just another rakyat

English + 中文。Made in Malaysia 🇲🇾

A chart showing that while the younger generations do use TikTok more than older generations, their most-used platform is, in fact, YouTube. Source: Insider Intelligence Image source: Insider Intelligence

It’s easy to look at charts like the one above and think that TikTok is overtaking YouTube because some condescending young people don’t have the patience bullshit.

but YouTube remains strong & young people spend lots of time on both TikTok and YouTube.

Not to forget that YouTube videos are getting longer as a whole. Hour-long YouTube videos are a thing and many people watch them.

Young people are abandoning Facebook not because they have no patience, but because that’s where their parents and bosses and aunties and uncles are. Social media is not entertainment, it’s a social event & you don’t go to a party where your parents and bosses are there to watch you & tell lame uncle jokes.

YouTube is doing fine because young people still watch “traditional” videos like everyone else. They turn to TikTok for instant entertainment but for anything more in-depth or engaging, they go to YouTube. These are two different products that serve different needs among the same audiences.

After all, young people still watch 2-hour long Marvel movies. They clearly have the patience for long-form content and entertainment.

They just don’t want to watch it while Uncle Bob keeps telling lame dad jokes around them, or worse, making judgmental comments about young people nowadays. Something like that.

Let’s say tomorrow all governments in the world are gone. No more taxes, police, and parliaments.

Next thing you know there will be widespread looting and violence. By the time gangsters start demanding exorbitant fees in return for protection, people will (grudgingly) welcome the protection because it’s better than being out there on your own. It’s better than losing your life, property and loved ones to the violence of all against all.

Eventually the gangsters become governments, the taikors become kings, the foot soldiers become armies and polices, and the protection fees become taxes. Kingdoms and empires rise and fall.

As people start demanding more and more from their rulers, sometimes through violent uprisings, the ruling gangs are often replaced with rival gangs, sometimes better, sometimes worse. Some of the people even get to have the option of choosing between rival gangs as their rulers.

While plenty are not exactly happy with this arrangement, with the monopolization of violence by the state, people are able to live life without fearing violence from their neighbors. While the rulers’ primary concern is to protect the lives and properties of themselves and their friends, eventually the protection spread down to everyone; after all, stability is good for their pockets. Businesses flourish, people enjoy better material comfort.

Of course, there’s plenty rotten with this brave new world – injustices still happen every day, wealth disparity is huge. So one day, those who had no memories of the past will look at the injustices, feel (rightfully) angry and dream of a world with no governments. See, we didn’t need anyone to tell us what to do, they say. Well, they only need to look at war zones and places where governments collapsed to see the alternative. It’s not pretty at all.

The reality is, we do need politics and governments and polices and soldiers. Without them the world is a less peaceful place. Violent conflicts are turned into arguments in parliaments instead – by treacherous monkeys, sure, but it’s better than violence on the streets. Wars are increasingly replaced with diplomacy because the rulers know that wars are costly to their pockets.

See, there is still violence and injustices and the peace is only relative. But that relative peace matters.

And so we march on, not exactly reaching for the stars, but at least making the world a little bit more tolerable to live in.

Some people make great friends and terrible colleagues.

Others are great colleagues but terrible as friends.

And then there are those who are great at being lovers, children, parents, bosses, employees, politicians, teachers

… while being absolute failures at their other roles in life.

That terrible person writing horrible stuff on Facebook? He might be the best dad ever. And maybe your wonderful friend is hated by everyone at work for being an asshole.

It’s ok. Nobody can be good at everything.

You don’t have to be everything to everyone.

We just do our best as being ourselves and the rest will follow.

It’s amazing how much people treat people differently simply because of what they are wearing. Religious garbs, suits & ties, baju kuning.

Don’t be fooled. Those who need to put on costumes to gain your trust… almost always have plenty to hide.

Tear down the costumes. It’s all flawed human beings, equal in the eyes of God or the Universe.

One thing I often bring up when talking about politics is before Roe v. Wade, Democrats in America used to be staunchly pro-life while Republicans were in favour of legalising abortion.

In fact, the pro-life movement originated among liberals, not conservatives. Liberals used to believe that it is their duty (and the government’s) to protect the lives of unborn babies alongside the poor and the weak.

Roe v. Wade changed all that – suddenly, Republicans were getting concerned about the government interfering with family affairs. Religious conservatives started joining the pro-life movement, which drove liberals away from it.

