Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Tash Aw: Malaysia’s Crisis of Confidence

March 19, 2014
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — At a coffee shop in Bangsar, an affluent Kuala Lumpur suburb, the lunchtime crowd gossips and checks the news on their smartphones. Making the rounds is a YouTube video in which a bomoh — a local shaman — and two acolytes, sitting on a “magic carpet” in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, perform a ritual to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing since March 8.

At any other time the video, a perfect example of Malaysian self-mockery, would be a good-natured affirmation of our eccentric shortcomings. But these aren’t ordinary times. The search for Flight 370 has spotlighted the tensions beneath one of Asia’s success stories, and the video is an uncomfortable reminder of Malaysia’s troubled reality.

A British colony until 1957, Malaysia now has a G.D.P. per capita of over $10,000, roughly twice that of Thailand and three times that of Indonesia. Cesar Pelli’s glorious Petronas Twin Towers, briefly the tallest buildings in the world, illuminate the Kuala Lumpur skyline. In the adjoining mall, Western luxury brands are peddled to a booming middle class. Malaysia Airlines, whose fleet boasts the gigantic Airbus A380 and is one of a handful of 5-star-rated airlines, is central to the branding of this “New Malaysia.”

Yet confidence in our leadership is brittle, and it takes little for frustrations to boil over. A coalition known as Barisan Nasional, or BN, led by the United Malays National Organization (the country’s ethnic-Malay governing party), has held power since independence, presiding over both economic growth and controversial policies that confer significant advantages in education, business and government on ethnic Malays, who make up some 60 percent of the population. The BN’s dominance has prompted allegations of corruption, cronyism and complacency, particularly regarding government-owned companies, such as Malaysia Airlines, which posted losses of over $350 million in 2013. Kuala Lumpur and Penang have seen dramatic rises in crime over the past decade. Some critics fault the BN’s policies for alienating minority groups and point to its seeming inability to manage a police force widely viewed as corrupt and ineffectual.

Support for the government is eroding, but critics say that attempts to effect change are frequently stifled. A day before Flight 370 disappeared, Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s opposition leader, was convicted on the rarely used charge of sodomy and sentenced to five years in prison. Many see the decision, which overturns a previous acquittal, as politically motivated. It leaves him ineligible to run in an approaching election in Selangor, the country’s richest and most populous state, where victory would have afforded him considerable national influence.

Most people I speak to here acknowledge that an incident like the disappearance of Flight 370 is unprecedented and say they appreciate the monumental task facing the government. For many, however, the authorities’ ponderous response and mishandling of information mirror the way Malaysia is run. The offhand, sometimes defensive nature of the early press conferences, coupled with occasional attacks on the foreign media, are widely perceived as the arrogance of a government unaccustomed to global attention and accountability.
Read the entire article here.
Comment: I read this article in the print edition of the International New York Times (March 20) while willing time away between flights in India.

Around me was the new Delhi Airport which is a symbol of India's too-often self-proclaimed rising.  

The article reminded me how shallow nation-building can be especially where it is constructed around edifices that primarily speak to elite ruling interests in terms that nonetheless espouse a distinctive developmental nationalism.

In my time in Malaysia I stood in front of the Petronas Towers wondering why it would be necessary for any nation-state to construct such a monstrosity.  For a few brief historical moments the Towers were the tallest structures in the world until the United Emirates claimed the 'honor'.

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lampur
Tallest in the world from 1998 to 2004 (Wikepedia)

This business of developmental nationalism in the post-colonial era is a fragile projection and an even more fragile reality.

In Delhi, not too far away from the glossy new and impressive airport there lives millions of people in abject poverty.

The same is true in Malaysia as Tash Aw points out above and South Africa can't escape the same condemnation especially in light of the multimillion dollar soccer stadiums we built to host the FIFA World Cup.

What is this business of erecting this and that project to look just like the developed West?  And what do developing nations have to prove and to whom? 

It won't of course just go away now will it?  I mean even as I write here there is some entrepreneur funded by post-colonial pretenses and money readying him or herself to prove a point of existential arrival in the terminology of Western dominated development discourse.

I guess if you really think beyond these artificial markers the same condemnation can be true in developed Western states too.

I am reminded that in and around the glamor of development in the US there are significant pockets of poverty that are sometimes hidden by the pretenses of modernization and its development markers.

At a very pressing level poor and underclass people just about everywhere live under the weight of bourgeoisie pretensions no matter how artificial the container (the nation, the state, the city, etc).

The consequences are, however, not just a matter of pretense gone wild.  The consequences are real as these edifices imprint even further how the current and predominant discourse on development is not focused on meeting humanitarian needs.


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