Friday, September 9, 2011

Of Fairytales, Youth and Public Policy

Despereaux. It is a French word meaning desperate and despaired, and also the name of a character in a fairy tale, the Tale of Despereaux. In the story, Despereaux the tiny mouse tries to make a mammoth change in a huge kingdom. But beyond its literal meanings, Despereaux is about unlikely heroes.
That was the name of my team, which recently won the runner-up in the inaugural Malaysia Public Policy Competition (MPPC) , suggested by my teammate Ezreena. This post is about the MPPC, a competition where youths compete to present new public policy suggestions, my personal experience during its duration, and above it all, the unlikely heroes of Malaysia – the youth.
We of Generation Y have often been criticised as apathetic, immature, unfocused, and unpatriotic. My experience – and I am sure this is one shared by the judges ( including our very own Edmund Bon) – has shown not only that this view is plainly unfair, but also that we are a viable and untapped resource for change in Malaysia.
Selangor State Legislative Assembly Speaker Dato Teng Chang Kim, who was one of the judges, commented: “You are all more than qualified to be MPs.”
Indeed, we did not call each other racists at the top of our voice, nor did we refer to each other as Big Monkeys (unless we were being compared to Lord Bobo, in which case we would consider it an honour), nor did we ask dedicated men in wheelchairs to stand up. We did not call for a crusade when dealing with sensitive issues such as race and religion, nor did we ban certain colours.

We used logic, reason, research, facts, and innovation to pull through, and ultimately proved ourselves. My team’s idea, setting up a website to monitor police corruption based on the model of a fashion shopping site called Net A Porter, was one of the suggestions proposed. UT Mara 1, the champion, suggested live streaming of trials involving politicians to ensure justice and to guarantee transparency in disseminating public information. Hamtaro, who came in 3rd, had simple, practical ideas to tackle one of the most pervasive issues of corruption amongst youths: bribing for driving licenses. All these ideas utilised social media, IT, and public involvement, and were fresh and bright policies for the betterment of the nation.
Our policies were not only creative, they were grounded in political reality. We took into account challenges such as cost, public perception, and resistance from the civil service in a pragmatic manner, and quickly devised stop gap measures to lessen these consequences within our ideas. We had implementable and realistic plans, where the time frame and methods of achieving our policies were  clearly outlined. For my team, we had our super researcher Kai Tyng to be our Wikipedia. We were not naive, taking into account the need to generate political will and exert public pressure to ensure our policies would see the light of day.

Champions, UT MARA 1. Image from the Sun.
Besides all that brain-racking, we had heart. We were focused and committed – God knows how many Red Bulls were consumed the night before presentation time. For myself, I opted for a more Malaysian way of staying awake: Sup Kambing from the mamak stall across the road, very helpfully tapau-ed by my ever reliable team leader, Johann. One of the other teams were jokingly speaking of how they lost their “never stayed up all night” virginity at the hotel. (And I hope for productive and not reproductive reasons!)
Discussions of thorny ( horny?) issues aside, it wasn’t just the participants who were willing to give their all. The people running about, getting sponsors, spreading the news, setting up websites, taking care of us were the outstanding members of the International Council of Malaysian Scholars and Associates. These were Maxis, Axiata, Bank Negara, JPA scholars and other distinguished youths who had been planning the event for months, and had flown back to Tanah Tumpahnya Darahku from all over the world to organise the event.
But most importantly, we were all Malaysian, in the truest sense of the word. My team joined the competition with little expectation, thinking of contributing to our country (though the prospect of RM 4k was a little tempting. Ok… maybe it was very tempting, but that’s not the point). Notions of segregation and discrimination were thrown away.  Race? The only time the word popped up in my head was when I was racing to the toilet after the Vitamin C + Sup Kambing + Strepsils combo. (It’s as lethal as alcohol and durians, I assure you.) Division? The only things that were really divided were the food portions; we were all united in our aspiration for a better Malaysia. It was a special moment of pride when UT Mara 1 won – a home grown team winning over students from LSE, Imperial, Oxford, Brown etc.
I’m eighteen this year. I stopped believing in fairy tales a long time ago. One of them was the fairy tale that young Malaysians can contribute to public policy in a meaningful and thoughtful way. But the Tale of Despereaux, and the Malaysian Public Policy Competition has reminded me of one thing: Sometimes, fairy tales … can come true.
Published in on 8th September 2011. Ong Kar Jin is now running at loyarburok and is looking forward to a long and happy career with loyarburok! Long live Lord Bobo!

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