The Malaise of the Pessimists

If diversity is defined along the lines of race and belief, it is just fitting to call this place the most diverse nation in the world. We are a nation that, nearly half a century after its inception (yes, Malaysia was formed in 1963 not 1957), still grapples with the fact that we are composed of the people so diverse that whatever decisions made by not only our government, but also our people, are defined by our inherent diversity. Perhaps sickened by having to live in such a heterogenous society (many Malaysians decry not being born in a homogenous nation-state like, say, Denmark, where everyone is ethnically, linguistically and culturally Danish), our people have started to carve thin but visible lines to delineate things that are mine and yours. Like a lion fiercely guarding his territory, the different races in Malaysia have tried their hardest to defend whatever rights they think are theirs. Our schools must teach Science and Mathematics in Our native language, echoes a man hell-bent towards preserving what is left of the right of his people to be educated in their mother tongue. Because the said right is more important, who cares about putting the pupils into a single, unified school where they can intermingle? We are Muslim and this is an Islamic country echoes another Malaysian whose main concern is about his co-religionists’ right to be protected from reading certain books which contain non-mainstream religious ideas. Who cares about the country’s ever-growing inter-faith divides as long as these people are satisfied?

With the people fighting for their respective community’s rights, what have been left of the country? We are left with a country where different people have different expectations on how the government should treat them. While the French have their Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite concept as a guiding principle of the type of nation France should eventually turn into, in Malaysia we have a melange of different aspirations, some similar, some very different. Add contradictions into the equation and voila, we end up getting a concoction of expectations nobody is able to fulfil. A nation of unfilled expectations is a nation of unhappy people. Unhappiness, however, when kept for a long time leads to a feeling of hopelessness, and in Malaysia this feeling breeds something rather destructive: pessimism bordering on nihilism.

Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work compares the human intellect to a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulder of the blind giant of Will, explicitly states that the pessimistic people can never be fully satisfied. This exactly explains the reason why Malaysians, after enjoying years of healthy economic growth and relative prosperity, still feel deeply unhappy. Very few Malaysians nowadays suffer from having to live the penurious existence prevalent in many other relatively young nations in the Third World, but our pessimistic point of view means that whatever material comfort that we are currently enjoying is just like a speck of dust: its being there is without much significance.

With many Malaysians growing disenchanted with how their collective aspirations are not fulfilled, many of them retreat to considering only their aspiration as the only thing that matters. This produces a society of individuals whose personal interest is the only issue that matters to them. Call this a selfish society, but this is what Malaysians have turned into. Many Malaysians seek respite from their bouts of disappointment by working round the clock to afford a pad at Mont Kiara and the prestigious WWW plate number. Ironically, the individualism seen here goes parallel with the increasing influence of religion in our daily lives. Many Malaysians, cocooned in their own sphere of private lives and individual interest, turn to God for they have lost faith in having human being, the government included, to help them out of their individual struggle. This is the status quo of the day. Gone are the days of weekly gotong-royong; this is a different society than it was when our Independence was still at its nascent stage, when optimism prevailed.

Our refusal to see changes also means that Malaysians are easy to be indoctrinated: their point of view, if they have any, is nothing but transient; they are not likely to accept new ideas and think beyond their normal grasp. This explains the existence of two contrasting camps within Malaysian media: the mainstream media and the alternative media, each printing news and articles tailor-written to satisfy people from each side of the political divide who only want to read what they want and hear what they expect to hear. Benefits of the doubt is non-existent. We like to be indoctrinated, and we will eventually indoctrinate others in the future. Vilification of people, fellow Malaysians, who decide to be politically centrist or different, is rife. Again, this is our status quo.

History has shown that there will always be a degree of resistance every time a status quo is being challenged. People, from neo-progressives to traditionalists, will always be keen to only stick to what is familiar to them. This is the reason why when PEMANDU is working on the transformation program the people have their reservations. The organization, whose raison d’etre is to, yes, transform the nation, is accused of being useless, a sheer waste of public fund, and the puppet of the government. This is because Malaysians are not used to the idea that real, positive changes, are possible. Pessimistic Malaysians, as they hold on tightly to the idea of positive changes being elusive, also don’t harbor much hope in our democracy, which is reflected by the millions of Malaysians who have yet to register to vote. When a group of citizens fight to have clean elections in the country, many Malaysians hurl unsavory accusations, with some calling the leader of the movement a traitor. Some even want her to be hanged. While the means used by the organization to achieve their objective may be questionable, it is definitely bizarre to think that a sane, rational citizen would want to go against having free, clean, fraud-free elections. Having said all that, we, Malaysians are not universally destructive. We tend to be self-destructive, instead. After all, most of us applaud the political changes and the democratization of the Arab world as seen recently. So engrossed we are with our self-hatred in the sense that we are happy when good changes happen to others while we deprive ourselves of the rights to such.

