Home 2009: 6 Failure is not an option

Failure is not an option

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Malaysians must strive for a new non-racial future for all. Failure is not an option, says Zaid Ibrahim. 


Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your invitation for me to speak today. When I accepted your kind offer, I was ‘party-less.’ But things have now changed. I have drawn my line in the sand. And I have chosen sides. Today, I am a proud member of Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

Today, I am persuaded by the argument that for Malaysia to have democracy and the Rule of Law, we must have a new government; a viable inclusive government of the people; a government for all Malaysians. Today I am dedicated to the cause of securing the success of Parti Keadilan and Pakatan Rakyat, and ensuring that it galvanises the best talents and ideas to form a robust alternative Malaysian political force to lead the nation, to deliver true integration and nationhood.

This country was established as a secular multicultural and multi-religious democracy a’la the Westminster model. The Constitution, however, provides for a special position for the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak. They unfortunately omitted to include the Orang Asli in this special category, although they were naturally the first original inhabitants of this country. All they got was a Jabatan Orang Asli. The special provisions for Bumiputras under Article 153 do not make them more special than other citizens, for the fighters of independence did not envisage an Orwellian society where some are more equal than others. The acceptance of equality of rights as citizens is central to the success of our Malaysian journey.

1Malaysia: Are Malaysians equal?

When the Prime Minister announced his ‘1Malaysia’ slogan, I asked if that meant he would make a declaration that all Malaysians are equal. The answer was not forthcoming till today. All he said was rights must be understood in the context of responsibilities. Another fuzzy reply.

When critics asked if ‘1Malaysia’ is an affirmation of the rights of ALL the citizens under the Constitution, an affirmation of the multicultural and multi-religious nature of our country; and that the principles of Rukun Negara will continue to be the mainstay of our society… my detractors say that my views are fodder for the egos and insecurities of those who detest the constitutional position of the Malays.

They say I work too hard at being a Malaysian and by doing so, have forgotten my roots and responsibilities to the Malays. And that no right thinking Malay, who truly understands what is at stake, would ever support me. I know my heritage. I know my humble beginnings. And I know my roots and responsibilities as a Malay. They are wrong. To them, let me say this:

Umno – being hidden in a cave for so long and concealed from the real world – have almost abandoned the idea of a shared and common nationhood. They believe that for so long as the MCA and the MIC remain with them as partners of convenience, that is sufficient to build a nation. They think it’s sufficient to forge a new nation by electoral arrangements. The MCA and the MIC also think it’s sufficient for nationhood if they remain business partners of Umno.

A new united Malaysia can only come true when Umno changes and abandons racial politics and the politics of racial hegemony. Or when the Malays can be made to understand that patronage, authoritarianism and nationalist extremism, which underpins Umno’s style of leadership, does more harm to the community and the country than good. That Malays themselves must break from the shackles of narrow nationalism so that they may realise self-actualisation and emancipation. The first is difficult to achieve but I take it as my responsibility to try and achieve the second.

Let me now get into the subject of the speech by giving you an understanding about how Umno ticks. This, to me, is critical in order for you to appreciate what hope we have for the preservation of the Rule of Law and Democracy in Malaysia.

Umno’s authoritararianism

At the heart of Umno’s philosophy on leadership is a conviction that there is an inherent, almost ‘divine’ right to retain power at all costs. This is so for two reasons: firstly, because they assume that they are the only political force, by way of Barisan Nasional¸ to offer a workable power-sharing leadership of this nation. And secondly, because they believe that the Malay hegemony that Umno maintains is necessary to prevent the Malays from becoming marginalised.

It is these beliefs that are at the centre of Umno’s self-indulgent sense of indispensability and self-importance that is today causing them to steer the nation to an authoritarian rule. It is this sense of self-importance that is accountable for the authoritarianism in leadership and government. It is this that has helped justify in their minds their right to quell anyone who threatens the status quo, whether it be a group of politicians or activists protesting against abuses in government or a group of Indians protesting against their treatment and lack of opportunities or a previous Deputy Prime Minister who was no longer in step with the ‘Big Boss.’ It does not matter. Self-preservation demands expedience at all costs to resolve any impending threat.

But there is more. Since the hegemony is protected by policies that benefit the elites and other powerful forces, this sense of self-importance becomes even more dangerous. Because it justifies why real checks and balances against governmental abuses can be done away with. It justifies trampling on fundamental safeguards in the Federal Constitution in the last 20 years.

