Local-grown kingmakers

FEB 9 — It was something she said. So I relented to view the January 29 debate between PKR strategy chief Rafizi Ramli and Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin on YouTube.

Why not earlier, since these things don’t occur that often [1]?

Well for one reason above anything, they held it in the United Kingdom. I don’t blame the Malaysian student organisation over there for inviting these gentlemen over, however that these gentlemen felt it was fine to debate 10,000km west but not in the country, where they are actually going to become election candidates, befuddled me a fair bit.

Rafizi is eager to debate back in Kuala Lumpur or Kemaman, I’ll give him that much. It is Khairy’s reticence — probably out of keeping his political masters comfortable — which disallows the same spectacle at home. They ignored Malaysia, so I decided to ignore them. 

Being a member of the international panel of Electiondebates since 2008 — judging presidential/prime ministerial debates — it was unnatural for me to initially skip such a debate involving Malaysians.

But I had to. This is not 1957 anymore. Then, there was no university in Malaya or Borneo. A new university was just picking up steam in Singapore, and all scholars in the British dominions in the region aspired for a place in the UK. Education, higher education, meant a boat ride to the empire’s home.

Today, the hundreds of thousands of local undergraduates dwarf the number of students in the UK. So if there is to be a public debate, then local student organisations and their overbuilt campuses should have had first dibs.

Here first, before flying out. It really is not a logistical challenge for two politicians active in Malaysia, who actively issue statements daily against their respective side, to debate here before paying for flight tickets and book hotels.

Or is it that the UK students matter more, or more like they matter first? 

That enough people in PKR and Umno are convinced that those over there need to be won over more than those already here worries me.

That within all their screened statements exist the subconscious suggestion that the foreign Western graduate is the future.

It is that possible message which deterred my interest.

Bumpkins for hire

At least until yesterday, when an analyst advocated — during a closed-door session — the retention of some draconian laws to counter possible “excessive” student activism here in Malaysia.

She said that our local students lack the critical thinking to rationalise freedoms to act, organise or protest. I interjected, asking her which society deserves these basic rights but not us? I told her that as a former local undergraduate I took umbrage.

She tried to qualify, but it was clear — despite her honest intentions — that she bought the country’s gross elitism, boxing local graduates into stereotypes.

It prompted the download, and an hour plus with Rafizi and Khairy [2].

They gathered around the village campfire

The political duo and analyst did not create the reality, but they did not challenge it. The former, not in the way they debated but the way they callously disregarded the local community. 

Whatever is the prevailing intellectual level of my country — of all walks of life — is the one I must engage.

The type of conversation people have does not determine if their opinion matters. Despite it being accused as the fundamental flaw of democracy, the one-man, one-vote principle, it brings parity. That all men are equal before and despite knowing them. We live in a phase of humanity unprecedented for the distribution of rights despite the sore spots remaining.

Like the conversations had by my lads in my community in Batu 9. The challenge as mentioned above is mine to meet their engagement language. I have to sit with them and speak in a manner they can understand and respond to me.

The quality of intellectual appreciation is not the determiner.

Public debates should not be discouraged here because most are unlikely to study abroad. They should be encouraged irrespective of the perceived quality of the listener.

But if you are asking…

Though criticism is never in short supply when it comes to local graduates, a noticeable level of them is competent and the high-achievers among them exceptional.

How about debating? There are debate competitions in the university circuit here every other week on average. The circuit here is frequented by teams from Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Things have changed in the country, with the main chunk of white-collar workers having graduated locally. They do not like being ignored. Of course they looked forward to a rare political debate, but they must have been aggrieved that a venue with them present is seen to be inappropriate.

The whole episode draws out the continued erroneous framing of Malaysian political realities.

Political players have to learn to engage first the larger locally-educated masses who are becoming far less forgiving than before, and political pundits have to respect the thinking of the same demographic without demanding for them to meet an arbitrary expired ideal.

[1] Debates involving politicians are not common place since the ruling Barisan Nasional politicians generally refuse to debate. However, the opposition parties share some blame since they too never have direct debates between candidates prior to party elections. 

[2] Incidentally, both finished their first degree in the UK.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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