As an expatriate living “in the tropics”, I receive messages from friends in cooler parts of the world. Often, they are tinged with open envy. How lucky you are, they say. You live in a country where it’s always summer, there are beaches and palm trees waving in the breeze. And you have the Twin Towers, the LRT and all those wonderful eating places: best choice on the planet, they add as they fly from KLIA.
The perfect travel destination, a balmy vacation centre: 365 days a year.
They’re right, of course.
However, on one or two occasions, I have been put on the defensive about this often-beautiful land. I recall in April, 2002, a friend spent a few days on stop-over in Kuala Lumpur.
A renowned psychologist, Dr Gerard Hoffman (not his real name) did the tourist thing every time he came to Malaysia: Penang, Melacca, KL. He hmmed and aahed, and shared my joy over the variety of makan (Malay for food) and the Indian, Chinese and Malay ways of living and enjoying everyday life.
Hoffman viewed the gleaming towers in the capital city and asked to hear my understanding of Vision 2020, which is the country’s plan to be fully developed by the year 2020.
While at an outside food stall under a large twisted ancient tree, in view of Petronas Twin Towers, and relaxing over a nescafe tarik (coffee with condensed milk which has been poured back and forth until frothy), I explained my perceptions of the plan for Malaysia to be a first world nation by 2020. His gaze became serious as I talked of knowledge workers, cyber centres and technology adoption. I asked what was wrong.
As he talked, I wrote his points down in my PDA (which, at the time was a Psion Revo for those who like know such things). The gist included the following:
<!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>Economic benchmarks are relatively easy to achieve; a first world nation needs to do far more.
<!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>It is easier to measure a developed nation by the behavioural effects achieved through knowledge & education, legislature, public services, enforcement, media and the arts: how do citizens treat each other right now?
<!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>And what needs to be changed.
He went on to detail what he saw as the considerable gaps he had noted in many fields, the above list is not exhaustive. I advised him to write a book on the subject, there was simply too much for a brief comment piece.
Some variations of Hoffman’s reflections and views have been occasionally voiced to me by others who live here, happy to find in me the listening ear of a foreign correspondent.
“A developed nation encourages its citizens to behave with simple kindness; why? – because it pays dividends,” Hoffman continued.
We do first need to clearly define what it means to be a developed nation. In today’s flattened world, the standards set must be the best possible, he ended.
Whatever the definitions, you and I have to first become the change we want. As this country reaches upward, its roots need to be weeded, clarified and wisely tended: we use past positives to build a place on a large, flat, brightly illuminated stage, where all details are magnified a thousandfold – and difficult to hide.
Yet, everything is possible. I look forward to the great things this country can achieve in coming years.
– 7 July, 2007. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,