Being human: Working in the common interest serves our self-interest

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 24, 2018 - September 30, 2018.
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As the era of a new Malaysia stretches from weeks into months, the people are becoming used to a steady stream of revelations about the wrongdoings of the previous government and announcements about reforms of key institutions and sectors.

The misdeeds include schemes involving public officials feeding off an entrenched system of patronage, financial mismanagement and questionable deals.

The work of ridding the administration of abuse of power and vested interests that had become the norm over decades of rule by a single coalition will clearly take many years.

Naturally, attention has been focused on the immediate and obvious cases of corruption, dereliction of duty and the breakdown of accountability that resulted in financial fiascos like the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, lopsided infrastructure contracts and a long list of politically-connected appointments to public office.

Much hope has been generated by the constant succession of experts and interest groups that have met with the Council of Eminent Persons to propose reforms to all aspects of governance, address a range of socioeconomic issues and map a new future for the country.

Amidst this enthusiasm, there is a need for deep reflection about the negative traits that have clouded our outlook and shaped our lifestyles so that we may recognise our weaknesses and work to overcome them.

One well-recognised area is the tendency to view all aspects of our lives through racial and religious lenses, which has become a root cause of our deteriorating race relations. With the defeat of Barisan Nasional and dismantling of its divisive policies, we now have an opportunity to reframe the national discussion on a non-communal platform and foster the growth of a healthy and open society.

However, that will take some doing because of the pervasive damage that has already been done to the social fabric because of decades of parochial imprinting. Here, it is important to recognise that the institutions of all communities are complicit in perpetuating this dichotomy and must step up to the plate in the spirit of a new beginning.

If we are to draw important lessons from our story of affirmative action gone awry, it will require an honest acknowledgment of the flaws in our communal thinking that allowed us to be exploited by opportunistic leaders and their willing partners.

It took the excesses of the previous administration to open the eyes of enough people to the irony that their interests were being pawned off for the selfish ends of a small group of the elite.

Ironically, while the leaders of the communal parties were loudly appealing to the self-interests of their constituents, they were blatantly betraying the people’s trust for their private interests.

That lesson being learnt, the logical next step in the evolution of our society is to step up to a higher social order that surpasses narrow appeals to tribal identity.

It will require courage of conviction to embrace this ethos, especially during the present time, when multiculturalism is coming under assault in many parts of the world.

A question then arises: how would socio-cultural differences be represented in a colour-blind society? The answer, fortunately, is reassuring for those whose identities are defined by their cultural parameters — when communities are not seen to be in competition, their differences become a cause for celebration, a basis for greater understanding and a source of mutual enrichment.

Another key area where attitudes must change is our moral ambivalence in the face of ethical breaches, social injustices and self-interested behaviour. Some examples will make these issues clear.

Our tolerance of ethical breaches, including potential conflicts of interest, appears to have grown in many areas such as in the noble professions. Today, it is rather common to hear of teachers who put much energy into giving tuition classes for extra income.

In a well-functioning school system, no child who needs extra coaching would need to pay for remedial attention from the teacher. Nor would parents be unwilling sponsors of the parallel education industry that thrives after school hours.

Unfortunately, teachers are not alone in this ethical twilight zone. Journalists are known to benefit from privileged information and access. Government doctors may be partial to consultancy work instead of their public health role. And of course, when it comes to the rewards of the politically-connected, those willing to play the game of returning favours are in another league altogether.

As for social injustices, two issues would illustrate some of the systemic failures that need attention. The first is the stunting of human potential among the bottom half of the population due to a range of factors, beginning with an irrational faith in the benefits of trickle-down economics, through to the maldistribution of resources as well as the ineffectiveness of social inclusion measures.

A second issue is the institutionalised discrimination that is an important driver of the brain drain that has threatened to stunt the country’s development.

Finally, the dark side of the previous administration’s rule should make us realise that when the people put their self-interest first, they become vulnerable to emotional manipulation by their leaders.

One lesson to be drawn from that experience is that if we focus on ensuring our common interests, then our self-interests would be secured. This was amply proven in the 14th general election, when supporters of widely differing groups united for the larger goal of saving the country’s future.

Now that we have achieved that prodigious feat, it remains for us, who are the pioneer generation of the new Malaysia, to embrace the principles of an inclusive, united and progressive society that we have dreamt of.

Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

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