The common good of all people in Malaysia must be at the heart of our effort to rebuild Malaysia, says M Nadarajah.
It is certainly very soul-stirring to see democracy re-flowering in Malaysia.
We see steps being taken to firmly reestablish the rule of law – both in spirit and in word. Corruption is being confronted with a fierce determination. We see a committed drive to separate the three core pillars of democracy and to ensure that the state’s executive power is kept under control. We also see small but significant steps towards a non-ethnic ordering of society.
The full impact of these changes, if sustained without mindless revision, will take time to realise. As citizens we have to be patient but at the same time vigilant too. Relapse is always a possible future. Corruption is sometimes invisible.
The progressive media, citizens and civil society are still groping in this new scenario. The democratic space they aspired for is here. What they wanted has come to them. They have ‘got rid’ of BN. They have got rid of untrustworthy politicians. They have put the politicians they trust to govern the country.
There is a sense of relief and freedom. Our national psyche is certainly experiencing catharsis and euphoria. A streak of sadism is also evident, many of us enjoying the predicament and punishment of those who have directly or indirectly hurt us for so many years.
We are moving towards a new Malaysia. But people are already walking around with a sense of confidence and hope as though we have already arrived. We need to unpack this sense and examine it a little more closely and carefully for there could be a little bit of confusion.
The new government is taking steps to re-establish the rule of law in spirit and in word. They are also trying to restructure the critical and core institutions of democracy to do the work any functioning genuine and growing democracy should do. Our sense of euphoria seems to further be heightened with all these moves. And, of course, the euphoria is strengthening the legitimisation of the present regime.
But how should we perceive these changes? The present leadership is not doing this as a favour but as part of a stated or unstated condition the citizens have given them, based on their promise – the choice and privilege to govern us. The present regime is doing what it ought to do. This we expect them to do. As we have a new group of more sincere party politicians and national leaders, we are moving ahead with building the Malaysia that should have been there in the first place. We are about 50 years late. But this is only a part, albeit a critical one, of what it means to be new Malaysia.
This is the Malaysia that we ought to have inherited. Today, we should have been proud citizens of such a Malaysia. But we missed it because of leaders who could not control their relationship with power and wealth, whatever reasons they may give us. We took many bad turns. We have a broken democracy.
But we have now given ourselves another chance. We are trying to redo many things, which we broke in the last 50 years. We hope to set it right again. So, should we club this with the idea of new Malaysia? Perhaps yes. But our new Malaysia must be much more than this.
Some concerned, active daughters and sons of Malaysia are alarmed by the moves of the same government that is “reinventing” a more robust democracy. The present government is changing the institutions for the better but it is unfortunately reacting to challenges it faces in the old ways. It is not surprising, in a way, but that really needs to change.
We have to face the old and new internal vulnerabilities in Malaysia more comprehensively and compassionately. Think of the poor citizens, migrants, refugees, undocumented immigrants, the LGBT community, physically and mentally challenged persons, old folks without families, orphans, girl children, indigenous people, informal sector workers, sex workers, the natural and cultural heritage, other sentient beings and aspects of Nature.
Our forest and water bodies are vulnerable too to human mindlessness, aggression (sold as economic strategy), and greed. We need to respond, not only as citizens of Malaysia but also of the world, to the global ecological crisis and to nations that have war as part of their foreign policy (overtly or covertly).
What we really need is to grow a new mentalite, a new sensibility, a new culture and new norms. We need, as some would say, a new ‘structure of feeling’, a new ‘common sense’.
All these cannot be seen as just the result of the pro-democracy institutional changes that we are presently pursuing. The new mentalite and norms need to be positioned as the framework, as the guiding force to re-orient, realign and redirect those democratic structures we are recovering to the future we prefer or aspire for ourselves, for the generations to come, for persons who come to Malaysia seeking our help and for Nature that we must protect and nurture.
We need to nurture a new orientation to be the basis of our New Malaysia – an orientation that builds on our inherited wisdom, which we have been neglecting. We need a ‘new generation’ of ideas, theories, strategies, policies, practices, behaviours, emotions and feelings. We need a new ‘normal’.
We look at causes not just symptoms. We look at being not just having. We look at maximum wage, not just the minimum wage. We look at affluence not just poverty. We look at people not just profits. We look at culture not just the economy. We look at service and volunteerism not just what’s-in-it-for-me. We look at sustainable livelihood not just careers. We look at the dignity of people not their market value. We look at the ‘culture of sustainability’ not just the ‘culture of economic growth’.
We look at health and wellbeing not just the medico-pharmaceutical industry. We look at wholesome nourishment not just the food industry. We look at mobility not just the transport industry. We look at learning and being not just the education industry. We look at compassionate cities not just smart cities. We look at Labour not just Capital. We look at our policies and employers’ behaviour not just immigrants (documented or undocumented). We look at our own “Sejahtera Sense of Being” not just the West or the East or the UN. We look at our compassionate foundations not our competitive spirit. We look at spirituality not just religion. We look out for all, not just our kind.
We have to place this ‘new normal’ at the heart of our effort to build a new Malaysia. It must be the seed of the common good… the common good of all people in Malaysia.
What is this common good? While there are different traditions that will help us to explore the idea, let me engage with the wisdom of the Catholic Church. Without going into the specific history and documents, here is what it means: “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”
It consists of three elements: respect and dignity of the person, social wellbeing and development of the group, and peace ie. the stability and security of a just order. “The common good is always oriented towards the progress of persons: The order of things must be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around. This order is founded on truth, built up in justice, and animated by love.”
Imagine a community. The common good captures the optimal conditions and resources that allow the community and its members to have a wholesome, fulfilled life without anyone being sacrificed or disregarded or left behind. In this, there is also a preferential option only for the more vulnerable and the poor. From the standpoint of a compassionate society, when one member suffers, everyone suffers and it threatens the sense of the common good.
In a complex society like ours, we need to meditate and deliberate on the common good urgently. We need a mental and material reorientation, a mental ‘revolution’. That will contribute to and define a new ‘social contract’ Malaysia needs. That should be the goal of nation-building in our efforts to usher in a new Malaysia.
Dr M Nadarajah, a sociologist by training, is an Asian Public Intellectuals (API) fellow whose work focuses on cultural and sustainability issues. An associate director with Sejahtera Leadership Initiative based in USIM, he also heads the Xavier Centre for Humanities and Compassion Studies at Xavier University in Bhubaneswar, India.