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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why I’m still here but my children won’t be


I am Malaysian. My grandparents escaped war and famine in China to make it here. They and my parents endured the deprivations of WW2 and the brutalities of the Japanese Occupation along with everyone else in this country.

They rode out the uncertainties of May 13 along with everyone else in this country. Everyone in my family has contributed to the growth and development of this nation, as I do now. So yes, I bristle when anyone questions our right to be here and our right to call ourselves Malaysian.

My husband is not Malaysian. He is an expatriate from a country that has been ranked one of the happiest in the world. Save The Children recently ranked it one of the top countries in the world to be a mother, taking into account maternity leave, childcare options and maternal mortality and child health.

Nobody in his country ever questioned his right to be there or called him a “pendatang” just because his grandparents or parents were not born in that country.

Yet, here we stay. Our life here is good, even privileged, some would say. My children go to an international school where the standard of teaching is world class. We live in a gated community with a lovely playground for the children and resort-like clubhouse facilities.

We have good and reliable domestic help that has made it easy for me to be a working mum. We enjoy good healthcare, relatively low taxation (compared to where my husband is from) and a standard of living I’m sure my grandparents would not have dared dream of when they first arrived.

Every day I am grateful that we have all this. My husband and I worked hard to have this lifestyle for our children and us. No handouts, no grants, no scholarships, no nothing — just some luck, and the sweat and toil and work ethic our parents and grandparents drilled into us. Yet, I am acutely aware that there are fellow Malaysians who work just as hard but don’t get the desired results. So I feel very fortunate indeed.

When I read about the struggles of Page and other parents fighting to get their children a decent education, I am humbled. I feel blessed that that does not have to be my struggle. If I had married a Malaysian, I’m sure it would be though as my children may not have been eligible to get into a school with decent standards where important global languages are taught.

When I read about children being snatched from playgrounds, lives taken during burglaries and house break-ins, I grieve for those families. I tell myself, yes we have to pay for our home security because we can’t depend on the police, but at least we can afford it.

When I read about the struggles of finding good childcare or work-life balance, I feel truly blessed for my trusty nanny-cum-housekeeper-cum-cook from the Philippines who loves and cares for my children like they are her own. I know I could never have this arrangement where my husband is from.

For all those reasons, we are still here, for now. We would dearly love to stay forever, but I worry about whether my children will have the opportunities I did. When they are grown, will the multinationals still be here to provide jobs?

If they wanted to start their own enterprises, will they be able to do it without currying favour and handing out bribes? Because we are ordinary people — we don’t have contacts and we don’t know anybody “important.” Will it be possible, in one more generation, to make a decent living without those connections? Some would say it is already impossible now. Will my children, when they are grown and if we are still here, ever be able to share meals and exchange ideas with friends of all races and religions without focusing on their differences? Will there even be secular public spaces left?

More importantly, I want to remove my children from the concept of entitlement that colours all public engagements and debate in this country.

I would like to be able to say to my fellow Malaysians, yes I will stay and fight the good fight with you, but the sad truth is that I’m convinced the battle is lost. We are regressing. The racists and extremists are winning because it suits the political agenda of our degenerate ruling elite. Mediocrity trumps meritocracy any day because it suits those in charge.

If our schools are lousy, it means the next generation won’t know enough to challenge them. Meanwhile, their children and grandchildren are in the same school as mine, or at least other private and international schools. And while you fight for scholarships for your brilliant and deserving children, theirs are already abroad and being groomed to rule over yours. It’s already happened once.

As one of the few taxpayers in this country (yet another way I’m a minority!), I begrudge every sen I have to pay because I just don’t see it going to do anything useful for those who need it most. Yet, I wouldn’t mind paying even more taxes if public accounting was more transparent, showing legitimate expenses for better public transport and education, subsidies for maternity leave and crèches at work.

However, even all that may be moot. We probably couldn’t stay even if we really wanted to. When my husband was last at the immigration offices, he casually asked for the form to apply for permanent residency. The officer at the counter asked him, “What race is your wife?” When my husband gave him the information, the officer laughed and said, “You married the wrong woman lah.” My husband has been here long enough to understand that was more a political jab than a personal one, but that was the nail in the coffin for any plans we had to stay here forever.

I have not lost all hope for this country. I love it too much. But in order to turn things around, we need the majority to want to change. Despots can be overthrown — look at the Arab Spring — but it is always the majority of passionate, I’ve-had-it-with-this-system, right-thinking people who force change. But how many of those do you see in this country?

So while we have a timeframe in mind for when to leave, meanwhile we stay and we do the best we can. We pay our taxes. We mind the laws. We give to worthy causes. I vote and sign petitions and engage with all my Malaysian friends. But tell me, is that enough?

So one day, we will take our children away and root them in a country that is not Malaysia. When they are grown, and I am old, I do want to come back. This is my country, but it won’t be theirs.

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