Pessimism is, indeed, the biggest problem plaguing Malaysia of today. How is this to be countered remains to be seen, but a shame it is if this makes Malaysians overlook the many good things there are in life just because of this. Just like K in Kafka’s magnum opus ‘The Trial’ who, upon losing all hope and contracting the disease of pessimism, says that he feels ‘like a dog” as he waits for his death. We, Malaysians, are more dignified than that, so let’s cast the pessimism away and do something.

FH

Sweatshops: Savior or Slavery?

Consider this situation: Jack earns AUD3500 a month. He doesn’t go shopping much: let’s say he purchases on average two shirts every month. With each shirt costing around AUD30, spending AUD60, which corresponds to less than 2% of his monthly income, every month on these shirts is far from burning a hole in his pocket. This, 2 shirts a month, is a rather conservative figure, and most of the people I know have the habit of shopping for items they only get to wear once or twice. Let’s face it; if you live in a developed country chances are that you’re spoiled. This is the golden age for the middle class. Consumer items are cheap, so why bother keeping an eye on your consumption anyway?

Globalization is very much our saving grace today. How do you fill the many shelves in our local department store? You source the items from all over the world. By all over the world, we’re talking about many different companies competing with each other to stay relevant. They compete for some space on the store’s shelves. Competitive (read: low) pricing is necessary here. As competition stiffened and the cost of production in the traditionally vibrant manufacturing belts in their home countries became prohibitive, the companies started to take advantage of the huge pool of cheap labor in the Third World countries. Sweatshops mushroomed in South Korea and Taiwan in the 60s, and they are now an inescapable feature in China, Thailand and even the poorer Cambodia and Bangladesh, to name a few. Sweatshops are notorious for the precarious working conditions the workers have to work in; accidents aren’t uncommon and wages are a fraction of that earned by the workers in the West. They are defined by social activists Charles Booth and Sidney and Beatrice Webb as a variety of labour environments all containing these two essential elements: hard or excessive work and contracting.

This leads to many anti-globalization activists to say that the prosperous First World lifestyle consumers in the West are currently enjoying is actually built upon the fact that the rest of the World are actually poor, and with this, easily manipulated. Sweatshops are alleged as a tool of the rich’s manipulation of the poor. Some go to the length of calling it reminiscent to modern-day slavery. Rising wages seen in China and several other countries where many sweatshops have for years thrived however raises a new concern among economists of how the developed world will need to adapt to paying more in the future for what they use. Is our dependence on cheap merchandises produced in these countries sustainable?

Another big question remains: Is using products manufactured at sweatshops morally ethical?

I personally think that it’s okay to do so. It’s perfectly fine to shop at IKEA or wear an Abercrombie & Fitch sweater. While the working conditions at sweatshops are admittedly bad by international standards, a job at one of those establishments is considered an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children (Kristof, 2009). Just imagine this scenario: failing crops forced a Cambodian peasant out of his land to the city. He has no money, no job, no prospects. Contrary to what is the norm in the developed nations, he receives no doles or welfare benefits from the government, so his daily life is a struggle. His insufficiency revolves around everything basic; food, shelter, clean water. A job at a sweatshop paying USD40 a month (in 2000 dollar) will not only greatly improve his living standards, it is a life-saver. It keeps him away from hunger and the feeling of helplessness. It is also to be noted that USD40 goes a long way in a country like Cambodia. Putting it into PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) term, USD40 in Phnom Penh actually buys USD100 worth of items; as miniscule as it sounds to us, many Cambodians will be very grateful to be paid that much. With some extra cash he can even send his children to school and the cycle of poverty that has been running in the family for many generations will finally end one day as a result.

Historically, industrialized nations went through the sweatshop phase when their modern economic base was still at its infancy. Sweatshops were present in England during the first few decades following the advent of the Industrial Revolution. These establishments also thrived near at New York’s Lower East Side between 1850s to 1900s.

However, the biggest success story of previously sweatshop-dependent economies are to be found in East Asia. South Korea didn’t start up big; they didn’t magically start producing Samsung electronics and Hyundai cars and turn rich overnight. They started small. The country was known in the 60s to produce cheap apparels, shoes and other consumer items. Much of its exports as the country was industrializing rapidly in the 60s and 70s were produced in sweatshops where labor law was nearly nonexistent and wages were low. The Sweatshop belt, which refers to a region spanning from South Korea to Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, is today one of the most economically vibrant regions in the world. The Asian tigers and tiger cubs have had years of solid economic growth- their GDP per capita doubled every 10 years. These countries have benefited from years of fast industrialization backed by a relatively lax labor law, low wages and export-led growth. As the society became more industrialized and the people became more educated these economies drifted further from the sweatshop economy and started to foray into heavy industry and higher value-added sectors. South Korea and Taiwan are no longer known for their sweatshops today. They are instead known for their high-quality products and their high standard of living; an average worker in South Korea earns more than his friend in Spain does, with a much lower unemployment rate than the rest of the industrialized world.

