APRIL 11 — My friend from Bangsar via Kluang has a simple solution for our country’s problems, have fewer Malaysians in the problem-solving.

To him, it’s the people who are the problem. They are constantly unaware of what is important, distracted by the petty and way, way too involved in their own insignificant lives to be objective, informed broadly or worldly enough to be anything other than an impediment to those actually capable of providing the solutions.

Stay out of the way and let the experts save the day!


It draws me back to my school visit to Tun Razak Memorial decades ago. Room after room, walls adorned with pictures of the former prime minister personally overseeing a young nation’s march to progress. To see roads, bridges, highways, schools and townships mushroom across the land.

Later, I met men related to those events and the milestones achieved, and they spoke about those years. In their work to build up a fragile Malaysia. Razak was not alone but he presided over a small circle of dedicated staff to accomplish feats. Through them, the arms and legs of the government machine.

The writer says by how prime ministers have operated since, the old Malaysia is still the new Malaysia. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
The writer says by how prime ministers have operated since, the old Malaysia is still the new Malaysia. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa


Those elite retired civil servants — most who’ve passed on — on rare occasions regale about the second prime minister.

The late Colin Abraham told me they all were wary, on their toes. While the PM looked asleep during meetings, he’d abruptly come wide awake and nod his disapproval of subpar presentations. Transfer order papers were ready to ship out the poor performers.

My friend’s thinking — unfortunately — fits that depiction from a different Malaysia.

By how prime ministers have operated since, the old Malaysia is still the new Malaysia. They rely on a select and usually elite group to run the country.

In the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi era it was the “fourth floor boys”. And in the sophisticated Najib Razak years of Blue Ocean Strategy, it was Pemandu — which has since become a private consultancy while their ex-patron is behind prison bars in Kajang.

This train of thought predates Merdeka, it’s a British colonial tradition.

The natives are not good enough but we will train enough of them to assist us. British-run schools, like Malay College Kuala Kangsar where Razak and present Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim attended, were intended to provide the colonial government locals to serve the empire.

Regardless of how the colonialists felt about the locals, they will need a minimum of them to run affairs.

The locals, by and large, did not mind power in the hands of colonialists and their local representatives, as long as economic gains continued and in piecemeal the quality of life improved steadily.

While Malaysia outlived the empire, it did not discard the culture to utilise a small well-trained elite to govern. Most of the country was — irrespective of race — made up of peasants and therefore not able or wanting to object.

In my own extended of family of council workers on both sides, general labour really, it would be the Seventies before a graduate emerged. In my direct family it was the mid-90s when my sister graduated.

Today, millions of graduates of all kinds wired to smart phones inundate the land. Opinions are divided on how much education is in the population but it is indisputable what is today and what was yesterday are a sea apart.

Malaysia is a different beast today.

A larger base of enlightened people cannot be told and expected to conform, without being included.

To have this impression, that by being better trained and educated, they will only seek better jobs, earn better and live better, but just like their grandparents, be happy to have a small elite — separate from them, distant from them — determine “how things are” is mad.

My friend is technically correct. If a small group does all the right things and all of us benefit from it, do the rest have to be involved?

To a degree, no, but hypocrisy and self-interest is expressed with greater efficacy by a literate society. Short for, they understand they can be excluded but they can’t help but complain and demand at the same time.

They have crossed from not knowing to being able to know how to affect, and therefore the natural evolution would be to enable their full participation. Which is a net positive, rather than delay their role as long as possible which leads to unease.

Here’s where Malaysia sits.

Greater participation of the masses in policy and government can potentially overturn the middle-income trap Malaysia is perpetually associated with.

I do admit it appears the government is lost on how to include people into the governing process, the policy development and implementation.

Polar opposites we are, my friend and I. He thinks most of Malaysia should butt out, while I am utterly convinced more of the country should be included. To be absolutely clear, whether he is right or wrong, it is impossible to shut out people who are even more wired by the day.

Even if they do not have all the appropriate information, or not bothered to get them, they are still substantial, and both them and the situation have evolved, and they can impose their will.

The adult answer is engagement and participation.

Engagement is not a complaint box, nor meet your leader sessions. Participation is not a vote every five years.

From the bottom to the top, changes in engagement and participation must occur.

Again, this is already happening, the only choice is how it happens. Whether organically as it is now, which bruises more and slows down things and the country, or led by the administration and possibly generate greater goodwill and support from the people.

It seems messier to have more weighing in constantly. True. But who said an advanced democracy is sanitised? Better still, throw back the question. How may sanitised systems have survived, let alone prospered in the modern world?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.