Meanwhile, Democrats were trying to win the support of feminists, and so they also started changing their tune on the matter. Their supporters soon followed.

Today, of course, there is pretty much no such thing as a pro-life Democrat, or a pro-choice Republican in America.

In fact, you can pretty much already know what a person supports and opposes based on her political affiliation alone. A Democrat supports abortion rights, gay marriages, fighting climate change, and so on, while opposing gun rights . A Republican must be against abortions, gay marriages, illegal immigration, and pro-climate change policies, while being pro-gun right and so on.

Which is kinda crazy if you think of it. Why would anyone’s stance on gun rights need to be based on their political affiliation?

Can someone not oppose abortions and owning guns at the same time? Can a person not support fighting climate change while being against amnesty for undocumented immigrants?

In such a polarized climate, it has become more and more difficult for Americans to reach out to the other side – how can you befriend another person when you know that they disagree with you on every single issue out there? It becomes hard to find common grounds with almost anybody who doesn’t support the same party as you do.

So. What does all this mean for us Malaysians? Sure, our society is pretty fractured… but are we as tribal as them yankees?

It may feel like it sometimes, but thankfully, I believe that we are not there yet.

I don’t have the right insights and data, so take my observations with lots of caution. From what I observed, it’s almost impossible to predict what a Malaysian might or might not support based on their political affiliations. PH supporters were (and still are) bitterly divided over the death penalty, for example. UMNO supporters don’t always agree with racist policies and plenty throw in their support out of a desire for stability. PKR supporters can range from those who believe in racial equality to those who are downright racists and religious supremacists. And so on, and so on, and so on.

On the other hand, it’s 100% conceivable for an UMNO and a DAP supporter to share the same opinions on various issues, from the death penalty to anti-hopping laws to abolishing the tolls. Heck, they might both agree on supporting racial equality, with the difference being both sides have very different understanding on which race is oppressing which.

With a bit of conversation, it won’t be hard for a DAP supporter to get an UMNO supporter to support ICERD.

For political parties and coalitions, this brings both plenty of challenges and opportunities, and unfortunately they come in a package.

As people support the same political parties for all kinds of different reasons, political parties and coalitions will have a hard time satisfying all those who voted for them and are in perpetual danger of losing some of their support, for example, DAP’s leadership have always had a hard time satisfying both its more liberal supporters and chauvinistic supporters, while I suspect that UMNO will have a hard time dealing with both its supporters who simply want to maintain a stable status quo, versus those who want to see an even more Malay-centric Malaysia even if it may cause disruption and disharmony.

This can result in situations where nobody is ever happy even if their political coalition of choice is in power, as demonstrated by PH’s short but volatile tenure.

On the other hand, this also opens up tremendous opportunities for political parties to find common grounds with non-traditional voters, for example, Pakatan Harapan was able to successfully attract Malay voters who were not too keen on racial equality but wanted to see Najib go during the last general elections. (Eventually many of these voters appeared to have defected to supporting PN instead, but that’s another story.)

Will a challenger political coalition be able to pull off the same stunt again?

I’m sure it’s possible. Because Malaysian voters are not as neatly divided by tribal affiliations as Americans, there’s always plenty of room for building common grounds and therefore gaining support from voters who are disenchanted with other political coalitions. This doesn’t even need to involve an umbrella coalition, as long as you are able to pinpoint the right issues that resonate with the maximum number of voters.

Of course, the real risk is how to keep everyone happy once you managed to win Putrajaya.

Perhaps the key is to focus on the right issues and don’t succumb to the desire to promise too much to too many different groups of people in return for support. That is a recipe for disaster (and probably one of the reasons why an umbrella coalition may not be the best idea).

Choose the right battle, be laser-focused on it, and deliver it once you do win. The rest can wait.

I always hear this from friends, colleagues, and family members: Malaysians are not racists, it’s only the politicians!

And I always thought, yeah right, I envy your optimism.

After all, half of Malaysian voters voted for the racist politicians and what they clearly stand for. Yes, usually we claim it’s for reasons other than racism. Those of us who vote for BN say that all they want is stability and unity…

… but they sure don’t give a flying fuck about institutionalized inequality that affect racial and religious minorities, do they?

A huge segment of voters sure don’t mind that bumiputeras enjoy privileges when it comes to education, housing, religion and more, while minorities need to be obedient, assimilate, and showcase unity even as the nation refuses to give them equal rights.

That’s not very comforting. And some of us are not even bashful about the real reasons they support the ruling coalition. It’s all on social media, for all to see.