With the success of the Asian economies, it should make more sense now to the international community that trade and industrialization are actually better means of bettering a country’s fortune than Live Aid. Sub-Saharan Africa, which has been receiving aids from the rest of the world for many decades might actually be better off if the donor countries were to focus on building factories and training the local people instead. After all, both parties will benefit from this: the producers will be able to produce things cheaply, and the locals can finally enjoy a quantum leap in their standard of living. This should actually be the next agenda of any aid agencies of the world: to replicate the success of a labor intensive industries in Asia in Africa.

So, if you have any qualms about buying one of those cheap ‘Made in Bangladesh’ sweatshirts at Big W out of fear of supporting something so ethically incorrect, feel bad no more. By buying goods from the developing countries, you are not only helping the workers sustain their living, you are also helping a poor country make its first few baby steps towards a better economic future.

Rather than plaguing-up the economies, sweatshops actually help build-up economies.

My Personal Regret

Disclaimer: This post is not meant to vilify any party, Petronas included. This is based on my own personal experience. I still have Petronas to thank for whatever contributions they have made for me, especially for the past five years.

 

I would be lying if I told any of you that I didn’t have any regrets about the very decision that I made five years ago. It was the end of 2006. I was in the fifth form, scoring good grades and all. I was excited; with good grades came good scholarship offers et cetera. I applied for a Petronas scholarship and went to the interview. It was called ‘Educamp’, and I had mine at MRSM Kuching. It was fun; we were exposed to Petronas as a corporation, and we were told of the good prospect that we would get once we received a Petronas scholarship. Basically it registered with me that I would be treated very well if I got to be one of their sponsored students. I did my best in the interview, and I think I aced it. I remember that I had to present about the traffic woes in KL and I came up with some ways to tackle the issue. My experience in high school debate helped me a great deal, and I ended up passing the interview.

When I received the offer, I was ecstatic. I thought that that very letter was the very ‘grant’ of my dream. To be honest, studying overseas was, then, my ultimate goal for the next 5 years of my life; I really couldn’t imagine myself studying at one of the local higher education institutions. Not that I doubted the academic standard of those institutions, it’s just that I preferred studying at a place where I would be able to broaden my worldview and be moulded into a person that I wanted to be; free. Even back then I was comparatively a very liberal thinker living in a society marked with a growing sense of social conservatism. Maybe I will write more about this later.

The offer letter did come with a thick booklet containing many clauses placed in lengthy paragraphs, explaining the terms and conditions attached to my scholarship. I did not really bother to read them all, to me, it was exciting enough that I would get to do Geology (my first choice) at a university of my choice.

I accepted the offer. Little did I care about one of the obligations attached to the scholarship, that I would be required to serve Petronas two years for each year that they sponsored my education. I knew about that, I just didn’t care. After all, the idea of getting a job straight after graduation appealed to me back then.

I was to be placed at Sri KDU to do IB; in fact, I spent two great years there. The IB experience was fulfilling, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, so I’ve no complaints there. My dissatisfaction with Petronas, however, started there, as I, and my other scholarship-holding classmates (we, Petronas scholars, made up roughly half of the total intake for the 2007 IB batch) were told during one of the Petronas engagement sessions in 2008 that they would send us to any one of these three Southern hemisphere countries for our degree; Australia, NZ or South Africa. This put me to shock. I can still recall perfectly today that we were informed by one of the Petronas education officers during our first-year induction session back in early 2007 that we would be sent to the US, UK or Canada for our first degree. I also accepted the scholarship with the knowledge that it would pay for my studies in the States. I always wanted to study in the US; that was indeed one of my dreams growing up. I felt cheated, and of course, furious at their inability to stick to their words.

Whatever happened after that aren’t worth much mention here. Well, maybe I should say that I did okay in IB and went to Melbourne for my degree. I enjoyed the years there profusely, so whatever of my personal dissatisfaction that was documented on the previous paragraph I already moved on from by the end of 2009. Sometimes I thought that it was a blessing in disguise that I didn’t have to endure the long and bitter cold prevalent in the States or the UK. Melbourne was also a relatively short hop’s away from home (8 hours’ flight) so I flew back to Malaysia most of the long holidays. Life was pretty good there, and Petronas, albeit the struggle that we had trying to get them to increase our monthly allowance, treated us well. I lived in a very decent studio apartment, for example. Never did I have to cram in a house with, say, five housemates, which was, and still is, the reality for many other international students who have to grapple with the ever-increasing rent in Melbourne. For this, I thank Petronas.

