Choices in Nation Building

Trump is the word these days. His recent immigration ban created great public outcry and triggered waves of protests and resistance along with condemnation from our own citizens. Closer to home, however, an article by Boo Su Lyn titled, “Why do we care more about America than Malaysia?” caught my eyes. She ends her article with these words: “What I`m saying is that it is imperative for Malaysians to speak out about issues affecting fellow citizens, instead of just jumping on the Trump-hating bandwagon because it`s convenient.”

I do not completely agree with her views but she raised some pertinent points about Malaysians and our own struggles as a nation. It got me thinking about the larger picture of our own involvement in nation building and shaping public discourses. Are we doing enough as citizens? Is marching out in public and voicing our dissent over the administration considered enough or is it voting once every 5 years? Perhaps it is proclaiming oneself as a keyboard warrior, typing away in the comments section every time there is an issue of concern?

As I ponder on these questions, I could not help myself but to look back and think about my own Perdana Fellowship experience a little over 2 years ago. I had the privilege of serving under Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan as his fellow before the cabinet reshuffle in 2016. Being placed at the Ministry of Urban Wellbeing, Housing, and Local Government pushed my boundaries beyond my expectations. The experience had little to do with my background in law and much more about the wider scope of governance and politics.

There were many aspects to the Fellowship, from being involved with works in the Ministry as well as Datuk Seri’s constituency in Kota Belud. It was a rather preliminary introduction to the Ministry and their scope of work, which spanned over a number of agencies and departments. Having the opportunity to witness behind-the-scenes work on various nationwide policies made me realise the sheer difficulty of conceptualising a policy and implementing it. The involvement of various stakeholders and the effort behind it was monumental. But perhaps the bigger realisation was to appreciate the integrity of the people behind such efforts and to play our role as end users and citizens.



Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan at 2015’s Program Bubur Lambuk Ramadan. Picture taken by the author during her stint as Perdana Fellow at the Ministry of Urban Wellbeing, Housing, and Local Government before the cabinet reshuffle.


Personally, the biggest takeaway was being able to experience the difference in dynamics in East Malaysia, especially in Datuk Seri’s constituency of Kota Belud. Having the opportunity to travel to Kota Belud with Datuk Seri’s team every now and then during my Fellowship made me realise how I have been ignorant about our fellow countrymen and the overall landscape in East Malaysia from its demographics to geography.

Exchanging my views with my Perdana Fellow peers originating from East Malaysia made me realise the various differences between East and Peninsular Malaysia that we often take for granted. I realised that only with open discourse and acceptance about our differences, can we move forward in any serious attempt at building the nation. Simple phrases like Sarawak and Sabah joining Malaysia as opposed to Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya forming Malaysia might mean nothing to some but the difference lies in truly honouring our history and heritage, which tends to be forgotten.

There are other challenging aspects to being a Fellow as well. On a larger scale, bridging the gap between the negative perception that the government faces and the real performance behind the scenes is a real challenge regardless of which Ministry one is attached to. Engaging the wider public and making them realise that work is undertaken to address issues at hand could be a battleground of its own.

More importantly, my experiences gave me a birds eye view of our governance and society’s dynamic and I realised understanding serves as the first key in any effort of nation building. I had the privilege to able to see things from the platform given to me, and to have the support of like-minded and passionate young citizens throughout my Fellowship. However, the Fellowship is more than a journey of whirlwind experiences. It is both a commitment and a choice. It reminded me of YB Khairy Jamaluddin’s words during our inaugural Perdana Fellows Gala Dinner: “You don’t get to be on the sidelines once you are in the Fellowship”.

Ultimately, it is your choice on how you manage your experiences and expectations in getting the best out of the Fellowship journey. The true challenge of being a Perdana Fellow is making sense out of the privilege you’ve been afforded and using your position to the best of your abilities.

Looking back, I wished I could have done more during my Fellowship but it was a great experience nonetheless. Joining the Fellowship was only the beginning of a lifetime journey to committing to a nation building effort in whichever way one chooses. Perhaps the most important question is what do we choose? What will be our defining choices as citizens?

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