The timidity of hope

AUGUST 17 — When I was a child, I used to hope for things like getting straight As in exams (yes, I was bit of a nerd in school and most of the time, I did get those As).

Before I turned 16, I desperately hoped that my father would survive cancer. He did not.

Now, as an adult, I hope for various things like a higher salary, better quality of life with safe streets and lovely open spaces, affordable food, a nice cheapish house that isn’t over a decade old, efficient public transport in which I don’t have to wait 40 minutes for the bus, inexpensive health care, low prices due to thriving businesses, and a responsive local council that can fix a broken exercise bench in a neighbourhood park.

But when I walk out of my home to grab lunch nearby, I see a seafood restaurant boarded up, its giant signboard hanging uselessly over pieces of wood stacked against the shutters. The owner — a Jack Ma lookalike — had sold it to a Singaporean.

The seafood in that place was decent and it used to serve affordable mixed-rice lunch sets at RM10.90 that I occasionally ate, which I considered expensive compared to chicken rice in kopitiams down the block that cost RM7. Can’t find lunch for below RM5 anymore.

But when one business dies, new ones are birthed, thanks to the beautiful spirit of capitalism.

Two banana leaf restaurants recently opened up in my Taman Tun neighbourhood. But they are expensive. One of them charges RM9 for basic banana leaf set, with fried chicken costing RM5 and beverages at RM3.

It seems uncertain if they will survive, considering that an Italian restaurant shut down in the area in less than a year.

The prices of food did not come down over the past three months. If anything, they seem to have increased.

Food, of course, should not be used as the sole measure of change.

There are more important things like education, civil rights, and combating corruption, racism and religious fundamentalism.

If I have children, I hope they can go to good public schools in this country where they can not only score straight As, but also learn about their constitutional rights and basic knowledge on governance like how Parliament works.

I hope for gender equality, so that young women would not have to endure what I faced in college with an abusive boyfriend who once pulled a knife on me. I hope for more inclusivity, so that people from neighbouring nations won’t tell me that they find Malaysia to be “the most racist country on earth.” I hope for less institutionalisation of religion, so that I don’t have to explain my marital status, or lack thereof, when I get birth control pills from a government clinic.

I thought that a great momentous shift in the national psyche that took place 100 days ago would help bring these ideals to fruition.

But many people seemed to see it as an end in itself, not a means to an end — the end being the elusive and unidentifiable goal of what we want to achieve as a nation together.

Instead, we became more insular and intolerant of dissent. We say such nasty things to each other, somehow expecting that repeated insults will persuade the other side to understand our point of view.

I admit that I am one of those people too, or I used to be. I used to have raging arguments with my mother about issues in America, like baking wedding cakes for gay couples, always believing that I was right and she was wrong. Dead wrong.

I felt superior in my beliefs as I used to think I was the “good guy.”

But I have since tried to understand her point of view. Now I try to refrain from immediately labelling people who disagree with me as stupid bigots, homophobes, and racist or sexist idiots. The word “stupid” is particularly hurtful.

The worst, though, is the way we unfairly expect our leaders to be shining examples of wisdom, bravery, and moral fortitude.

Instead of learning from the past and seizing the wheel from people we consider our superiors, we retain our old habits of happily sitting in the backseat, content to watch the world go by without knowing our destination. All we do is occasionally pipe up to ask our driver: “Are we there yet?”

And then we end up heartbroken when the best of us fail and disappoint us.

We become surprised when our leaders turn out to be human — as capricious, rapacious, and malicious as the worst of us.

Our leaders also have fallen into old habits of not bothering to consult people whom they consider their followers. It may not have been done out of spite, but simply because they believe that they were given the mandate to do whatever they think is right, forgetting that the process of dialogue and feedback must be done openly every day.

Decision-making will be slower, of course, and perhaps the common folk may not be on the same level as so-called intelligent leaders calling the shots. But the rewards will be bigger because people will feel heard and understood. They will feel like they matter. And when they think they matter, they will put in the work to build the nation up.

It is not that we did not have hope. We were hopeful, but we were not audacious in our hope. We did not dare to imagine a world where we would be the ones creating it and shaping its destiny, rather than a small group of elites with contradictory agendas.

We thought that our job was done and dusted in a single day.

Perhaps we are afraid of the responsibility of nation building. I know I am because I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing or if I’m insensitive to others, stuck in my little Taman Tun bubble.

But we don’t have to be timid in our hope anymore. Moving forth, we can be more demanding and play an active role in crafting our national identity.

Because no one else can do the job — there is only us, the people.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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