I mean, remember that anti-ICERD rally?

The very same people who complain loudly about racial discrimination against Malays at the private sector were just as vocally opposing the signage of The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by the Malaysian government. Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, for fuck’s sake. Was there ever a clearer expression of what a certain segment of voters want and don’t want?

Take a closer look at what Malaysians really want, and the façade of social harmony falls even further apart. A few years back, a survey by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute showed that over half (57 per cent) of Malays in Johor wanted to apply hudud laws to all Malaysians regardless of religion. A year later, ISMA started a petition wanting Malaysia to be declared an Islamic State, and 19,000 Malaysians signed the petition within just two days.

Because, fuck all non-Muslims in Malaysia, right? If you’re not a Malay-Muslim, the majority simply doesn’t really care about what you want, and see you more as an obstacle towards achieving their political utopia.

Or, you know, just read any history book on Malaysia.

We have been a bitterly divided country long before Mahathir or Najib or Hadi Awang or Lim Kit Siang appeared on the scene. The majority of Malaysians have been against equal rights between races ever since colonial times.

That’s why Malayan Union was opposed back in the days. The harmonious version of Malaysia many of us wish we could return to only happened in Petronas ads.

Stop glorifying the pre-Mahathir or pre-Razak days, for fuck’s sake. Realize that all the sentiments against racial equality flows from the bottom to the top, and not the other way round.

And then you’ll have some idea of how hard it is to change things in Malaysia. You’ll be less disappointed that way.

On the other side of the political divide, there are plenty of us who claim that we vote opposition for a less racist and more equal Malaysia. And yet, some of us turn a blind eye when it comes to pro-Chinese racist preferences at the workplace, or when it comes to landlords not willing to rent out houses to Indians or Malays.

And let’s not ignore all the casual racist comments that are made by non-BN/PAS supporters at home, at the mamak shop, or on internet spaces…

One needs to be truly ignorant of what’s going on around us to declare that Malaysians in general are not racist. As some have joked, Malaysia is truly a multiracist country.


It’s true that Malaysians are super friendly to each other in real life. By real life, we mean on the streets, in the office, at the mamak shop, as neighbors and colleagues as long as we are not arguing about politics or voting at the voting booth.

Now close your eyes, and think of what racism looks like. You probably pictured politicians spewing hateful content about apa lagi cina mahu or raising the keris and promising to bathe it in minority blood or shit like that.

Sure, most Malaysians don’t speak and act like brown or yellow nazis. UMNO voters have no issue sharing a plate of nasi kandar with Chinese friends and DAP voters have no issues sharing a lou sang with Malay friends. We smile, we call each other bro, we laugh and spend time together. And although I’ve sat with dozens of protestors who just came back from the anti-ICERD rally, none of them dared to speak to me and ask me to balik tiongsan.

It’s only at the voting booth that we vote against each other’s interests.

Even as we befriend those from other races, we look at politicians spewing racist shit and think: sure, that guy speaks like a mad man, but at least I feel comfortable about his vision of what Malaysia should look like.

And then we vote for the mad man. Because no matter how crazily he acts, he’s our man.

This applies to both sides, I have to say. For every keris-waving Malay Nationalist on one end, there’s the chauvinistic-yet-super-popular Superman-Hew-type grassroot politician on the other. It just happens that the Malay nationalists are the ones with power.

The truth is, when most people vote, we probably don’t do it out of hate for entire groups of people. It’s just that we simply don’t care very much what those groups of people want or don’t want. If I vote for PKR/DAP I’d probably not care very much about your UMNO or PAS-voting friends, would I?

We all put ourselves first, and that’s ok. That’s how democracy works. Others will vote for what they feel is the best for them, and the majority will vote differently from you and get what they want, so you don’t have to feel bad about it.

Not that most of us will feel bad about it in the first place. Let’s say I’m voting for the opposition, and I do think for my friends who vote differently. It’s really not that hard to convince myself that it’s all for their benefit.

Afterall, a Malaysian for all Malaysians will benefit everyone. *Sure, it takes away some privileges from my Malay friends, but isn’t a better-run Malaysia, free from racial politics that empower corrupt politicians, going to benefit everyone including Malays who are all this while bamboozled by short-term benefits and deluded by malicious propaganda? *

She’ll come to her senses and realize that it’s all for her own good, I thought. She was just manipulated by political parties who play with religion and race. She’s not racist at all.

And who knows, my friend might be thinking of me too as she casted her vote.

