Farcical political situations and a depleting economy. If there’s a time to rally the troops to thwart the country’s follies, the upcoming National Day looks the opportune moment. 

WHILE I was in Europe a few years ago, a Spanish waitress asked me about the corruption and racism that has ravaged Malaysia.

I was a little startled. Few waitresses would have asked guests such politically related questions, but because I was a regular, and friendly (I’d like to think so), she must have felt comfortable enough to raise the subject.

The only thing is, I was not in the mood and felt it was out of line. I was on holiday and the last thing I wanted to talk about was politics.While in Australia last month, a China-born driver asked me about Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and of course, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

I didn’t even tell him that I was from the media. If I did, there would have been no end to the idle chatter on a long trip outside Sydney.

It was unprofessional of him to bring up politics and luckily, we didn’t touch on issues concerning religion. The trouble with most drivers is that they seem to have unsolicited “expert” opinions on contentious issues.

But the most depressing dialogue now must be that with Singa-porean friends and relatives about our ringgit and its continuing slide. Perhaps I’m sensitive, but I can feel their insinuations about our ringgit being worthless next to their dollar.

The point is this – Malaysia has an image problem.

The ignorant and ridiculous remarks by some of our politicians, particularly on race and religion, haven’t covered us in glory, that’s for sure.

At a few Invest KL meetings I’ve attended, foreign fund managers and institutions make similar queries, reflecting their uncertainties and doubt.

It hasn’t helped that our economic standing has taken a severe beating. According to Morningstar.com, which carried out a study on emerging markets in the last 20 years, Malaysia has slipped down the pecking order badly.

In 1988, under the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, Malaysia was the country with the highest weighting in the index at 33.8%, but it has plunged down to 2.5% as of last year. In comparison, China’s weighting in the MSCI EM Index has shot up to 29.9%, and this is significantly higher than the next largest countries included in the benchmark: South Korea (15.5%), Taiwan (11.8%) and India (8.1%).

We have lost plenty of time and opportunities. The general election is long over and by right, politics should have taken a back seat, except that it hasn’t.

Who cares what people – politicians included – do behind closed doors, so long as they perform well, since we are all measured by our competence at work, and not in bed.

There is an urgent need for Malaysians to come forward to create a new narrative for the country, and with the National Day next month, the timing is perfect for a campaign to propel Malaysia’s public opinion.

As lawyer and writer Syah-redzan Johan aptly said, the clock is ticking for a “new, inclusive national agenda” to be accepted by the people, but it’s still within time to make that happen.

“The opportunity was ripe for far-reaching reforms when the people voted for the first change of government in the nation’s history in the 14th general election last year. We should have done it soon after the elections, when the mood for change was still strong,” he said.

But we missed the boat. We didn’t look for reconciliation. Yes, the looters and thieves needed to be reined in and made to pay for their crimes, but the ramifications also appeared to have extended into a witch-hunt, with emotional sparks of vindictiveness and baggage of settling old political scores.

It also didn’t help that we were portrayed as a nation on the brink of a financial melt-down, which invariably spooked many investors.

But that stage has passed. The National Day setting will be a timely occasion to bring Malaysians together. We have seen enough unproductive politicking. What we need more of is reproductive nation building.

Regardless of our political and religious differences, we are all bound by being Malaysian. We are all stakeholders in this great and wonderful country of ours.

We need to take this opportunity to present a new vision and call on all the people to work on the common agenda together. We need to issue a clarion call for Malaysians to come together to build a new future for the country.

The pact must involve all Malaysians, with a sense of inclusiveness, so they feel they have a place and future in Malaysia. As it stands though, pessimism permeates the air.

The unsettling mood, made worse by a poor market, has been compounded by increasingly divisive sentiments concerning racial and religious rights among the country’s political leaders, which cyclically, has flared up again in recent months.

We can’t have politicians running around drumming up racial and religious rhetoric in the name of Malay unity and creating myths of non-Malays – meaning the Chinese – usurping Malay political power.

Unfortunately, many people believe this tale. However, the truth is, those entrusted to protect the Malays and Islam are the ones who looted from our institutions in the first place.

The spin doctoring and inflammatory messages, aimed at winning back votes, could cause untold damage to the nation’s very fabric in the long run. It’s not just unhealthy, but toxic as well.

“The fear is that if this tide became a tsunami, even if the new government succeeds in delivering social justice and fulfilling its election manifesto, it would matter little if people voted based on racial and religious considerations,” said Syahredzan.

However, most of our moderate Malaysians can’t let the racists and religious bigots – who use the race and religion cards to justify their every action – take control of the national discourse.

Malaysia needs to set its global perception right so that when we travel overseas, or meet investors, we can all hold our heads up high and say that we are on the right track – that we are putting the wrongs right, and that this is our way forward. We need to nudge the stick shift into fifth gear, hit the gas and scream down the road of progress.Otherwise, I’m going to have to be friendly again, and grin and bear it when foreign service industry people talk to me about the undesirable things concerning Malaysia.