BERTEMU: UKEC Chairperson Syed Rifqi Najmuddin 'The Malaysian Struggle'
*This article is part of The Tapir Journal's Bertemu series where we aim to connect our viewers to successful and established Malaysians in London. Syed Rifqi [commonly referred to as Wef] is one such successful individual, he is the Chairperson of the United Kingdom & Eire Council– an organisation of over 30+ staff members that provides financial and logistical support to all Malaysian societies in the United Kingdom. It is the largest Malaysian student body in the UK and was the primary force in driving voting collection during the 15th Malaysian General Election. The following express his views on the Malaysian Struggle.
My Motherland, for whom I spill my blood, where the people live, united and progressive. Those are the words to our national anthem, Negaraku. As a nation, our history and future is determined by the choices we make and the values we hold. In 1511, we found ourselves at a crossroad. A corrupted few chose greed and power. The many would pay the price of colonisation, suppression and discrimination for 446 years. In 1946, we arrived at another crossroads. The brave many chose to stand up against the oppressive colonisers. We achieved self-determination and independence 11 years later. Today, as a nation we arrive at another one of our crossroads. We are filled with hope yet halted by cynicism. We are brave yet threatened by cowardice. We have potential yet our future seems unpromising. We are often taught that as a people, we come from all walks of life; we have different cultures and traditions; have different views and perspectives. However, in reality, we are not that much different from one another. My father was born and raised in a working class family in the east coast state of Kelantan. A few generations before, his great-grandfather made a decision to leave India and migrate east to the land of Hang Tuah and Rentap in search of opportunity and a better livelihood. Not for himself, but for his children and grandchildren. The journey is oftentimes life-threatening, but when you have nothing to live for on land, the perilous seas seem tame. My father’s father joined the army before the independence of Malaya believing that although he is the descendant of immigrants, he was born here and this too was his country. He would go on to serve at the peacekeeping mission in Congo and the embassy in Vietnam before returning home to defend his motherland against the threat of communism. At home, his wife raised 6 children and my father being the youngest was conceived in 1970. Although his parents did not receive tertiary education, they had big dreams for their son. Through hard-work and perseverance my father would go on to study at University Sains Malaysia in Penang. There, he met my mother; an independent, confident and defiant woman from down south. She grew up in a middle class family with both her parents working as teachers. However, at the age of 32, her mother had quit her job to sell kuihs and devote her life to political activism. Her parents are great citizens who believe that everyone should be a part of something bigger than themselves. Neither of them had attended university either but they too had big dreams for their daughter.
My parents tied the knot and moved to metropolitan Kuala Lumpur. Hearts full of hope, heads full of dreams. Not only for themselves, but also for their two boys (another boy and the youngest, a girl, would complete the family later in the new century). However, those hopes and dreams were shattered when the Asian Financial Crisis hit. My mother brought home the sole family income—just barely above today’s national minimum wage—as my father did freelance work and business was non-existent. They struggled to make ends meet but as the century turned, things got better. Throughout the 21st century, they would gradually rise up the social ladder with secure jobs and more than sufficient income. However, the effects of the economic crises: the Asian Financial Crisis, the Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic is evident. They are yet to own a house despite edging ever closer to the age of retirement. They wonder how they will pay for their children’s university fees if they are not accepted into public institutes. They ponder if they will have enough money to get by after retirement. These concerns are the concerns of the wider Malaysian public. Their story is part of the larger Malaysian story—the fundamental belief that although your ancestors were immigrants—Malaysia has a place for you too. The hope of wanting to give your children the best education at the best universities, despite not having the financial means. The dream of making a decent living and being able to retire into modesty, despite living through several economic crises. This is the Malaysian Struggle.
Malaysians do not expect the government to solve all their problems. They know that to be successful and to make a decent living, they must be willing to work hard and spend conservatively. However, they despise a government detached from the realities of every day Malaysians. They loathe a prime minister who tells them they are poor because they are lazy, despite working countless hours. They abhor a cabinet that tells them to work two jobs when they are already working 60 hour weeks, unable to make time for family and friends. They get enraged at a minister who tells them to not spend beyond their means when they are overworked and underpaid yet still earn below the poverty line. Malaysians understand that it is not easy to make a good living, but they never pictured it as bordering the impossible. It is irresponsible and short-sighted of the government to allow its people to spend money from their Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) as a solution to the economic hardship faced during the pandemic, knowing that these funds are needed for them to grow old. It is preposterous that the government is more concerned with housing developers making astronomical profits than building affordable homes for ordinary Malaysians, particularly when 1 in 4 Malaysian families are yet to own one. It is unthinkable that the government refuses to increase the minimum wage (RM1,200) when the poverty line is almost double its amount (RM2,208). Since the 1980s, the economic approach of the government has been heavily influenced by the doctrine of economic liberalism. The notion that ‘the freer the market, the freer the people’. The idea that regulation is bad. The believe that tax cuts to the rich are good in hopes that their wealth will trickle-down, although it never has. Four decades on, we have seen international economic institutions fail time and again. We witness the rich amass outrageous wealth while some people still sleep on the streets. That must change. The role of government in Malaysia must change. It begins with ending the era of economic liberalism.