Sure, some of my friends are not Muslims and they will not like to hear that I am voting for PAS, she thought. But a country led by true Muslims will be good for everyone, including non-Muslims. Non-Muslims will see that it’s all for their own good when it really happens. Afterall, Islam is applicable to all humans.

God willing, my friends will see the light and convert to Islam, once they experience what a real Islamic society is like.

Or what about my UMNO-voting friends?

Well, something about how stability is good for everyone, that’s for sure, and how only UMNO can bring true stability by ensuring the continuity of the (fictional) social contract to maintain social cohesion. Wouldn’t it be great if true harmony happens, with Malays leading the way?

At the moment, my Chinese and Malay friends are manipulated by greedy political parties who want to destroy the social fabric of Malaysia. That’s why we should be responsible and protect them from themselves, and the disharmony that they are going to create. I’m sure once they realize that it’s for their own good, they will no longer be racist against Malays.

Of course, this is just me trying to step into their shoes and imagine what others might think. Most of the reasoning above should be familiar to you though, if you’ve ever argued with Malaysians with different political views.

The point is, the pathway to hell is paved with good intentions. All of us REALLY do believe wholeheartedly that what we want is also the best for everyone. It’s unfortunate that we also happen to live in very different realities, and have very different ideas about what’s good for ourselves and others.

So, does this make us Malaysians a racist bunch or not?

Does it count as racist if we believe that only our race (somehow) have things figured out while that other races are unable to make the right decisions, and are just being stupidly manipulated by evil politicians? Does it count as racist if we refer to non-Muslims as belum Muslim, or refer to Chinese-speaking or liberal-minded Malays as “smarter” and “more educated”?

Does it count as racist if we defend the status quo that clearly benefits our own race at the expense of others, even when we claim to care for one another?

There is no right or wrong. It’s up for you to judge. It’s all just labels, in the end.

But if we are going to change things for the better, the last thing we should do is to sweep everything under the rug. Let’s not pretend that as long as we remove the current batch of politicians, the majority of Malaysians will “see the light” and stop wanting the same things that they have always wanted.

Because while you wait for them to see your version of the truth, they just go ahead and vote.

It started with a revelation to my wife.

What!? How can your closest friends know nothing about it? She was as flabbergasted as I thought she’d be.

Yeah, I never told them.

But… why?

Because it’s so frivolous it’s embarrassing. They won’t be interested anyway.

My embarrassing secret is, in fact, just a very ordinary hobby. A trendy one, in fact. Among many other things, I’m a houseplant geek with a particular interest on weird and challenging plants like carnivorous plants, Tillandsias, jewel orchids, Bulbophyllums, and high-humidity begonias.

Which I know is strange thing to be embarrassed about, since plenty of people got really into houseplants while cooped up at home over the past two years. Houseplants are cool! #Plantfluencers are admired and raking in money on Instagram and YouTube! And I do happily share photos of my plants on Reddit and other forums, which always result in tons of positive feedback.

But I felt more comfortable talking about my hobbies with strangers than with people I know in real life. Strangers congregating on r/houseplants or r/SavageGarden are certainly going to LOVE what I’m going to share, but with friends, colleagues and even family members, I’m afraid not. I mean, Begonia chlorosticta is stunning and extremely challenging and success with them probably means that you’ve achieved sensei levels, but for my DOTA-playing football-watching buddies, I might as well be asking them to admire a Pollock painting.

Now, think of how you interact with different groups of people. I’m sure you bitch about your job in front of friends and certain colleagues you trust, but what about your manager? Or your mom? Probably not. Imagine writing something ironic on Facebook and out of nowhere Mom comments below your post, oblivious to your sarcasm. It can be super awkward, and I can see why some people refrain from adding their parents on social media!

Not surprisingly, scholars and pundits have a word for it. When something you intend for a certain audience on Facebook (say, an ironic joke that your close friends will “get”) attracts attention from an unintended audience (like your mom) and results in misunderstanding, embarrassment, or other less-than-pleasant situations, what happens is known as context collapse, “the flattening of multiple audiences into a single context” according to Wikipedia.

