While poorly writing up two previous articles, the first a convoluted opinion on multiculturalism and the second a sarcastic take on local politics, I faced a shortage of confidence to proceed with new materials. After being encouraged by several individuals, this third piece was done with much difficulty. Thank you.
Again, while staying awake in the early hours passing time entertaining lingering thoughts, a particular subject had manage to occupy the mind and subsequently trigger the urge to continue another series of personal ramblings. This time pertaining to activism, or what some would call as volunteerism.
During a recent working visit to Singapore with the current ABIM leadership, a private session with Dr Farish Noor had him commenting about key issues in the Nusantara-Asean region.
He mentioned the need for pro-active measures to be taken in dealing with the challenging realities of modern age and adapt to an ever changing global context. He said it is crucial for strategic agencies to have collaborative efforts with NGOs, such as ABIM, to act as “circuit breakers” and “major voices of maintaining peace”, besides continuously “deescalate tensions” and perform “firefighting” on various internal issues and on wider regional matters.
But after much pondering, I thought, when do NGO’s such as Abim have to become “circuit breakers”? To what end does doing endless “firefighting” lead up to? How to overcome the challenges using available resources, established networks, and human potential at disposal to its most optimum?
It all comes back to what sort of “thinking method” is being produced among the youth cadres, who are the primary activists and enthusiastic volunteers.
So what makes activism or volunteerism nowdays so attractive to Malaysian youths?
One factor would be that they become “operators” that are independent from the bureaucracy of government agencies, skipping over the protocols. Acting as an extension of immediate assistance for the public, minus the “red tape”.
In the process, some become iconic figures or standout organisations known with a reputation for sense of righteous duty, carrying out responsibilities that are well beyond what is expected from them.
With all sorts of “intellectual restrictions” being made a culture in public universities, not to mention the academic system itself being highly susceptible to outer influences of the political kind, it would seem natural for youths to use activism or volunteerism as an outlet to express themselves and function within the constructs of society.
However, with the surge in attention given lately toward various forms of social activism in Malaysia, more questions ought to be asked and reflected upon.
There are plenty of activist appearing, but just how many of them eventually end up taking the role of becoming national leaders committed to change? What kind of activist and volunteers are we producing exactly? Where are our new ideas for society’s development coming from?
Are we satisfied making plenty of followers with loads of volunteering skills gained over a certain period of time but can’t or won’t lead? What happens to the continuity for efforts done by these activist and volunteers after they’ve moved on?
Our education does not encourage youths to explore and think, making them unable to delve deeper about issues at hand, investigate detailed researches and come out with good, solid solutions.
Conforming to the norm is rewarded, while being creative and critical often receives punishments. Usually those that do come up with fresh ideas, debate progressive opinions, give interesting perspectives and argue for justifications are hit like “punching bags” or treated with much prejudice. Why is that so?
Because they don’t behave accordingly and because they “think” too much, hindering “swift action”. A terrible misconception that all activist must be “movers” or “doers” rather than “talkers” is why activist don’t actually solve the problem.
Due to their rashness and single-minded emphasis upon what can be physically done, some of them neglect the problem solving part entirely. The “janji gerak” and “asalkan buat” attitude. Don’t waste time arguing or debate. Just do it. Toe the line and do as what you are told. Be obedient.
Has a situation similar to “civilizational-bankruptcy” coined by Algerian scholar Malik Bennabi affected our forms of activism?
The youthful input today does not contain enough idealistic qualities. They no longer do any pensive retrospect that would later develop into wisdom.
Activists today react quickly to trending matters or sensationalized issues that went viral on the internet, rather than estimating the pros and cons while providing a viable alternative.
They trap themselves into responses, only after an incident had happened, subject to media tampering that often excessively exaggerates.
Perhaps a crucial point that needs to be reevaluated among activist and volunteers is the approach. Most don’t aim to solve, but rather just target to participate.
There is a “leakage” when it comes to problem-solving. Activist often deal with issues or problems only at its surface, rarely facing the deep, elemental aspects of it because it would be too tedious and costly. Instead, they use simplistic and at times populist approaches towards complex and delicate situations and inadvertently gain public adoration.
Being merely fueled by emotions and compassion, showing mercy and feel pity upon the less fortunate. But all are mere manipulation of feelings and sentiments that is devoid of substance.
There isn’t an abundance of new ideas to work with despite the growing number of youths committing to activism and volunteerism. All they do is recycle the same outdated modules and ineffective programs done in the past, while at the same time lamenting about how difficult it is to change the social environment.
