Malaysia in midlife crisis

Azmyl Yunor

I CAME across a dry yet intriguing video titled “Life begins at 40: The biological and cultural roots of the midlife crisis” on the Royal Society’s YouTube channel.

It features a recording of a public lecture by Mark Jackson, a history professor at the University of Exeter, with a particular interest in the cultural contexts of health.

We often overlook cultural contexts, and I’m quite certain we completely bypass this in Bolehland.

For the uninitiated, the Royal Society is a fellowship of many of the world’s most eminent scientists and is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, according to their bio.

This video triggered memories of interesting conversations about ageing I had with friends and acquaintances a while back when I first hit the big 4-0.

Defining “midlife” 

One of my bandmates once remarked that one can never truly know when one hits a “midlife crisis” until, well, one proverbially kicks the bucket, as you can only calculate the mid-way of your life once it’s completed. Talking about rock n’ roll star deaths, members of the 27 Club would have technically had their “mid-life crisis” at the tender age of 13 years and five months.

This made me ponder: how do we apply this concept of “midlife” on a country?

Considering the average lifespan of a country (approximately 150 years old), using this “midlife” concept as a yardstick might help diagnose Malaysia’s growing pains from a cultural lens, aside from the usual political discussions.

Midlife crisis is identity crisis

It’s telling that as a nation, we have separate ways of defining our nationhood.

For a long time, we were told that August 31 is the most significant date in our history. Only later, as an adult, did I understand the more significant importance of September 16.

I take the stance that Malaysia is 60 years old and is within the proximity of the “midlife”.

An identity crisis is psychological in nature, and humourously, we do have a lot of “psychos” in our political arena.

The prevalence of identity politics is a good sign of a populace facing a collective identity crisis.

According to the professor, it is a depressive identity crisis. Crises exist at all stages of an individual or a nation’s life, so don’t think that this is something one can avoid. Life is all about crises.

This stage of the “midlife crisis” is about the tension between creativity and stagnation. The sense of deterioration and loss of vigour characterises this stage of the crisis.

When you think about Malaysia, these are the exact tensions and sensibilities we are going through right now: discovering that we haven’t lived up to our own hype in the past, there is a palpable sense of disappointment in ourselves.

What is crucial is how we respond to this because that’s what matters most.

So, if you are depressed about the state of the nation, do not fret because your feelings are justified. We are going through an identity crisis as a nation.

Multiple stressors

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the nation is in the grips of an economic crisis, exacerbated by external and global economic forces.

Just like someone in midlife, Malaysis is past the vitality and freewheeling good times of youth. It’s time for us to get serious about our resources – including human resources – because the honeymoon is over.

We are taking stock of what we have yet to achieve, which is more than what we have achieved.

This existential self-examination is important because what defines us, aside from our identity, is our ability to carry on sustaining ourselves into old age. – January 5, 2024.

* Azmyl Yunor is a touring underground recording artiste, and an academic in media and cultural studies. He has published articles on pop culture, subcultures and Malaysian cultural politics. He adheres to the three-chords-and-the-truth school of songwriting, and Woody Guthrie’s maxim “All you can write is what you see”. He is @azmyl on Twitter.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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