Under a cloud
OCT 6 — It was a breezy Monday evening when I met up with an ex-schoolmate who was visiting from Los Angeles. The location was one of the trendy restaurants underneath the stunningly floodlit Petronas Twin Towers, the type of place where the decor unfortunately outshines the food and the service.
My ex-schoolmate — let’s just call him SP — had done well for himself in the corporate sector in the US and was now casting an eye on the bright lights of economic opportunity in Asia.
Gazing at the skyscrapers surrounding the KLCC park and the people gawking at the show the park’s fountains put on every night, we talked about the business possibilities in Malaysia. And then, like probably hundreds or maybe even thousands of conversations taking place over dinner between non-Malays all around the country, the talk turned to racial discrimination.
“No matter what happens, there is always this dark cloud that is hanging over Malaysia,” he said. “Look at me, I went to the US and I face less discrimination there than here! In fact, I even have protection because of my minority status.”
I liked the metaphor he used — a dark cloud — because that is really how a combination of race-based politics and race-based policies have coalesced into something akin to a dark shadow that touches almost every aspect of life here.
What was intended to be a temporary “golf handicap” type assistance to the disadvantaged had become something big, permanent and institutionalised.
And just like a permanent cloud deprives plants of the sun’s life-giving powers resulting in scraggly withered growth, life in Malaysia somehow feels less vital, less vibrant, less sophisticated, less refined, less efficient and even less secure than the more forward-looking countries of Asia.
Many of those who have the means look for ways to escape the cloud’s cover, some stopping short of migration by hedging their bets under the guise of “investing overseas.”
Inevitably, SP remarks how Singapore, without the cloud, has surpassed Malaysia.
“How can Singapore’s economy be as big or bigger than Malaysia’s,” he said. “We have land, natural resources, more people.”
Then the kicker. “I think if I come back to Asia, it will be to Singapore first,” he said. “I feel safer. Maybe after I have established myself there then I can think about investing in Malaysia.”
I tell him I think that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is quite liberal but is being held back by his own party.
Nonetheless, none of Najib’s reforms of the past three years has changed my friend’s view of the dark cloud hanging over his homeland.
Maybe it will take time. Maybe Los Angeles is too far away.
Or maybe Najib just needs to do what many have been urging — to eschew “baby steps” for “big steps”, to blow away the cloud with more “sweeping reforms” and less “policy tinkering.”
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.