So really, my very selective approach to talking about my hobbies is just one of the many examples where I speak and act in very different ways in front of different people to avoid context collapse. For example, I can sometimes crack crass adult jokes in front of buddies (forgive me, ladies) – something that my colleagues and bosses will never see me attempt in front of them because I feel the need to maintain some semblance of workplace professionalism. I don’t tell the same jokes in front of my wife, because as a woman she will not appreciate them (well, we do make adult jokes but of a different sort), but I conjure plenty of incredibly lame dad jokes when I’m with her – jokes so lame that I feel embarrassed telling them to anyone else. Outside of inappropriate and lame jokes, politics is a HUGE conversation topic between me and some of my close friends, but I avoid making my political views known in office. I bitch about office stuff with certain colleagues and not with others, and so on, and so on.

Different audiences, different topics, and different me.

That’s probably why felt so awkward when my wife casually mentioned my houseplant hobby in front of one of my friends – she was unaware that I never talk about such hobbies in front of most friends. But what’s particularly embarrassing about this hobby, and why do I avoid mentioning it to friends? To be honest, I can be damn neurotic so such weirdness certainly reflects more on me than on the you if I’ve not been open and honest with you.

One reason is I don’t think that my predominantly male friends who watch football, play aggressive video games, and expect sex, blood, and violence in their favourite TV shows will be interested in hearing about such a ladylike pursuit. Gardening and home making and decorating your indoors space is sometimes viewed as feminine activities. Maybe it’s the damaging effects of toxic masculinity or something. Luckily, times have changed a lot and it’s common to see male houseplant influencers nowadays, even though the hobby as a whole skews heavily female.

But there is also another bigger reason why indoors gardening has been such a guilty pleasure for me.

As someone who’s just entering his 30s, it’s expected of me to appear motivated, purposeful and career-driven at all times. Fake it until you make it, as they say. Those who don’t seem ambitious enough are disdained. What will my career-focused friends think of me if they know that I spend a few hours each week tending to a bunch of pretty but useless greens that bring no financial reward and personal growth? Will people not start inferring that I’m not focused on entrepreneurship and self-improvement and productivity and winning industrial awards? Just like how reading Harry Potter or Dune is something perceived as a waste of your time, while reading books regurgitating bland financial advices show that you are highly motivated and future-driven. Meanwhile, most manly hobbies such as playing computer games and watching football games aren’t exactly purposely pursuits, but at least those are pretty universal vices among men, so they can’t fault you about it.

Of course, my hobbies have never interfered one bit with my career. It helps me de-stress after work, and I might have burnt out a lot more frequently without it. Plus, hobbies require money and money requires work. Gardening enthusiasts will work their asses off and save money to be able to afford a plot of land, just like how many “driven” people are working their asses off to afford a BMW. At the very least, people work hard to that they can continue to enjoy their hobbies in comfort; when finances are hard, hobbies are usually the first thing that go out of the window.

But that’s not the point. Hobbies and other fun activities are worth existing for their own sake as long as you and your family’s sustenance is taken care of, even if they do nothing to advance your career. I’ve since learnt that feeling a bit embarrassed about your hobby is probably a good sign. That includes your time-wasting gaming sessions, my friends. As Oliver Burkeman wrote in his anti-productivity-culture self-help book *Four Thousand Weeks”,

(Hobbies have) come to signify something slightly pathetic; many of us tend to feel that the person who’s deeply involved in their hobby of, say, painting miniature fantasy figurines, or tending to their collection of rare cacti, is guilty of not participating in real life as energetically as they otherwise might.

The Chinese even have a phrase for it: 玩物喪志. My parents’ culture sees hobbies as something that make people lazy and unambitious.

Yet it’s surely no coincidence that hobbies have acquired this embarrassing reputation in an era so committed to using time instrumentally. In an age of instrumentalization, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit. The derision we heap upon the avid stamp collector or train spotter might really be a kind of defense mechanism, to spare us from confronting the possibility that they’re truly happy in a way that the rest of us—pursuing our telic lives, ceaselessly in search of future fulfillment—are not. This also helps explain why it’s far less embarrassing (indeed, positively fashionable) to have a “side hustle,” a hobbylike activity explicitly pursued with profit in mind.

EXACTLY. It feels like we’re constantly expected to justify our hobbies. It shouldn’t be that way. People who know about my hobbies have often asked me to turn it into something money making. I’ve always said NO. My day job exists for a purpose. My work is work to me, and my hobbies are hobbies.

Perhaps it’s time for people to start needing to justify why they have been so ambitious and working so hard. You don’t need to be the CEO of your company to be able to feed your family and spend quality time with them, unless it’s to lead a luxurious lifestyle that itself may need some justification.

Granted, I do turn some of my passions into hustles, like writing articles. But it’s never been about profit. Sharing my musings and opinions with you, dear reader, is the entire point. It just happens to also (at some points) bring in a very tiny bit of pocket money.

