by Mahen Bala
The Tiger of Asia is fast asleep. Only decades ago, Malaysia was fondly known within the region as an economic powerhouse, destined to be at the forefront of transformation in South East Asia. Saddled by the heavy burden of corruption, the country today is only a shadow of its former self with Philippines having taken over the title.
Its’ capital, Kuala Lumpur, tries its best to project an image of a vibrant, progressive and modern city, with the same repeat of clips of the Petronas Twin Towers, cultural festivities and sumptuous food but the scene on the streets tells a different story.
Malaysians are struggling to survive with rising inflation and costs of living. Having one job isn’t enough and most of them in the lower income bracket are forced to take on a second job, if they prove lucky enough to land one. The Prime Minister has time and time again reminded us how foreign investments are pouring billions of Ringgit into the country and yet life on the streets has seen little of that money.
Corruption remains the cancer of the nation, especially the way lucrative government contracts are handed out among politically affiliated companies resulting in billions siphoned out of the system and numerous failed projects.
In 2012, Malaysian was ranked 54th globally in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI) which evaluated 176 countries. In the January 2013 Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index analysis of 82 countries, Malaysia was placed in “high risk Band D – along with Bangladesh, China and Rwanda.
The infrastructure of KL has remained stagnant for decades, with little improvement to alleviate the congestion problem despite years or promises from the federal government. A network Monorail and LRT lines carry commuters above and below the ground while the old, narrow roads are almost permanently saturated with cars and buses. In the city of Petaling Jaya, the modern, planned neighbour of KL, public transportation is almost non-existent, forcing most commuters to drive to work. Students who rely on buses are usually forced to wait for hours, hoping for the right bus to arrive.
The nation’s first MRT line is currently under construction with all 3 lines estimated to cost at least RM36.6 billion, the nations largest mega-project in history. The project is expected to be fully functional by 2017 with an expected capacity of 2 million riders. How well the project will be implemented and the degree in which it would help alleviate the congestion remains to be seen.
In the most recent 13th General Elections, the opposition party garnered 51% of the popular vote which unfortunately only translated to 89 seats out of 222 parliamentary seats. Gerrymandering and alleged electoral fraud was sufficient to grant the corrupt ruling coalition a simple majority to form the government.
Since then, the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim has called for mass rallies to demand for change. The voices of hundreds of thousands who came out onto the streets are still willfully ignored. The newly minted Minister of Home Affairs, Zahid Hamidi, on his first day on the job, made a statement urging those who are unsatisfied with the way the country is run to leave. Many Malaysians have indeed left the country to seek greener pastures. Deputy Foreign Minister Senator A. Kohilan Pillay was quoted as saying that 304,358 Malaysians had migrated from March 2008 till August 2009 compared with 139,696 Malaysians in 2007. The need to survive and succeed supersedes absolute patriotisme but Malaysia will always be home for any Malaysian living abroad.
In the coming years, unless Malaysia can be woken up with serious reforms and a loud enough call for change, a better Malaysia for all Malaysians will remain a dream.
The images in my collection “The Sleeping Tiger” is a narrative involving multiple segments of society, each caught up in the daily grind beginning before the sun rises and only manages to slow down long after the sun has set.
Mahen Bala is a filmmaker and photojournalist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has worked on documenting Malaysian and regional stories for the past 6 years covering heritage, history and social issues on various platforms. This photo essay was photographed and written during the 2012 ‘Stories without Words’ workshop for selected photojournalists, organised by the US Embassy at the Annexe Gallery, Central Market, Kuala Lumpur.