Members of the older generations generally adopt a paternalistic attitude towards the younger generations when discussing the history of this country. It is true that not all of them assume that attitude but come Aug 31 and without fail, there is no escape from hearing the same old lament, especially in the media. Not to deny the importance of history, but perhaps it is exactly that disconnect from history allegedly prevalent among the younger generations that may bring this country forward.
While there are those among the younger generations who are no doubt ignorant of history, I do not fully agree with the accusation that all members of these generations are guilty as accused. The whole generalization is grossly overdone. Furthermore, even when a member of the younger generation has better knowledge of history compared to his or her older counterparts, the same paternalistic attitude prevails on the latter’s part. Why is that so?
Purely speculative of course but I suspect that it is emotional detachment of the younger generations from the old eras that the older generations lament. The young simply do not relate to the older generations’ experience. The more I think of it, the more I feel that it is not about the young’s knowledge in history.
Without making judgment, that detachment is inevitable.
Many problems besetting our society are something we inherited from the past. These are legacy issues. As Billy Joel wrote about 20 years ago, we did not start the fire; it has always been burning since the world was turning. When I use the pronoun we, I mean my generation and our peers who grew up during the information revolution, young enough to not have emotional attachment to the bogeyman that haunts Malaysian society.
There is certainly no shortage of legacy issues even when those issues which supposedly settled. For proof, look no farther than an old ghost called communism that has seen a resurrection recently. Judging by bitter responses to a suggestion to allow former Malayan Communist Party leader Chin Peng to return home from exile, especially from veterans of the security forces, old hurtful feelings obviously linger still. Time fails in healing old wounds.
For the generations that lived through the Emergency and indeed, unlucky enough to remember the gap between the last day of the Japanese Occupation and the eve of the British Military Administration in Malaya, nobody can deny their emotional attachment to that era. The attachment is far stronger if they suffered from personal loss. While the younger generations can learn history from any medium, it is hard to imagine how the same generations can grasp the same emotional connection the older generations have.
Maybe, the older generations with their personal emotional attachment to that era earned a right to assume a paternalistic attitude.
Nevertheless, the young’s emotional detachment does not always bring about a negative connotation. I am here to argue that that emotional detachment might exactly be an advantage the younger generations have to judge previous successes and mistakes objectively and to produce new paths forward for the country.
Emotional attachment of the older generations may become a liability for us all in times when progress means breaking away from the past. Strong emotional attachment may give unnecessary extra weight to historical factors at the expense of new realities. And perhaps, their emotional attachment make them hopelessly partial about their past successes and mistakes.
Consider, for instance, what I consider as an overemphasis on communism. Despite the brouhaha, how many Malaysians actually believe that the communists will take up arms in Malaysia again? Do we really need to have the police to monitor so-called communist activities?
As a steadfast believer of the right to private property, I vehemently oppose communism but surely, this scare is something irrelevant today. I personally do befriend individuals who maintain communist tendency but I do not seriously expect them to call me a capitalist pig, much less pick up a bayonet to stick it into my gut.
With all due respect, anybody who believes otherwise in these days is far too detached from reality. Concern about the communists taking up arms in Malaysia — even if Chin Peng finds himself in Malaysia — should be an issue that goes all the way down in the public priority list compared to issues of public safety, for instance. Or that lemon socialism and other possible improprieties related to the Port Klang Free Zone fiasco.
As for me, I fear robbers and murderers more than I fear the communists. In fact, I fear the odds of the police abusing private citizens are much, much higher than the chance of a Malaysia getting killed by a communist.
I find this preoccupation with threat of communism all the more ridiculous when the same groups riling against communism are blind to the central planning policies that the Barisan Nasional-led government currently runs on. Look all around and it is not hard to notice policies of price control, supply control, imposition of quotas and five-year plans. Worse, our own government has no shame in curtailing the liberty of Malaysians. A communist government would do these things anyway.
And so, we won the war against the communists for what? To exile Chin Peng only to implement policies that the communists will implement, anyway?
It does not make sense, does it?
This is what one gets if one bases his or her opposition on emotions. This is why emotional attachment is a liability. This is why the young, with their emotional detachment to that bygone era, will be able to move on to focus on issues that matter and discuss the future of this country instead.
I say move on.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on June 3 2009.