Oleh: Aira Azhari

I had dinner with a dear friend recently and he told me about the various things he was doing beyond his day job. He has a successful tech start-up and runs a non-governmental organisation that advocates national unity and youth empowerment.

As with most conversations these days, the topic eventually turned to the state of Malaysian politics. Before I go any further, let me first state that the two of us come from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Over the years that we have been friends, we have agreed to disagree when it comes to political allegiances.

Despite our differences, one thing we could agree on was the extreme political fatigue that many Malaysians are suffering from at the moment. We lamented about politics being a game played by those whose lives are entirely out of touch with ours. Only in politics will you see an alleged dictator and a man he accused of heinous crimes shake hands like old friends, alliances forged between sworn enemies and long-time allies discarded and humiliated like trash.

The implications of this apathy towards politics and politicians are twofold. The worst-case scenario is when intelligent citizens give up on the nation and decide to leave the country for greener pastures. The brain drain is a topic that has been explored widely enough, so I will not comment on it. Instead, I want to make the argument that political fatigue is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can have positive consequences for the citizens of a country.

Let me give you an example. On Sunday nights, I sometimes volunteer at a movement called Buku Jalanan Chow Kit (BJCK). This initiative was born out of the inadequacy of our education system to accommodate children who are slower at learning due to the circumstances that they are born into.

We provide free classes for the children of Chow Kit, teaching them English and Mathematics on tikar spread out in one of the back alleys of the city. The atmosphere there is quite electric with noisy children learning in semi-darkness under battery-operated lamps in the humid night air of Kuala Lumpur. KLCC and several luxury condominiums are within sight of where the classes are held, adding a dash of irony to the situation faced by the urban poor of this big city that we share.

BJCK is a great example of citizens taking things into their hands when they feel that the government can no longer meet their needs. People who come to observe our classes frequently comment on how sad it is that we have to literally sit in a back alley opposite a smelly dumpster to teach these children. I, on the other hand, think that the location and conditions of these classes we teach are precisely the point that we are trying to make. The education system we have right now has failed these children, so we take to the streets to teach them on their own turf and according to their ability.

I never knew much about the conditions of the urban poor until I started volunteering at BJCK. I never really paid attention to the exclusionary nature of our education system until I spent some time with these children. The way the volunteers truly cared about these children, and their mothers as well, really touched me. It was then that I started to realise that perhaps this apathy towards politics, politicians and the government can actually result in citizens paying more attention to one another.

Now, in no way am I saying that we should stop caring altogether about what politicians do and how the government works. I still believe that as long as we live within this framework of democracy, government and political parties, it is important for us, as citizens, to demand more of our elected representatives.

Whether we like it or not, they are still the ones who have the power to shape policies and pass laws that affect us all. Losing faith in the education system also means that we should seek to overhaul the current structure that puts children into boxes with no consideration for their individuality and circumstances in which they are born.

But what is more important, I believe, is for us to care for each other more. This means that we extend a helping hand to a child who gets left behind in school, to single mothers who struggle to feed their children and to those whose lives have revolved around abuse and violence.

We have a responsibility towards each other, so let us live up to that and not depend on the government for solutions all the time. If people like you and me start looking out for each other more, all Malaysians can some day stand on their own two feet, relying less on those in power who often only do things for their own interests and little else.

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