And so in order to be a source of true fulfillment, a good hobby probably should feel a little embarrassing; that’s a sign you’re doing it for its own sake, rather than for some socially sanctioned outcome.

I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly guilty for thinking a bit too much about how I spend time. I don’t watch any series because I see it as a time sink. At least tending to my plants take very little time each day. (I do spend more time than I care to admit looking at them.)

All these does sound like me unfairly blaming others for my personal failings, though. So writing this article has been a chance for reflection. While my reluctance to discuss my hobbies stem from my fear of being judged, perhaps it’s me who’ve been overly judgemental towards my friends, family and colleagues. After all, they never told me anything about what they feel about my hobbies, since I told them nothing. If they do judge me, it’s more likely because of whether I’ve been an asshole or whether I’ve been kind to others.

You know, I know how you can be really passionate and knowledgeable about many things, but most people will never find out.

Do they care? I know that I will just bore the heck out of them, we are just interested in totally different things. If I want their attention, I should be talking about money-making and stuff.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. How many times have people proven themselves to be not what you expected? People can and will surprise you if you let them.

She’s right. They are plenty of people whom I dislike at first who turns out to become good friends of mine. I wouldn't have been lucky enough to know them better if I had not give them the chance.

I guess I have been spending too much time imagining how others will react to things I care about, and underestimating how interested they might be. It’s always inspiring when you see someone being passionate about something, right? Even if they aren’t going to share my hobbies, they will at least learn something new and true about me.

After all, my wife would have found me much less interesting had I not told her about all the weird and wonderful things about animals and plants and philosophy and sociology and aliens. If, many years ago, I was scared of boring the heck out of her, we’d not have decided to know each other further. And all the amazing years that we have spent together since will not have happened.

I’m glad that I made the right moves when it comes to my partner. But I regret that I didn’t share more about myself with you, my dear friends and readers. This is why I am going to write again. And I will not just write about politics and society as I used to write in my old newspaper column, but also about all the many other things I know and care about. From how to grow weird and wonderful plants to musings on computer sentience, from thoughts on social justice to the implications of technology on humanity, from navel-gazing like this exact article to delicious food I discovered over the weekends.

Who knows, there might be something that stirs your interest. It’ll be a damned shame if i missed the chance to share it with you.

Like everything else, this comes with risks. My views on things often don’t align with that of those around me. Pretty sure I’ll eventually offend someone over my thoughts on web3, or politics, or some other heated topic. All that is fine. We must learn how to agree to disagree.

Last month, I visited a friend’s home and to my surprise, he has a rack full of succulents on his balcony. Not super well-grown ones, as he clearly lacks the know-hows that I’ve learnt through experience, but ones that are tended with care. For the first time, I realised that we might have more in common than I thought.

Never knew that he’s also somewhat interested in plants, I mused. Perhaps I can share some growing techniques with him.

Trillions of years after the Great Undoing, Earth has been as lifeless and barren as space itself for eons.

And on a distant galaxy far, far away, a scientist named Fërmî wonders: why haven’t other intelligent life forms shown up?

Once upon a time in the USA, there was a white boss and his black employee. The boss was recently transferred to the company and was promoted to boss level within a few months. The black employee had been working in the same company for 30 years.

One day, there was news of a black cafe refusing to serve a white customer. It was during the Black Lives Matter protests, and black people were angry about how they were treated violently by the system. During lunch break, someone brought up the news about the cafe refusing to serve the white customer.

The white boss instantly thought about the Down With White Trash slogans chanted during the BLM protests. He thought about that one time when a black person made racist remarks while serving him in a cafe. He felt very hurt back then. And he still felt very hurt now. There was so much hate against white people in this fair country. So much racism against whites. Sure, a small percentage white people were racists as well, but so were most black people, with their rap songs and refusal to speak proper english. If anything, white people were the ones who were always blamed for everything in society. So much racism. So much hate. So little unity.

The black employee instantly thought about how this young boss, who had so little work experience, had the power to fire him at an instant.

He’s tired of all the unfairness in this country, but it’s not like black people were not sometimes actually racist as well. In fact, he made racist comments about his white boss while with his black friends. But he was in front of his boss now. It’s wise to make cynical comments that everyone can agree with. Why talk about systemic injustice, when he could make a true statement about how everyone’s a racist? That’s part of the truth anyway. Nobody ever gets fired for being cynical.

