Everyday Matters: Come, let us embrace life again

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I SAT UP when I read a news report that there exist syndicates in our beloved nation that would allow our children to cheat to pass national examinations at the primary school level. I pondered not on the existence of such syndicates, but on the demand from some of our fellow Malaysians that led to their existence and our failure as a society to curb such extremes.

Is academic success, measured by high scores in national examinations, really that important that some of us are willing to lean on the tired credo, “the end justifies the means”?

Are we giving more credence to examination scores instead of what is being learnt in school? What happened to nurturing old-fashioned Malaysian values of honesty, hard work and integrity in our children? Our parents did, and we are none the worse for it.

My late father allowed me the luxury of making   the most of my day with my rough-and-tumble gang of kampung boys, but he made sure I did my homework and studied until the lights were turned off at night. He made sure, in his own wisdom, that I had a support group with whom to share the joy and pain of school and growing up. I never felt lonely, and until now, I prize friendship as a great gift.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that most of us in beautiful Malaysia no longer live by the old ways, and we haven’t for a very long time. The apparent consequences seem both starkly evident and, to many, more than a little frightening.

Just by looking at any newspaper or listening to any broadcast today will quickly affirm this perception. British philosopher Brian Hubbard cites recent studies that point to isolation as the single most significant cause of emotional stress and distress in modern society. For some of us, isolation of one sort or another begins quite early in life.

Unlike the old ways, our children are not cherished and prized for their talents or aptitudes. No home-carved wooden pistols and cherry fruit bullets for them. They are also not raised to make the best use of those talents. In fact, most children are not even allowed to have a real childhood, to be just average children.

They are instead raised and encouraged to compete, excel and dominate — be the best, be number one. They are (from an obscenely young age) forced into educational, athletic or career paths chosen for them by their parents.

Do all these little ones want to be the next Lee Chong Wei or Siti Nurhaliza? Do they really want to be so-and-so MBBS or so-and-so LLB? Quite often they do not — not at all — but they succumb to the expectations of those who want it for them. Whose life is it anyway?

Material wealth and perceived social status and celebrity, however gained, seem to be the prevailing standards by which much of our society judges a person’s worth and how individuals judge themselves.

We are told that we need to be better than, wealthier than, more popular than, prettier than, sexier than ... and so on. If or when we do not wish to, or perhaps are not able to live up to those expectations for whatever reason, we are deemed to have failed.

Many of us succumb to the pressure and learn to judge our self-worth by what others expect or think of us, by what we do for work, or by how much money we make, where we live, or what we drive. We want to be the more affluent neighbours that live next door.

The collateral damage is often an attack on our personal happiness and satisfaction; we are told we lead an unfulfilled life — a life defined by chronic stress, anger, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. We are paying the cost of doing business as a human being in contemporary society.

For some of us now, life has become a circumstance jam-packed with pain, suffering and obstacles we must contend with and overcome. Many of us do not see life as it should be seen: a miraculous process to celebrate and relish, and within which to flourish and thrive in abundance. We are a society raised on the dogma of “no pain, no gain”. Now, where on earth did that come from?

On the teeming streets of our cities, there is a constant undercurrent of smouldering anger that is ready to explode at the slightest provocation. Linger an extra second longer at a traffic light and you can expect a line of frenzied drivers behind you ready to lean on their horns and mentally vapourise you.

Since when did a few seconds make so much difference? Just what are they going to do with the five seconds of time that they actually lost? What is the rush? To where is everyone rushing? Where is the finish line?

If we Malaysians continue on this path, it seems likely that our individual and collective psyche, health and wellness, as well as the wellness of our beloved nation, must and will atrophy. We will join the rest of the world and suffer from endemic physical, emotional and spiritual disconnect, living in and overcrowding a planet on the verge of environmental collapse.

Some of us of little faith have written on the subject of the human condition and reflected on the chilling position of scientists and environmentalists who are predicting that the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet may be imminent.

This one will not be the result of some natural disaster they say. Humanity will unleash it, and the victims will be us. Some believe it is inevitable.

Is it really? Is our paradise lost? Are you — are we — doomed to a life of vicious competitiveness and meaningless struggle, or worse?

Here are my answers: No, our paradise is not lost; we are.

And no again, you and we are not necessarily doomed, you and we can find our way back. We humans, as a race, have shown, time and time again that we are indomitable. So, let us embrace our and our children’s uniqueness and just be human again. Stop and smell the jasmine and live for the greater good of mankind.

Zakie Shariff is a director of a stockbroking company and co-founder of hCap Associates

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 10 - 16, 2014.