Tendering an apology is not just about societal finesse but a good way of showing respect and empathy for the aggrieved person.
It is also paving the way towards admitting an act that, if left ignored, might adversely affect a relationship. An apology is also an expression of remorse and re-establishes self-esteem for those we have wounded emotionally.
Letting the injured party know that we know it was our fault, not theirs, gives them a sense of comfort and solace and makes them feel better. An act of contrition patches relationships by encouraging people to talk again as both parties regain an aura of comfort with each other.
When the leader of a country offers an apology for any past wrongs, it closes a painful chapter in that country’s history and acts as a balm on the hurt felt by the aggrieved segment of society. When the world witnesses such public repentance, it reflects positively on the leader and the country.
In early August, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made a formal and unreserved apology for an immigration crackdown in the 1970s against Pacific Islanders.
Ardern spoke at a gathering of affected families, Pacific Island dignitaries and government officials in Auckland. This crackdown sparked denunciations from religious, political and civil society groups until it was halted in the early 1980s.
The dawn raids targeted people who overstayed their visas, expelling them to their countries of origin. Exceedingly targeted were the Pacific Islanders, even though many of the visa overstayers were those from the UK, Australia and South Africa.
Many of these migrants in New Zealand still “suffer and carry the scars” from the policy.
Ardern hoped this apology “has brought some much-needed closure” to a stained chapter in the country’s history.
New Zealand had welcomed thousands of migrants from Pacific Islands after World War Two to boost the country’s booming economy. By 1976, over 50,000 Pacific Islanders lived in New Zealand.
A victim of these operations, New Zealand’s minister for Pacific peoples, Aupito William Sio, recalled that the operations were still fresh in his memory. Sio was born in Samoa before moving to New Zealand.
Rudd says sorry
After being sworn in 3 December 2007, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared his first act would be to acknowledge and close a tarnished chapter in Australia’s history.
On 13 February 2008, Rudd became the first Australian Prime Minister to issue a formal national apology in parliament for the past mistreatment of indigenous Australians.
Excerpts from his speech:
I believe it was absolutely the right thing to do as the first act in my prime ministership in parliament. This had been unfinished business for the nation for a very long time and it was time to bring that chapter to a close.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
Kevin Rudd’s apology speech was a magnanimous gesture from an incumbent prime minister recognising the injustices of the past and closing an excruciating chapter in Australia’s history.
US and UK apologies?
No American president has apologised for dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It has been 76 years since this devastation. The two atomic bombs killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people, and their adverse effects are still being felt today.
By the end of 1945, the bombing had claimed the lives of 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 74,000 in Nagasaki. It is time the Americans come clean and apologise to Japan for this heart-breaking devastation inflicted on innocent Japanese and make a formal apology.
The British have yet to apologise to India for their crimes committed like the Amritsar massacre on 13 April 1919. While British official figures claim over 350 people were killed, Indian sources estimate the toll to be as high as 1,000.
Malaysia’s leaders who have done wrong in the past are also morally obligated to apologise for their past actions.
The then Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, must apologise for the detention of 106 people during Operation Lalang in 1987, as he was also the home minister who signed the detention orders.
In 2017 a group of 77 NGOs demanded an apology from Mahathir for the mass arrests and closure of three newspapers. The arrests caused immense pain and hardship to the detainees and their families, who were separated from each other for a long time. My friend, who was a senior executive at the Star, told me about the hardship he endured when the paper was temporarily closed.
That year, Mahathir accepted blame for the use of the Internal Security Act during Operation Lalang.
But “there is no such thing as taking responsibility, but not apologising,” said Tania Jo Maliamauv, a well-known activist and advocate.
Malaysia must emulate Australia and New Zealand and extend an apology to all Operation Lalang detainees and their families. Only when an apology is extended will it close this blemished chapter in our country’s history and only then can we move forward as a nation with dignity and pride.
Apology for suspension of judges
At a dinner for lawyers and former judges in 2008, then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi announced several measures to reform the judiciary. But what surprised many was his tribute to the six Supreme Court judges who were sacked in 1988: a legacy that, he said, still haunts the country.
Present were former Lord President Tun Salleh Abas, former Supreme Court judges Azmi Kamaruddin and George Seah, and the families of demised Supreme Court judges Wan Suleiman Pawan Teh and Eusoffe Abdoolcader.
Turning to them, Abdullah said the government recognised “their commitment towards upholding justice and acknowledged the pain and loss they had endured”.
For the Malaysian Bar Council, this admission by an incumbent prime minister laid to rest a painful chapter in the history of the country’s judiciary. The Bar hoped it heralded a new era to rekindle the public’s confidence in the courts.
Former Umno Youth chief Hishammuddin Hussein was magnanimous enough to apologise for wielding the keris at the 2008 Umno assembly: a provocative incident which hurt the feelings of non-Malays in the country.
There comes a point and time in life when we have to right the wrongs of history.
Often, when an apology is extended, it offers some sort of solace to innocent and emotionally wounded people and their families.
And hopefully it also buries the past. That said, although the lacerations will eventually heal, the scars will always show.