A generation of activist idealists

11 08 2009

AUG 11 – A trauma can make or break a person. It can make or break a generation, too.

In an inconspicuous house in Bangsar, a group of individuals belonging to the generation that I identify myself with has been meeting consistently for the past few weeks. There is only one agenda in their list and it involves a very global issue of climate change.

They endeavor to spread awareness regarding it to Malaysian youth. More ambitiously, they seek to influence national policy on climate change.

The idea began modestly and has been very much fueled by conviction and commitment to a cause. Friends and strangers met and discovered that they share a passion. With that passion, they banded together to act.

They started making calls and sending email seeking support among larger circles of friends to garner resources required to get the ball rolling.

Climate change was an issue close to my heart. A number of factors prodded me into the realm of economics, and climate change was one of the topics that caught my attention.

It was back in the late 1990s, when I was still a teenager, that I found myself attracted to a concept where a person could trade carbon as currency. With no training in economics whatsoever at that time, it was easy for me to be amazed at the concept.

The concept – pricing carbon to combat negative externality – and many more ideas surrounding the issue are not alien to me any longer.

Just as understanding of physical sciences inevitably render what used to be perceived as magic and supernatural events by the unenlightened into natural phenomena, so too does command of economics wash away my awe of this strange concept.

Ironic as it may seem, economics has made me less enthusiastic about the subject. The tools of economics have made me realise how hard it is to solve the issues.

Meanwhile, the politics of climate change conspire to make it impossible. Just weeks earlier, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd admitted that the odds of success at the much-anticipated climate change meet-up in Copenhagen, Denmark are bleak, and rightly so.

Yet, there they are in Bangsar, speaking so passionately about the issue, trying to affect and effect it. A row of ants standing in the path of an elephant, as I first saw it.

I am tempted to be sceptical about how much they can achieve, especially given the reality of climate change politics. Each time I want to express my scepticism however, my mind races back in time to the day of my graduation.

Amid a melancholic mood, uncertain of what the world holds for me, the president of my alma mater, Mrs Coleman, inspired me. She said, “…stand up for what you believe in, and what is right. You just might change course of events for the better.”

This is the hallmark of an idealist.

A friend of mine jokingly called them the Planeteers (remember the cartoon?)

Jokes asides, these Planeteers are but one example of idealists who make up this generation below 30s.

Another group of friends is working hard to share educational opportunities that exist in the United States with students in Malaysia.

They are out that to smash the myth that gaining admission into the best schools is either impossible or expensive, or both. They are already in those schools and they are inspiring others to be ambitious, just as they had been.

Together, they hold an ideal that Malaysians should have access to not just basic education but fulfilling the quality education that many in my circles believe that the Malaysian system is simply unable to provide, for various reasons.

Yet another set of brilliant cohorts with sterling education joined politics in drove as interns and assistants to politicians whose ideals they share. And they, too, sign up out of conviction, not for power.

There is a dangerous generalization here for surely, in every generation, there are dishonest individuals out merely to acquire power. That seems irrelevant to my circle of friends. In their eyes, I see a cause.

This surprises me greatly. For a generation condemned by others as highly disinterested in politics and societal issues at large, and only out and about listening to unbearable noise on their iPod and out large at night in roaming the city, the manner in which they have come in to shape politics is one big finger to such condescending generalisation.

A common criticism directed against idealists is that they are still young and naïve. The real world, sooner or later, will break them.

This generation of mine, or at least my circles, in a trend so overwhelming like a 50-metre tall wave to a sampan, is different. They are a different kind of idealists, for whom criticism is like a hard stone to a knife.

These idealists recognise harsh reality. Contrary to typical characterisation of an idealist, these idealists found their ideals out of disappointment and from that disappointment, a call to activism.

They have been all over the world. They witnessed it, made judgment about it, made comparison out of it. And they are disillusioned with Malaysia.

They are angry at everything that is true. All promises have been broken and they are posed to inherit a broken country with disrepute institutions, diminished national pride and worsening race relations.

While the older generations tend to dismiss this generation as unappreciative of past sacrifices, this new breed of idealist activists see that the older generations have failed them.

What else can so comprehensively explain why the nation’s youth, in so overwhelming a manner, voted against the establishment in 2008?

The disillusionment is traumatic, but it has hardened, not broken, them.

Rather than consoling themselves, they decide to not tweak their ideals, but almost outrageously go out to fix the reality. They endeavor to close the gap between ideals and reality, to improve the lamentable state that we Malaysians are in.

These circles of mine have been privileged but not overly so in their upbringing. After all, not too many attended the likes of Harvard, Dartmouth, Colby, Berkeley – and, ahem, Michigan – among others.

Experience tells me that outliers exude contagious confidence. The arithmetic mean is susceptible to outliers.

Such confidence is bound for greatness. It is individual confidence that is no longer dependent on the state or the community. They are, by themselves, individually, a whole army.

At maddruid.com, Hafiz Noor Shams shares how he is proud of his generation.


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