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The national pastime of anticipation

  • Anticipation and disappointment are ultimately on two sides of the same coin.

By Mark Chan

We Malaysians know better than most about the understated game of anticipation. From our earliest days, we have been conditioned to await the innumerable wonders that a new Malaysia will bring us – be it the technocratic and egalitarian future heralded in 'Keranamu Malaysia', big money in Mahathir's imagined 2020, the hopes of an undivided, stronger society after May 13, or the simple notion of being better people with each passing day.

As a young Malaysian, it is humbling to think that our sincere aspirations for a better homeland echo the same, albeit distant, idealism felt in the days following Merdeka. To me, the halcyon days of Malaysia right after Merdeka remain the imagined realm where our hopes today connect with our shared past as a people.

And indeed, in every sense of the word, I cannot help but imagine. Like other young Malaysians, I am left to reflect on a past which I did not experience, but which has colored the Malaysian story of want and wait. I am captured by the thought of how pioneer Malaysians must have played the game of anticipation – the adventure of growing up with a nation and sharing the potentiality of a great, unknown future.

To revisit our past histories is to reconstruct the anticipated and the anticipator. Reconciling a history of Malaysian desires is irresistibly political, filled with memories made anywhere from old Kuala Lumpur salons to quiet estate roads. At least we remain united by inherited memories of the evocatively visceral – elder histories of toil; sweet desserts made from unwritten family recipes; the crackling sound of evening shortwave radio from a neighbor's home.

Yet, for youth today, the greatest foil to believing that Malaysia will be a better nation is having to admit that we are somehow incomplete – that we are “not there yet”. Our rulers have led us to internalize the cold lexicon of Wawasan 2020, the middle-income gap, competitiveness rankings and PISA scores. Our peers and family members, meanwhile, cannot help but blame the indignities of everyday life on a pathologically dysfunctional society.

Here, the problem is not that Malaysia still has outstanding development goals per se, but that a sense of incompleteness has become a fixture in our collective state of mind. For a country so apparently determined to actualize its best self, there is little agreement on the point at which we have “made it”. The metrics for functional democracy and religious freedom change incessantly for the sake of political exigencies; and while some may place the temporal goalpost at 2020, the year 2050 has now come into vogue.

It seems as if our contested histories have come back to bite us. At a fundamental level, we remain undecided on our nation's modern raison d'être. I am reminded of historian Ayesha Jalal's thesis in 'The Struggle for Pakistan'; Jalal points out that while Pakistan was founded as a nation for Muslim belonging and social justice, the secession of Bangladesh and a growing Indian Muslim population came to challenge Pakistan's founding ideals. Evidently, societies cannot solely answer their existential questions by perennially deferring to their founders.

Anticipation and disappointment are ultimately on two sides of the same coin. Living in a nation of perpetual renovation means that we constantly reinvent the hopes of our pioneer generations – at the cost of our sense of belonging and achievement. But unlike the generations before them, youth remain under the gaze of authority which can accuse them of naivety and irrelevance. The answer to our dilemma cannot be to wait in contented anticipation, but to recount and reflect on our history – and histories – as a people. It is only with such introspection that we can be the true judges of our national and personal fulfilment.

(Mark Chan reads Sin Chew Daily. His Twitter handle is @themarkchan)


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