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Malaysia at 50: Things fall apart?

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In these trying times, the best sadly lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, laments Johan Saravanamuttu, as he reflects on 50 years of Independence and 44 years of Malaysia. 

 Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

                            W B Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)

 Is one being dramatic to quote Yeat’s poem (which also gave the title to Chinua Achebe’s celebrated novel) on the eve of the 50th Anniversary of Merdeka in Malaysia?  Can one not be forgiven for thinking that things are not looking too good and that the Malaysian multicultural nation is fraying badly at the sides? Certainly, one could well surmise in poet’s phrase,  that in these times in Malaysia, the best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

All too often we have seen this happening. Just to take a mundane example, I happened to watch the parliamentary report on television the other night and it was appallingly clear that the  deputy ministers and parliamentary secretaries who were responding to queries and questions totally lacked conviction. Nay, some of them could barely read the prepared texts! Their bosses, the ministers, assuming they could fare any better, were conspicuous by their absence.

Lies, damn lies and statistics…

When people who lead the nation lack the conviction or motivation to do their jobs and instead choose to abdicate responsibility, it takes no rocket scientist to tell us that it becomes fair game for  ‘the worst’ to infest and rule the state with “passionate intensity”.  In parliament too, ‘the worst’ have  evidently surfaced with their ‘passionate intensity’ and have done their damage with sexist allusions and crude jokes, just to mention one example. And when that happens, well-meaning citizens may opt to “exit” rather than to “voice” their opinions to make the necessary correctives. They may well reason that much of what they try to do would end up being an exercise in futility.

Is one being dramatic again? Consider that between 1996 and April this year, 106,003 Malaysians have given up their citizenship. Of these, 79,199 are Malays; 25,107 Chinese, 1,347 Indians and 350 other races. I was jolted when I read this on 11 July 2007 in a statement attributed to Deputy Home Minister Datuk Tan Chai Ho along with the prime minister’s bland comment that those who revoked their citizenship cannot easily be re-instated. But it was not long before the Home Minister Datuk Radzi Sheikh Ahmad made a so-called correction. He said that of the 106,003, only10,411 were Malays; 86,078 were Chinese,  8,667 Indians and other races, 847. He also added that the period concerned was not 10 years but 50 years.  Is this a case of the Home Minstry transmogrifying into the Orwellian Ministry of Truth? Whichever ethnic arithmetic we accept, a government that is more on the ball would surely have been deeply concerned that this massive exodus of Malaysians augurs poorly for the future of the country, whether they be Malays, Chinese or Indians.
Another toothless body

Consider yet another recent development, the setting up of the 55-member National Unity Panel also on 11 July (NST, 12 July). This time around, the prime minister made an ‘off-the-cuff’ speech which evidently showed that he was aware of the precipitous state of ethno-religious conflict and tensions in the country. He exhorted the newly appointed panel members to not sweep matters under the carpet, even suggesting that because of the lack of such due diligence there were times when incorrect or bad decisions had been made. He also hinted ominously that failure to handle racial conflict could derail Vision 2020 and deprive future generations of Malaysians from celebrating the centenary of Merdeka. Bravo Mr. PM! But forgive me for saying that the mere setting up of a national unity panel with no real teeth or expertise will not rescue Malaysians from cascading down the slippery slope of a new threshold of ethnic polarisation.

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Whatever the case, the sudden emergence of this national unity panel cannot but indicate that much is amiss in this tender 50-year old (or 44-year old if you are Sarawakian or Sabahan) nation of ours. Consider again that it was revealed (by the police) in the first meeting of the panel that there had been 950 ethnic clashes, a 15 per cent increase in the number of these ethnic “fights”, in the past one year (NST, 13 July; ST, 17 July). From the scant report, I could gather little about the character of these “fights” beyond Chairman Maximus Ongkili’s allusion that “70 per cent of the cases started with fights between groups or individuals from different races”. Despite the paucity of information about these events, the fact that many such events have actually occurred must give us all cause for thought.

