MY interests in public policy have always focused on our national institutions: our democratic bodies, our checks and balances, our values and principles, and of course the broad topics of education, culture, and the nurturing of our collective identity. It is only lately that I have come to realise the centrality of sustainability in our national agenda, and the importance of communicating it properly.
Politicians must be held accountable for all that they say and do in public life, of course, but the sustainability agenda requires even more long-term, visionary thinking that takes future generations into account, rather than immediate political goals. Unfortunately, the latter objectives often involve the divisive rhetoric of race and religion as narrow constituencies are pandered to secure power.
It is because of this that I believe more than ever that it is civil society that that will lead the way in pushing for long-term solutions including the Sustainable Development Goals, and as the year comes to a close I am proud of the 19 papers that Ideas published, among them to advance the cause of better governance, greater recognition and rights for refugees, and a spotlight on rare diseases. Already, a vibrant civil society is now a permanent feature of Malaysian public life, and although there are naturally disagreements among NGOs and activists, all will agree that political parties no longer have a monopoly when it comes to the process of policy formulation. We should also acknowledge the role played by international organisations and diplomatic allies.
As patriotic civil society, we must also be guided by our history: not just the promise of Merdeka, our Federal Constitution and Rukun Negara, but also older laws and precedents that refer to human rights, rule of law, decentralisation and open markets.
Some people argue say that in a world of rapid technological change, old values and institutions should be discarded as they are too cumbersome, slow to react, and have failed humanity. Indeed, we do see challenges regarding social media and many failures in responding to climate change.
But as with the printing press, radio, television and the internet, it will take time for people to recalibrate their trust in the media. I am buoyed by the emergence of fact-checking services and traditional journalism will continue to play a vital role – though I’m less enthusiastic about some governments forcibly removing or censoring content they deem as false.
More broadly, traditional institutions can and must adapt to present day needs. The pursuit of IR 4.0 and collective climate action still needs policies to be made, laws to be obeyed, citizens to be healthy, businesses to thrive, contracts to be enforced, our culture to be nurtured, and most importantly, our children to be educated. This education must include the civics as aforementioned, but also include independent critical thinking, worldliness, imagination, ethics, and a recognition that musicians and sportsmen make a society as much as engineers and doctors do.
I get my optimism from meeting amazing young children from diverse walks of life in Malaysia. At Ideas Academy and Yayasan Chow Kit, I have seen how children have experienced considerable hardship, poverty, trauma even, and yet emerged to lead fulfilling and happy lives, cognisant of the opportunities that await them. At Ideas Autism Centre, we have seen how with the right early interventions, children on the autism spectrum can do spectacularly well even in mainstream schools.
And certainly no young musician or athlete I meet through the various organisations I serve as patron ever thinks only in terms of their own passion, or puts all their eggs into one basket, or navigates their lives oblivious to the community and planet around them. Although many deride millennials as the snowflake generation, I have observed that this generation more than any before is aware of the changes enveloping them, aware of the challenges that face the planet, and watching and judging the performance of the current generation who are responsible.
Thus, better communication is key in connecting not only the public and private sectors, different parts of industry and commerce, the worlds of civil society and formal national institutions, but also the memories, hopes, and dreams across our diverse cultures, religions, and generations of Malaysia. This inter-generational aspect of policymaking is often obscured in this country because of the focus on race, religion and political parties themselves – but with enough cohesiveness and vision, we can build new coalitions and communities to overcome those who deliberately stoke division.
In truth, the Sustainable Development Goals have always, in some way, been part of our shared DNA: now, let us find the best way to say and act upon them.
Adapted from the writer’s keynote speech at the Workshops of the World Communicate Conference 2019.