COMMENT | Over the last two years of leading the International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY) – one of the world’s oldest and currently the largest youth political organisations in the world – I have had some daunting, some confusing, and some surreal experiences.
Those surreal experiences range from one to one conversations over a drink with the president of a developing country at a beach-fronted youth camp, and a few hours later sitting next to him at some palatial venue in front of ministers, MPs, socialites and an international delegation talking high-level politics.
From joining a march for workers’ rights joined by hundreds of thousands in Argentina, through to entering a meeting venue in Athens that had to be guarded by two riot police trucks due to riots against government austerity measures; those experiences were exhilarating and sobering.
One of the perks of the job is having the opportunity to have up close and personal conversations as well as public exchanges with heads of states and political leaders from all around the world.
It is always an opportunity for me to proudly highlight my region of Southeast Asia, my ethnic and cultural heritage of being Chinese, but most importantly my beloved nation of Malaysia.
I will always unreservedly introduce myself with “I am here representing 140 organisations from 90 countries; but I am here – in equal parts – as a socialist, a fellow human being, a friend and a Malaysian.” It is always responded to with niceties and compliments of how beautiful Malaysia is, and the food is almost always complimented.
But in a visit to Burkina Faso, I had a very different experience.
Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in Africa recently restored to democracy in 2015 from autocracy and spells of military rule. There, I had the honour of having a one to one conversation with the then President of the National Assembly of Burkina Faso, Salif Diallo (photo). We were at a holding room, waiting to be called onto the stage.
After the customary introductions, Diallo asked me bluntly in French: “I assumed your country was a democratic country, I was wrong.”
Caught completely by surprise and aghast at the accusation, yet intimidated by the stature of Diallo, I simply responded with, “Pardon me? I don’t understand.”
In an authoritative voice, Diallo said “I read that your prime minister is involved in an extraordinary case of international money laundering and fiscal fraud. Yet, he is still in office. Seems kleptocracy is leaving Africa and resettling in your country. That is a folie.”
I was speechless for a moment.
Not because I didn’t agree with him, but because I felt a strange cocktail of emotions. Despite knowing intricate details and the validity of his accusations, I was stunned that my country was being described as madness.
Furthermore, as an elected official elected by very system that allows the Malaysian prime minister to stay in power, I am not spared from his critique. Coming from a senior statesperson who is no stranger to revolutionary struggles to realise democracy, he was correct and had every locus to say so.
He continued, just before my silence turned awkward. “Young man, you must fight on and keep pushing harder. I want to see the day that your people gets liberated like mine. Don’t ever give up.”
I could only respond with, “I agree, and I will.” We wrapped up the conversation with a handshake, and immediately went out on stage to address a mammoth rally. I was still unsure whether I was daunted, confused or dumbstruck until I arrived back at the hotel that night.
Shame was what I felt. I felt ashamed that despite being elected by the people, I have yet to remove him and his corrupt and kleptocratic regime from power. I was ashamed that I couldn’t stop the deterioration of my country’s reputation. I felt the shame of my beloved country’s name being soiled and tainted by the one who holds her highest political office.
Alas, Diallo won’t see the day that my fellow Malaysians get liberated as he passed away in August. I am however hopeful, that it is only a matter of weeks, that Malaysians will be in an unprecedented position to remove those who have brought shame unto our beloved nation.
Being subjected to daunting, confusing, and surreal experiences is something I am now prepared for. But I do not want to ever again feel the shame of having my beloved country referred to as an undemocratic madness led by a corrupt kleptocrat.
HOWARD LEE is Pasir Pinji assemblyperson, Harapan Youth chief secretary, and DAP Youth international secretary.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.