The role of government is to ensure that as globalisation accelerates and the world develops at an increasing rate, nobody gets left behind. Malaysians do not want the system to be rigged in their favour—devoid of preferences based on ethnicity, religion or social status—all they want is for everyone to have a fair opportunity at reaching their full potential. They refuse to believe that success is a zero-sum game; my success does not mean your failure and your failure does not mean my success. It is the success of all Malaysians that we yearn. The role of government is to bridge the gap between the rich and poor, the male and female, the able and disable, among races and religions. It is the role of the government to help the youths who have the ability, the drive and the will to attend the best universities but lack the financial capability to do so. It is the role of the government to offer a helping hand to the parents who work long hours yet still are forced to choose between paying the mortgage or car loan. Parents want the best for their children and believe that in a fair Malaysia, one does not need to be of a certain race or religion to be successful. The determined teenager who comes from a working class family should be able to live the life she envisions because in a generous Malaysia, one does not need to be rich to be successful. The young adult who was involved in a tragic car crash and lost both his legs believes that his country has a place for him too because in a tolerant Malaysia, physical or mental disabilities should be no barrier to success. It is the fundamental principle that despite our differences, we are one, we all deserve a fair and equal shot at life and that through hard-work and perseverance nothing is unachievable.
Our motherland was founded upon the values of liberty, equality and democracy. At a time when most Southeast Asian countries chose communism, Malaysia chose self-determination. Our founding fathers understood that to be a successful nation we must be united. They knew that despite our differences, we share a common belief and an abiding faith in the promise of this land. Tun V. T. Sambanthan was born and raised in Sungai Siput, Perak. Twenty years earlier, his father had crossed the Bay of Bengal to Malaya. Tun Tan Cheng Lock was conceived in Malacca. He was a fifth generation Peranakan-Hokkien Chinese. They alongside Tunku Abdul Rahman founded Malaya and subsequently Malaysia. It brings me a great sense of pride knowing that our founding fathers were the descendants of immigrants. Together we achieved independence not with the edge of a sword but the power of unity and diplomacy. The values that come to form this nation must be protected. One should have the right to speak and write his mind without the fear of being investigated by the police at Bukit Aman or spend the night locked up in Dang Wangi. People should be able to assemble peacefully for a common cause at the Merdeka Square without being tear-gassed or sprayed with a water cannon by the Federal Reserve Unit. Every Malaysian has a right to practise their religion in peace and harmony in any part of this federation without the fear of retribution. Once every five years, it is our constitutional right to head to the polls and vote, either to retain or dismantle the federal or state government. These values that come to define us as a people and this land as a nation are being suppressed by the megalomaniacs in Putrajaya. We are denied our representation in Parliament; our Federal Constitution currently suspended. Those between the ages of 18 and 20 are deprived of their constitutional right to vote. If we are not wary and miscalculate the importance of our democracy, we will return to the days of political retribution, despotism and intolerance that those who came before us endured for 446 years.
History tells the tale of a nation that is firm but not violent, diverse but united. Today, as we figure which path to take at the crossroads, remember the shared values, dreams and sacrifice that have come to form our motherland. When tyranny and oppression ruled this land for over 4 centuries, we saw a generation rise to greatness and Malaya achieved independence. When racial riots broke and this nation seemed more divided than ever, our statesmen and people came together and unity reigned triumphant. When the Asian Financial Crisis hit, we responded by reaching for the skies with the Petronas Twin Towers and conquering Mount Everest through Magendran Munisamy as the Jalur Gemilang flew with might on top of the world. When a kleptocratic regime threatened our nation, we took to the polls and through the power of democracy, the rule of law was restored. Today, as our people struggle to make a comfortable living, as our children are still segregated by race, as our democracy is at stake, I have no doubt that we will rise and protect our common dreams, values and liberty. Together serving the crescent, star and 14 stripes of the Jalur Gemilang. The Malaysian Struggle shall never cease, until, in God’s good time, we reach the Promised Land.