05 November 2015

Malaysians have a tendency to not appreciate something until we’ve lost it.

IN an effort to lose some weight recently, I went on a diet which required me to eat smaller portions of healthy food.

When food suddenly became a precious commodity, I found myself eating more slowly and savouring each bite. The same thing happens during Ramadan when you find yourself appreciating food more because you haven’t had any all day.

Similarly, after months of unheal­thy haze, the return of blue skies and sunshine last week prompted everyone to take out their cameras to record something that we had never really noticed or appreciated before.

I found myself letting the sun beat down on my face and enjoying the warmth, as if I lived in a temperate climate unused to such an abundance of Vitamin D.

And yet, before we lost those rays all these months, we would complain about how hot it was and how our air-conditioners, already turned down to freezing temperatures, just couldn’t cope.

Is it a particularly Malaysian trait to appreciate things only after we’ve lost them? Or do we simply not think of that possibility, so we fritter them away as if there were no tomorrow?

We don’t appreciate our trees and forests until they are gone and we finally make the link between their disappearance, the heat and flooding. We even demand that trees in housing estates are cut down because we hate sweeping up fallen leaves, and then find ourselves keeping our air-conditioners on all day. Then we complain about electricity rate hikes.

We are eager to buy cars for ourselves but then complain about traffic jams – caused by other motorists, of course. The building of public transport facilities such as the LRT is meant to ease the congestion but meanwhile, we complain about the inconvenience their construction causes.

It’s not as if those of us currently in cars are going to use public transport much anyway when it is ready. No, we’ll stay in our cars and continue complaining, thank you very much.

The only way to get people to use public transport is to have incentives to use it and disincentives to drive cars, but what would some people do without their chauffeur-driven Mercedes?

Maybe we need a tipping point when traffic jams become so frustratingly bad that it becomes a major incentive to use public transport. Then we might see our politicians using the LRT like everyone else.

The point, really, is that we have a tendency to not appreciate something until we have lost it. Take our wonderful multi-ethnic, multireligious society. The way things are going, one day we may look back with nostalgia at a time when we all got along without any problems.

Despite some assurances by our politicians that they value our diversity, we find ourselves unable to trust their words when we know that often, they aren’t matched by their actions.

Harmony to some of them means accepting things “in the Malaysian way”, even though we are increasingly finding that the long-term effects are injustices that fewer people are willing to put up with.

I read with barely controlled nausea one speech which talked about the need for democracy, good governance and human rights as the way to fight extremists and terrorists, as if extremists are the only reason to have democracy in our country. The majority of us who aren’t extremists don’t deserve it somehow.

But perhaps we deserve to lose some of the things that we have always enjoyed due to our own laxity and penchant for taking things for granted. We don’t seem to appreciate how quickly we are losing so many of our freedoms, for example.

Every day, through one law or other, our freedom to say what we feel about anything is being curtailed. Some of us may think that the way to avoid trouble is to simply not say anything. But then we become complicit in the curtailing of our own freedoms, which are guaranteed by our own Constitution.

We think none of these will matter to the majority of us – only troublemakers need worry. But given the almost random nature of the current persecutions of people who speak their minds, how do we know we won’t be next?

We might think that only “famous” people need to watch themselves, yet there are many previously unknown people who have been caught for one thing or another. We might not care too much about them now, until one day it’s us cooling our heels in a lockup.

There would be no point in being nostalgic then, to finally appreciate our right to speak once we’ve lost it. Once it’s out of the gate, it’s hard to bring it back. Better to do all that we can to protect it now.