Wednesday, October 5

Questions of celebration

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Abidin Ideas

After a rehearsal of some Broadway musical numbers a couple of weeks ago – my aunt persuaded me to observe her new choir – the singers on a whim decided to sing our national anthem before dispersing.  It is an amazing sound when sopranos, altos, tenors and basses spontaneously harmonise a very familiar song, particularly when emotions stirred by judicial independence are palpably transmitted.

In my speech at the twelfth anniversary of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), unusually held in August instead of February in conjunction with the birth anniversary of Tunku Abdul Raman, I repeated our mission statement of restoring and realising the promise of a democratic nation founded upon the principles of liberty and justice, with an overview of our activities during the past two years.  Our Chief Executive Officer Dr Tricia Yeoh gave a more detailed account, but I’m pleased to say our website www.ideas.org.my is comprehensive too: all of our publications, and details of our funders, are laid out.

Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz began her speech with her own memories of our first Prime Minister, before segueing to the rightful expectations of Malaysians who wish to see our country prosper without corruption.  In a special treat, national laureate Professor Muhammad Haji Salleh delivered poems that encapsulated, through apt metaphors, the winding journeys that our nation must continue to make towards morality.  In the meantime, the brilliant Astra band provided an energetic stream of classic Malaysian pop songs from Tan Sri P Ramlee to Dato’ Sheila Majid.

Of course, the point of the evening was not just to have a good time, but to demonstrate that the support of Malaysians – whether individuals, civil society partners or companies – as well as international organisations and the diplomatic community, is vital in enabling the brilliant team at IDEAS to contribute towards making Malaysia a better place.

The next big event on the calendar was, however, an unashamed display of patriotic fervour.  After a lull of two years, the national day celebrations were back in force.  Thousands of people expectedly lined the streets around the padang as I joined my family on the royal podium.

First, a detachment from the Royal Malay Regiment in their ceremonial uniform was inspected by the Yang di-Pertuan Besar, framed by splendid playing of the state anthem.  Negaraku was passionately sung before the Menteri Besar led the recitation of the Rukun Negara – something unique to our state, I believe – punctuated by the blasts of cannons, as if to emphasise the content of each pledge that is often scribbled over in school exercise books.

A presentation of song and dance, suitably multiracial and cross-generational, preluded the actual march-pasts.  These never get boring.  Every single person marching looks proud to be doing so, especially if they are the flag-bearers, representing institutions from schools, government agencies, private companies or, perhaps uniquely in the Negeri Sembilan edition, their ancestral suku within our adat system.

In the mix were a group of cyclists (led by penny farthings!) and an award-winning band of recorder players.  Then, after a dramatic re-enactment of a police shootout, came the police, firefighting and military vehicles.  With each description of how such vehicles are vital to defending our sovereignty, I wondered if we spent a reasonable amount on them, or whether those artillery pieces made some minister of their wife rich instead.

Indeed, although the merriment was earnest, not everyone was celebrating.  Many Malaysians are struggling economically, and injustices against minorities and the marginalised still abound.  On social media, it seemed that the main parade was not as demographically diverse as the one in Seremban.  But above all, commentators reminded us that there is no certainty about the future, and the next configuration of our country’s leadership is anybody’s guess.

Still, there is still a value in such events, for it focuses our minds: is our celebration genuine or contrived?  And if we get a taste of what is worth celebrating, then surely we can strategise towards even better outcomes in the future?

Indeed there was one reform I missed out in a list I cited at the IDEAS dinner.  In addition to lowering the voting age to eighteen, automatic voter registration, preventing MPs from hopping parties, reforming political financing, and introducing term limits for an individual holding the office of Prime Minister, the Law Minister has now also committed to separating the roles of Attorney General and Public Prosecutor.  This is something that we and other civil society organisations have been advocating for some time, and obviously recent high profile cases demonstrate why the reform is so important.

Indeed, that would be something worth celebrating… even spontaneously singing Negaraku for!