Germans standing on top of the Berlin Wall in 1989; it would be torn down
in the following days (Wiki commons)
“WHAT I wonder is, where are our leaders? It seems as if there is nobody Malaysians can look up to for leadership,” the woman in the audience said.
I was moderating a panel discussion organised by the German Embassy at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang on 15 Oct 2009, and this was the question that was posed to the panellists. We had just finished a discussion titled 60:20 In the Name of Freedom. The discussion had looked at the democratisation and unification of Germany following the founding of their constitution 60 years ago and the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. We also discussed the development of democracy in Malaysia, and the parallels we could draw from both countries.
It was after this discussion that the USM lecturer in the audience made her observation. She seemed genuinely perturbed and in need of a hopeful response. Indeed, it’s a question worth pondering. Where is the leadership? And where should we start looking for leadership if we want to make things better in Malaysia?
Bringing down walls
The panel discussion at USM wasn’t just all talk. Prior to the discussion, a short but riveting video about Germany’s history demonstrated how the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 and was finally brought down peacefully on 9 Nov 1989. What brought the wall down, after 28 years, despite the communist leadership’s stubborn resistance and denial of its citizens’ clamour for freedom and democracy in East Germany? The video below tells it all.
Remarkably, when it came to the final crunch, the Berlin Wall was brought down without a single drop of blood being shed. Thousands of Germans — tired of waiting for their leaders to fulfil their legitimate demands — congregated, pushed against the border patrols, raised their voices, and finally walked freely across the border that divided East from West Germany.
Market women overthrow president
Germany’s history isn’t the only one that has a moving and uplifting story about citizens demonstrating leadership against the might of an oppressive state, sometimes even in the face of bloodshed and terror. In Liberia, Leymah Gbowee organised and led her fellow countrywomen to demand for a peaceful country from the nation’s leaders. After 15 years of civil war between the government of a ruthless president, Charles Taylor, and warlords wanting to overthrow him, more than 200,000 people had been killed and one out of three Liberians were homeless.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Public domain) Desperate for peace and safety, Leymah and her countrywomen armed themselves with a simple white t-shirt and took to the streets, knowing that they faced the very real threat of being beaten and killed. They became known as “the market women” who cajoled and pressured the warring men to end the fighting. Part of their strategy was a tactic used by the women of ancient Greece: No peace, no sex.
Their strategies worked. Taylor was toppled from power and banished from Liberia in 2003. Two years later, the country elected a new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who became Africa’s first woman head of state.
Leymah’s journey — her leadership as a frightened young woman in a war-torn country — is a moving and inspiring one that was made into an award-winning documentary. Pray the Devil back to Hell is today screened in other conflict areas, and has inspired other women to take charge of peace in their own countries.
These two historic examples tell me something. They tell me that often, perhaps even too often, we give up power to politicians, political parties and governments to provide us with leadership. Germany and Liberia are two countries that couldn’t be more different than chalk and cheese. Yet, it was when people stopped looking outwards for leadership that the change they wanted to see happen, happened.
To be certain, Malaysia is nowhere close to war-torn Liberia. Neither can it be likened to communist East Germany, where Germans were so desperate to leave they jumped out of buildings and risked their lives to escape to West Germany.
But do we really need to start becoming like Liberia or East Germany before we begin exercising leadership as citizens?
For sure, it’s hard not to be disillusioned and feel hopeless in the face of racist politicians, religious extremism, abuse of power and what seems like the continuous erosion of our constitutional rights in a democracy.
It’s made harder because the media too often fail to profile and promote stories of individual or community initiatives such as demonstrated by some of the recipients of The Nut Graph‘s Merdeka and Malaysia Day awards. Instead citizens are fed with endless stories of sex scandals (whether real or fictionalised), police abuse and inefficiency, hateful rhetoric and actions, and the dismal performance (mostly real) of our elected leaders whether from the Barisan Nasional (BN) or the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Indeed, the USM lecturer’s question during the panel discussion revealed that she was disillusioned not just with the lack of leadership in the BN government, but also in the PR lineup.
I’m also convinced that Malaysians are repeatedly disempowered by our education system, our government-controlled media, and the race-based politics embodied by the BN, to feel like we cannot be leaders in our own country.
Still, the East Germans and Liberians had it far worse. And yet they were able to rise above their desperation, disillusionment and disempowerment. And really, there are many Malaysians — theatre workers, teachers, journalists and writers, community organisers, non-governmental organisations, honest politicians — who do demonstrate leadership. Often, they are what are described as “ordinary” people. A real misnomer if you ask me, because there’s nothing ordinary about being an extraordinary citizen.
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