We are all racists, I suppose. The black man declared.

We are all racists, I suppose. The white boss exclaimed, at the same moment.

Both the white man and the black man laughed. But one of them laughed a proud, vindicated laugh, and the other’s laughter was tired and bitter.

The leader introduces the team, praising their amazing teamwork. After building up the case, she proposes the big idea, brilliantly conjured by the team to solve the client’s pressing problem. All sounds good.

Of course she mentions not the heated meetings where people misunderstood each other. Or that one of the departments went rogue and did their own thing. Or how the writers and the art directors got a bunch of shoddy posters done without communicating their intentions to each other, because that was how they have always worked. Or the entire week they wasted on an idea that went nowhere, because the idea was not properly explained to the CEO.

None of this matter, as nobody imagined it happening otherwise. The job got done, right? And the client is going to love the idea, blissfully unaware of the mess concealed behind a seemingly polished presentation.

Such is work. Remember how much group assignments sucked? Work is more of that, except your projects now affect thousands or millions of customers. Surely there are wonderfully collaborative teams out there, but I suspect that most of us agree that teamwork universally sucks, and people in general are terrible at communicating.

If so, I wonder how we manage to get anything done at all. Yet we collaborated and produced truly amazing things, among many more obvious failures. We are surrounded with products which conception, manufacturing and retail span continents and involve hundreds or thousands of people. While I’m no libertarian, I can’t help but quote Leonard E. Read’s masterpiece I, Pencil, in which an anthropomorphised pencil explained his conception:

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me.

The lesson, according to Lawrence W. Reed:

None of the Robespierres of the world knew how to make a pencil, yet they wanted to remake entire societies.

You don’t say.

Wonderful all this products of mass collaboration may be, if we see how most things are made, we will realise that they are far from perfect, and we might wonder why we put so much trust in brands. Even when products are exceptionally well made, there remains a bit of inconsistency and shoddiness. Look closer at a product, and you can almost see which features are demands from managers or the marketing team. You see the compromises dictated by accountants. And the half-hearted implementations. And the miscommunications, which always lead to someone saying in desperation: whatever!

Despite all this, as consumers we are led by clever marketing to believe that products are results of ingenuity and amazing teamwork. We blame the poorly done on bad decisions and flawed visions. We are blissfully unaware of all the miscommunications and messiness that went into the products that we use.

Now, please allow me to shift the topic… like most products, government policies and visions are the result of collaboration – one between people with competing or opposing interests, ideologies, mandates, and ambitions. As the popular quote frequently attributed to Otto von Bismarck goes:

Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made… to retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.

Teamwork was seldom amazing, even in political entities that swear by a common vision – friends in the Malaysian government offered me glimpses of the miscommunication that happens daily in Putrajaya, and I can’t help but draw parallels with a typical day at work. Proposals are misunderstood, people talk cock, high-level ministers broadcast unrealistic targets that everyone else ignored – no matter how shiny and promising a political sausage looks, it was, after all, built with a mixture of workplace politics and serious miscommunication. Yucks!

All this endemic miscommunication makes change hard, even if there is sufficient will and vision. When people talk over each other’s heads and nobody understands what the fuck is going on, we naturally revert to standard operating procedures. Even in chaotic environments, old-timers get their jobs done as usual with little to no instructions, and new instructions tend to go unheeded or scorned at. New comers seek the experience of seniors, especially when attempts with new ideas and work-styles brought more trouble than appreciation, or when they stumble because they realised that no one cooperates with new ways. While change gets punished, the existing system produces suboptimal work effortlessly. Is it any wonder that we eventually succumb to gravity?

Yes, collaborations on a mass scale can magically produce wonderful results even with minimal and terrible communication, yet they are also extremely resistant to change. To change the way thousands or millions of people work, takes time and systematic reforms. A new leader is simply not enough for anything meaningful.

Armed with this insight, we should be more resistant of the allures of autocracy, especially when autocrats claim that more power is needed to realise big beautiful uncompromising visions.

As we look at autocracies worldwide, we see not nations that stand for powerful visions realised. The countries they governed look just as messy as democracies, if not more so. Despite Mr. Putin’s strongman image, Russia remains a Westworld of corrupt oligarchs which Putin must please or cautiously remove, and despite China’s amazing achievements, from time to time we glimpse fierce power struggles within the Communist Party. Furthermore, everyday we see evidences of misalignment between the Party leadership and its minions.

