September 2, 2013
Can the Third Generation save Malaysia?
By Rehman Rashid@http://www.themalaysianinisder.com
It is called the “Third-Generation Curse”, and it is known to every emigrant family in a world now built on them as much as by them. The first generation begins with nothing and makes something of it; the second generation builds on that to create an institution; the third blows it all away.
Survive the Third-Generation Curse, the patriarchs tell their scions, and you are set, not just for your life but those of our descendants, and our ancestors shall smile upon you. If not, scavengers will pick through the rubble of our ruined house and having our name expunged from history would be a mercy.
“British Malaya” patently failed to survive its own 3G Curse, and out of the rubble of colonialism Malaysia’s first generation assembled a working model of self-governance for a hopelessly divided polity: to each of us our own house, with each of our heads of household mandated to deal with the others in a Council of Elders.
It was a realistic model for the time, working with rooted socio-economic realities and disdaining the revolutionary, year-zero, blank-slate, non-aligned thinking rampant in the post-colonial world of the 1950s. It was a grand enough achievement for Malaysia’s Gen1 to have attained Independence by common consensus, courtly handshakes and a parade of feathered hats, with the bloodshed confined to beating down Communism. It was left to Gen2 to deal with the ensuing chaos.
For the unifying momentum of Independence itself hardly lasted beyond the reverberations of founding prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s triumphant proclamation in Stadium Merdeka on August 31, 1957.
Within three years he was overseeing the peninsula’s incorporation with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak in “Malaysia”.
By the 1964 general election, Singapore’s then chief minister Lee Kuan Yew had coined the phrase “Malaysian Malaysia”, and the battle lines were drawn on whether this was to be governed as an “aracial” or a “Malay” nation.
Singapore’s swift and summary expulsion from the federation thereafter did nothing to forestall the racial clashes of the 1969 general election – indeed, it did much to precipitate them.
Although the proportion of Chinese Malaysians dropped from nearly half to less than a third without Singapore and with the indigenes of Sabah and Sarawak designated “Bumiputera”, that schism has not only persisted but deepened into something eerily like a national culture.
Malaysia’s second generation will forever be branded the “NEP generation”, after the New Economic Policy under which they had to grow. Gen2 was incubated by Gen1 as an economic solution to their nation’s political problems.
The NEP specifically targeted them and only them – it was instituted in 1970 and meant to hold the fort for 20 years, or just long enough to boost into play a single generation of educated and worldly new Malay or Bumiputera technocrats, administrators and entrepreneurs.
After having had to hold that fort for twice as long as they had expected, however, many inmates had come to consider it indistinguishable from a prison.
For by the time the NEP was due to expire, it had been taken over and turned into a roaring tiger of national development by the singular administration of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Even by 1990, that tiger had become all but impossible to dismount. Under Mahathir’s command, it became a beast of national burden.Today it is old and frail, though even more intransigent and cantankerous in infirmity.
As race-based parties in senescence grow ever more beholden to their lunatic fringes, the hoary old communalism institutionalised by Gen1 looks ludicrously unlike the nation any of its present constituents would wish it to be.
Communalism has become confining, limiting and stultifying, and Malaysia’s third generation is fleeing the fortress, leaving the fulminants within to the comfort zones of their preferred world-views.
Gen3’s world is simultaneously wired up and wireless; real and ethereal. They are mobile and worldwide. Born of Gen2, they do not remember Gen1, knowing only the Malaysia that began with the New Economic Policy and the Mahathir Administration.
A Malaysian citizen born on the day Dr Mahathir assumed top office would have been of voting age when he stepped down. This amounted to a revolution deeper and more transformative than the otherwise pivotal race riots following the 1969 general election, the nation’s third.
Now, after 10 more such exercises – and with the 12th and 13th having again delivered the fateful verdict of the 3rd by removing both the ruling party’s simple majority of the popular vote as well as its two-thirds majority of parliament – Malaysian politics is in the throes of a makeover.
Token efforts are being made at maintaining the facades of yore, but they ring ever more hollow. While the creaky old political buses try to pimp up for new passengers, the skies are thick with multitudes of low-cost carriers flying in all directions on the antigravity devices of modern media.
The dazzle and noise of it all may drown out the very particular message Gen3 is sending out – now in rap, song, text, status update and viral tweet, but it is the self-same message Gen1 knew, heard, and anticipated at the outset: this may be one nation but it comprises many peoples, each with an equal right to be here and a growing determination to exercise it.
But Malaysia’s Children of the Third Generation now reveal what divided polities grow into. They are now separated so widely as to make “equal” a meaningless concept.
Half a century of communal politics, vernacular education and deliberately discrete socio-economic management did not bring home that message as literally and decisively as youths barely out of their teens singing out their truths on YouTube and Facebook.
Certainly, Gen2 did what it was supposed to do, building on their predecessor’s successes and failures alike to make of Malaysia what it is today.
Now it is down to Gen3, either to break the Third-Generation Curse and keep this going in its present form, or call a curse a blessing, “embrace change”, tear it all down and start over as the next Gen1.
Either way, Malaysia has always been and will always have to be a mansion of many rooms. We will be needing many more in the next 50 years. – September 2, 2013.
* Rehman Rashid is a veteran journalist and author of “A Malaysian Journey”.