Change must begin at the grassroots level

For all our heightened political awareness, our everyday lives have remained largely the same. We read about the changes taking place more than we actually feel or see them.

By Brian Yap (The Malaysian Insider)

APRIL 23 — There's little doubt that Malaysians are far more politically conscious today. We regularly discuss political developments, we're up to date on the latest scandals, and we've all sent or received text messages or e-mails that touch on Malaysian politics, solicited or otherwise. Plus, it seems as if a new blogger is coming on board every single day, from teenagers to retired old uncles, writing about the many issues that affect the nation.

These are all good things. They offer a glimmer of hope for the nation, and reflect the patriotism of Malaysians better than a million mini-flags on cars ever could.

Yet, at the same time there’s also a sense that for all our heightened political awareness, our everyday lives have remained largely the same. We read about the changes taking place more than we actually feel or see them.

Part of this, I believe, is because our newfound interest in politics remains too focused on what happens on a national level. What Anwar is doing. Who Najib was seen with. What Mahathir is saying. Why Khairy was left out of the Cabinet.

This top-heavy focus means we often instinctively blame the prime minister for virtually everything we find disagreeable, from flash floods in the city to the increase in teh tarik prices.

It’s tempting to only focus on national politics, specifically those on top. The idea that a change in the federal government will automatically result in a change on a local level makes societal change a simpler prospect. Take out BN, insert Pakatan, stir, repeat if necessary, and voila, that pothole down the road that has been there for five years will be patched up. Public transportation will improve. Crime will go down.

However, as we have seen from the experience of the Pakatan governments, even a mentri besar can find it hard to initiate reforms if the civil service and local authorities are resistant to any change.

Of course, national politics is also a lot more entertaining to follow. There are allegations of murder, Sept 16 attempts at toppling the government, and for more star power, the royalty even gets involved from time to time. Plus, with personalities like Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad prominently in the fray, how can anything not be entertaining? Someone please give the man his own TV show.

Yes, there’s no doubt a change in the federal government will send ripples, if not shocks, through the entire system. It will certainly have an impact on the mindset and culture of our nation and, I believe, such a change is key to rescuing Malaysia from this rut it is now stuck in.

But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking a change at the top will automatically mean a change at the bottom, which is where we are. A mentri besar might be an important figure, but it is the local councillor who is most directly responsible for your neighbourhood. Some decisions made by local councils, for instance, will impact residents more than many Cabinet-level policies. Zoning laws and urban planning, for example.

It’s not going to be easy to shift our focus from Putrajaya to our own neighbourhoods. Local issues are not that well reported in the national media, while online media tend to focus more on politics on the national level. Plus, many of us are still running to our MPs, our lawmakers responsible for debating national issues, with complaints of clogged drains or potholes.

One positive by-product of the March 8 general election is state governments became worthy of our interest again. With four new Pakatan Rakyat administrations, Malaysians were eager to see if PAS, DAP and PKR can actually deliver.

To a certain extent this interest even translated to the local or municipal level. The appointment of local councillors drew more scrutiny and interest than I’ve ever recalled. Unfortunately, local elections still remain a distant dream.

In order for the everyday lives of ordinary Malaysians to be improved, we need to understand that the momentum for change must come from the grassroots, from local communities all over the country dealing with issues specific to them with those most directly responsible. This means saving our own neighbourhoods before trying to save the country. Wait, let me rephrase that. It means saving our own neighbourhoods in order to save the country.