But there is more. If you are on the cause of preserving the rights of the elites, the oligarchs, then it brings you no shame to have a former Umno lawyer as Chief Justice; in fact, you become proud of that achievement. Even if the Attorney-General had committed many errors in the discharge of his functions and duties, a well-known fact amongst the legal fraternity, you will not change him; nor would you change the Chief of Police despite so many reports of transgressions committed by him. All for the ‘Malay cause’, they would say! And if you are on the Bench writing your judgment on the Perak fiasco; you can tailor it to suit your master’s political interests, and you will be lauded for that. The ‘Malay Cause’ is everything. The Constitution can wait; sound legal reasoning can wait, justice can wait..  

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But there is more. Many in Umno see the hegemony as a ‘be all and end all,’ with the power sharing between component parties as being a means to an end. Ketuanan Melayu, a mantra of Malay supremacy, has gained ground instead of receding over time. More accurately it is Ketuanan Elit Melayu as the majority of the Malays have found out to their dismay.

We will be cursed

What is the price that we ultimately pay as a nation, if this pernicious doctrine is embraced by many? Clearly to start with, we would continue to be cursed with a non-transparent government without the capability of functioning in a way that respects the rule of law. We will be cursed for having laws that oppress, that curtail and suffocate the basic freedoms of the people. We now have a set of rules for the elites and one for the rakyat, one for Barisan Nasional and one for Pakatan Rakyat.

If the public believes that the government is not beholden to a set of commonly revered values and principles, and its actions are tainted by racial biases, there will continue to be physical and emotional segregation of communities, regardless of how many times we change the slogans to break such divisiveness. The notion of creating a free and democratic Malaysia therefore becomes unachievable.

The ultimate price that the country suffers from the present political culture is that the Malays and non-Malays will continue to be denied a sense of ownership of Malaysia’s nation-building journey. And instead of becoming partners in this voyage to mature nationhood, they continue to bicker and remain suspicious and distrustful of one another. Because of this segregation, the government is unable to set a new direction for the country. Because of racial polarisation, the people are not ready to accept a multi-racial dimension for this country. As a result, we are not able to enact or even discuss comprehensive national policies whether it is regarding the police, education or judicial and civil service reforms. The distrust of the communities will prevent objective appraisals and solutions to the problems.

Ethnic interests take precedence over national interests. National interests become a strange and fearful concept. And there will continue to be a brain drain of Malaysian talents who would have decided that they would rather make their homes elsewhere. This is a high price that the country can ill-afford to pay given the increasingly challenging global outlook.

Authoritarianism, patronage, and nationalist extremism from any quarter destroy the key ingredients necessary for the Malaysian community to really build on and retain that wealth and knowledge. Competitiveness and true economic and scholastic success, is a function of instilling in the hearts and minds of beneficiaries a set of new behaviours, around the capacity and desire to take personal accountability, to trust one another, to be achievement-oriented, to develop a sense of curiosity, a sense of solidarity that go beyond our own ethnic clans and groups; so that together, we are able to build this country. We must do away with unprincipled politics, with Machiavellian methods but instead seek to change with reforms that encourage the development of a viable democracy and a prosperous country for all.

The government says it hopes to amend up to 33 laws, which involve discretionary powers of the Home Minister, beginning with the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) in the next Parliament session. Let’s hope and see if this will bear fruit. Authoritarianism in government will continue albeit in a different guise, unless the whole of the ISA, Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act and similar such laws are abolished. This would be an example of good governance. However authoritarian policies will most likely continue while corruption is rampant when the elites need protection from their misdeeds. Najib will not be able to change any of these.

Pakatan will get stronger

The whole cloak-and-dagger story of intrigue about the overthrow of the Pakatan Rakyat government gave rise to much suspicion about Najib’s style, well before he took office. He could have allayed fears that he would not be one to resort to below-the-belt tactics in his leadership by calling for fresh elections. Najib’s unwillingness to dissolve the Perak Assembly has got the country deeper into a political quagmire. By doing so, he will also help the Federal Court judges from having to come up with a convoluted legal reasoning, like that of the Court of Appeal, to please the Prime Minister.

This is again Najib’s idea to strengthen himself. If Pqs were to support Umno under the guise of a ‘unity government,’ a viable alternative to Barisan Nasional at the next elections would be seriously undermined. Najib wanted the internal difficulties between Pakatan Rakyat parties to continue and fester as the mainstream media went full steam ahead to ensure Pakatan’s demise. Let me assure you that such a scenario will not happen.

Pakatan will only get stronger. Pakatan has its weaknesses but we do not have the culture of hegemony. We do not suppress dissent. Hence you will hear of occasional disagreements. You will hear of occasional flare-ups; but Pas, Keadilan and DAP are committed to finding ways to strengthen their partnership. They will not break up. Instead they will form a formidable coalition that will be ready to provide an alternative government to the people.

