A trauma can make or break a person. It can make or break a generation too.
In an inconspicuous house in Bangsar, a group of individuals belonging to the generation that I identify myself with has been meeting consistently for the past few weeks. There is only one agenda in their list and it revolves around a very global issue of climate change. They endeavor to spread awareness of it among Malaysian youth. More ambitiously, they seek to influence national policy on climate change.
The idea for doing so began modestly and very much fueled by conviction to a cause. Friends and strangers met and discovered that they share a passion. With that passion, they banded together to act. They started making calls and sending emails looking for support among larger circles of friends to garner resources required to get the ball rolling.
Climate change was an issue close to my heart. A number of factors prodded me into the realm of economics and climate change, out of several, was one of them. It was back in the late 1990s when I was still a teenager that I found myself attracted to a concept where a person could trade carbon as currency. With no training in economics whatsoever at that time, it was easy for me to be amazed at it.
The concept — pricing carbon to combat negative externality — and many more ideas surrounding the issue are not alien to me any longer. Just as understanding of physical sciences inevitably render what conceived as magic and supernatural events by the unenlightened into dull phenomena, so too does command of economics wash away my awe.
Ironic as it may seem, economics has made me less enthusiastic with the subject. The tools of economics have made me realize how hard it is to solve the issue. Meanwhile, the politics of climate change simply makes it impossible. Just weeks earlier, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd admitted that the odds of success at the much-anticipated climate change meet-up in Copenhagen, Denmark are bleak and rightly so.
Yet, there they are in Bangsar, speaking so passionately about the issue, trying to affect and effect it. A row of ants standing in the path of an elephant, as I first saw it.
I am tempted to be skeptical about they can achieve, especially given the reality of climate change politics.
Each time I want to express my skepticism however, my mind races back in time to the day of my graduation. Amid melancholic mood, uncertain of what the world holds for me, the President of my alma mater, Mrs. Coleman, inspired me. She said, ””¦stand up for what you believe in, and what is right. You just might change course of events for the better.”
This is a hallmark of an idealist.
A friend of mine jokingly called the group in Bangsar as the Planeteers; remember the cartoon?
Jokes asides, these Planeteers are but an example of idealists that make-up this generation of below 30s.
Another group of friends is working hard to share educational opportunities that exist in the United States with students in Malaysia. They are out that to smash the myth that gaining admission into the best schools is either impossible or expensive or both. They are already in those schools and they are inspiring others to be ambitious, just as they had. Together, they hold an ideal that Malaysians should have access to not just basic education but fulfilling education that many in my circles strongly believe that the Malaysian system is simply unable to provide, for various reasons.
Yet another set of brilliant cohorts with sterling education joined politics in drove as interns and assistants to politicians whose ideals they share. And they too, signed up of conviction, not out of power. There is a dangerous of generalization here for surely, in every generation, they are dishonest individuals out mere to acquire power. That seem irrelevant to my circles of friends. In their eyes, I see a cause.
This surprises me greatly. For a generation condemned by others as highly disinterested in politics and societal issues at large, and only out and about listening to unbearable noise on their iPod and out large at night in roaming the city, the manner at which they have come in to shape politics is one big finger to such condescending generalization.
A common criticism directed against idealists is that they are still young and naÃ¯ve. The real world, sooner or later, will break them. This generation of mine, or at least my circles, in a trend so overwhelming like a 50-meter tall wave to a sampan, is different. They are a different kind of idealists where that criticism is a knife to a hard stone.
These idealists recognize harsh reality. Contrary to typical characterization of an idealist, these idealists found their ideals out of disappointment and out of that disappointment, a call to activism.
They have been all over the world. They witnessed it, made judgment about it, made comparison out of it. And they are disillusioned with Malaysia.
They were angry at everything that is true. All promises were broken and they are posed to inherit a broken country with disrepute institutions, diminished national pride and worsening race relations. While the older generations tend to dismiss this generation as unappreciative of past sacrifices, this new breed of idealist activists see that the older generations have failed them.
What else can so comprehensively explain why the nation’s youth, in an unambiguous manner, voted against the establishment in 2008?
The disillusionment is traumatic, but it has hardened, not broken, them.
Rather than consoling themselves, they decide to not tweak their ideals, but almost outrageously go out to tweak reality. They endeavor to close the gap between ideals and reality, to improve the lamentable state that we Malaysians are in.
Perhaps, these circles of mine sit in the outlier and overly privileged in their upbringing. After all, not too many attended the likes of Harvard, Dartmouth, Colby, Berkeley — and, ahem, Michigan — among others.
But experience tells me that outliers exude contagious confidence. The arithmetic mean is susceptible to outliers.
Such confidence is bound for greatness. It is individual confidence that no longer dependent on the State or the community. They are, by themselves, individually, a whole army.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on August 11 2009.