Wednesday, 3 July 2013

No time to be patient

Can we, Malaysians, not see the changes we so long for in our lifetime?


NELSON Mandela is dying. The world waits sombrely and respectfully for what seems to be inevitable. He has lived to a good age – he turns 95 on July 18 – and it is time to let him go. What’s more, this great man’s place in history is assured.

He is in the same league as Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, for what he did for his country.

Yet, I wonder: Mandela was in his Robben Island prison cell for 27 years. During that time, did he ever think he would not live to see the end of apartheid in his beloved South Africa. Perhaps he thought, “Not in my lifetime.”

“Not in my lifetime”, that’s what we say to denote the unlikelihood of something momentous or significant happening or coming to fruition within our life span.

I guess NIML (as those four words have been abbreviated in this Internet age) would have crossed the minds of cynics concerning the fight to end slavery or suffrage for women in centuries past.

“Freedom for slaves? Never, not in my lifetime?” “Vote for women? Balderdash! Surely not in my lifetime.”

In our more recent past, so many amazing things have changed or taken place that were thought quite impossible, at least NIML: The creation of the Pill that sparked the sexual revolution, men walking on the moon and the birth of the first test-tube baby.

I remember when “Made in Japan” was a byword for shoddily made products that didn’t last and China was an uptight communist state where its repressed people dressed in monochrome colours and were deprived of life’s little luxuries.

Today, Japanese-made products are synonymous with quality; Russia and China are practically unrecognisable from the USSR and China of, say, 1985.

So too South Korea, now east Asia’s poster nation. But it wasn’t too long ago it was under a repressive military dictatorship and it was only in May 1980 that the Gwangju Uprising began that nation’s transformation to liberal democracy.

Who would have thought back in the 1980s, that many Chinese nationals and Russians would become obscenely rich citizens living freely in various parts of the world; or that South Korea would rule with “soft” power through its pop culture.

Ironically, I found Korean music grating and unpleasant during the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Twenty-five years on, I can hum Arirang, Korea’s popular folk song, and have k-pop songs on my handphone, a Samsung Galaxy, of course.

All that in my lifetime. And I am not that old. Really.

Change is a constant throughout the ages but the current speed of it is what takes our breath away. We accept and even demand it when it involves technology, our devices and machines.

Japanese scientists are ready to send a talking robot called Kirobo into space that can communicate directly with astronauts on board the International Space Station.

Better still, researchers just announced that people with severe spinal cord injuries can walk again with ground-breaking stem cell therapy that regrows nerve fibres.

Dr Wise Young, chief executive officer of the China Spinal Cord Injury Network, was quoted as saying: “It’s the first time in human history that we can see the regeneration of the spinal cord.”

He further declared: “This will convince the doctors of the world that they do not need to tell patients ‘you will never walk again’.”

It is a pity quadriplegic Christopher Reeve, who will always be Superman to his fans, did not live to see it happen in his lifetime.

Yet, strangely enough, when it comes to change to create a better and safer society, change to weeding out corruption, change to needs-based policies, change to save our education system, change to end institutionalised racism, we seem willing to apply brakes and decelerate.

We tell ourselves, “slowly lah”, or “some things take time” and yes, even “not in our lifetime” because we believe the things we want changed are too entrenched or too rotten.

I refuse to accept that because, as I have repeatedly lamented, we don’t have the time to slow such things down. We need to change urgently and effectively or we will fall further behind other nations. What I think we need for effective change to happen is great statesmanship and selflessness from our leaders.

While Mandela is rightly honoured and revered, he could not have succeeded in ending apartheid without the support and courage of F.W. de Klerk, the now largely forgotten last white president of South Africa who freed Mandela.

Similarly, it was Mikhail Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Soviet Union who brought political, social and economic reforms that ended both the USSR and the Cold War.

It is men in power like them who had the political will, the vision and steely courage to dismantle their untenable systems of government and set their nations on the path of a new future.

Do we have a de Klerk or Gorbachev among our leaders who will demolish race-based politics and policies, free our education system from politics and truly fight corruption and crime? A leader who will move our nation onto a new path of greatness by quickly harnessing all the talents that a multiracial Malaysia has to offer without fear or bias?

Can it happen in my lifetime? Since I have seen what was deemed impossible, NIML, the first black man elected US President, I want to believe the answer is yes, we can.

So Aunty, So What? By JUNE H.L. WONG

> The aunty likes this quote: Patience is good only when it is the shortest way to a good end; otherwise, impatience is better. Feedback: junewong@thestar.com.my or tweet @JuneHL­Wong

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