Malaysian reflections as Asean turns 50

AUGUST 10 — When they line up next week, the SEA Games athletes are not merely aspiring for medals, they represent their nations’ advances as part or because of Asean.

The grouping of 10 countries, formed 50 years ago two days ago, gather biennially to determine bragging rights by competing in 39 sports over a fortnight.

Half a century of togetherness built on non-interference but common economic prosperity through co-operation has sustained its prime objective, to accept the newly gained statuses as countries — or crucially, peaceful neighbours — forged from the colonial age.

As host, and contender for the overall medal count, Malaysia will come under the microscope.

Sporting excellence, as clichéd as it sounds, is a telling barometer.

International sporting success, as in robust multi-disciplinary representation, reflects the strength of organisation, broad community participation, school sports programmes, coaching network, facilities and never the least, commercialisation. 

Components common in developed nations, which is why the Summer Olympics medal tally closely mirrors global power, a combination of wealth, societal organisation and the prevalence of research and development. 

Therefore, it is unsurprising United States, Great Britain, China, Russia, Germany, Japan, France, South Korea, Italy and Australia, topped the tally in that order at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Though SEA Games results require circumspection, it is a weaker regional competition therefore victories have to be launching pads to match the rest of the world in the next level.   

There are various points of general reflection from Malaysia’s perspective, seeing Asean and how our country is only a decade older than the bloc.

Dysfunction Central

Before assessing the reflections per se, there is a large elephant in the room when comparing Asean countries.

How to calculate laggardness — between nations — when all these nations insulate themselves by design or accident? Indonesia has incarcerated its capital’s mayor for blasphemy;  Philippines’ president encourages his death squads to up their execution rates; Thailand is back under a military junta; Vietnam has remained a communist state while retaining a surrogate government in a “democracy of sorts” in Cambodia; Singapore’s only version of open discourse is the prime minister’s family property dispute turning into a parliamentary debate while an aspiring presidential candidate denies her Indian ancestry in order to qualify according to race rotation;  Brunei's prosperous citizens have to contend with forced religious piety; and all the openness in Myanmar has not reduced the worth of the military but only resulted in severe examination of the liberal credentials of Aung San Su Kyi.

In that light, Malaysia can sound promising and justified in insulating itself, which is short for doing it as it pleases and deserving to ignore external criticism.

Especially when accompanied by heart-warming local stories. Like our low-cost airline AirAsia and hail-ride service Grab which are staples throughout the region, and our manufacturing and plantation history leading the replication in Vietnam and Indonesia respectively. 

The pride of having a moderate population well-educated with extensive resources, gives us a permanent one-upmanship over neighbours. Or is it so?

In our excitement we must not be swept by enthusiasm.

For many advantages are eroding and Malaysians risks seeing themselves through rose-tinted glasses.  

Foreign labour: Hubris to revisit us

A dependence on foreign labour brings most of our Asean brothers and sisters to the country as menial employees. 

While there is a surge of professionals from these countries now, those deeply-set prejudices over decades persist. 

Malaysians tend to view Asean workers as those below them, as they serve coffee in our malls and walk on steel beams in construction sites, and expect themselves to experience a better life by the virtue of being Malaysians.

The lads in my economically-depressed end of Cheras still refer to Filipinos derogatorily as Aquinos, in reference to the only name they remember from the 80s along with Marcos. While Indonesians are squatters with dreams of being Bumiputera, in their eyes.  

Vietnamese, Myanmarese, Thais and Cambodians are just the same, labourers, and only Singaporeans and Brunei folks are above the regional contempt.

Jobs are available but for a long time employers have shown a clear inclination for foreign labour, rather than local talent.

But that does not stop our unemployed sections from holding foreign workers in contempt rather than seeking ways to present their positive value to employers.

In a globalised eco-system, the only guarantee is competition and the brightest salvation in opportunity unhindered by nationalism. This may work better for many other Asean countries.


One nation, one people is an anathema here.

The subject of integration is loaded and produces animosity rather than common purpose.

While Malaysia diligently weighted race ratios in forming itself, it pursued a permanent need to maintain ratios rather than coalesce the races to a stage where ratios don’t undermine the country.

To raise the value of citizenship above other demographical considerations through integration.

Indonesians, Thai, Vietnamese and Filipinos have stronger and broader identities, even though they are more impoverished.

The never-ending debate over what is Malaysian enough, and who is Malaysian enough is exhausting and tires this nation. It distracts people from just being Malaysians.

There is so much more we invest in each other by being in the same country even if there are forces separating us physically. This is because we share the country every day, and that, the most obvious of things, unfortunately only becomes apparent as the need for oxygen when abroad.

Asean onwards with Malaysia

The 620 million people in the region can expect more.

While the European Union is a decent model, others like South America’s Mercosur have slipped. Asean takes a careful path, with consistent gains.

Meanwhile, Malaysia must realise that more Asean means in time more competition within the Asean fold. The local laws and ways will remain, but locals must ready themselves for Asean’s globalisation mandate.

The next 50 years, are for the bold and without a doubt, for visionaries.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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