Monday, March 20

Progress through conversation


AS Movement Control Orders ease throughout the country, with promisingly stable reductions in daily Covid-19 cases and much optimism amidst our inoculation drive (apart from among anti-vaxxers and sceptics, though it’s fully understandable that people want to be fully assured of the safety of vaccines that they and their loved ones will receive), everyday life is beginning to resemble the ‘old normal’. For the first time in ages, I used Waze to circumvent a traffic jam as people were heading to meetings, birthday parties, and sporting activities. Still, sympathy must go out to those who are not yet able to reunite with loved ones, with interstate and international travel not yet fully open.

Nevertheless, this burst of energy is heartily welcomed by businesses, many on the brink of shutting down. I have appreciated going into the offices of the various companies and organisations I’m involved with, and enjoying freshly-prepared meals in restaurants, free from the deteriorations of delivered food, such as limp French fries, soggy bread, and sauces that compulsorily spill from impossible-to-open plastic containers.

Still, in the medium- to long-term, the efficiencies realised from the online – or at least hybrid – formats of doing business will endure. Across various sectors, discussions between boards and senior management teams have acknowledged that the option of staff working from home will remain permanent, while physical meetings will be carefully timed to ensure maximum benefit from in-person interactions.

Furthermore, new policies are being developed to reflect these changes: in particular, to ensure better respect for time. One complaint amidst working from home has been that some bosses have abandoned traditional work hours, expecting staff to be available at (nearly) all hours of the day. Workers accordingly feel anxious at not being available when called, fearing being penalised as a result. At the same time, it’s also harder to see whether your colleagues are sucking up to the boss!

This is just one of the vibrant and important conversations I have been a part of in recent weeks as people are determined to make the best of 2021.

Another followed the speech that I abridged for my last article, in the question-and-answer segment in the opening session of the 18th Projek Amanah Negara organised by the United Kingdom and Eire (Ireland) Council for Malaysian Students (UKEC). It’s always been the case that questions anonymously through an online platform are more aggressive than those who ask in person; thus in fully online events probing inquiries must always be expected. This group of overseas Malaysian undergraduates asked about my views on political reform, the growth of civil society, and the role of the monarchy.

But more than that, I was buoyed by the huge interest shown in contributing back to the country in a post-Covid era. These young Malaysians, already primed to the urgency of addressing climate change, the need for sustainability, and ingrained with the importance of STEM and TVet in the future economy, wanted to know in what ways they can contribute to the nation. I was happy to share my belief that whether it is through activism or advocacy, volunteerism or research, sports or music, that there are now so many platforms, harnessing the power of social media, through which to organise initiatives. At the same time, I stressed, while cooperation is wonderful, competition is also a good thing: there may be various approaches to achieving the same things in different location.

Another fascinating conversation for me emerged from the launch of a paper on Youth Suicide in Malaysia, published by Relate Mental Health Malaysia in association with the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas). In the report, the authors refer to the biological, psychological, and social factors that underlie the phenomenon, while referring not just to the enormous emotional costs but also the economic costs of youth suicide. The panel of advocates, mental health professionals and policymakers made clear the urgency of the issue particularly given the stresses to individuals’ family, social, and professional environments during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the need for policy change and legislative amendments, down to how first responders deal with instances of attempted suicide.

I cannot write an article about conversations without referring to Clubhouse, the app that has seen celebrities intimately share on a wide variety of topics.  Discussions on the future of Malaysia and specific public policy areas are an everyday occurrence, and politicians and health experts have used it to allay concerns over vaccines. It is certainly another useful platform for the discussion and advancement of ideas, but as my recent conversations have shown, ‘traditional’ platforms – for the new normal – have become the mainstay of public discourse.


Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.