Today Malaysians are suffering the deleterious effect of a stagnating world economy, and the GDP will contract by 4.4 percent according to the World Bank. FDIs continue to fall while talent is being lost. The standard of education and the skill sets including the command of English, necessary for the workforce to remain globally competitive continues to plummet. Now after spending billions on teaching Science and Maths in English in the last six years, the government has announced the reversal of the policy effective 2012. One wonders if the farcical National Service programme, which is neither a national service nor an educational programme will be scrapped too.

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Findings of Lingam case not acted upon

Crimes and home security issues have increased since 2003 and these remain major concerns of the people. In the 1998 case of Anwar Ibrahim, allegations by the investigating officer himself of tampering with evidence by the IGP and the A-G have not been answered satisfactorily. Of course, the government had formed a certain panel comprising three ex-judges deliberating in a secret place. Not surprisingly the panel cleared them. The findings of the Royal Commission in the Lingam case have not been acted upon in a satisfactory manner also. And many high profile cases reported to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) remain unattended. Such is the state of the Rule of Law in Malaysia. Will Najib attend to these issues? Certainly not.

All he can do is to announce the scrapping of some outdated policies that he had little choice but to do it anyway, as part of the demands of the international and Asean trade agreements. After decades of the NEP, the 30 per cent equity requirement in companies listed amongst the 27 services sub-sectors are taken away. Also the Foreign Investment Committee regulating investments in Malaysia has been scrapped. The reasoning of the government, which is disputed by many Malays, is that the Bumiputra participation in the relevant services sub-sectors are satisfactory and hence the removal of the quota requirement. Whilst the move has made Najib popular in the short term, it will come back to haunt him. Economics and social justice require him to address the larger question of disparities in income of the people. The plight and grievances of ordinary people will not be redressed by one or two populist policies.

Najib should not have started the Perak debacle

On the question of the preservation of the rule of law and democracy, he did nothing and probably will continue to do nothing. He should have acted as if he has only 100 days before his reign comes to an end. He should have embraced Roosevelt’s dictum: “there is nothing to fear but fear itself” – and embarked on far-reaching policies to give back judicial power to the courts, to give back integrity, trust and respectability to governmental institutions like the police, the Attorney-General’s office, the Election Commission; that of which Malaysia desperately needs. In doing so, he could have shown the people he was prepared to sacrifice his neck if that was required of him.

He should not have started the Perak debacle but since it had already got under way, he should have had the courage to win back the support of the people by allowing for the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly. Instead of embarking on the inane idea of Umno-Pas unity – confirming the suspicion that he is like his Deputy, who only understands Umno-Pas unity at the expense of everything else – Najib should have called for a national debate amongst all leaders of major political parties for a serious discussion on key and core values for the country.

The problems in our country are not race or religion based but BN has worked very hard to make them so. It’s always about the rakyat against the elites or the powerful oligarchs that run and control the country’s institutions and wealth. The rakyat for too long have become pawns in this political game where the race and religious issues are being played out to divide them.

Punish racism and racist speeches and writings

Najib should have started his administration by pushing through a Race Relations Act, which that will punish racism and racist speeches and writings from all quarters, even if it’s from leaders of his own party and from Utusan Malaysia. This single greatest impediment to Malaysians being united and working together for the common good is racist policies in Malaysia. Racism here is not the same kind that the Anglo Saxon whites have over blacks and coloureds (or vice-versa) for many years. It’s not the apartheid kind of racism where whites generally believe they are superior to blacks and coloureds in genetics and all spheres of life.

Our racism is driven more by ethnic distrust and ethnic rivalry for the economic cake. They are mainly economic and cultural in nature based on the fear that the wealth of the country will be taken away by the Chinese and vice-versa. But it is just as divisive and dangerous. It refers to both institutionalised racism and those exhibited by individuals.

Malaysia needs to combat this problem because it is particularly acute. Because we have three major races that did not have the luxury of time for natural assimilation or the time to gel and live in harmony, we need legislation and governmental support to push through the unity factors and manage the divisive factors found in the community.

To bring about a truly united ‘1Malaysia,’ our Prime Minister must not always refer to the deprivation of the Malays suffered under the British. No amount of wallowing in the past can change history nor can we just tell the Chinese and the Indians how grateful they should be for events taking place a hundred years ago. Equally he cannot just be happy that he has the MCA and the MIC taking care of the non-Malays. He has to do more to make sure that the non-Malays are equally responsible and generous with the Malays. Will they open their businesses to the Malays? Will they give credit on the same terms they do to their own clans?

