Last week, there was this commentary in The Straits Times by Singapore Ambassador-at-large and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Policy Advisor Bilahari Kausikan that ruffled more than a few feathers among our friends across the causeway:
We also shared the views of the folks whose feathers were ruffled (i.e. Malaysian opposition member of parliament Tony Pua):
After hearing from Pua, who said Bilahari made Singapore look like "the mercenary prick of Southeast Asia", Bilahari responded on his own Facebook page, saying:
days ago I wrote an article on Malaysia that elicited a rather rude but not entirely coherent response from a DAP...
Meanwhile, Malaysian veteran opposition politician Lim Kit Siang threw himself into the fray in this Rakyat Post story:
But all that said and done, this academic and political analyst appears to have a pretty sensible and well-reasoned response to Bilahari's piece — Danny Quah is an Economics and International Development professor at the London School of Economics, and his views are pretty well-respected among Malaysians. Here's the gist of what he said:
- Bilahari adopts a realist argument (that it's not the State's job to look out for the well-being of people elsewhere), which is easy to defend.
- While Malaysians deal with numerous daily issues, Bilahari pins them down to religion, and by extension, race.
"The situation in Malaysia is one where people deal, every day, with bread and butter issues like escalating corruption, criminal malfeasance, rising extreme poverty, widening income disparities, and a failure in national governance. In the midst of this wide array of social problems, the writer points to… religion. Such a diversionary tactic, long practised by power elites everywhere, puts blame elsewhere than where the problem genuinely rests."
- Bilahari's piece dismisses the efforts Malaysians in numerous quarters have taken in their collective fight for a more transparent government and zero tolerance for corruption, things Singapore takes pride in too.
None of these, according to the Singapore Straits Times article, matters. That essay ignores all the positive change happening, and constructs a narrative built on how it is, instead, religion and by implication race driving the Malaysian political landscape.
- If people in Singapore subscribed to Bilahari's assertion that their hopes of a country with clean, transparent, corruption-free governance were delusion, the country as we have it now wouldn't exist.
To me this Singapore Straits Times article is not striking for its raw, naked Realism. What is notable about it is how a seasoned, wise, and supremely talented political observer such as its author fails to acknowledge the universal aspirations of Malaysia’s citizens, but instead sees only the obvious surface tensions in that country. In the relentless rush of Realist discourse, he ends up articulating a narrative no deeper than what power elites have, for decades now, wanted ordinary people to believe.
Since Quah comes in peace (he calls Bilahari "a seasoned, wise, and supremely talented political observer"), Bilahari might want to switch his focus and engage this academic instead.
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