YES, Malaysia has lost strength.
But what was once lost can be found again – if we are willing to rise to the challenge.
Reports emerged earlier this week of a student from Universiti Malaysia Sabah who performed a Nazi salute at his convocation ceremony.
Many predictably jumped to condemn the action and rightfully pointed out the insanity of idolising a monster like Adolf Hitler.
Tearing down someone who openly supports Nazism is easy. What we really need to do as a nation, however, is to understand why neo-Nazis exist at all in Malaysia.
The key to understanding the rise of neo-Nazis is understanding the rise of the first Nazis.
One of the most relevant factors that allowed Hitler to rise to power was the weakness Germany felt as a nation after World War I.
Germans were crippled after losing the war, and humiliated by the victors. The leadership of the post-war Weimar Republic was weak and unable to cope effectively with turmoil in the country, and Germans became severely divided politically.
Does any of that sound familiar?
What happened next? The fictional Dr Abraham Erskine from Captain America offers an accurate summary: “So many people forget that the first country that the Nazis invaded was their own. You know, after the last war … my people struggled. They felt weak. They felt small. And then Hitler comes along with the marching and the big show and the flags.”
That young man stood up on the stage in Sabah and performed an archaic gestured reviled around the world for its association with genocide and mass murder. Is he the only Nazi sympathiser in the country? No. Is this the first time
elements of neo-Nazism and idolising Hitler are emerging in Malaysia? No.
I believe this phenomenon – so strange seeming to so many of us – has perfectly logical roots in a simple fact: deep down, many Malay-sians today are also feeling weak and small. Can we blame them?
The government of the day seems weak and unable to cope with the forces that are tearing us apart. Political division and aimlessness is possibly the worst the country has ever seen. Our most senior leaders are too busy fighting one another to lead the nation anywhere.
Where does that leave the rest of us? Feeling weak, small, and aimless. In this debilitating vacuum is the emergence of neo-Nazism as strange as it first seems? Or is it stranger yet that a Malaysian Hitler has yet to burst upon the scene?
Hitler arose because post-WWI Germany had lost its way. In times like that, people will follow almost any display of strength – no matter how dark or twisted.
Malaysia too, has lost its way. And it is only a matter of time before this vacuum inevitably produces someone to lead us one way or another.
The only question is: Will we get a Hitler or will we get a Gandhi?
Hitler took the shortcut to power. He told Germans that they were weak because others were holding them down: Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, and so on. The solution was simple, he argued: Get rid of them and you can be strong again.
Donald Trump told Americans they are weak because Mexicans and other immigrants are holding them down. Get rid of them, he said, and you can make America great again.
Here in Malaysia, we are told that we are weak because the other races are holding us down or stealing all our money. Get rid of them, send them home, or keep them down, and you can make Malaysia yours again.
People all over the world, all throughout history, use this tactic. They use it because it is simple, and more importantly, it is effective. It is easy; but God knows, it is not right.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have leaders like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela – just as famous and impactful as the likes of Hitler and Trump.
What differentiates the heroes from the villains?
These men abandoned hate as the shortcut to motivation in favour of values and principles. They inspired millions because they found a belief and a set of core values, and they kept faith with those values – right to the end, come what may. It wasn’t easy, but by God, it was right.
Malaysia will never rediscover its strength following the lead of dead, defeated Nazis with odd moustaches or orange-haired men with a loose relationship with the truth.
Malaysia will only ever be strong if we understand that true strength exists only inside us and comes only from being strongly principled – because a nation with strong principles can achieve anything.
We will only ever be strong if we start redefining our nation’s core by asking: “What are our shared principles as a people?”
This was the original function of the Rukunegara, which many now love to refer to. Tragically, the manner of reference often seems hollow – the way we might admire a pretty box from afar without truly feeling the relevance of its function or contents.
Maybe the time has come for a more relevant redefinition. An articulation of core values that speak straight to the heart of what ails us as a nation.
Perhaps we need to talk about integrity and keeping faith as an alternative to the endless money politics and corruption that is bankrupting our nation.
Perhaps we need to talk about compassion and empathy as an alternative to the divisive politics that constantly seek to turn Malaysian against Malaysian.
Perhaps we need to talk about a spirit of uniting in service to family and nation as an alternative to always being led by those who put themselves before others.
If our politicians will not have these conversations and lead us to true strength, then let 2020 be the year civil society shows the way.
When Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, King George VI gave a speech to the Common-wealth, in which he said: “For we are called … to meet the challenge of a principle which … stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that ‘might is right’…. For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear … it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge.
“But we can only do the right as we see the right, and … If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then, with God’s help, we shall prevail.”
Yes, Malaysia has lost its strength; but it also has lost strength that can be rediscovered.
I maintain the faith, in my very heart of hearts, that deeply embedded inside every Malaysian is a burning potential for true strength and for mighty greatness. To realise that potential, the first step is to recognise that it is right that makes might. To be all we can be – as a nation and a people – we need only remember the true foundation of a nation’s strength is the strength of character within each and every one of us.
Nathaniel Tan is working with friends on walking the talk, and believes 2020 is going to be a momentous year. Anyone interested in making the above a reality is welcome to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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