The nasty part started last year, with my honors application. I was informed by many, including Petronas’ officers themselves, that we would be allowed to extend our period of study for one year to accommodate our honors studies. It is a common practice for the Australian universities to split their degree into three years of basic degree and a year of honors. A degree with honors is considered more superior than a degree without which, but not every student is entitled to do the former. Most universities, Melbourne included, put a set of stringent requirements for students who wish to further their studies to honors. I managed to get a spot, and it gladdened me that Petronas would, by principle, sponsor me for another year to let me finish my honors. JPA and MARA were (and still are) known to do this to their students, so it made sense that Petronas would do the same.

Knowing that there would be no more obstacles in my honors plan, I started putting a great deal of efforts to find a supervisor and a suitable project for my honors year. I managed to find a project very relevant to my future job in Petronas, and my lecturer also wrote a letter to Petronas to inform them of the benefits that they, as my future employer, would get if I were to do the particular honors project under his supervision. As usual, I received some oral confirmation that I would get my sponsorship extended, and duped by my optimism of Petronas being at last true to their words, I was confident that things would turn out the way I wanted them to.

I graduated last December. For this, I have my family, friends, lecturers, teachers, and of course, Petronas, to thank. It was a proud moment for my whole family, and I felt a sense of accomplishment. I still felt very upbeat in December because in my head, I had an honors year to look forward to in 2012. I told myself that the graduation wasn’t the end of my university life; I would have another year to go.

When my optimism was at its peak, I got an email from Petronas informing me that they rejected my application to do honors. To make it sound more dramatic, they snubbed my application two days prior to the honors enrolment due date. Two days. Just imagine the frustration that I had at that time. I had to pack up and leave Melbourne for good on a short notice. Whatever efforts that I put to secure a place to do honors turned out to be futile. In vain.

I wanted to apply for another scholarship, but the very offer letter that I received back in 2007 stipulated that I would not be allowed to get another scholarship without Petronas’ permission. I wanted to report to Petronas (ie start working for them) in 2013, not 2012, so I could have a year allocated to honors. Again, this was against one of the terms of the scholarship as I was required to report to them within 3 months after my graduation (read: February).

These are the terms that I didn’t think about five years back. These are the important terms that came to haunt me in January 2012 yet I couldn’t even be arsed to read about them back then. Failing to adhere to the terms will lead to my parents having to pay Petronas the total sum spent on my education, within 14 working days. There’s no way I will ever burden my parents that way. Petronas knows this. They know that we will not have the guts (or rather, capacity) to breach the contract.

We are bonded. Or, in a more apt yet less savory way to say things, we are chained. We are their assets, their commodities. To try to get out of this is to breach the contract, the consequences of which are as aforementioned.

Now I’m at home, waiting for Petronas to call me up to put me to work. I was told that it would take them up to six months to come up with a job offer for me. In the meantime, I am not allowed to apply for another permanent job. Breach of contract, again. After all, no company will want to recruit a bonded student. The irony of all these is that I could actually use the time spent waiting for Petronas so far to do honors.

We’re theirs for 10 years. Leave the company by then and you’ll be considered to have breached the contract. Consequences as said prior. I’m 22, and I really wish that I could actually be free to chart my own future. I’m honestly not over studying yet. I’m personally very envious at the freedom that my JPA and MARA friends have after they graduate. I also want to do masters, just like them; I’m a passionate learner, and masters is one of my goals for now. I will keenly work after masters, especially since I know I’ll enjoy working as a professional geologist in the future, be it with Petronas, or any other companies. However, looking at the way it is, it’s clear that for the next 10 years of my life, chances are that I will not have much control with my life. I will work for the same company with no option to quit.

My future was already written back then, when I naively accepted an offer that came in the form of a fancy official letter with a small F1 icon on the bottom left. “Cool”, I thought at that. Maybe I have myself to blame, it was after all, my choice. But what do you expect of a 17-year-old teenage boy? How do you think that I, with my lack of experience in life and my naivety in thinking that any corporation kind enough to offer a scholarship would have nothing but good, philanthropic intentions, would foresee the high price I had to pay to get my tertiary education sponsored? I didn’t even know what I wanted to do in my life then. What’s the point of knowing it now when it’s already too late?

Of SPM Results and Our Degree of Self-Worth

The trouble with rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat. (Lily Tomlin)

Let’s go back to roughly the same date as today, five years ago. I, who already started my IB studies at Sri KDU in January that year went back to Bintulu to check my SPM result. I walked my way to SMK Kidurong and went straight to catch a peek at the announcement board, where the results were displayed. A few seconds later I couldn’t feel better. Needless to say I did well, very well, indeed. I felt a sense of pride, bordering on that kind of ‘schmaltzy’, emotional pride. Continue reading “Of SPM Results and Our Degree of Self-Worth”