Tuesday, July 23

Mapping the ideal Malaysia


THIS building named for our greatest Prime Minister, and this hall named for his greatest achievement, is an apt venue for this summit entitled ‘Youth Arise: Mapping the Ideal Malaysia’.

To map something is to present all the available data from history and geography so that destinations can be reached. Explorers will discover new paths, engineers will calculate the fastest routes, and leaders will motivate group efforts. But some will be happy to stay where they are, or disagree on the destination, or even the basis of the map itself. So mapping the ideal Malaysia is not as straightforward as it might sound. In our country people have different views of ‘the ideal Malaysia’, and even different understandings of the journey so far.

For example, outside there is a historical mural full of triumphalism from a political party’s perspective. But many see history differently, shaping their preferred future. For some, this future may mean defending their race, applying their religious interpretations, imposing socialist principles, or protecting liberty, necessitating in their eyes the upholding, tweaking or replacement of our Federal Constitution.

Tackling these divisions is the challenge of your generation. Across the world, from the USA of Donald Trump to the Europe of Brexit, long-established institutions are being challenged. The age of social media and fake news, where any claim can be counter-claimed with doctored photographs and fabricated data makes it more difficult to achieve consensus on just about anything. Instead, echo chambers solidify conflicting worldviews and strengthen prejudices.

In response, some would say that we need a strong, authoritarian government, in which dissent is prohibited and everyone must obey the leader. While that may lead to unity and even development in the short term, history shows us that such regimes are unsustainable. Government runs on fear and patronage, advancement occurs through bodek and blackmail, money becomes the mechanism by which favours are dispensed, and politics is reduced to contracts and positions.

Inevitably corruption and lack of freedom fosters discontent, and in response to the threat of losing power, the government increasingly takes control of institutions which are supposed to be independent, and the checks and balances disappear. As has happened in many civilisations, revolution and war can violently end such regimes. Only in a few cases can a peaceful transition occur through the ballot box, and much depends on the reaction of incumbent leaders.

But there is a more democratic alternative to the challenges of the digital age. It is to learn from the lessons of history. To understand that the Sultanate of Malacca’s success sprang from rule of law and open trade policies, or that rulers’ authority had been established by consent and convention, rather than by force, long before Malay kingdoms’ contact with European powers.

These are the predecessors of our Federal Constitution, agreed to by the will of the people. The first Yang di-Pertuan Agong described it as “a comprehensive declaration of duties and responsibilities, affecting all organs of State and all citizens of the land … it is the compass which will guide us through the unknown future.” In 1970, another royal proclamation brought the Rukun Negara into being.

Today, many are talking about the general election as if that is the only vehicle through which we can express how we want the country to move forward. Yet our everyday democracy should be about upholding the Federal Constitution and living by the Rukun Negara.

These are the parameters within which citizens, especially the youth, should operate to map the ideal Malaysia. Those who operate outside these parameters betray what has been agreed by those before us. If we don’t respect that, why would our children respect what we agree?

The topics being discussed at this summit – the refugee crisis, youth engagement in politics, employability, interfaith dialogue, sex education, mental health, sustainability and clean energy, the media, and the role of youth in local economic development – are all areas in which advancements can be made whether there is an election looming or not.

I have seen how positive change is achievable through civil society, decisions made in corporate boardrooms and the experience of retired public officials.  And I have witnessed the gratitude of stateless and refugee children, the optimism of rural kids embracing the fourth industrial revolution, and the inspiration already created by squash and musical prodigies.

True, many of these efforts would be accelerated by empathetic political leadership. But as we journey towards that destination, remember that the map – even if based on certain constitutional rules – may provide many destinations to the ideal Malaysia, and create the ideal you in the process.

Based on the writer’s keynote address at the ‘National Aspiration & Leadership Summit’ at Dewan Merdeka, Putra World Trade Centre, on Feb 4.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.