‘Face problem’ is not a foreign phrase to most Malaysians. Usually it is taken to mean a person who has a certain unappealing quality that is inherent but not specifically identifiable. The practice itself is usually done in jest, but it’s not hard to imagine how this can become malicious. After all, it is essentially about excluding someone simply because you don’t like them.
This arbitrary exclusion of people is mean-spirited and could even be dangerous. However, there is another more nuanced and debilitating argument that is thrown around in Malaysia – saving face. I’m sure most young people who have dealt with older peers or ‘important’ persons are familiar with being ‘advised’ on what should and shouldn’t be said to avoid embarrassment or worse, disrespect. I have no problems when being chided for being disrespectful to a superior. However, I wish to draw a special distinction for those who hold public office and represent the people. After all, you would think that their mandate includes listening to the woes of the people regardless of how blunt that is.
There tends to be two arguments that are used when someone tries to neuter our views. Firstly, as stated above, we need to know our place and we should not come across as being too rough. Secondly, this is a sensitive issue which either shouldn’t be brought up or needs to be brought up delicately.
The first argument is problematic because it presumes that there is some existing social hierarchy we need to adhere to. This could come about from many reasons. On the one hand, we could say that people who are older and more experienced are simply wiser and thus, know more than us. Another argument for this stratification is cultural. It’s not uncommon to hear the people referring to respecting our elders as a part of Asian cultural values and practices. This could very well be true. So perhaps my problem with this argument comes from my short study abroad and being influenced by the culture here, where in many cases, young people are considered for their own opinions. Surely, if you are approached for your views, you should not be worried of sharing them. As they say, siapa makan cili, dia yang rasa pedas.
The second argument is essentially a way of saying that a topic is not up for discussion. In Malaysia, this tends to be used when topics veer into the realm of race and religious relations. Now, I completely understand that these issues affect the core of one’s personal beliefs and as such can be taken quite to heart. The problem is that these form a very fundamental part of our societal fabric. If we are to place dampeners on it, then any existing tensions will undoubtedly persist.
With the current push for TN50 and its bottom-up approach, I hope that Malaysians set aside this notion of saving face because with all the hoops we go through to not offend ministers and MPs, the eventual views that we present come across as neutered and pointless. Of course, there is a line to be drawn between being constructive and purely being insulting. However, it is time we come to accept that one can be constructive and critical at the same time.
Malaysia has a bright future ahead but there are tough questions that we must be willing to ask if we want to tap into that potential. These discussions must be held purely on our own self-motivations. As young people, we need to recognise that our country’s and our own futures are waiting to be moulded. Policymakers, too, need to recognise that the direction they lead our country towards should also consider the desires and ambitions of us youth. From a political aspect, it can be quite simple to write off the critical voices of the youth as being simply anti-establishment. The political strategy is sound as well – why convince people who won’t vote for us anyway? The end goal however, should not be simply for the short-term benefits of winning an election but rather for the collective good of the nation.
If politicians are serious about youth participation in nation-building, then they must be ready to face these bold critics. As the proportion of young voters increases with each election cycle, it is a segment that can no longer be alienated and shut out. It is no longer convincing to argue that embarrassing a politician is an offence, whether that’s done through protest, written comments or balloons. We are living in a world where opinions float freely around us so it is time form sharper arguments and thicker skins.
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