It’s a big, big interconnected world out there. And that interconnectedness, ironically, makes the world smaller is a non-physical sense. Economically, socially and politically. Our lives are no longer affected purely by domestic matters. To some, the foreign affairs segment in the newspapers is an abstraction but for some others, the lines demarcating domestic and foreign concerns are blurry.
These remain the days of globalization still, however the Trumps, the Le Pens, the Farages and all those who long for a smaller world are trying to rewind the clock. They may yet be successful but for now they have a lot to undo. In the meantime, many have multiple homes and multiple affiliations with friends traversing national boundaries, opposing such undoing and rewinding.
For Malaysians, the war in Ukraine so far away across the Asian continent painfully proves the fact foreign affairs are home affairs too. Many Malaysians could not find the country on the map, but it still has an impact on the Malaysian psyche. And Malaysians did care for development in Bosnia during the Balkan War and in Kosovo. They do care about the conflicts in Palestine, in Syria and in Iraq. And to take a trivial example, there are Malaysians who care about the fate of foreign, English Premier League teams, despite not being English themselves.
The refugee crisis in Myanmar is also a Malaysian concern, because these oppressed men, women and children are coming to or passing by Malaysia. Whether we like it or not, we have to act in one way or another. Pretending the imaginary lines on a 2-dimensional map as an impregnable wall ensuring that is not our problem will not help by one bit. And to turn back the boats is not just an illiberal policy, it is heartless.
In the several years after the 9/11 attack, I became a victim of profiling at US airports, just because of my nationality and my Arab-sounding name. Security personnel would put me under extra security measures and screening. That discouraged me from leaving the US for home for the next four years for fear I would face immigration troubles upon reentry at the airports. I knew of other international students who needed to report to the Homeland Security office regularly, and I feared being subjected to the same requirement as an entry condition.
And so, I spent my entire time as a student in Michigan travelling throughout the US, reaching New York, DC, Miami, San Francisco, St Louis, Chicago, Sioux Falls and more. I remember how it felt like to drive the car through the Great Plains from the Great Lakes, or how peaceful it was staring into the night sky from the bottom of the Tuolumne Canyon just north of Yosemite in California. I learned to love America for the wonders it brought to my young mind.
Indeed, my political beliefs to a large degree were shaped in the US. However flawed the US is with all of its hypocrisies, it is still the greatest liberal democracy that the world has. It is the Athens, the Rome, the Baghdad, the Cordoba and the Delhi of our time. Just because of that, I looked up to it. Because of this and because I spent a significant portion of my early adult life there, if I had a second home, the US would be it.
When Trump and his followers do what they do, and among others equating the US to Russia, I feel that is an undoing of what the United States of America is supposed to be in my eyes, a foreigner, who looks kindly to the east across the Pacific. Trump is killing the US that I know, and by that, threatening the idea of liberal democracy all around the world (even in Malaysia where our democracy is becoming increasingly flawed and more authoritarian). That makes me angry.
The Trump’s ban, now challenged in the courts, adds further to the anger. My alma mater, the University of Michigan, is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. And I am entertaining thoughts of returning to Ann Arbor to catch the festivities and walk down the memory lane. Trump’s ban, could potentially affect me. I still remember my experiences at various US airports during the Bush era. I thoroughly dislike the discrimination and I do not wish on others what I went through.
So, I do care for things that if happening in the US. The world is interconnected enough that I have real attachments to the US. Needless to say, I have friends in the US too.
But one does not need to have personal ties to the US to be worried about development in the US. It is just like how some of us are concerned about the oppression in Xinjiang, or in Iran, or in Egypt, or in the Philippines or anywhere else without the need to have any personal connection.
Even if we cannot think of ways which a reclusive, protectionist US could affect Malaysia — it will by the way: HSBC economists think Malaysia will be one of the top four economies to be worst affected by a protectionist US — we can still care because we have empathy for other human beings. Injustice or discrimination anywhere is still wrong and we can take a position on the matter. We can make personal judging based on our values. We have enough room for empathy those near and far beyond our shores.
Because of our capacity of empathy and because of the interconnectedness of the world we live in, it is outrageous to think we have to choose between caring US-based or Malaysia-based issues. Both are causes for concerns. I care for the deplorable things happening in the US, and at the same time, I care about the 1MDB corruption scandal, or the blockade in Kelantan, along with other injustices in the Malaysian society I am living in.
Indeed, it is a false dichotomy having to choose the US or Malaysia. There is no reason why a Malaysian needs to choose between the two. We can be concerned for both, and more.
More importantly, there are liberal values and among them are that we all are created equal and all should have the same fundamental rights. This applies all around the world, not just in and around your small neighborhood.
In time when anti-liberal populists are turning national policies inward, it will be most disappointing to have liberals retreating to a small-world cocoon as well. Such inward retreat would be a betrayal of liberal belief, that liberal values are universal in nature and not provincial. We fight racism, discrimination and everything bad out there by staying true to our liberal values, not by abandoning it.