At the end of the meeting we are told that, in typical bureaucratic fashion, the panel created four sub-committees for religious relations, economic development, education, and social and security matters. The panel has also proposed the setting up of an Institute of Ethnic Relations. A great idea, but is this too little, too late?

We have seen how previous initiatives – such as  the Rukun Tetangga scheme and the first year ethnic relations course in universties – not only tend to be ineffectual but can themselves be a bone of contention in ethnic relations. Many argue that the government’s current top-down approach in handling ethnic relations at best contains potential conflict rather than tackles deeply rooted prejudices and tensions. As we know the incesssant surfacing of cases of ethno-religious issues and events in the past few years, perhaps culminating in the Federal Court’s contentious decision to deny Lina Joy her religious freedom, has strained civil discourse to its maximum limits.

Refreshing royal

In the face of all of this, it was somewhat refreshing to read the recent speech by Raja Nazrin Shah, the Raja Muda of Perak, delivered in early April to the Young Malaysians’ Roundtable Discussion on National Unity and Development, organised by the Bar Council.

The Raja Muda has also come into the public eye and into public prominence not least of all because of his marriage to Zara Salim Davidson on 17 May in a ceremony noted for its minimum of pomp and pageantry and its parsimony of funding at the bridegroom’s own request. Raja Nazrin’s actions have won the adulation of many. And it should be stressed his deeds and words carry not only the pedigree of the Perak throne but also the educational attainment of Oxford and Harvard.

Let me take the liberty of exploring in some depth the contents and message of Raja Nazrin’s speech on nation building and what it may mean for renewing our Malaysian political culture, which we all know has of late tended to descend to its baser and chauvinistic levels. Let me briefly paraphrase the main points of the prince’s speech of which there were seven:

•    The importance of the Federal Constitution, National Ideology (Rukun Negara) and Vision 2020
•    Recognising and accepting ethnic, religious and other differences and rejecting chauvinism
•    Seeking solutions through accommodation and compromise and being prepared to sacrifice self-interest
•    Being open, tolerant and forward-looking as adumbrated in the nine strategic challenges of Vision 2020 (e.g. mature society, caring society, scientific society, innovation)
•    Building social trust on layers of a firm and sustainable foundation
•    Rewarding good behavior and penalising bad behavior with particular reference to the problem of corruption

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First, it is reassuring that Raja Nazrin has reaffirmed the importance of the Constitution, the Rukun Negara and Vision 2020. To quote Raja Nazrin:

First, Malaysians of all races, religions, and geographic locations need to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have a place under the Malaysian sun. Only when each citizen believes that he or she has a common home and is working towards a common destiny, will he or she make the sacrifices needed for the long haul. In Malaysia, the Federal Constitution, the Rukun Negara and Vision 2020 encapsulate the rights, hopes and aspirations of the population in a way that no other documents do. The integrity of these documents must be defended and promoted, especially the first.

In recent months, some politicians have begun to decry the ‘irrelevance’ of Vision 2020 and other political voices have also tried to debunk the value of various constitutional provisions that put a premium on religious freedom and tolerance. What has been even more disturbing are political developments where race and religion have been brandished wantonly for political advantage. Most spectacularly, an Umno Youth leader of prime ministerial lineage whipped out an unsheathed Malay keris during the Umno General Assembly in November last year to berate his audience about the virtue of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy). Indeed his act was a re-run of the previous year, and such histrionics needlessly provoked a plethora of troubled responses from many moderate Malaysians.

Bangsa Malaysia and constitutionalism

What does it take to re-direct Malaysian political culture in the trajectory that the good prince has pointed to? I’m afraid much work and social engineering lies ahead for leaders in the political mainstream as well as for leaders within civil society. For the mainstream leadership led by a prime minister much harangued and pressured by various Umno factions and the political opposition, it has to demonstrate a non-nonsense stance and a purposiveness about the many agendas it has set itself.

