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Merdeka – A declining economy, rising costs of living, gutter politics, crime, and false hope

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By Dina Zaman

Seeing a headline shouting “Putrajaya offers cash rewards to N-Day event participation” does not encourage patriotism. It does not help that this year, just like the past few years, the atmosphere is muted.

Very few Malaysians are in the mood to celebrate Malaysia’s 55th year of Independence, and that is a truly sorry state for the country to be.

There are many factors related to this. A declining economy, rising costs of living, gutter politics, crime, and there is also a general air of hopelessness among Malaysians when asked if they were looking forward to August 31, 2012.

If one is to believe the noise on social media, and in forums, it would seem that Malaysians hate their country. There seems to be nothing positive about the country, and every effort the government puts, is met with ridicule.

What does the average Malaysian think about this year’s Merdeka celebrations?

CS Tan of Terengganu finds that this year theme is a joke. “I ‘created’ a few phases to my Merdeka celebration. From primary to secondary school Merdeka was about how we managed to be independent, govern our country on our own terms, instead of being under British rule, and of course the colourful floats we saw on television. Tertiary – it’s about holidays. Young working life – it’s about holidays plus those outrageous uniforms from TNB and Telekom and other Malaysian companies we had to wear. Middle age phase – Merdeka is about able to think of myself after years of believing that the government can’t do wrong. This year – it’s about Merdeka from crime in Malaysia. Not optimistic huh?”

The 1Malaysia Merdeka logo provoked such outcry and ridicule, one can only feel sorry for the government. “I’m sure that our Government had the best of intentions when they commissioned the design …” a rather diplomatic professional who did not want to be named said.

Oso-San Anna disagrees. A Communications professional, she has worked in advertising agencies and in-house communications departments. She understands design and branding – she lives and breathes them. “Firstly, for something as important as Merdeka, the Government should leave it to the pros. I mean real pros (and not some crony’s son) who has a solid understanding of the use of symbol and colour and collective expression of national pride.”

“Secondly, branding is powerful when built and layered over time with consistency and commitment.”

“Thirdly, where are the brand values? Both from the standpoint of the creator and the people it’s meant for? Is there buy-in from the Rakyat? I feel all 3 are missing in the 1Malaysia logo that was designed. We are 55 years old as a Nation. Sure it’s national pride but the meaning of real patriotism is already lost since it’s seldom practiced in soul & spirit,” she said.

Angelia Ong, who works in animation is saddened by recent celebrations. The idea of Merdeka has somehow lost its spirit, she says. “It used to be more alive and less about polishing the achievements of a particular political coalition. It used to come across as more inclusive and meaningful. The phrase “1Malaysia” has taken over so much, my youngest had one time thought our country was called 1Malaysia, rather than Malaysia. From a branding point of view, I guess they have succeeded in ensuring that it’s everywhere and anywhere, to the point of oversaturation.”

From a Malaysian’s point of view (on what she thought of the logo), “it was just a major facepalm moment.”

On Facebook, one lone friend is spotted asking on his status update, “Where can I get a Malaysian flag? I want to hang it from my balcony.” Very few of his friends responded to the query.

No Money, No Merdeka Honey

Malaysians at this moment can’t be bothered about politics. They’re concerned about GE, but right at the top of their heads is how to make a living in Malaysia. If corporate professionals turn to multi-level marketing as a side-income, and journalists to tuition and freelance writing to make up for their pay, what about the average Malaysian?

This year’s Ramadan revealed the rising cost of food. A pitiful currypuff is now 50 sen, when it used to be RM1 for three currypuffs. And it seems that it is the same everywhere, from Bangsar to Keramat. Maggi Mee, a staple for Malaysians, has gone up, and a cup of very sweet Milo at a small mamak-like café at Giant Kota Damansara now cost RM4. Could this be why crime is rampant?

Tania Leong, who runs a new age shop, is not confident of our economy. “Everyone I know who owns a business, has reported a decrease in revenue. Even my customers share a same complaint of their businesses, be it property, legal (clients unable to pay), travel agency, health spas, dvd shops, children’s play facilities, restaurants etc. Sungai Wang Plaza in the city has always been golden hot property (probably one of the top 5 most expensive per sq.ft.), and even that is suffering.”

“What I have observed is that this country is lacking qualified personnel in many areas of work from a sale assistant to corporate positions, a low standard of education system, many government workers are slow, inefficient and clueless, there is no minimum wage, corruption appears to be the norm in our judicial, police & government departments, religion has been made into law, sex education in schools are non-existent or minimal and so we have children bearing children. Crime rates seemed to have soared the last couple of years.”

“If leaving the country was an option for me, I would leave in a heartbeat.”

Hani B works in retail and has first-hand experiences with customer spending. Her customers range from the wealthy Middle Easterners to young college students, and understands their buying habits. “I used to be confident that our economy can weather most adversities, now I get totally scared when reading that our national debt amounted to 257 billion in 2011 … yikes!!

When I google about our economy, the results go on and on about how much it’s growing bla bla bla but retail wise, I just don’t see it and my salary certainly doesn’t reflect it.”

Like Tania, she notes that skilled workers are lacking. “I read that our country is among the top 20 nations to be labelled as losers of capital flight … that is RM893 billion(!) siphoned out between 1970 and 2010, so why should we stay back and help with the improvement of wealth to the 1 per cent? Then again, what do I know, I’m just a shopgirl.”

At the many open houses around the capital, the Malaysians asked, professed to forgetting that Merdeka was around the corner. This year is bad, they said, and their open houses reflect that.

Open houses are celebrated on a smaller scale now.

Yet, there is still some cheer, among bankers and human resource professionals. An expatriate investment banker based in Kuala Lumpur is enthusiastic about life in Malaysia. “The wealthy Europeans and Australians are now heading to Asia for the quality of life it offers. Now, certain Asian countries like Hong Kong are a no-no for expats, because of its spiralling cost of living. While Malaysia has the infrastructure, it has to beat Thailand and Indonesia – these two countries reinvent themselves, to meet with contemporary demands.” Malaysia has the potential to be the top 20 countries in the world, but the numbers are teetering. He concedes that corruption happens everywhere – Malaysia is not unusual. “What Malaysia needs now is good managers of its wealth and resources.”

EK Cheah, Managing Partner, Aspac Executive Search, observes that looking at the economy from a broad point of view there are a few scenarios playing out. They are “… On one hand, Europe is on a downward trend, China is slowing down and the US is stagnating. This implies that Malaysia which is largely export-dependent will be impacted. Even on the commodities front, palm oil, prices are down due to oversupply.”

Growth is however present, due to the various government initiatives, e.g. ETP. From a HR view, he says, there will be hiring, but there is definitely a big gap in talent. Two factors contributing to this are Malaysians emigrating and basically greater job mobility due to globalisation.

So is there enough talent at the high-end/professionals level? “No, and this has been the case for many years and will continue to be the case for many years to come. As for TalentCorp – Why have they shifted their focus from getting Malaysians back to also attracting expats? (https://www.expats.com.my/rp/new/html/) They should be focusing on getting Malaysians back and on top of that also help correct the fundamentals that would be required to retain Malaysian talents over the long term.”

As for the Malaysian economy, he is confident it will still grow 4-5 per cent a year over the next 2-3 years but much still depends on the socio-economical situation.

Judging by the responses, it could well be a quiet Merdeka for many. -hornbillunleashed