Reminders behind the familiar

IN going through the motions of familiar rituals, one sometimes needs to be reminded of why one is doing them. In Seri Menanti on the eve of Hari Raya Haji, the maghrib and isyak prayers are punctuated by the firing of the trusty cannon: a contrast to the soothing repetitions of the takbir raya afterwards, although a round of fireworks provides a coda to the explosions. In the morning, the usual congregation of local residents and tahfiz students at the mosque is boosted by urbanites returning for a grateful midweek rural retreat from board meetings. Before visiting the graves of departed family members, the main difference between an Aidilfitri and Aidiladha morning is revealed, as cows are slaughtered to be divided and distributed to the needy later on at the Istana open house.

It is here that the twin messages of sacrifice and charity emerge, and of course the story of the Muslim Prophet Ibrahim intending to offer his son’s life to God has its equivalent in the Bible. Other religions have their own parables to speak of dedication from oneself towards a higher purpose.

Throughout the lifetime of this column, I have seen many inspirational examples of Malaysians of all backgrounds and experiences making contributions for the benefit of society. They come in many forms: leadership by example, the dissemination of ideas, the pursuit of beneficial policy change, the spreading of joy and contemplation through art, and generous philanthropy. Most of these patriotic movers and shakers would not describe their activities as a ‘sacrifice’ – more often than not, they enjoy what they do. This sentiment resonated with me particularly when Prof Muhammad Yunus repeated at UKM his belief that humans can be both selfish and selfless.

Since the general election, many of these people have continued their efforts with a renewed sense of purpose: that there is a positive impact to what they do, and the opportunity to effect further change is amplified now that there is a perception of greater freedom.

Indeed, at events as diverse as the opening weekend of the George Town Festival and the media briefing for the Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival, at concerts by Hands Percussion and the Seremban-based Euroasia Association of Performing Arts, at conferences such as the International Malaysia Law Conference, the Malaysian Social Studies Conference and the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR) Asia Conference, there were references to new opportunities to share, to amplify, and to embed cultural, political and economic freedom into the lives of citizens. The unwritten assumption in civil society is that the momentum must be kept up to prevent the doors of authoritarianism from closing up on us again.

Not everyone is a winner, of course. Apart from the explicit political losers – some of whom are nonetheless adjusting admirably to new realities – many Malaysians who self-identify as members of certain communities feel like they are already being victimised: turned into scapegoats, or only being given comforting words that are meaningless while policy and legislation that enable abusive behaviour remain unchanged.

On several occasions, the political victors have pleaded for more time for promises to be delivered, while in other instances deviations from the manifesto have been justified by claims that new information renders them inapplicable. Even very sensible individuals now in senior positions of government have adopted the mantra that the manifesto was aspirational: that they didn’t expect to win so they shouldn’t be held to their every word. But these very sensible individuals must remember that they won according to an expectation of a higher standard: by falling short, Malaysian democracy falls short too.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is a columnist.

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