First and foremost, the goal of a “Bangsa Malaysia”, envisioned in Vision 2020, which some have disparaged, must be brought back on track, and race relations must be put on an even keel. There can be little room for tacit or implicit condoning of political types who tout the supremacy of race or religion. It was therefore equally disconcerting that the government caved in to demands by religious extremists to stop the Article 11 forums on inter-faith dialogues in the middle of last year. And in November, it was surely a horrendous faux pas to telecast live the incendiary speeches of Umno delegates at the party’s General Assembly. Here again, Raja Nazrin’s sterling words are most germane:

…. nation building occurs when society is open, tolerant and forward-looking. So important are these values that they are embedded in Vision 2020’s nine strategic challenges, as are those of mature democracy, caring society and innovation. Only by being inclusive and participative can the various sectors of our society be productively engaged. It follows that all forms of extremism, chauvinism, racism and isolationism must be guarded against. They must be soundly sanctioned socially, politically and, if necessary, also legally.

There are other matters in Raja Nazrin’s speech that suggest or imply certain crucial imperatives for reinforcing the positive aspects of Malaysian political culture. Chief among these would be constitutionalism. The prince’s speech surely carries the weight of Sultan Azlan Shah who, at the pinnacle of his professional career, was the Lord President of the Malaysian Judiciary.

As a constitutional monarchy, Malaysia embeds positive elements of Malay culture and conjoins it within a democratic federal constitution that guarantees not only personal freedoms but also the separation of powers of the legislature, executive and judiciary. Federalism also puts emphasis on the decentralisation and devolution of rights and responsibilities to institutions at the state and local levels of government. These institutional elements of political culture need to be constantly reinforced so that the practice of the rule of law is not shunted aside for political expediency.

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Punish corruption and abuse of power

Another crucial pointer by the prince was to reward good behaviour and punish bad behavior, which in theory is easy to do, but in practice highly elusive. In recent years in Malaysia, we have seen how certain individuals have evidently aggrandised wealth and assets through public office. Among these count chief ministers, city councillors or even top officers of the Anti-Corruption Agency. Most recently a deputy minister has been let off the hook, and the IGP himself has come under investigation by the ACA! It is disturbing to see that a government which has sworn to act swiftly in dealing with some cases has probably buckled under political pressure.

In a report of the Royal Commission on the Police, which completed its work in the middle of last year under a former Chief Justice, it was pointed out that corruption was evident at every level of the police force. The Commission recommended the setting up of an Independent Police and Complaints Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) along with another 124 recommendations. Up to this point of time, the IPCMC has remained shelved and few of the 124 recommendations have been implemented. How does one encourage positive behaviour and penalise negative behaviour by a lack of action directed at the implementers of the law themselves? Indeed, the police have been recently rewarded with a 20 per cent pay raise. Much then remains to be done by the mainstream political leadership if it were to follow the princely advice.

Every Malaysian’s responsibility

As for Malaysian civil society, accommodation and compromise and self-sacrificing behavior is increasingly proving to be further from the norm. Malaysian political culture, if nothing else, is founded on a social practice of compromise and mutual tolerance of ‘the other’. Non-compromising behaviour peaked when the proposal for an Inter-faith Commission (IFC) in 2005 was scuttled after vociferous objections by a coalition of 13 Muslim NGOs and a proponent of the idea received a ‘death warrant’ on the Internet.  Let me take one final quote from the prince:

I believe fostering national unity is the responsibility of every Malaysian. However, schools, institutions of higher learning and sports centres have a very special role to play. This is because the sense of national unity is best inculcated in the young. Through textbooks, sports and interaction, educators should eliminate ethnic stereo-types. Through the imaginative teaching of the history of Islamic, Chinese and Indian civilisation, educators could foster greater understanding among different ethnic groups.

On this score, a ray of hope has certainly appeared on the artistic front. The film director Yasmin Ahmad received accolades and top awards for her film Sepet, portraying an inter-ethnic (Malay-Chinese) romance. This demonstrates that civil society actors can fashion and affect social discourse in a positive manner. Yasmin went on to direct two other films, Gubra, and Muhksin, in 2006 and 2007, both of which have won local and international acclaim.

The princely pronouncements are not only timely for Malaysian society today but given their unassailable source, it behoves the political class and civil society to take their message to heart.

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