For example. Annually, carried out by many Islamic NGOs, there would be specific programmes done on selected dates which bear major holidays like New Year’s celebration, Independence Day, etc.
Also, every week there is a consistency for outreach, public aids, soup kitchens, school mentoring, visiting orphanages or shelter homes, provide free tuition, donation drives, and on rare occurrences disaster reliefs, conducted by various charitable foundations, responsible organizations and noble individuals.
A sort of giving back to society.
Yet, social ills remain rampant even with these very grand so called “down to earth” da’wah activities. And the social problems keep getting worse even though plenty of weekly programs are done.
Ranging from the homeless, illegal vehicle races, illegitimate abortions, vices and gambling, teen pregnancies out of wedlock, violent tendencies among students, domestic family abuses, rising crime rates, gang-related fights, human trafficking, etc. Are these programmes truly comprehensive solutions or just distractions?
The analogy is this. Giving “band-aids” to illnesses that require “surgery”. There doesn’t seem to be a decisive outcome from these programs. It becomes a mere weekend hobbies or just another yearly showcase. Several symbolic gestures, a few rhetorical speeches, some short-lived social media campaign on spreading awareness, the “illusion” of gathering vital feedback information and allowing outfield experience for new members. Such simple conditions for someone to be regarded as an “activist” here in Malaysia.
Believing that in doing so, they have successfully engage with “marhaen” or citizens on the ground, the so called “grassroots”.
It is certainly misleading to believe that those who are consistently shown active performing at what they do “week in-week out” are the best and only solution for all sorts of plight.
These fickle mindedness among some activists causes them to aim their programs towards attaining high impacts through repetition but lack in thoughtful brainstorming upon what can be done in the long-term which brings benefits.
More alarmingly, none have any systematic documentations that create references for a possible blueprint that guides future generations. No such thinking occurs within the activist circles to lay the basis for something good being further expanded and build upon.
There isn’t enough intelligence within Malaysia’s realm of activism and advocacy. There just doesn’t seem to be a convincing strategy in place and overall coordination being done.
Activist and volunteers just “jump-in and do” when an issue breaks out, and once that is temporarily taken care of, they begin to shift elsewhere seeking out new issues to become champions of.
What activists and volunteers do nowdays is take pictures of their activities, caption those pictures saying the entire world is a terrible mess and they are the ones chosen to save it. A pitiful “Messiah complex”.
These fancy “pseudo-activists” become too easily satisfied with their own mediocre achievements. Feeling accomplished with small efforts that they’ve put in during their weekends, only to see them return to routine for the rest of the week at elite coffee-shops and cozy homes, etc, uploading to social media the proof of their “hard” work.
Never wanting to progress, apart from greed for wealth and attain fame. Being overly proud of their personal milestones in many ways is an act of satisfying ego.
This phenomenon named “weekend protesters” by Arundhati Roy was extensively elaborated and aptly criticized by Noam Chomsky.
Another issue that comes to mind while observing the increasing interest in activism and volunteerism, is the insensitive attitude of certain authorities and officials that take other people’s work for granted.
They prefer making excuses by labeling activists and volunteers efforts as anti-establishment to discredit them and subsequently disassociate themselves from coming out with new problem-solving policies, refusing to cooperate. Only when something causes a major stir or has repercussions upon certain high profile’s reputation, action is seen taken.
Furthermore, there is a creeping tendency among activist and volunteers alike to involve only in issues that can bring the most lucrative mileage for themselves or something which they have a vested interest in.
They only advocate or volunteer their services if it suits their own desired likes and targeted wants, depending on who or what attractive factors are made available.
The main motivation is no longer from his or her conscience, or to receive gratitude and earn respect but out of personal preferences. They don’t struggle for principled values or moral agendas anymore.
We see some volunteers today join only to improve their own images or status, because it would look good on a resume to be a project leader of this or that. Some do it to become part of a group, to feel accepted or wanted.
It isn’t about making a better future anymore, its about making the self feel pleasant with itself. As long as there is little or no risks involved and that what they do attains instant success, that is worth volunteering.
Nobody is willing to compromise an extra inch, everybody makes selective sacrifices.
Activism now is done at the luxury of our convenience. Using technological advancements and virtual interactions from the comfort of their room, by a few clicks people can come together for a cause, donations can be given across the globe, petitions can be signed, etc.
However, previous activists did things out of their comfort zones. They challenge themselves to learn something new at every opportunity that they got.
Nowadays, activists demand personal pleasures, some even placing conditions before participating. Do they get free gifts, is transportation provided, how long would it take, etc.
