Unless remedial measures are taken soon, young Malaysians who have the world at their feet will move to greener pastures, warns Tommy Thomas.
The social contract, social compact or bargain reached by the three communities under the watchful eye of the British imperial power as a condition to Merdeka, was that in exchange for full citizenship, a right to use their language and observe their religion, the non-Malays had to concede special privileges to the Malays to assist the latter to ascend the economic ladder. It was a quid pro quo.
It was a consensus arrived after hard bargaining, and has formed the basis of nationhood. In this equilibrium, the non-Malays were not to be relegated to second class citizens: citizenship was not on a two-tier basis and there was going to be no apartheid, partition or repatriation.
What was required from the non-Malays at the time of Merdeka was undivided loyalty to the new nation. They could no longer owe their allegiance to the mother country, China or India.
Racial differences were recognised. Diversity was encouraged. There was no pressure to integrate into one Malayan race. A new nation was to be integrated over time, but as a plural society. Assimilation was out of the question.
Thus, a united Malayan nation did not involve the sacrifice by any community of its religion, culture or customs. Minorities were not to be discriminated in a system of parliamentary democracy based on constitutional supremacy. In many respects, the establishment of Malaysia strengthened the social contract.
Any reason to celebrate?
But as Malaya completed 56 years as an independent sovereign nation on 31st August, and more significantly, Malaysia turned half a century on 16th September, do the 26 million Malaysians have reason to celebrate? Unfortunately, the popular response would be very much in the negative.
The twin forces of race and religion have substantially polarised the nation. Every issue of public life, however minor or insignificant, is given an ethnic undertone by the politicians and the civil service and glaringly publicised in the government controlled mass media.
Totally absent in the national landscape is a statesman like the Father of Merdeka, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister, who was prepared to speak for the nation and the public weal, rather than from a parochial or sectarian perspective
Even after the closest general elections in our history, with the coalition governing the nation not enjoying majority popular vote and with the next general elections only due in five years, politicking of the worst kind continues daily. The Prime Minister is not giving the leadership that he sought from the electorate, and which he received.
With a 44-seat majority in the Dewan Rakyat, the Barisan government has a majority which is the envy of many governing coalitions across the globe. Yet, a sense of paralysis grips the centre.
Mounting debt, crime and ethnic tension
Bread and butter issues, which largely featured in the election campaign of five months ago, have still not been addressed at all. Not a day goes by without murders, rape and armed robberies occurring in our homes and our streets. Rampant crime has undermined law and order.
The economy has been shaken by mounting debt; not just the national debt, but also consumer and corporate debt. Comparisons have already been made to the run-up to our 1997 financial crisis, which was principally caused by a proliferation of debt.
Thousands of Malaysian companies and nationals speak with their wallets; they just take their money overseas in the billions. Our currency has received a battering in the last month, resulting in speculation that Bank Negara may have to intervene to prevent further depreciation of the ringgit.
Bread and butter issues, as important as they are to the average Malaysian, still pale in comparison with the massive increase in ethnic tensions. What is the point of Talent Corporation spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers monies in an endeavour to attract Malaysians to return home when racial polarisation is on the increase in their nation? Thousands of non-Malays have done brilliantly in businesses, professions and other private sector areas in Malaysia. They have flourished regionally and internationally in every society that values meritocracy.
Hence there is a huge pool of talented non-Malays willing to be engaged in the public service. Yet in their homeland, the civil service, the GLCs, the universities, the army, the police — indeed senior positions in the entire public sector — are dominated by one race. How does one justify such massive hiring of personnel from one race to manage national institutions where national policies are made in a nation of multiple communities that claims there are no classes of citizenship or nationality.
Playing our part
It is accordingly critical in the public interest that politicians of all parties cease polarising the nation any further. All Malaysians must be treated with sensitivity and delicately. Feelings of communities, however weak and influential, must not be hurt. Hate speech must be avoided at all costs.
The government must set the lead; after all, the whole purpose of electing leaders is for them to lead the nation. They must cease immediately playing the racial, religious and ethnic card and take policy decisions that would promote a plural society. If all these actions can only be taken by a government of national unity, that is, a grand coalition of Barisan and Pakatan parties, the national interest compels such an urgent outcome.
There is a genuine widespread concern that we must all play our part in rolling back the loud public discourse on race and religion. This is an awakening call.
Unless remedial measures are taken soon, young Malaysians who have the world at their feet, will desert the nation because they feel they have no place under the Malaysian sun. They are our future, but they see no future at home. That is the tragedy that must be avoided this Merdeka, and this 50th Malaysia day.
Tommy Thomas, a leading constitutional lawyer, is a long-time contributor to Aliran.