Welcoming the hopeful

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COMMENT | “Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.
– Lin Yutang

As Malaysia Day draws near, we are drawn to reflect on what being Malaysian means. James Chai’s article on returning after completing his studies in the UK triggered a spectrum of reactions. Some praised him for his courage, but most chastised him for giving up a bright future because “Malaysia no hope.”

James’ letter reminded me of my own decision to leave Hong Kong to join Malaysian politics in 2016. The reactions I encountered were similar.

I was happy in Hong Kong. My job as a conference producer came with many corporate perks and various learning opportunities in an international city. I experienced Hong Kong’s vibrant protest culture by participating in the Umbrella Revolution. Furthermore, I’d adopted Hong Kong Cantonese to the extent my Ipoh hairdresser said that I sounded like a TVB drama character.

And yet, I chose to return despite being a year shy of PR eligibility. The Umbrella Revolution was an eye-opener for me because of its leaders’ age. Its most visible leader, Joshua Wong, was barely 18 when he initiated the movement for democracy in Hong Kong.

Two things sprang to mind. The first: why was I eager to participate in a protest for democracy in a foreign country while my own country needed such energy? The second: what could I do?


It is interesting to see that Malaysians who say “Malaysia no hope” to returning scholars like James did not say “Hong Kong no hope” to Joshua Wong. How did we become so cynical?

One of the main reasons is systematic depoliticisation. We never learned about democracy in school. Neither did our parents nor grandparents. They were legitimately more concerned with putting food on the table after World War II.

Neither were those in power ever interested in educating. In fact, it is in their interest for us to know as little as possible about politics, ideologies, and political but practical matters like how governments work. In that way, we are kept dependent on and subservient to them.

Maybe that is why every 31 August and 16 September, we wave our flags and become a nation for only a day.

Depoliticisation, as my colleague Daniel Teoh highlighted last year, caused confusion about the government’s role in a democracy. As a result of our ignorance, we tend to form certain strange ideas of how things should be like in this country.

For example, we want a small government. We also want it to solve all of our problems. This leads to politicians overpromising during elections, and then under-delivering. Disappointment is the only natural result.

Last year, I became a Petaling Jaya City Councillor. The effects of depoliticisation are very obvious in the public’s reactions to a problem. Most people think that only the councillor can and must solve all their problems, not knowing that they can approach the authorities themselves.

Of course, the effects of depoliticisation also mean that the civil service does not take citizens seriously enough to adequately address their grievances. It is a vicious cycle.

There are currently about 4 million unregistered young voters. The value of a vote has cheapened so much that some even feel proud for not registering or abstaining. Most of us vote on polling day, call it a day for five years, until it’s time to vote again...

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