Thursday, April 15

Finding leadership in tragedy


THE concept of a new year used to be compelling: an opportunity to reboot, ditch bad ideas and pretend to implement New Year’s Resolutions. That illusion is continually dispelled each year as unresolved problems straddle either side of Dec 31, professional expectations remain constant from Q4 and Q1, and nature does not care for humanity’s marking of time.

Rather, for the tens of thousands who have become victims of floods in the peninsula, and the hundreds who have lost relatives and loved ones on AirAsia flight QZ8501, the prospect of a ‘new start’ will be tragically bleak. In the last few days, they may have lost a home or loved one: a huge part of their lives gone without warning. Even if the loss is only material, the emotional disruption may take years to overcome.

Millions of Malaysians have expressed sympathy for those affected by the floods, and despite tough financial situations they have shown their generosity by donating money, food, clothes and medical supplies, or providing vehicles or other equipment to assist the logistics of distribution. These individual efforts as well as small community initiatives in neighbourhoods and corporate drives in shopping malls have joined government agencies to alleviate the suffering. Some have gone further to actually be a physical part of this chain, though understandably many other citizens agonised about whether to abandon holiday plans made with their families well in advance.

In the case of ‘golf diplomacy’, one can rightly question its effectiveness in an age where diplomacy has evolved far beyond good relations between leaders – but the unfortunate juxtaposition of the images of Hawaii and Kelantan fuelled tit-for-tat denunciations of party leaders. Even in such times, there are provocateurs and sycophants whose priority is to score as many political points as possible (or at least be seen to defend their dear leader): it is amongst the worst phenomena that have come to accompany our national disasters. This politicking surely complements another curious norm, which is that political parties are so prominent in organising their own relief efforts (often explicitly branded to a various extent, whether in the form of banners, organised media coverage or faces of politicians on bags of rice). There might be some politicians who might genuinely believe that “we must all rise above politics” at such times, but unfortunately it is difficult to tell who they are, since there are so many reasons to be cynical when it comes to Malaysian politics.

Where I did see politics being genuinely overcome was in the astounding state loyalties shown by urban compatriots. The Kelantanese are known to be fanatically loyal to Darul Naim even in the best of times, but during this tragedy that patriotism spurred a relentless spirit of volunteerism whose stories and testimonies can be read in this paper and elsewhere. Every Kelantanese person I know was also proud of their Sultan’s message, calling on us to “extend a hand of friendship with the environment and let us be aware that all disaster problems that have occurred are the result of our own doings”. In Perak and Pahang too, impromptu royal visits have lifted moods and provided leadership by example.

Indeed, in the last week leaders have emerged at all levels of society. Of course, in the flooded communities themselves there were unsung heroes who ferried people and supplies right up until the point of evacuation. So many of them will remain nameless because of their humility and desire to simply go back to their normal lives.

Recent reports on our economy – from the University of Malaya, Khazanah Research Institute, World Bank and United Nations Development Programme – have suggested that tackling inequality must be a priority in our country at this juncture. Whether upcoming government policies will address or exacerbate that inequality will probably lie at the crux of politics in 2015, but there is another inequality that was revealed by the floods of last week: that is the inequality of patriotism and voluntary shared emotion expressed by Malaysians – from those who see their fellow citizens as people to sympathise with and to help in difficult times, regardless of ethnicity or religious beliefs; to those who see their fellow citizens as people to exploit, or to scapegoat, or to project imagined plots of racial domination or religious usurpation. At some points of 2014, it seemed that some Malaysians could not even comprehend other Malaysians as fellow citizens with a shared destiny, so divergent were their notions of the future.

That inequality too is a function of government policy, but if our latest episode of national hardship proved anything, it’s that Malaysians are ever ready to respond positively if only there is leadership to inspire them.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of Ideas.