Even more amusing, some end up fighting with each other because of overlapping disputes, or are competing with one another to display which is the better entity in contrast to the other. It becomes a marketing battle.
A sprint to declare a champion or heroics contest. Its all based on who’s the quickest and loudest. That which gains public sympathy and tokens of applause above all else basically holds the “monopoly in activism”, seeking influence through charity with personal motives at the end of it.
As what Harold Lasswell had once said, “who gets what, when and how”. This is the “politics” of activism, making it quite ironic.
What is more repulsive, is witnessing these so called young activists receive glorious awards by other organisations or even their own as recognition for contributions they’ve done. It becomes a clapping ceremony and flattery event.
Later, these awards are used to legitimise their career path as track records come a job interview or the campus elections. Highlighting accomplishments like welfare, volunteerism and activism within their cosmetic manifestos to woo the voters or audience in an attempt to hide their glaring incompetence. A false advertising deserving of mockery.
On top of that, the real scenario is that activist and volunteers rival among themselves proudly on who has the larger member capabilities or manpower field units to exhibit dominance in the sector of mobilization with number of bodies able to be sent on missions.
Proclaiming on multiple mainstream sources of the strength their organisation possess as psychological warfare is played. Throw in a lump sum number for a touch and go event made and gain temporary but instant fame in the spotlight. A good publicity stunt.
In the end, activism or volunteerism becomes a PR exercise, done to achieve certain demands from others and make the AGM reports look impressive so that it would be easier to get new additional funding.
One illustration is the recent food stamps campaign and urban hunger situation in campuses. From the onset, there were all kinds of commentaries that provoke a variety of reactions. As sponsored foods were distributed by various entities, we find that it did little to overcome the problems by just giving material provisions.
Students not only became complacently dependent upon assistance, but some had the nerve to complain and moan. There was no check-balance system or shortlist to identify which were truly poor individuals or just kids that took advantage of getting a free meal.
Obviously, activist and volunteers couldn’t be bothered to be systematic and prepare a more persuasive solution as long as their sponsorship allocations for the program is all distributed and they ensure that the entire world acknowledges it.
If activists cant even properly deal with such a situation, how can we expect to make other greater changes? These sort of real problems don’t come out in quizzes or essay tests. Those proud activists who also happen to excel in exams end up being utterly useless after all.
In a book discussion held in IIUM Gombak organised by PKPIM somewhere in mid-December of 2014, the invited speaker Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah had reminded the audience on the importance for youth organisations to once again “reposition” themselves into becoming credible “thought leaders” that are able to produce the best minds to handle different challenges that we face and are competent enough to “offer better” than the existing status-quo, marking a vital role as the “voice of conscience” for the nation.
It must be understood that student movements and youth organisations must not blindly organise weekend activities and semester tasks just to fill up their almanacs or have annual grand events trying to fulfill their tenure-ship KPI’s.
They must have workable plans and a high level of professionalism in their mindset. It is imperative that they manage any programs with the aspiration of making problems become obsolete, removing bad situations once and for all. There must be a new dimension that “leaps forward” and “pushes boundaries” among activists and volunteers which is sorely lacking now.
Countless examples are seen throughout the course of history whereby the flexibility in adopting the zeitgeist by social movements ultimately determines whether a country as a whole succeeds or fails.
What is crucial for activists and volunteers to take note of is the matter of continuity and more importantly sustainability in their efforts.
There are no quick victories. They must be ready to be in it for the long haul, therefore organise-well and be persistent in their idealistic struggles.
As a concluding point, the author believes that there is a fundamental flaw among youth activists and volunteers here in Malaysia. A failure to realise the “actual” lesson when going down to do missions is meant for us to change better.
We often mistakenly go in with the mentality that we are already better and meant to change people that we assume as worse off. The “hollier than thou” syndrome.
Abdul Sattar Edhi is a person that the author would like to suggest to all activists and volunteers particularly young Malaysians to look up to for inspiration. The Pakistani philanthropist’s contributions and ascetic lifestyle is something that we all should learn from and emulate.
The author does not intend to question the sincerity of any particular person or outfit. Neither does he pretend to be more knowledgeable. There are plenty types of avenues and methods for activism or volunteerism to be carried out.
Social activism, political activism, educational activism, economical activism, etc. There is lots of honesty. But, they only have good-will. There is no reforming, rational-will. – January 14, 2016.
Halmie Azrie Abdul Halim
PKPIM & ABIM Activist
*This article has been published in The Malaysian Insider,