I think I am well-exposed to foreigners’ opinions about Malaysia beyond the editorial stance of various foreign newspapers. I have friends of diverse national origins and I work for a global organization where many of my colleagues are not Malaysians. I keep in touch with them regularly and so I get to learn of their personal and professional views about the country.
Everybody has an opinion. But do they know Malaysia?
They might be able to tell you where it is on the map. They would know the Petronas Twin Towers. They might know who Mahathir Mohamad or Anwar Ibrahim is.
But if you dig a little deeper you will realize most of them usually do not track our news closely.
Sure, they would remember reading some odd news like how naked hikers supposedly angered the spirits up on Mount Kinabalu. Sometimes, some third-rated politicians — even ministers — would say the darnedest thing and make it to the news.
These friends and colleagues would turn these trivial snapshots of Malaysian life into joking jabs at me. I would not protest too much as these embarrassing episodes would pass quickly. These kinds of news are light reading of no real consequence written to amuse the world on a slow news day.
But something more serious and lasting is hogging the headlines of some of the world’s finest newspapers in the past few months. Our prime minister and his troubled brainchild 1MDB are regularly mentioned in the context of corruption and power abuse across the world. As the prime minister’s reputation is left in tatters, so too is Malaysia’s.
Foreigners are becoming more aware of the grave trouble besetting Malaysia. A London colleague told me his unsophisticated English mother living all the way up north in Newcastle had begun asking about 1MDB and Najib. That is a sign of how widely known the corruption scandal is.
My friends from abroad have also begun asking me about the situation here. The questions asked make me feel ashamed of being a Malaysian.
Not too long ago, I always felt a little bit proud talking about Malaysia. We have achieved so much over the years. I sensed a kind of economic optimism that might even match the 1990s boom years. Socially, politically and economically, I felt we were almost there with the challenges ahead of us very surmountable. As a member of that generation who sang the song Wawasan 2020 at the top of our lungs every Monday morning during our school assembly, ”there” was well within our lifetime.
Sadly, that optimism is fading fast. Whenever I talk about Malaysia today, it is no longer about that country on the cusp of something grander. Instead, I feel like I am referring to a Third World country with its Third World regime where power abuse is common and might is right.
At one time, it was the in-thing for government supporters to say that Malaysia was better than many Third World countries and we should be grateful for that. The joke now is we are directly comparable to some corrupt Third World regime out there.
The joke hurts because it is true in a substantive way. All those joking jabs are no longer petty. It saps our pride away.
I know who to blame for that. I put the blame squarely on the prime minister and 1MDB. They are an acute source of embarrassment for me.