(Seriously, how did Winnie the Pooh got banned? I believe that it was likely the result of a censor trying too hard when second-guessing his superior’s wishes, rather than a direct decree from Mr. Xi Jinping.)

Let’s cast aside our fetishisation of strong, technocratic leaderships. Undeniably, there are autocratic nations like China and Singapore with consequential achievements, resulting in huge improvements to human wellbeing. Yet, the costs of achievements aside, be careful of attributing such successes to visionary autocracies. Neither autocracy nor democracy can solve everything. As means to an end, their effectiveness must rely on many factors. Autocrats don’t have as much power and control as we assumed, and autocratic leaderships remain massive and messy collaborations.

This shoddiness prevented much greatness from being realised, yet, despite all the existing horrors in the world, the inherent shoddiness of politics may have also prevented many leaders from executing their dystopian visions, and we should be thankful for that.

Back home in Malaysia, critics of Prime Minister Mahathir see him as a manipulative puppet master who single-handedly orchestrated all that plague Malaysia till this day, and hell bent on corrupting Pakatan Harapan from within in service of his racist agenda. Mahathir’s admirers on the other hand believe that he is the only one with sufficient vision, stomach, and cunning to push through necessary changes.

Such simplistic believes are tempting because they promise simplistic solutions. Throughout the world, conspiracy theorists obsess over the idea of a powerful mastermind single-handedly bringing the nation, or the world, to ruin for his selfish, hateful agenda, whether that puppet master is Putin, Bannon, Soros, or the Kochs. Conversely, people with autocratic tendencies claim that all the nation lacks is good people with the right vision, and the dedication to bulldoze agendas through. Yet assuming that humankind is universally bad with communicating and collaborating, no strong leader is sufficient to solve our ills. Nor are large scale conspiracies likely to be true. There is even a math equation to prove the intrinsic probability of a conspiracy failing!

While there is no doubt that Mahathir is a master politician, a closer look reveals a man often forced by the will of the majority to reinvent his positions throughout his political career. Decades ago, the Islamisation of the Malay majority and the threat of pas inspired Mahathir to recruit firebrand Islamist Anwar Ibrahim, to retain the support of a more and more conservative base. Decades later, with louder demands for institutional reforms and clean politics, the former autocrat had to reinvent himself as an apparently sincere democrat.

Again quoting Bismarck,

The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past. Mahathir greatest genius is co-opting his opponents whenever he feels the need to reinvent himself, even if that means sacrificing his original visions. A diverse and ever-changing nation is no place for stubbornness.

Yet, for all his shrewdness, he ended up leading a diverse and quarrelsome coalition consisting of Chinese-majority and reform-minded DAP, the PAS splinter AMANAH, and UMNO splinters like PKR and BERSATU. And it is obvious that, amidst all the squabbles, Mahathir have difficulty pushing anything through. Despite initial optimism from some and fears from others, more than a year after that landmark election, our news are filled with conflicts within the governing coalition and Pakatan Harapan has yet to get its act together and function as a cohesive whole.

Now, why did we expect any better or worse in the first place? A coalition with diverse opinions, interests, experiences, and worldview should not be expected to speak with a unified voice and act in unity. It will be surprising if Mahathir – or more reform minded Pakatan members, or anyone else – can reshape the nation as envisioned. Besides, a hostile and uncooperative civil service cultivated over the decades by the previous regime makes reforms really hard. Malaysia’s governance is more than just about who leads the government.

Sadly, with every failed attempt of change, the temptation to do things the easy and usual way gets stronger. Change is diluted and misapplied. The old system remains. Everyone succumbs to gravity.

In a nutshell: the world is much shoddier than most people imagined – and harder to change as a result. Neither Trump’s election nor Pakatan Harapan’s win has resulted in the massive change many hoped or feared. Rapid transformations like how Germany devolved into the Third Reich are often decades in the making, and they happen because they are endorsed by the masses. The statesman can only hope to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past. Change takes far more than great or terrible leadership.

All this may sound pessimistic, yet small changes are better than none. With enough perseverance, tiny acts build momentum over time.

True change will not come from leaders with vision and will. It can only come with systematic reforms that change how everyone and their interests interact. And powerful it may be, inertia will ultimately give way to gradual changes on a mass scale, like how Malaysians worry more about freedom and corruption today, or, on a darker note, like how Malaysian Muslims became more conservative over the decades.

Such changes are organic and involve millions of people, yet they can be, and have been, done. Every individual’s action counts! Before we know it, we would have taken one more baby step forward.

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.