But at the same time, the people, including the Malays, must be convinced that democracy and a functioning bureaucracy are good for them. That they have a better chance of realising their potential and benefiting from their rights and privileges under a government that respects just laws. They must resist corruption by all means at their disposal. The notion of Bangsa Malaysia will not detract or take away anything from them but instead they become a part of a larger and more diverse community where they too can experience the generosity, beauty, strength and richness of Malaysian cultures. They will benefit from the solidarity of people from all walks of life and their worldview will change to make them stronger and more confident in themselves.

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Can’t survive the outrage of the masses

A prime minister of this country must not succumb to the idea that force and repression will prevail over the people’s will. The prime minister of this country must not suffer from the delusion that the police, the army, the courts, the Election Commission and the Attorney-General can strike fear in the hearts of the people to the extent that they will and must retreat. No leader in ancient and modern times has survived the outrage of the masses. Today we have witnessed a new sense of outrage: outrage against the abuse of power, against inequality, outrage against the continued persecution of Anwar Ibrahim, and outrage against the policies of divide and rule.

Ladies and gentlemen, the winds of change have never blown so strong. Today the rakyat has spoken and they want their voices heard. They want a new beginning, so that this country, which we all call home, will be transformed into a dynamic, open and vibrant democratic sanctuary. A sanctuary where we live without fear of police harassment, without fear of wearing black or yellow, without fear of detention without trial, without the nausea of reading newspapers whose editors have to toe the line to keep the papers alive. We will make this country such that we have room and space for all of us to have our dreams and hopes come true.

But the window of opportunity has opened for one central reason. And that is because the people now have a choice; between the establishment that has led the country astray over the last 50 years or a viable alternative in Pakatan Rakyat, which can inclusively carry the hopes and aspirations of all Malaysians, no matter they be Malay, Chinese or Indian. For without this alternative, the self-indulgent and delusional sense of self-importance of Umno and its cohorts in Barisan Nasional will continue to impose itself.

No doubt Keadilan is a new party, and Pakatan Rakyat is in its infancy, and the coming together of different political parties to find a common thread with which to build meaningful solidarity to work together is a long and arduous journey. Let us not kid ourselves. Many challenges lie ahead to make it a truly viable alternative political force to Barisan Nasional and an acceptable choice for all Malaysians. And the traps and snares to trip up this fledgling alternative are being laid everywhere; the ‘unity’ talks being just one.

My colleagues and I in Pakatan Rakyat must be cautious and yet courageous, patient yet purposeful, tolerant yet principled to ensure that Pakatan Rakyat steers clear of these traps, and that we build a truly robust and secure alternative from which the electorate can choose to form a government. We must desist from any temptation to go back to the ways of the past, in which opposition parties represent their own narrow factional interests, only to grant a walkover victory to the status quo.

Will not champion racial politics

As for Parti Keadilan Rakyat, it must soldier on come what may, as a party that will protect the people regardless of race and ethnicity. The ‘special’ position of the Bumiputras and Islam as mandated by the Constitution will be honoured but will do so in an open, transparent manner, as a democratic multi-racial party that observes the Rule of Law will be obliged to do. Keadilan will not champion racial politics and will not seek racial hegemony. We are a lot more humble than Umno but we will be fearless in the defence of the rights of the rakyat against powerful oligarchs and vested interest groups. We will make the public institutions in this country respectable and full of integrity. These institutions will regain the respect and the trust of the people.

Ladies and gentlemen, we do not live in a world of black and white. We live in a world full of different colours, shades and textures. No truer is this than in Malaysia. I can stand here and tell you of my immense sense of pride and affection in being a Malaysian, just as I can do the same about being Malay. And I believe that we all are just as capable of feeling that way about being Malaysian and yet similarly proud of being Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan or Iban, no matter who we are.

And it is this mix of seemingly conflicting values, which when blended and tempered with courage, tolerance, good faith and framed by universally held moral and civic values, that make the canvas of Malaysia so rich, so powerful and so full of potential. Let us preserve this living piece of art and ensure that it continues to beautify and enrich our personal lives, as private citizens.

For if we fail, then the providence with which we are blessed today to make a breakthrough change will disappear as quickly as it came; and we will be back to square one. Our future and that of our children and their children depends on our success. Failure is not an option. God favours the brave.

Zaid Ibrahim delivered the above keynote address at The Oxbridge Malaysia Dinner Dialogue Series hosted by the Oxford & Cambridge Society of Malaysia on 9  July 2009 in Kuala Lumpur.

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