FIVE years ago I gave a lecture entitled ‘Healing the Malaysian Nation’ to several different audiences. Asked coincidentally to deliver a lecture of the same name, I added ‘2.0’ at the end.
My 2015 lecture began by describing the process by which the Malaysian nation came into being. The entities that eventually federated to make Malaysia each had their own history and institutions, their own lessons of statecraft and policymaking that eventually culminated to make Malaysia.
In adopting the Federal Constitution, the member states agreed how to support key institutions and mechanisms for justice, legislation, policy, and so on. Yet, there have been attempts to deliberately misinterpret the Constitution in pursuit of certain agendas, despite the clear understandings and intentions of the framers, writers, and adopters of the Federal Constitution.
Of course, no nation should be stagnant: there must be evolution from a country’s foundations. But there must be broad consensus about what those foundations were. If a well-documented past itself becomes the subject of constant interpretation, there is little point making any agreements today: future generations will just as easily reinterpret or discard them.
Indeed, that fundamental consensus is necessary to enable the nation to evolve, and in that regard democratic institutions are vital to enable discussion, moderate debate, and mediate disagreements. Apart from the perspectives of the constitution and federal agreements, international indices on the state of democracy, human rights, economic freedom, property rights, the ease of doing business, perceptions of corruption, happiness, and so forth are also useful in assessing the health of a nation. However, these can also be criticised for ideological biases or methodological weaknesses.
I concluded my 2015 lecture with three pleas. First, that revamping civic and citizenship education is a crucial component in reforging a shared sense of belonging. Second, that strong democratic institutions to enable free speech and debate are vitally important. Third, that sound, moral leadership is needed to see this project through. I ended by quoting the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong telling the Dewan Ra’ayat in 1959 that the Constitution “is a comprehensive declaration of duties and responsibilities, authority and prerogatives, affecting all organs of the state, and all citizens of the land … The Constitution belongs to all of us.”
Since then I’ve had encouraging conversations with various ministries, Parliament, and the judiciary about how young Malaysians should learn about the origin, function, and operation of our national institutions. I hope the current government will continue and grow these initiatives.
And in my dialogues with youth in diverse settings: schools, universities, student events, sports, and musical events, it’s been refreshing to hear what they think the future of Malaysia should look like. Some of these ideas are radical but it is good that they can be aired, rather than resentfully bottled up.
There are also many new powerful youth initiatives, whether in amplifying the voices of the marginalised, raising the economically bottom 40 per cent through social entrepreneurship, or by upstaging adults in their knowledge of institutions. One example of the latter was Parlimen Digital, a simultaneously radical and conservative initiative that created an unprecedented platform for young people to debate their views, but through the mechanisms of an august national institution
On the question of leadership, however, the optimism is rather murkier. There are many promising young leaders across the political spectrum, and yet, confidence in the whole system suffers when parliamentarians are seen to subvert the people’s voice by constantly changing allegiance. Of course, according to those involved, it is not so simple: either someone else’s inexplicable actions are to blame, or there are ‘higher loyalties’ that justify ‘smaller’ betrayals.
The reasons behind the formation of a new government in February 2020 will be analysed for generations, but its proponents argue that the perception of weakening Malay political dominance, the threat of dismantling Malay rights and privileges, and unending uncertainty on the question of leadership succession made it necessary.
From this scenario the mission to heal the nation and its institutions becomes even more urgent, beyond the immediate need to survive through Covid-19. With the existence now of so many Malay parties fighting for the same demographic, simply calling each other traitors and sell-outs is surely self-defeating. A more compelling argument must be made: that Malay advancement is better provided through good governance, of sound economic and social policies, and of checks and balances to concentrations of power.
The leader that succeeds in doing that may well turn into reality the hope of Tunku Abdul Rahman that “Malaysia be the sole object of our love and loyalty – and there is plenty of room in our country for everybody.”
Adapted from the writer’s lecture ‘Healing the Nation 2.0’ delivered at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (IDFR) on Aug 6, 2020.