About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

Between Where We Are And Where We Want To Be

Published in The Star newspaper, 25 March 2017.

In 1860, following the unification of Italy, one of the founders of unified Italy, Massimo d’Azeglio remarked, “Italy has been made; now it remains to make Italians.” In the same way, the concept of ‘Malaysia’ has been made since 1957, or more accurately, 1963. In the 60 or 54 years – respectively – since, have we made Malaysians?

To answer this, we must ask another difficult question – what does it mean to be a Malaysian? Is it sufficient to have been born within the national Malaysian borders? Or is it someone who delights in devouring nasi lemak or roti telur or char koey teow? Is a Malaysian someone who is fluent in the Malay language? Or someone who knows the various traditional games like Congkak or Batu Seremban or even Pepsi Cola? Or someone who values mercy over justice, or the moral right over the legal right?

If we had successfully made “Malaysians” over the course of our history, we should be able to identify unifying values or ideals that the citizenry holds fast as Malaysian. In the past, the Rukun Negara was an attempt to identify such a set of principles. Yet, if we were being truly honest, we would have to admit that the Rukun Negara is more lip service at assemblies and events than an actual set of guiding principles deeply embedded in the hearts of our citizenry. 

As such, the TN50 initiative is timely and important. In co-creating our ideal Malaysian society by 2050, it forces us to reflect on the Malaysia we want in the year 2050 which therefore necessitates us to consider our past and our present. Thus, it forces us to truly tackle the question – what does it mean to be a Malaysian today? With that, we can then tackle the TN50 question – what would it mean to be a Malaysian in 2050? The difference in our answers is the difference between where we are and where we want to be.

These are tough questions which require difficult, honest conversations. I do not have the answers necessarily, but I would venture a starting point of soul-searching as follows – Suppose, for whatever reason, humanity had to move to Mars. On Mars, with no (as yet) national borders, and no piece of land to call home, how would we and others identify ourselves as Malaysians? Perhaps our identifying feature could be, “They’re Malaysians because that’s where the best food on Mars is.” For me, I prefer our identifying feature to be, “They’re Malaysians because of that exact way they treat themselves and others.” 

Everyone will have different conceptions of the Malaysia we are now, and the Malaysia we want to be. My hope, through the TN50 initiative, is that we put it all on the table and have honest conversations with one another and begin identifying principles and values that matters most to us as Malaysians. Only then can we begin closing the gap between where we are and where we want to be. 

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