Everyday Matters: Of Trump, Brexit and a class reunion in 2017

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 16 - 22, 2017.


You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it — it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends  you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk. — Charles Baudelaire, 19th century French poet


It’s the New Year folks! 2017 snuck up on us two weeks ago, quiet-like. It had to. It was overshadowed by the events at the end of last year.

The victory of Donald Trump continues to reverberate this year, long after Hillary Clinton conceded defeat last November. Nothing has changed yet, stateside. But the only global superpower is not feeling all that super. In fact, I think it is tired. It was roused in 2001 by a devastating attack on its soil, it overextended itself in wars in the Islamic world, and it now wants to get back to repairing things at home. It may not feature much on the global stage this year.

What of the other major event that shocked the British and the rest of the world last year — Brexit? Oh, it is only the beginning of a many-part play that will take a couple of years to sort out. This year, the debate in the UK will not be whether Brexit should happen but how it should happen. The issue will create a constant threat of early elections, but even if such elections do come to pass, they would only delay Brexit, not derail it.

Elsewhere, it is tempting to think the Syrian civil war will end this year, now that the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have retaken the critical city of Aleppo. Indeed, they now control a few major cities and have the luxury of consolidating the gains they have made. But the conflict will not end, at least not this year. Put differently, there is still a lot work left for them to do and any number of things can shift the balance of power in such a conflict-ridden country.

On the economic front, the world is trying to cope with reduced Chinese demand. After decades of record growth, China is slowly but surely moving its own economy up the value chain to produce and assemble many of the inputs it once imported, with the intent of increasingly selling to itself.

All these forces combined will have a dramatic and enduring impact on global socio-politics and, of course, the economy and ultimately, on the shape of the international system for decades to come.

Meanwhile, at home, the sad saga of the declining ringgit continues unabated. One can only wish the ringgit goes up but one cannot do much internally. However, Malaysia’s economic prospects, grim last year, look improved this year on the back of better commodity prices. Higher crude oil and palm oil prices will be a welcome relief to Malaysia, but the ghosts of financial impropriety will continue to haunt us this year.

On a personal note, 2017 will mark 44 years since my friends and I bade farewell to our high school in Kulim, Kedah. Some of them have sadly passed on, but many who are still around are eager for a reunion. I am one of them.

Through the years, Kulim has changed from a pensioner’s paradise in the 1960s and 1970s to a high-tech city — development came its way. Most of us do not live there anymore. We have been communicating of course, the Class of 1973, when we meet unplanned at weddings and funerals, when we speak on the phone and when we do postings on Facebook.

But most of that communication is indirect, not personally directed at you — you know, the way Facebook posts usually are: “Here’s a picture of my dinner. My grandkid learnt to ride a bike today. I’m travelling in Bangkok. Here’s a picture of me camping. This is my cat, dog, chicken. Here’s a link to an article, or a video, or a piece of music that I dig.” It’s mostly on the surface, kind of superficial; fun, but not a lot of substance.

This planned reunion is to make amends for all that shallow, impersonal talk. I am hoping that this meeting of old boys and girls will allow us to share our lives once more, however fleeting, because in the past 44 years, our lives have progressed in many different directions.

The only constant in the universe — so they tell us — is change. And by now, the Class of 73 have had our fill of it. We got schooled and we adapted to technology — email and the internet would not become ubiquitous until we were in our forties! We got married. We became parents — some of us early, some of us very late. And while parenting is joyful, it is also likely the most difficult job on the planet. They did not tell us about that at school, did they?

We became doctors, writers, civil servants, husbands and wives. We joined the armed forces and the police. We were engineers, economists, teachers, business men and women. And we continued to be friends with one another.

We have had our share of triumphs, disappointments and heartaches. We played on the world stage when some of us were posted to Somalia, Egypt and even Serbia during their wars. We worked in multinational corporations and one of us even covered the goings-on at the United Nations in New York. Why, some of our accomplishments have been documented in the local newspapers, and on radio and television.

I hope this planned meeting of old friends will remind us of a time when we were younger and not so wise. Imagine being slim and 17 and not appreciating it!

This gathering will give us a moment to celebrate us and to re-examine how our alma mater gave us the strength to overcome the buffets of dailiness, career adversities and personal challenges. It will give us the opportunity to see how we formed relationships that strengthened our inner selves and helped us to grow and mature.

We are still young at heart and even when we congregate at our 50th year reunion in six years’ time, I just know we will continue to face the future with strength, courage and good humour. When that distant day comes and if we have the privilege of returning home together, I hope to find everyone’s faces filled with lines of happiness.

My present perceptions lead me to the words of my late father who knew, perhaps, a greater truth when he advised me on my way to college. He said, “The prize, my son, lies in the struggle, not in the gain.”

Let me share his thought with you, dear readers, but altering a word or two to capture, I think, his larger view: “The prize, my friend, lies in the Becoming, not in the End.”

Glasses up, everyone — to 2017, and the Sultan Badlishah School Class of 73.

Zakie Shariff sits on the board of two local universities and has a deep interest in developing strong corporate leaders