Can we take a break from all the posturing?
By Datuk Zainul Arifin Mohamed Isa
WHETHER it is fuel prices, electricity tariffs or toll rates, every argument is accompanied by the shrill cry of politicking. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, everyone is talking but no one is listening.
We are in a soapbox climbathon, the higher one clambers than one's opponent and the more outrageous the message, then, presumably, more people will listen.
I wish for a time when people could just argue, debate or disagree without having an eye on the political prize. We should all be outraged at this endless intrusion into our peace and quiet but for some of us, we cannot have enough of it.
Everyone claims to be talking and speaking on behalf of the rakyat but can we be sure? One need not be politically savvy to begin to suspect that politicians, most of the time and most of them, are actually speaking for themselves. They are talking to you with an eye on your vote; if we are lucky, we matter.
We are their raison d'etre? Without us and our problems, they are nothing. No?
But, of course, I am being cynical and I am thinking of the most opportunistic of the lot and the blatantly obtuse who cannot imagine that we can see through their acts.
The latest brouhaha (why do I always feel that the word seems to suggest people losing their heads and we should all laugh at them?) being the Public Service Department scholarships row.
It is a matter of principle that the best should be rewarded. I understand that and agree that every single citizen is important. Yet, everyone claims to be unjustifiably maligned by the policy.
While everyone is avoiding the word "race" publicly and is instead championing "meritocracy", we should not skirt the issue and point out that it is the awarding of scholarships to "ineligible" Bumiputeras that is the issue here.
It is obvious that this becomes a racial issue when Chinese or Indian political parties, or those dominated by them, take up the issue and suggest that members of their communities have been denied.
Are the MCA, MIC -- which are part of the government and have always been able to resolve issues quietly within the confines of Barisan Nasional -- and DAP raging at the PSD while posturing to the Chinese and Indian communities?
One could understand the realpolitik behind this strategy but there are also risks.
The Malays and Bumiputeras may see the protest as a racist thing, too, especially when it is insinuated that many of the recipients are presumed to be unworthy or are incapable of getting such awards without help.
Personally, I feel it is fine and dandy to argue that the best should be rewarded. It is even acceptable to be outraged if there were inconsistencies in the policy.
But should we all be held hostage by a policy that is likely to be flawed in its interpretation -- are the scholarships purely for straight A+ students or deserving ones?
The former required no interpretation except for the string of A+s, while the latter would try to strike a balance between a middle-class child, who was primed for examinations with tuition and prep classes, and the rural or underprivileged kid who had to rely on his wits to get where he was.
Furthermore, the scholarship policy is also challenged by the availability of resources.
Say all those with A+s were to be awarded scholarships, what would happen if the number was ridiculously high, especially when our schools are turning into hothouses of high scorers?
There is only a certain amount of money available to send our brightest abroad. Even if one rages about the unfairness of it all, one can't fight economic reality. Some people will be disappointed.
It must now be clear to everyone that the arguments are never over the availability of scholarships but, specifically, scholarships for abroad.
I had suggested this a few years ago when the same controversy over PSD overseas scholarships came to the fore -- it is now an annual thing, too, along with the outcry over places in medical schools, etc, which are soon to follow -- that the government should only fund postgraduate studies abroad. It is not only cheaper but would rid us of this annual circus.
All students, especially the best ones, should be enrolled in local universities. This will also serve as a signal that our universities are for our best. But this idea is a non-starter since as a society, we put extra currency in foreign degrees, even when they come from schools that are suspect.
Equality or fairness? Should all candidates with straight A+s be treated equally? The demand for equality may not result in fairness, which itself is a major opinion splitter since what is considered fair?
One must understand that scholarships are not only to reward high performers but are also an instrument of social restructuring. There are Malays and Bumiputeras, as there must be Chinese or Indians, who should be awarded scholarships because they would go a longer way towards getting them and their families out of their present situation.
This goes along the universal value of fairness -- the have-nots should be given a leg up. They should be given priority over those who qualify purely on academic performance.
If we were into cliches and admittedly rather racist demographics, then the children of Felda settlers or estate workers, or fishball mee sellers must surely be given priority over others. But yet many of them will be disappointed. Resources are finite.
We should not be making excuses if we are true to this cause of fairness. Yet ambiguities must be cleared and transparency should be the rule of the day.
But when we argue out loud, in the media especially, we are forced to adopt some posturing. For we are not discussing but instead flexing our muscles, or what we think are muscles, not at our opponents but our intended audience.
By posturing, we are trying to telegraph the message that we are fighting for justice, against friend or foe, and we are fighting for you.
This is not a good way to begin consultation since even if one were to get what one wished for, it would leave a bitter taste in the mouth of others. Posturing makes it difficult for anyone to come down from his position, lest he be seen a loser.
It requires a clear head and it would take a lot of confidence and stamina to resist posturing, especially when it is tempting to reap the quick rewards of public approval.
The PSD scholarship issue has been turned into a test case for some and for others, the posturing is getting rather out of hand. There must be a better way to resolve the issue. Stand down. We need a respite from never-ending politicking.