still ongoing, by the way—of people leaving their jobs in search of new paths in their lives. Reciprocally of course, there should be more applicants for the jobs on offer, and that may be so, but mainly where positions that promise meaningful work are concerned.

This need to be proactive about one’s life is one aspect of the post-pandemic reality that has been significantly felt across society. Comfort zones, after two years of starkly limited mobility and activity, become more like clingy wet blankets, I suppose.

Re-strategizing is now a necessary undertaking. Disrupted education, disrupted incomes, disrupted relationships—all these cannot but cause people to lose faith in their ability to manage their present, not to mention their future.

Lower tolerance of crowds and traffic

Another psychological shift as crowds become a common thing again, is greater impatience with individual behaviour in crowded places. Used as many of us are now to space around ourselves, to deserted streets, and to a slower pace of life, not only are we clumsier in moving among people, we tolerate clumsy behaviour in others much less as well.

The level of irritation with others getting in the way goes up five-fold when it comes to road traffic. Apparently,  not only are there more motorbikes on the road, for example, but these seem to be more inconsiderate of fellow users than they were in 2019. I am sure this sense is due to all of us not only being unused to bad traffic by now, but also to the fact that bike delivery of online goods has increased tremendously. And since time is of the essence, these bikers take more risks in traffic than ever before. Also, they are of course not used to the newly-crowded roads either.

I suppose things are becoming old-normal again too fast, mirroring how the consequences of the pandemic’s arrival hit us way too suddenly. One is never rightly prepared for the coming of a crisis, or its going.

And beyond the post-pandemic uncertainties looms talk of a nuclear war, stagflation and big-power tensions. And climate change concerns remain as strong as ever.

So what is one to do but become decidedly more self-reliant, more immediate in one’s plans, and more definite in one’s actions. Failure to rise to that necessity, it seems to me, is a basis for the mental problems and psychological tensions that some of us are suffering.

Where Malaysia is concerned, a mounting distrust in anything to do with the government, and a general disgust with the political class place another challenging layer to the silent despair most of the population now feel.

Hopefully, support for “a reset”—in short, a sense that things cannot go on this way—will grow in a sociopolitical climate such as this. In the best of cases, this will ignite in the broader population discussions about where things went wrong, what the conceptual faults were, and what the long-term destructive decisions were, in the so-called nation-building process of the country.

For indeed, it is this so-called nation-building process embarked upon decades ago that has to be questioned.

Fatigue is perhaps the best word to describe the spirit of the times of 2022. Fatigue with what, though?

The pandemic? The politicians? Or the way Malaysia has chosen to describe herself, to understand herself and to diminish herself? The signs are plentiful that much has gone wrong with the nation building process. And this present time of multiple crises is perhaps as good a time as any to identify the problem.

Malaysia started out well, with a functioning democracy in place and so on. Not many countries had that chance. But the weakness in a democracy, as has become obvious over the last decade throughout the world, is its propensity to devolve into populism.

Now, if we recognise racialism—the use of racial collectives to organise, collect votes and make laws—as a populism, then we can admit that the system got off on the wrong foot. We can blame the British, blame UMNO, blame MCA, MIC, whatever. But the truth remains that we decided to divide the population from Day One.

To imagine that a divided nation can grow into a healthy whole… that is perhaps the myth that is falling apart now, in 2022, two years after Vision 2020 died the way mirages die, after a global pandemic, a collapse in national aspirations, and with the world economy facing multiple crises, including war. One can but hope that something along that line is happening.

Fatigue with what? With racialism and how it divides people who otherwise get along totally well. What else?

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis. A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia,


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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