It’s December 2016 in Manila’s tech-hub, Bonifacio Global City.
People are having brunch at Wildflour – a hip cafe-cum-breakfast joint – before facing the daily grind. Someone in the crowd returns ashen-faced from the money changers: “The ringgit has fallen 10 per cent against the Philippine peso.”
The others chip in:
“Yeah it’s really dropped against the rupiah.”
“... and the dong!”
There’s a moment of silence as the information seeps in.
“Times are bad. Everyone’s complaining in Kuala Lumpur.”
Fast-forward to this year’s Hari Raya Aidilfitri (the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, and the financial situation seems to have changed. The ringgit has become one of region’s best-performing currencies – exactly 20 years since the Asian financial crisis.
Raya is also a time for contemplation. But this year’s festivities seem particularly subdued.
Despite the currency rebound, Malaysians are struggling with rising prices, new taxes, a stuttering economy and an unending series of scandals.
One can’t help but be overcome by a sense of deja vu. Certainly, Malaysian public life is little changed.
Almost 50 years ago a man called Mahathir Mohamad needled the elites, accusing them of corruption and mismanagement – leading in turn to the then premier Tunku Abdul Rahman’s downfall. Twenty years ago, as prime minister, he fought off the world’s financial markets and his ambitious deputy. Today, he’s still strutting the stage, conveniently forgetting the nearly 23 years he spent as the nation’s leader undermining competing institutions – from parliament to the judiciary to the police.
And the mood in Kuala Lumpur?
For all the new-fangled MRT lines (with stations seemingly in the middle of nowhere), the dynamic skyline and proliferating toll roads, the mood is surly, with everyone complaining about food prices. The Raya feasts – the traditional selection of rendang, lemang and other delicacies – appear more modest, although the generosity and hospitality of Malaysians remains strong.
Everything feels pinched, less exuberant.
It’s not just the allegations regarding 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and the political fortunes of Prime Minister Najib Razak that are preoccupying people. There are sighs and recriminations whenever talk turns to the ringgit.
The idea that it’s the best-performing currency in the region is quickly dismissed, perhaps because prices that were hiked on account of the depreciation haven’t been readjusted.
It’s as if people are refusing to look on the bright side. There is a resolute negativity seizing the national mood, reinforced by a series of high-profile murder cases, young men fatally beaten by mobs for their alleged criminality or lack of masculinity.
Yet the 1980s were not a golden era. They were, however, a time of hope, of great expectations.
Journalists worked under severe restrictions. They witnessed corruption and abuse of power. They couldn’t write about certain things and the elite lived separate, privileged lives.
But despite all that, everyone was excited by the prospect of what the future would bring.
The middle classes were satisfied with the Malaysian trade-off: everything was growing so fast domestically that the curbs of personal and political freedoms were a small price to pay for the prosperity.
It seems no one shares this outlook today. What has gone wrong?
Malaysians are facing an optimism deficit. In the past, they felt that things would and could get better. Today, they know this may not be the case.
Malaysia had long been a country of the future – offering its great wealth and vast natural resources to its people. But now, Malaysians are baffled by how things have turned out.
They expected so much and yet at every corner, there are more disappointments.
It is true that they are better educated, live longer and are more prosperous compared to past generations. But that’s old news: their neighbours have outstripped them.
Jobs are scarce and Malaysia is not producing young workers who can compete regionally, much less globally. The youth are facing a lifetime of debt and poor prospects.
Malaysians are surrounded by leaders who are rash, impetuous, uncivilised and dishonest.
Our politics seems to be in an endless loop with the same names and issues. There is impatience and disillusionment with even the limited, nascent democracy we have.
What has happened?
Economic growth has not made Malaysia more equal or happier. The marvels of smartphones and social media have not made them more interconnected and tolerant.
Indeed, they seem have lost their sense of purpose, of a grand national narrative to bring us together.
Numbers can be pulled out that show improvements have been made. But things don’t feel better, and at the end of the day, that is what counts.
You cannot govern without taking sentiment into account, as the liberals of the West discovered last year. It’s as if they’ve lost their way.
They’ve squandered years of easy “catch-up” growth.
The next stage, with its emphasis on innovation and creativity, is going to be much harder to achieve.
Succeeding with these challenges requires Malaysians to respect education, knowledge and professionalism – things that seem to have been tossed out long ago.