Saturday, October 8

Imperfect visions for 2020


WHEN I was younger, I thought 2020 was eons away. Mid-90s cartoons predicted cities of flying cars weaving through sleek skyscrapers inhabited by people using amazing portable gadgetry. Still, Lat would portray his usual characters and depictions of timeless Malaysian life: a comforting forecast (or hope?) that we would keep our culture and eating habits regardless of how the world changes.

Announced to great fanfare, the political project of Vision 2020 added to the notion that this was going to be a hugely significant year: indeed, even a bigger deal than even the impending new millennium. There would be much expectation and preparation for such a milestone, I thought.

However, the reality – and it has been true for some years now – is that the last quarter of the year is so busy that there is barely enough time to reflect before the fireworks explode again, and events in January (in the calendar since October) then begin in earnest. (Also, when I was younger, Christmas carols were a reliable sign that the end of the year was approaching: but these days, the music starts so early that the warning effect is lost. A better indication is when Spotify curates ‘Your Top Songs 2019’, but that’s of limited impact to those of us who have listened to JS Bach every day since 1995.)

Staying in KL for the countdown afforded valuable time for administration and reprising piano performances in 2019. I thought of extending the exercise for other endeavours – and for the decade rather than just the year – but that might prove a lengthy exercise in vain sentimentality.

Thus, it is sufficient to acknowledge one’s achievements and failures, appreciate that the world has changed and will continue to change, and plot a broad vision in moving forward, learning from mistakes made and building on successes.

Coincidentally, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year. It is always gratifying to receive congratulations on making a positive contribution (on behalf of the wonderful team of course) and maintaining the trust of partners who believe we can change society for the better through research, advocacy, and contributions to public policy formulation. However, it is vital to be vigilant against complacency and deviation from the principles which are our raison d’être.

This is especially pertinent when, in many quarters, the hope that accompanied the formation of this government has evaporated or been replaced by cynicism, derision, and ridicule. But at least, as I repeated throughout 2019, there was some strengthening of national institutions in those euphoric months after May 2018, the media continues to enjoy a bit more leeway, and civil society will never relinquish its role as arbiter of debate and platform for public articulation.

(To friends who argue that a ‘third force’ is needed within Malaysian electoral politics, I respectfully say the priority should instead be for the continual empowerment of civil society and decentralisation of power, especially since we have seen what can happen when once-independent, decent, and level-headed activists join the political fray. Many have become embroiled in party power struggles, relegated into irrelevance, failed to convert their activist success into ministerial competence, or worse, turned to the dark side with access to patronage and ministerial cars. I salute those who have resisted this melange, and I’m not surprised by the results of a recent poll that ranked the performance of cabinet ministers.)

Among the attempts to reclaim the optimism I felt as a teenager (at least before the impact of the Asian Financial Crisis was sharply felt by my cohort) is the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030. The goals are indeed noble, but for me, any new national vision needs to keep in mind the first vision of our nation: of liberty and justice, of a supreme Federal Constitution that protects fundamental liberties of all citizens, of a federation of states that upholds the rule of law under the ambit of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. Without constantly striving to hold to that legitimate original vision, not only will we fail to achieve Vision 2020 or the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030, but we will fail to respond to new challenges that emerge, particularly when it comes to protecting the environment. This is particularly true since so much environmental destruction happens as a result of weak governance and institutional failures, even if good laws and policies are theoretically in place.

If the coming of 2020 was not the eons I once expected, this year will be over in a flash, too. So Happy New Year, and I wish readers the best in fulfilling your personal visions as we all strive towards an ever more perfect national vision.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.