This Malaysia Day, let us embrace our plural society wholeheartedly, with a determination to make diversity our biggest asset, writes Zaid Kamaruddin.
As we celebrate the first Malaysia Day under a different government from the past 54 years, let us remember amidst the euphoria that the “new Malaysia” belongs to all Malaysians, diverse not only in terms of ethnicity, religion, language, culture, lifestyle and socio-economic conditions, but most fundamentally in aspirations how our country should become.
It belongs to not only the 48% voters who made history by electing in a Pakatan Harapan (PH) new government, but also the 52% whose votes were split between Barisan Nasional (BN), Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pas), Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), numerous Bornean parties and other contestants.
For the new Malaysia to thrive, everyone must recognise the nation belongs to us as much as those who disagree with us. Recognising our differences may inevitably slow down some changes when those changes trigger fear or apprehension among some Malaysians. We cannot ignore those fears and apprehensions to bulldoze changes. Instead, we can expedite changes by promoting dialogue to build trust, forge consensus and find inclusive solutions.
Meaningful and sincere dialogue, however, cannot happen in a vacuum. It requires two conditions.
First, the fundamental respect that everyone has the right to be heard, no matter how unpopular the view may be. We emancipate ourselves from authoritarian provisions that stifle our mind in the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Printing Presses and Publication Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act and the Universities and University Colleges Act. We also need an emancipation from the culture of self-righteousness that demonises our dissidents with labels like fanatic, racist, archaic, subversive, unpatriotic, immoral or irreligious – or worse, threatens others with violence.
Second, everyone’s legitimate interests must be taken into account in public decision-making, which requires our political system to be more consensus-based than winner-takes-all. When powers and resources are highly concentrated in the hand of the federal government, and power can change hands with a minor swing under the first-past-the-post elections, it is understandable that many Malay-Muslims feel apprehensive over multiparty competition in Malay politics and susceptible to propaganda that the Malay-Muslim community is under siege. To move away from ethno-religious mobilisation, the political system must make sure no dramatic changes can happen without a clear consensus so that voters feel more secure in making their choices, whatever those may be.
Embracing diversity with an honest will to deal with its complications should be at the heart of our celebrations for independence and nationhood. Our 61 years of one-party rule, though striving towards good ethnic and religious relations, deteriorated by our failure to deal with diversity, differences and competition, even driving us towards authoritarianism for the purported reason of national security and stability. This has led to fear and suspicion of one another’s differences.
This Malaysia Day, let us embrace our plural society wholeheartedly, with a determination to make diversity our biggest asset. Let us remember we humans are made different so that we may know one another.
Let us similarly appreciate that Malaysia is made and sustained by diverse populations from three diverse regions – Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak – so that we may know (as the Malay saying goes, “tak kenal maka tak cinta” – cannot love without first knowing) and love one another. Let us talk and listen to one another on how we can make our political system more open and inclusive to be compatible with our social complexity.
Let’s build a better Malaysia! Selamat Hari Malaysia! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!
Zaid Kamaruddin is chair of Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia, a coalition of civil society groups, including Aliran.