MALAYSIA won seven gold, five silver, and 12 bronze medals at the recently concluded Commonwealth Games in Australia’s Gold Coast, placing us 12th among the 71 teams competing (even though there are 53 members of the Commonwealth, since some constituent territories compete separately).
Congratulations are in order to our inspirational athletes and contingent headed by Chef de Mission Huang Ying How, the architect who is president of the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia on whose committee I serve (but only I can claim to have won five points off our new Commonwealth bronze medallist, having recently played Nafiizwan Adnan in Seri Menanti).
These games are by far the most visible product of the Commonwealth, the grouping of nations which mostly share a historical connection with the United Kingdom. Of the present states of Peninsular Malaysia, Penang and Melaka (and for 63 years Dindings in Perak) formed part of a crown colony, while the other states were formally protectorates subsequently arranged into the Federated and Unfederated Malay States until the creation of the Malayan Union and its replacement by the Federation of Malaya. Meanwhile, both North Borneo (later Sabah) and the Kingdom of Sarawak became British protectorates in 1888 and (through different mechanisms) became crown colonies after the surrender of the Japanese ended World War II. Indeed, this shared British connection across the South China Sea was one of the arguments for the creation of Malaysia in 1963.
After Merdeka in 1957, the Commonwealth played a vital role in our foreign and domestic policy, particularly as the ongoing communist insurgency was fought together with troops from African territories (today Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe), Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. Sometimes I meet their relatives, or veterans themselves (for whom the Pingat Jasa Malaysia is deeply meaningful), but too few Malaysians are aware of the sacrifices made by others for our defence.
Tunku Abdul Rahman also saw the Commonwealth as a platform to express certain values. At the Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London in 1960, he was the first to condemn the violence stemming from apartheid in South Africa. It might seem amazing that we could have once played a leading role in censuring another country for race-based policies, but that is exactly what happened, and South Africa’s standing was dented, while paving the way for the abolition of apartheid.
Geopolitics is different today: in our increasingly multipolar world small countries have the option of aligning with competing groupings (which all claiming to uphold peace and democracy). In this context, the Commonwealth is often dismissed as a colonial hangover, which provides little benefit. Despite membership being voluntary, the testimonials of many who have benefited from its Youth Programme and the diverse network of Commonwealth Family organisations, the imperial accusations continue.
Yet, as I said in my speech at the Commonwealth Big Lunch on April 7, expressing shared values of democracy, rule of law and human rights can overcome these objections as the world grapples with a loss of confidence in traditional institutions.
Ironically then, because of the upcoming general election, Malaysia’s perceived commitment to the grouping may suffer. To the current Chogm in London, we have sent our lowest-level representation ever, and the idea that we will be hosting the next one in 2020 (our last was in 1989) has evaporated, despite newspaper reports on this notion in recent years and the September 2017 meeting between Prime Ministers May and Najib fuelling such hopes. (But now that it’s no longer happening, the property developers hoping to secure a contract to ‘renovate’ certain heritage buildings with new blocks to accommodate all the Heads of Government will have to wait for another opportunity.)
I watched the opening ceremony of the 1998 Commonwealth Games from my boarding school in England. I was proud to see the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (my grand-uncle Tuanku Ja’afar who had beaten Tun Razak at squash at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar) arriving into the stadium with the Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II.
At the same time, our country was riven with political division, with protests on the streets after the Prime Minister sacked his deputy (who acquired a black eye that has become the symbol of the party that Tun Mahathir will be contesting for).
Despite that political division, the country rallied behind our athletes who delivered our best Commonwealth Games performance ever: 10 gold, 14 silver, 12 bronze, placing us fourth overall.
At a recent lunch at the Royal Commonwealth Society, beside the bust of Tunku Abdul Rahman, I wondered whether despite today’s political divisions, we could successfully rally around such a united effort again.
A tough vision for 2020, it would seem.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.