My Say: Escaping the siege mentality

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 29, 2018 - February 04, 2018.
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The Kelantan government is reported to have admitted that the state is underdeveloped and that its laggardness is a deliberate policy choice.

Kelantan is indeed underdeveloped. Despite the well-known and widely acknowledged entrepreneurship of the Kelantanese, their state is not exactly a showcase of economic dynamism. The 2016 Household Income Survey showed the national median household income to be RM5,228 but in Kelantan, it was RM3,079 — less than 60% of the national median. This made Kelantan the poorest state in the country.

There are many measures of development but the fact that Kelantan has the lowest median household income in the country says it all.

There is nothing to romanticise about being underdeveloped and poor. The poor would certainly not choose to be or to remain poor. Poverty is not just a measure of income level. It is debilitating and dehumanising because it takes away choices, narrows horizons and induces hopelessness.

The argument that underdevelopment is deliberate as “simple kampung folks” will get left behind with development is astounding in its deceitfulness and reflective of a political leadership that is at once narcissistic and bereft of ideas. Furthermore, the prioritisation of what is deemed theocratic imperatives ahead of the general well-being and welfare of the populace betrays the trust put in them as elected leaders.

The primary objective is purely political, not economic, as is obvious from their priorities. The political narrative is to propose a “we-they” dichotomy and build a wall between the two to develop a siege mindset and form a similarly divided world view.

Indeed, there is very little that differentiates Kelantan from US President Donald Trump in their conception of how to protect the interests of their respective constituents. But they are coming from opposite ends of the economic spectrum.

The US is a developed economy with a Trumpian view that “making America great again” entails building physical and abstract walls and hunkering down while the Kelantan government does not really have much to show by way of development. Its spiel is that the outcome is a deliberate one to protect the Kelantanese from outsiders.

This siege mentality, if it becomes pervasive, will incapacitate Malaysia. Instead of confronting the challenges in front of us and addressing our shortcomings, it will breed insularity, which will threaten our national security.

People are shaped by their beliefs and they decide accordingly. Some of the poor in the US, for example, believe that becoming rich is a destiny for them and while they are still poor, they do not want to be taxed heavily when they become rich. So, they support tax cuts for the wealthy now. Some of the poor also believe that universal healthcare is tantamount to increased government involvement in their daily lives; something they believe will be an obstacle to their upward mobility. Thus, while they may be a direct beneficiary of such a policy at present, they oppose it.

It is also partially true that the poor who behave in this manner are mostly white. Some are simply averse to supporting Barack Obama and therefore the universal healthcare policy he advocates. Some see such a policy as benefiting those not as hardworking as themselves — the lazy people depending on government handouts. A sizeable proportion see public programmes as benefiting immigrants at the expense of taxpayers. Immigrants and welfare dependants are deemed non-white. So, there are racial overtones in policy decision-making and choices.

It is the same in Malaysia, although the approach differs. Here, divinity is infused into politics and a sanctimonious posture is adopted. Leaders and followers claim to be on the side of God under siege from threats from the other side of the divide. So, economic backwardness can be explained away as a temporal phenomenon while pursuing an eternal objective.

The Kelantan government, like the Trump administration, exploits the insecurities of the populace by appealing to the vulnerable side of human nature. One promises a return to national glory and the other divine salvation in the hereafter.

It is much more challenging to promise peace and prosperity for all. It is so much easier to promise candy to those craving sweetness and pickles to those craving sourness, whether or not it is good for them. The point I was making earlier is that people must be made to crave sweetness or sourness first before sugar and pickles have currency.

The authority and instruments of government are used to create these cravings rather than liberating and empowering the population through freedom and economic development. But to do that, there must be an authoritative view that everyone conforms to, thus the advocacy and imposition of a normalised world view and the divide between it and the rest of the world.

Many bureaucrats populating the burgeoning Islamic bureaucracy in Malaysia have this view of Malaysia as well. In fact, liberalism, pluralism and cosmopolitanism are antithetical to their conception of Islam, so these values are deemed a threat to Islam and must be eradicated. They are shaping the national psyche and the emerging landscape is not the one envisioned by those who fought for Merdeka and drafted the Constitution.

There is a kind of arrogance to ignorance. No knowing enough and the lack of empathy lend certainty to beliefs. It simplifies things considerably but life and living are not that simple. We are meant to work constantly at living and that is only possible if there is a certain openness to and tolerance, even an appreciation, of differences. But these are the very attributes being destroyed.

Although I have lived in many parts of the country, I happen to be Kelantan-born and I am very proud of my Kelantan heritage. Perhaps, it explains my angst about this issue. I find the failure of leadership in the state to be appalling but more than that, I find the underlying assumption about human nature to be demeaning.

We have to get out of this siege mentality and confront the challenges before us. That is how peoples and nations have progressed.

When the communists took control of China in 1949, the country had been in decline for over 100 years. The once powerful kingdom was humiliated by Western powers and was even defeated by the Japanese. The Maoist doctrine was a failure, a self-engrossed dialectic of Marxism and post-Confucius Chineseness. Deng Xiaoping took over in 1978 and unleashed a reform that negated most this insular Maoist doctrine, recognised the powers of markets and the need for foreign capital and engaging in international trade.

In the 40 years since, China has raised itself to where it once was 500 years ago. It is once again the world’s largest economy. It achieved this by acknowledging its shortcomings and embracing change by being part of it. Of course, the Chinese are also purposeful and hardworking.

The Japanese too were technologically backward and were embarrassed by the dictates of Western gunboat diplomacy in the middle of the 19th century. The Meiji Restoration removed the shogunate and pushed for reforms that made the Japanese learn from those more technologically advanced than them. By the turn of the 20th century, in less than 50 years, Japan had become an industrial and military superpower.

The Chinese and Japanese examples are in contrast to Trump’s proposed protectionist pathway for “making America great again”. The lesson here is that the parochialism that we get from the siege mentality we see in Kelantan and other parts of the country has no place in the national agenda.

The politics of pandering to fears and pretences must be rejected. It is uninspiring bad government and a poor excuse for incompetence.

Dr Nungsari Radhi is an economist and managing director of Prokhas Sdn Bhd, a Ministry of Finance advisory company. The views expressed here are his own.

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