By M Santhananaban
Malaysia recently observed the 50th anniversary of the passing of Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, an impeccable, legendary and lofty figure in our peaceful independence struggle and committed champion of a harmonious, just and vibrantly multicultural nation.
Ismail was a noted adherent of the principles of accountability, good governance and transparency – values that somehow fell by the wayside over the past four decades. One of the many contributions he made was the powerful recognition of the pivotal importance of the nation’s workforce his declaration of May Day, 1 May, as an annual holiday.
Those values of mutual respect and trust in a harmonious plural society are unfortunately under threat in parts of Ismail’s beloved nation today.
Those values he championed from the 1950s to the early 1970s currently prevail and are perhaps entrenched far more impressively outside the peninsula, in the Borneo region.
Stellar Sabah and Sarawak
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Sabah and Sarawak are not just the nation’s most cosmopolitan and inclusive regions but the most accommodative of the rich diversity of a magnanimous and munificent multicultural Malaysia.
These two regions account for almost two-thirds of the territorial area of the country and contribute the bulk of the nation’s export earnings, particularly from oil and gas, timber and palm oil products.
The peninsula once boasted those attributes of a superbly accepting and accommodative spirit. But that is increasingly under threat, especially in Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu.
Six state elections
The upcoming 12 August elections in six states – Kedah, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan, Penang and Terengganu – are a crucial contest of two sets of values.
The “unity government” of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, now approaching its ninth month in office, embodies the inclusive, uplifting, universal spirit of the original Malaysia of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Ismail and Hussein Onn.
This spirit preached and practised national unity, accountability, good governance, integrity and transparency.
Admittedly, it was a simpler world back then, without social media, high levels of literacy or the palpable greed for huge bribes, corruption and cash. There was no fascination then for the fake flashiness of a Vision 2020 or a 1Malaysia.
In those early days, the prime minster was sometimes permitted the luxury of overseas travel in a modest RMAF executive aircraft. Often, the prime minister would travel as a regular passenger on a scheduled commercial flight.
In today’s Malaysia, former Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaacob travelled to a flood-hit Kedah in a posh executive jet and had an entourage of imported luxury vehicles to meet and ferry him on arrival there.
This was the same Ismail Sabri who was more confident about his own Malay language skills. Similarly, Kelantan executive councillors valued their glitzy Mercedes Benzes much more than the provision of potable water in their state or their English language skills.
In the other five states where potable water is taken for granted, state executive council members use more modest vehicles.
It is ironic that two former prime ministers, both beneficiaries of the country’s premier English secondary schools, are officially, officiously and, one might even say, odiously aligned politically to the extremist religion-baiting leaders of Pas.
These two former PMs will go down in history as the two who undermined their predecessors. Now they have found solace in Pas’ inward invidiousness.
Pas’ retreat from real-world life – by preferring the preparation for the hereafter – ignores poverty and burgeoning bribery and corruption as long as there is a willing giver and a willing taker. The party also does not seem to value national equilibrium and unity.
What’s more, Pas and the two former prime ministers are politically situated seemingly in obsolete pre-Malaysia consciousness, completely ignoring the authentic existence of the people of Borneo.
There is thus a somewhat distant and disturbing dichotomy between their futuristic quest for recognition in the hereafter and the society they have lived in until now.
The coalition they belong to, Perikatan Nasional, largely operates on the distrust of all the country’s minorities, including the native people of Sabah and Sarawak, among whom pockets of abject poverty and isolation from the benefits of development still exist.
Hadi’s hate, haranguing and hollering
The principal ally of the two former prime ministers, Hadi Awang is hogging the limelight with his repeated narrative that there has to be a constant jihad of excluding non-Muslims from any position of authority in the government of our multi-ethnic country (Malay Mail, 6 August).
If this is the kind of distrust of non-Muslims that exists, how will Malaysia fare internationally under his leadership?
As a nation we depend highly on trade, tourism and technical input from abroad, including from many predominantly non-Muslim countries and Muslim countries.
Malaysia maintains expensive diplomatic, trade, investment missions and consulates in over a hundred cities to promote our interests. We have in Washington DC a high-powered ambassador, former cabinet minister Nazri Aziz. He works tirelessly to promote the country’s interests, especially in the cultural, investment and tourism sectors.
All these initiatives are important efforts to promote our country as a responsible and reliable of the international community of nations.
Hadi’s toxic talk goes against the grain of decency and proper decorum. PN, inspired by Hadi and the two Ms – Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Mahiaddin Yasin – casts itself as a grating, green-washed, wobbly warmongering group against non-Muslims and the non-Sunni world.
Such hate-filled talk gets picked up and that does not help the nation.
Anwar’s all-inclusive approach
In contrast, Prime Minister Anwar effectively leads a broad-based and more inclusive unity government.
His government has the explicit support of the regional governments in Kota Kinabalu and Kuching and commands a notable following in peninsula.
Anwar’s political umbrella is all-inclusive, integrates – or attempts to integrate – every sector of the country’s population. It is unifying, uplifting and unswerving in its commitments to prioritise the wellbeing of the native and dominant majority group of the country.
Anwar’s team includes men and women who are much younger than him.
They include Rafizi Ramli, Fahmi Fadzil, Young Syefura Othman and Syahredzan Johan, who in the future may show promise of being prepared adequately for leadership positions.
Anwar also emerges as a seasoned veteran of diplomacy and finance with extensive networks and abiding personal friendships in the Southeast Asian region, the wider Asian region, in the Muslim world and, undoubtedly in the West.
Anwar at 76 can be easily entrusted to handle any delicate matter with any bilateral or multilateral implication – a facility clearly unseen or unheard of in the PN scene.
Despite having these protean qualities, Anwar is acutely aware he has to prioritise the core concerns of the peninsula ethnic Malays.
But Anwar does carry some disadvantages, including his great need to depend on Zahid Hamidi, the Umno factional leader facing many criminal charges. The short rebuttal to that is that Zahid is not irreplaceable.
Anwar has admitted he cannot change overnight the practices and policies that have been in place since the 1980s, as they are deeply entrenched and embedded in the system.
Yet there is no doubt he is seriously committed to weeding out corruption, excesses in public life, and wastage.
He has been taking great personal risks by speaking unequivocally, perhaps too frequently and openly, about the excessive wealth of some political veterans.
Such talk is music to the ears of the vast majority of people in Malaysia who have long sensed the extensive systemic corruption but who could do nothing about it till Anwar became the Prime Minister last November.
Three months before that, the most notoriously corrupt prime minister of Malaysia began serving his 12-year prison sentence for corruption.
In eight months, Anwar has created an atmosphere for more open dialogue and discussion on corruption and core developmental issues.
This openness must continue for the country to rescue itself from the scourge of abuse of high office, grand larceny and blatant mismanagement of the country’s resources.
It would seem every effort is being made to thwart Anwar in this crucial mission.
M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience. He has no political affiliations