Monday, March 30

Finding hope amidst lament


EVERY National Day brings about lamentation, reflection and hope from commentators: our country should be better, the true vision of Malaysia has not been achieved, but if the right decisions are made, the promise of a glorious nation can still be fulfilled.

Of course, not every commentator begins with the same ideological premise.  People interpret the history of Merdeka and the formation of Malaysia differently. It is also a fact that writers have different utopian visions, though inclusive-sounding phrases like “we hope”, “all of us”, or “our future” invite the reader to adopt the same vision.

I am guilty of exactly the same thing, of course. On the one hand, my Merdeka articles of the last 11 years show that my views, at the core, have remained constant. I believe the independent Federation of Malaya, and later, Malaysia, was intended and agreed to be a nation based on the principles of liberty and justice, where rule of law – primarily through the Federal Constitution – is paramount, where every citizen has certain fundamental rights, and where traditional institutions fuse with modern government to create a unique parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy within a federal structure. This is the understanding which I have tried to share as widely as possible, through my articles and speeches (in particular my ‘Healing the Nation’ lecture).

On the other hand, each year brings different (if familiar) contentious issues. In 2019, the extent of racial and religious politicking is once again cause for worry, with the government apparently not taking opportunities to show substantial commitments towards unity (or at least, actions against provocation). The national day parade, with its usual multiracial singing, dancing and march-pasts plus anti-corruption skits provided a welcome, although too brief and perhaps too superficial a respite.

And so, adding to the lamentation, there is a feeling of betrayal, too, from those who sincerely felt that the tactic of racial and religious divide and rule would be finally renounced. Instead, there is a growing belief that these issues are being deliberately fomented to enable political leaders to draw attention away from their own incompetence at their jobs, and even more damning, manufactured not only to encourage division among the population, but to create divisions within their own parties and coalitions, as a tactic to consolidate their own power.

Following my article of two weeks ago on khat and divisive polemics from a preacher, now the latest topic of contention is a call for Muslims to boycott products made by non-Muslims. I have little to add to the excellent statement signed by Tawfik Ismail, Noor Farida Ariffin, Shad Saleem Faruqi, and others, which points out that “many non-Muslim companies have a significant number of Muslim staff”, and “economic activities form chain reactions that involve each and every community”. Thankfully, many Muslim religious leaders have also condemned the boycott, and I would highlight the fact that the Prophet Muhammad himself was a merchant who regularly conducted trade with non-Muslims. It is also telling that it is the private sector that has best encapsulated the spirit of unity through the array of touching advertisements.

Sadly, those who are pushing for more polarisation may be emboldened by the lack of government pushback. Next time, their rhetoric will be more divisive, more aggressive, and inaction from government will be even more disappointing.

And yet, many observers will still pin their hopes on a wise and enlightened leader to fix our problems. With much commentary also focused on the dearth of quality leadership (apart from internal party shenanigans that cast aspersion in all possible prime ministerial candidates), I return to belabour two points that I have been making for 11 years.

Firstly, it is that civil society must continue to expand and solidify its place in Malaysian society. I recognise that not all in civil society are equally enthusiastic about the same things, but it is vital to stress that the political class does not have a monopoly on nation-building.

Secondly, when hopes in a wise and enlightened leader fade, one logical way to mitigate the risk from bad centralised leadership is to decentralise power through our federal system. Letting states legislate against provocations of violence, adopt more inclusive school curricula, or vary tax rates can all help create new examples of success that less courageous leaders can later adopt.

In light of lamentations and feelings of betrayal, some Merdeka opinion articles this year were gloomily pessimistic. But if we can instead convert that into resolve and faith in ourselves, through continued strengthening of civil society and opening opportunities for new leaders to shine, the ideals of Merdeka – as I understand it – can still be accomplished.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.