Turkish Confidence and ‘Malaysia Boleh!’

Posted on January 16, 2011

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One of the reasons for my fascination with Turkey is that I believe they are at a very important crossroads in their modern nation’s history. I remember reading a news article a few years ago, about the quiet revitalisation of Turkey’s economy, spearheaded by the devoutly Muslim mercantile class in the Turkish heartland of Anatolia. This section of Turkish society is also responsible for bringing to power the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party, whose ideology is guided by Islamic values and principles.

Now, that quiet revitalisation has taken on full steam, with Turkey’s economic growth coming only second to that of China. The global economic crisis that has weakened much of Europe has helped Turkey occupy a central position in the world stage, yet its growing influence is most palpable in the Muslim world, especially the chaos-ridden Arab street. Turkey’s assertiveness in the flotilla hostage crisis against Israel has won it admiration from the Arabs, desperate for leadership lacking among its own rulers.

During my visit to Istanbul I witnessed for myself the growing sense of confidence among Turks, a sentiment best summed up by its PM when he remarked that “we are a people who have built a civilization and are the very description of civilization”.

This effervescent sense of self-assurance got me reminiscing about my time growing up in Malaysia, at a time when we too, were experiencing dizzying levels of economic growth. Led by a PM for whom the world was his oyster, Malaysians were infected by a giddy sense of daring achievement, the intoxicating dream of unlimited potential. We were the small yet ambitious nation, a country blessed with a strategic geopolitical location and the inheritors of grand civilizations past. Our successes in international badminton and the unstoppable construction of highways, bridges and towers were captured in our battle cry – Malaysia Boleh! Malaysia Can! Beautiful in its succinct bravado and infinite possibilities…

Yet along the way we seemed to have lost our direction. With Mahathir gone from the front stage – and with him his authoritarian grip on the country – we were left in this transitory period approaching a democracy. A democracy characterised more by bickering than by intelligent debate, a newfound liberty that was used to complain about what was wrong rather than do what is right.

With this dejected sense of collective uncertainty, the once proudly proclaimed Malaysia Boleh! degenerated into a sarcastic retort, used to highlight the Malaysian ability for bad behaviour and mediocrity. Malaysia Boleh! was used to accompany photos of garbage on the streets, of sex scandals by politicians and the drop in rankings of local universities. Perhaps this was a necessary correction to bring us back to the ground from the dizzying heights of inflated national ego of the 90s, yet I feel it is time we dust ourselves from the ground, stand tall and seek the possibilities that a blessed land and a people rooted in civility bring.

I see in the Turks a reflection of ourselves not too long ago. A people confident in their ability and strident in charting their destiny.

We can do anything. We are Malaysians.

My memoirs on Istanbul are also published on NewsFlashMedia, where I occasionally contribute my musings.