Sri Lanka S Serendipitous Lesson For Malaysia
Sri Lanka has been in the news a lot lately, though they probably wish they weren’t.
It’s never a good thing when CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera show footage of people demonstrating in the streets seeking to oust their leaders. Great testimonials for free speech perhaps, but not quite an endorsement of good governance.
I love Sri Lanka. I was there with my family in early 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic and the nightmares of lockdowns. Perhaps for that reason alone my visit looms large and happy in my mind.
A few western friends absolutely love Sri Lanka: this version of a less crowded and more chill India, with cleaner beaches and friendlier people, is very appealing and more digestible to many.
Sri Lanka is the nation that gave the world the word “serendipity”. It came from Serendip, the old Persian name of the island, a word redolent with lucky accidents and fortuitous discoveries and other happy coincidences. What’s not to like?
It’s one of my favourite words in the English language, too. Occasionally I may write an entire column just for the sake of sprinkling it here and there, quietly and judiciously – and serendipitously.
But I digress. Sri Lanka is a likely trending topic at our coffee houses and mamak stalls. I’d imagine the context would be that it is where Malaysia is heading. It’s a great topic while drinking “teh tarik” and watching Manchester United lose again.
I’m not an economist, certainly not a quant. My speciality is in offering highly opinionated, fact-free analyses. You won’t see many numbers or stats supporting my claims. Economics is truly a dismal science, and I’m happy to make it even more so.
I’ll bring my own lens on the matter, however: one I’m more familiar with, that of culture.
Not the culture of people dancing to old folk songs or weaving songket or celebrating holy festivals. Culture where it’s often just an occasion for the CEO to brag about, or at which to put politicians and cronies on the public payroll.
Rather, it’s “culture” in the sense of how any group, whether a sports team, a company, or a society, sees its world, deals with each other and outsiders, and solves common problems facing them (or not).
It’s something even the smart people in billion-dollar corporations often can’t get right. The fact that there is often a “big boss” or “minister” of culture is enough indication that they’ve no idea how to handle it, much less fix it.
The truth is that culture is bigger than just KPIs or slogans. It’s the very core of the group identity, and is often strong and resistant to changes, but often also bad or downright toxic.
Sri Lanka clearly has got their numbers wrong, whether on inflation or debts or unemployment. The country is down to its last few tens of millions of dollars in foreign reserves, and is desperately begging for help from the International Monetary Fund and China.
How does Malaysia compare? Not even close. Our numbers are better, and we’re in no danger of defaulting or going into bankruptcy. Our leaders happily cite optimistic projections, often without knowing what they’re talking about.
So, relax. No need to emigrate any time soon, and certainly not to Sri Lanka. In spite of the best (or worst) efforts by our elites to loot us, and in spite of the best (or worst) efforts by the virus to kill us, we’re still alive and kicking.
But there’s a point I’m trying to make here – which is that before the numbers go down, the culture turns bad first. Before you have the actual financial bankruptcy, you first have moral bankruptcy.
In the old days in Malaysia, while some things sucked, some things were good. The political culture of the immediate post-independence times for one was positive, progressive and optimistic.
What things sucked then? Top of the list was the racial divide. This was a creation for which we can honestly blame the British as part of their divide-and-rule, exploit-the-natives playbook.
This created major fissures and points of friction. Malaysians appeared to live harmoniously together, when in reality we just barely tolerated each other. It’s a recipe for a lot of future pain.
I certainly won’t tell you that in the old days everything was hunky-dory and everybody sat down for drinks like brothers and sisters. While such harmony did indeed exist, it was rare in much of the neglected rural areas of the country.
But regardless, we had a lot of hope and aspiration about independence, nation-building, democracy, accountability etc. We had a live-and-let-live attitude in a land blessed with so much natural bounty.
Political corruption was small and not the norm. Our schools and infrastructure, in the peninsular west coast anyway, were among the best in the region. Our civil service and judiciary shone, while the feudal side of our nation appeared to wane.
Things started to go wrong in the seventies, when stoking racial fears and the promotion of a harsh version of Islam, which focuses on rituals rather than on duty and responsibility, “ketuanan” rather than “amanah”, became the dominant political game.
The racial polarisation, the corruption, the dumbing down of society through emasculating the education system, the resurgence of feudalism and its use to exploit the masses, became well and truly entrenched.
On this slippery slope, once the slide begins, you won’t feel it unless you look outside and notice the world slipping by. Many don’t – preferring to bury their heads in the sand and didn’t notice, or perhaps didn’t care, about the looming precipice.
Malaysia still has a vigorous private sector that generates wealth, even if more and more of it is landing in fewer and fewer pockets. It gives us the mistaken impression we’re OK, and the gravy train will just continue to chug along.
But the people making the gravy are getting fed up, while those feeding off the train are getting greedier. Deep inside the greedy ones know the good times won’t last, and are grabbing anything they can as quickly as possible.
The trend is not good, if you look at some current Malaysian numbers, whether the strength of the ringgit, the growth of the gross domestic product, size of national debt, or the leakage of our revenues and expenditures to pay for people’s fancy mansions in Kensington,
Malaysia as a failed state is not something we can confidently assume won’t happen. Our children face a future that’s more pessimistic, that cares less about responsibilities and more about rights, that is less tolerant and less fair.
Once the culture goes bad, the numbers will go bad too. There may be a slight delay, but it is as certain to happen as night follows day.
That’s the serendipitous lesson from Sri Lanka, if only we care to learn it. - FMT
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.
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