By Chandran Nair
First thing in the morning after the LRT collision which left more than 200 injured, Prasarana Malaysia Bhd chairperson Tajuddin Abdul Rahman visited the site of the accident and addressed the media. The next evening, he lost his job.
For businessperson and think-tank founder Chandran Nair, the Pasir Salak MP's remarks, which if not for the tragic circumstances, would have made excellent viewing as a prime-time spoof on television.
“With hundreds injured and viral videos circulating of bloodied passengers, his description of the incident as 'two cars kissing' while laughing not only repulsed the public, it was a shocking display of the lack of empathy at a time of national distress.
“Citizens were outraged. A frightened nation already dealing with the surge in Covid-19 cases came out of its shell and expressed disgust. How could someone in such a position and in the midst of a tragedy show such low levels of empathy and at the same time display such an inexplicable level of contempt for the office he holds, the organisation and people he represents?
“The big question on everyone's mind was how could someone of such low calibre, apparently devoid of any experience and clearly 'out of it', have been granted such a role?”
“Yet the answer is one we all know: a system of appointments which is part of a corrupt political system that is race-based and which should apparently never be questioned,” he told Malaysiakini.
Chandran, who has blamed institutionalised racism for the nation's major maladies, said people were beginning to see the stark realities of a racist system to which they had turned a blind eye to for decades.
The inevitable blowback, he pointed out, is taking place as the country faces its biggest challenge since independence.
“The decay from decades of fear about challenging institutional racism which has corroded so many aspects of the country’s once strong institutions is now on display on prime-time TV.
“It is a ‘virus’ also lurking in the background waiting to rear its ugly head as the institutions and the very fabric of the country are being challenged by the pandemic.
“Every Malaysian is hoping for the best and wondering how the tireless frontline healthcare workers and others are managing, given the fragility of the system.
“Incompetence continues to be rewarded with appointments to critical positions of authority, all driven by our single biggest challenge - institutional racism furthering corruption at all levels of our society and destroying any notion of the value of meritocracy and hard work,” he added.
The other elephant in the room
The Tajuddin episode, Chandran said, also reminded Malaysians of what he described as “the other elephant in the room” - political appointments.
“Numerous political appointees who don’t have what it takes to fulfill the roles given to run corporations or other public service bodies and whose collective failings over decades have helped create the mess we are now in: large scale and entrenched patronage in action with no accountability.
“It was on full display this week for all citizens to watch and people of all races raised their voices. To an international audience, the country would have perfectly fitted into any lurid description their prejudices dictated,” he added.
On the same note, Chandran, who is in the process of establishing the Malaysian Anti-Racism Institute (MARI), said the matter should not end with the Umno lawmaker being relieved of his duties.
“We must articulate and internalise the reasons for the horror show. We must have that honest conversation all over the country so we all understand that it is not a one-off but a feature embedded in so many organisations, which are only exposed to the public when true leadership is called for.
“We need to mainstream the understanding that it is a product of decades of institutional racism which has disregarded the importance of meritocracy, competence and integrity and which therefore both encourages unquestioned patronage and facilitates corruption.”
However, Chandran also found a silver lining in the form of Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz's swift action against Tajuddin and hoped that it heralds a new beginning.
“Hats off to the finance minister for stepping in and taking action. This has rarely ever happened and let it be a turning point. Thank you Zafrul,” he added.
Qualification, expertise must override race
Tajuddin's replacement, averred Chandran, should be a competent Malaysian, whose qualification and expertise must override racial consideration.
“Let us use this to stop the behind-the-scenes appointments which everyone has become desensitised to but which simply further emboldens the architects of the system.
“Can this be the turning point when the Ministry of Finance from now on demands open competition for these positions and appoints the most qualified Malaysian irrespective of race?
“And let this be the point when Malaysians seek accountability about appointments such as this rather than revert and resign themselves to the machinations of a system that is failing the country.
“Let the citizens now demand competence in all key areas and call out incompetence at every turn. We need to turn around this fear that has been instilled in us over decades about questioning issues that have direct consequences for the safety and welfare of the people.
“Let us not wait for more people to die, get sick, get poor, go hungry or get mad before we take action about the root cause of our ills - institutional racism that suffocates meritocracy and nourishes rampant corruption,” he added.
Chandran said the nation needs competent people of all races to spearhead key institutions, which was the norm in the past.
“Things changed when the racists took over and the citizens kept quiet. We are now suffering the consequences of our subservient attitudes. Our collective complacency got us here.
“The way to reclaim the country is to have zero tolerance for any trace of racism when it seeks to infiltrate the key institutions of the country and becomes a cancer. After all, the racism we Malaysians face is not on the street - as in the US, etc - it is via the institutions of the state.
“Citizens have kept quiet for too long. The cancer needs to be treated now without fear or favour and the finance minister just did that and it is a great start. He needs our support.”
Bad news after bad news
Chandran rued that the LRT accident was the latest in a string of bad news for Malaysia over the past five years ranging from the 1MDB scandal to the reversal of the results of a democratic election in 2018.
This was followed by the pandemic and economic hardship as well as the realisation that political upheavals have left Malaysia rudderless.
He pointed out that the imposition of the Emergency premised on the argument that it would restore political stability therefore allowing the government to contain the pandemic did not deliver the expected results.
On the contrary, he said it could be argued that it had the reverse effect as the political and governance system went into hibernation while politicians waited for the pandemic to end to get back to business as usual.
“A nervous and scared population is now even more worried as the Covid-19 cases have soared to the point that Malaysia now has more cases than India per million.
“A worried population is now wondering what next as rumours abound about infection rates soaring, hospitals at breaking point, the economy in deep trouble and many citizens living from hand to mouth.
“A scared and poorly informed nation is also fertile ground for rumours about shenanigans with regard to vaccines supplies, corruption and all forms of mal-administration.
“Yet there has been no calming leadership voice, people have been left to their own devices to figure things out. Leaders seem afraid, aware they have little credibility and the public have close to zero trust in them.
“Let us be clear that the pandemic has changed the country, it will take a decade or more to recover but let us learn some key lessons. We should all be clear about how we got to this low point and now commit to working tirelessly - but without our traditional fears - to ensure we build back our institutions as that is often the best safeguard for a country from failing.
“In the midst of all of this, there are the frontline medical workers and administrators who have worked tirelessly to protect people, treat them and roll out the vaccines. So we know we can do it and the challenge is to scale up.
“But despite their hard work, a frightened and nervous nation is dissatisfied with what they see as widespread incompetence in what is a complex operation, but people who are scared expect the best from their government.
“And that is where competent leadership, a system of ruthless meritocracy and unforgiving demands on integrity is paramount,” said Chandran.
‘Tajuddin fiasco exposes appointments rooted in racism, patronage’
By Chandran Nair