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Having just spent a fairly protracted period out of the country, it was interesting coming home. I’d been based in Malaysia on a book tour, out of touch with South African news. But that’s not to say I was unaffected by events in my host country.
I was in Kuala Lumpur when the opposition grouping, Bersih, gathered in public protest against the ruling party, Barisan Nasional, a Malay-dominated coalition that has ruled the country since independence in 1957.
Dissatisfaction at issues from corruption to electoral legislation had seen an opposition alliance of Chinese and Indian minorities, and former United Malay National Organisation leader and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ebrahim, capturing a number of government seats and state legislatures after the 2008 elections.
This was when Ebrahim had brashly predicted that he would be taking over the country from Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, only to fall short. It was, in a sense, similar to Cope riding a wave of sentiment in our last election, only to later wipe out on the rocks of over-reached ambition.
With the very broad tripartite church of the ruling Malay-dominated Barisan Nasional having become the focus of widespread public dissatisfaction, similarities to South Africa were not lost on me.
Malaysia is constitutionally a democracy, but its political landscape has been controlled for more than 40 years by Barisan Nasional – a party strong on affirmative action for Malays in an economy dominated by the Chinese.
Interestingly, former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed – the wise old fox of Malaysian politics – had said in response to the 2008 election results that the traditional Barisan Nasional 90 percent majority had not been good for democracy, and that the new 60-40 split would be healthier.
At social gatherings I was assailed with accounts of what were seen as the country’s problems. Corruption and executive incompetency due to nepotism came up strongly on the conversational radar. Comparisons are odious, I know, but once again I couldn’t help seeing parallels to South Africa.
The appointment of party cadres such as Richard Mdluli, Menzi Simelane and Bheki Cele – who have all been publicly discredited in terms of their aptitude for high office – sprang to mind.
Malaysia also had its fair share of Mdlulis, Simelanes and Celes. But that’s where the comparisons petered out. I told my hosts that, as a South African, I didn’t want Kuala Lumpur’s traffic jams and high-rises, but that I would welcome its low food prices and subsidised fuel. And with Malaysia’s Gini Co-efficient impressively lower than ours, I said we would be happy to have their low unemployment rate of just under 3 percent.
I said complaints about crime were a trifle compared to ours. I had to give the rider, though, that South Africa was safe for the visitor – as the biggest question I faced was on how safe it was to walk in the streets of Johannesburg or Cape Town.
Basic Malaysian literacy is high and I was told that internet and wireless communication, apart from being cheap, had a social penetration of over 90 percent – in other words, 22 million people out of 25 million had access to digital communication.
However, I could also see – our pressing socio-economic challenges aside – that we had made huge strides as a nation since apartheid. Our human rights culture is, I feel, more entrenched and strongly defended in South Africa than in so-called “mature” democracies.
I remember, for example, speaking to a government official who told me that Malaysia had only just rolled out a minimum wage limit for workers of 900 ringgit (R2 420). In South Africa, this question is old.
I had an interesting chat with an executive from a prominent international HR company, which had branches in Africa. He reminded me that South Africa’s affirmative action copied much from the Malaysian model.
“AA needs to get your young people to work. Your universities are good and your young people must be given opportunity,” he said. Experience had taught him AA would not work unless there was “meritocracy”. He explained that AA would become dysfunctional and affect service delivery if it became the domain of the ruling elite.
On the media side, most media houses were government controlled (though I did do a series of interviews with private radio station BFM). I missed the rough-and-tumble of South African journalism and the healthy cynicism of public figures, sometimes too pompous for their boots.
It also reinforced my view that freedom of speech is probably the most precious legacy of the post-apartheid era. Few countries can speak their minds as we do and it made me think about the travesties of the understandably condemned Protection of State Information Bill.
In Malaysia, the tameness of the institutional press was more than made up for by a vigorous blogging community. In that arena, I could see the gloves were off and it was in cyberspace – and not the mainstream media – that political scandal circulated.
When your country is viewed from afar, it can be revealing what people think of you. Political observers knew about Julius Malema and were thoroughly bemused by him. I was informed that the UMNO elders would never give its youth wing the rope the ANC gave its Youth League.
President Jacob Zuma was perceived as a somewhat benign, if not avuncular, figurehead associated more with Brics than the AU (like Thabo Mbeki). There was more a polite curiosity about his multiple marriages. But the most dominating personality by far was still Nelson Mandela. “Mandela magic” still shines brightly in the foreign imagination, and I think we sometimes forget his iconic status as a symbol – not of struggle and liberation – of reconciliation.
When I mentioned in talks that he’d drunk tea with Betsie, the wife of Hendrik Verwoerd, jaws would drop in amazement. And when I reminded audiences that one of the first things he’d said upon release after 27 years of detention was “Forgive but don’t forget”, there’d be a murmur.
Coming back to the anger, indignity and political opportunism of the presidential organ being exposed at the Goodman Gallery (which I know would have shocked my Far Eastern friends), I realised I’d forgotten just how raucous freedom of speech could be – especially in a multicultural society such as ours.Yes, “Spear of the Nation” or not, it was good to be home.
l Morton is a Cape Town writer and journalist