Monday, March 25

Individual success for the nation


MY second last speaking engagement of the year was to about 100 Malaysian civil servants in a seminar session entitled ‘Young leaders shaping the future of global society’. I was glad to be speaking ahead of my two co-panellists (an accomplished tech entrepreneur and champion of women in business, and a renowned South Korean professor of public policy) because unlike them, I didn’t prepare extensive decks of slides. I went through my bullet points – contemplating various definitions of ‘young leaders’, ‘shaping the future’ and ‘global society’ respectively, before considering some reasons for pessimism, and suggesting that those present in the room have a huge opportunity not only to be precisely those young leaders but to nurture new ones through the ministries and agencies that they work in.

I was encouraged by the response from the participants: some joined the civil service to achieve some of the goals I outlined. But I was concerned for two reasons. First was the complaint that many outsiders assume that they, as civil servants, all think in a certain way (especially on politics or policy); and second was the frustration that they wish they could be as outspoken as the panellists.  The first problem is a direct result of the second, but then there are career-threatening consequences to being outspoken: most recently emphasised by a directive (‘reminder’) for staff to not criticise the government in a public university (thankfully not the one where I’m a Royal Fellow, but one whose law faculty ironically recently held a lecture on freedom of speech under the Federal Constitution). But for this next generation of civil servants, it was basic logic to them that succeeding requires the freedom to disagree.

I was thinking about this too in the context of Malaysian and refugee children, whose hopes and dreams I’ve been able to witness in past weeks, whether through one-on-one conversations, speeches after receiving educational awards, and most of all through expressing their ambitions through their chosen pursuits, whether creative writing, music, sport or something else. Some of these underprivileged children pour their whole lives into these activities, envisaging them as a pathway to a better future that they can sustain themselves.

This speaks to a misconception many people have about children who live in orphanages and shelters: that they accept relying on the charity of others and might always do so. But the reality is that they want nothing more than to thrive independently. And while donors and supporters often think that they are being charitable by contributing their time or money (and usually they are), unfortunately this is sometimes accompanied by a certain condescension: the notion that still, these kids probably won’t amount to much. In the sphere of public policy this attitude manifests itself in phrases like, “they can’t possibly know what’s best for them, so we must decide on their behalf”, which is why authoritarianism is a risk regardless of who is in power, how well-meaning they are, or how much democratic legitimacy they may start off with.

For others who might be counted as having luckier starts in life, ‘success’ too can be variously defined. Some people want fame, some want fortune, and others seek various other things which cannot be measured or appreciated publicly – personal spiritual fulfilment, for example. This means that people can have entirely different conceptions of success, and the presumed recent suicide of Kim Jong-Hyun, the lead singer of the hugely popular K-pop boyband SHINee has perhaps made many young people realise that being rich and famous isn’t necessarily all what it seems (not that the celebrity suicide is a new phenomenon of course). Similarly, focusing on particular attributes of those who might be perceived to have been born blessed – a famous surname, a fat bank account or physical features deemed attractive by society – risks obscuring the unique challenges that face every individual.

This culture of making assumptions – prejudice – is especially prevalent in a country where public policy, political messaging and even academic analysis is loaded with racial and religious references – always targeting and describing electorally-relevant groups.

Of course it won’t be possible – nor desirable – to stop people from associating and defining themselves with other people and working together as groups. But we can teach young Malaysians that every person, regardless of race, religion, profession, place of residence of socioeconomic status is an individual – with individual relationships to other citizens, and an individual relationship to the state. Thankfully, there are indeed so many young people who inherently understand this. The greater challenge is convincing the state that this is true, particularly to its own employees.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.