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Erna Mahyuni

Erna tweets too much on @ernamh. Angry Sabah native, slave to her dog/cat and blogs at ernamahyuni.com

FEBRUARY 15 — An analogy I tend to overuse is the one about fish not knowing when they're drowning. Some days, living in Malaysia feels like living in a big goldfish bowl. We're so used to swimming in our own poop, we don't even realise we're doing it.

What am I getting at? The current discourse about current affairs is centred around blame — it's the government lah, it's the politicians, it's the stupid (insert demographic here) or the elitist (insert another demographic here) or the clueless (yes, another blank to fill). We ask the wrong questions — it's more than who. It's what. It's why. Then only we can move on to the hows.

The national makeup and the status quo are things that perhaps only Malaysians can understand. To outsiders, we are a puzzle. How we have managed to not kill each other despite an astonishing diversity and yet remain mired in ridiculous silly issues such as halal paintbrushes and birthday cakes.

Pondering the answer to that, I would simply say Malaysians in general are afraid. That fear has been cultivated in us for so long, so many of us are unable to properly articulate it.

I often joke that the only reason Malaysians haven't had bloody revolts is because as a country we are mostly lazy and allergic to violence. No, we really are just afraid.

And here's the thing: you can't blame us.

Our media is self-censoring, ever careful, because it has been tamed. Too many people forget or are too young to remember a time before the Internet when there were real consequences to stepping outside pre-defined government lines. Of course there still are but a little history lesson, I think, is in order.

In the 80s and the worst of the Operasi Lalang days, people saying out loud the kind of things that appear in Internet comments these days would probably have risked jail. Not that the odd Facebook post or Twitter rant doesn't get you jailed in Malaysia as well but in the old days, the spectre of the ISA was genuinely terrifying.

Malaysians are still afraid but that fear is a quiet, steady one. Most Malaysians are just afraid of losing their livelihoods. Even if the status quo is terrible, at least the status quo they know is more comforting than a terrifying change and all its unknowns.

For all the talk Malaysians make about change, most Malaysians would rather change their drapes than force changes in governance.

There are Malaysians afraid of losing their rights. There are Malaysians afraid of being left behind in a world where they are ill-equipped to move to the front. There are the Malaysians afraid of not being able to make their mortgage payments.

Fear. It's really all about fear. There are those who lead by stoking those fears and there are those whose only chance lies in learning to assuage said fears.

How do you counter fear? Fear is sadly not something you can counter with facts or reason. Fighting fear is a long, painful process that involves patience, persistence and understanding.

Cultivating fear's counter, courage, is hard. There is nothing brave about saying selfish things that expose your inner meanness. In that vein, you are no better than white supremacists who now openly state they think genocide is a perfectly reasonable option and get hailed as being brave for their honesty.

Courage is what many of our activists have — courage, knowing they face arrest. Courage, despite the odds being against them. Courage, despite fears of what will happen to them and their families. If I would call anyone courageous it would be the Orang Asli fighting for their land and dignity, in a country that denies them both.

We are all afraid. The sooner we come to grips with that, and understanding just why are other people are afraid, only then can we start to find common ground that goes past slogans and maudlin commercials.

We are Malaysians, we are afraid. Not very commercial sounding is that? But once we know what we are, it will be easier to figure out how we can get to where we want to be. So one day we can say, "We are Malaysians, and we are trying not to be afraid anymore."

* This is the opinion of the columnist

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