By Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 13 September 2016

IT is amazing how some people react negatively to the word “liberalism” these days. The reactions are very different from the time when Tunku Abdul Rahman declared the independence of Malaya and the formation of Malaysia.

The Tunku proclaimed liberty as the ideal that founded this nation, but this word is not well understood by some quarters today.

On Aug 31, 1957, Tunku Abdul Rahman read out the Proclamation of Independence that confidently claimed this nation will “be for ever a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people …”

The same phrase was repeated in the Proclamation of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963, when Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore came together to form Malaysia.

This belief in liberal ideals was reiterated in the Rukun Negara which came about after the tragedy of May 13, 1969. The Rukun Negara held that Malaysia aspires to achieve unity amongst its people by “ensu­ring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions”.

Vision 2020 also holds that one day Malaysians will live in a society “that is democratic, liberal and tole­rant, caring, economically just and equitable, progressive and prospe­rous”.

Clearly liberalism forms an important part of our nation’s birth and progression over the years. It was referred to during our greatest moments of victory and crisis, and it is one of our greatest aspirations for our future.

But the term has been misunderstood, such that many people react negatively whenever the word is mentioned. Even worse, alien conservative ideas that are the complete opposite of our country’s founding principles are putting an ever-enlar­ging dark cloud over our country. My colleagues at Ideas are working hard to hold our annual Liberalism Conference to discuss these issues.

The conference will be held on Sept 24 in Bangsar. Our theme is, “Can Liberalism Save Malaysia?”

Just like last year, we designed this upcoming conference to not be a one-way proselytisation about the virtues of liberalism. Instead, we see the conference as a platform to allow stakeholders with interests in libe­ralism to come and speak their mind, including to oppose it.

I am really pleased that there will be representatives from organisations like Perkasa and Isma who will come and speak at this conference. Last year both organisations were also represented and their speakers gave brilliant presentations, explaining their views on the concept and applicability of liberal ideas in Malaysia, as well as their disagreement with the concept.

I am certain they will do the same good job this year, too. By building this bridge between people from different schools of thought, hopefully we at Ideas can make our small contribution to foster a healthy and less emotionally driven debate in the country.

I also feel that it is very important for people to listen to each other even if, or perhaps especially if, they disagree with each other. I am a libe­ral but it would be wrong for me to say that groups like Isma and Per­kasa are out to destroy the country.

I may disagree with some of their thinking, and we may have different ways, but the reality is they do what they do because they too love the country. Surely for the love of the nation we should talk calmly to each other to find commonalities and reduce differences.

I am quietly excited about this upcoming conference not just because the speakers lined up will bring people from different backgrounds to the same platform, but also because the topics are focused on the relevance of liberal ideas in facing today’s challenges.

We will begin with a deliberation on Malaysia’s future in an increa­singly illiberal environment. This will be followed by a panel discussion on how liberalism can help avoid billion ringgit scandals invol­ving government-linked companies.

We will then explore the concept of multiculturalism and the applicability of liberalism in fostering na­tional harmony. And lastly we will look into how and if Malaysia can move beyond race and religion in politics. In short, we want to discuss how the very ideals that founded this country – the liberal ideals of liberty and justice as proclaimed by Tunku – can guide us in solving modern day problems.

In doing so, I also hope that we can tackle the confusion surrounding the word liberalism, at least a little bit. We need to show that libe­ral ideals are the only way that will allow people to live their lives the way they want.

Only if liberalism continues to guide our country will the conservatives be able to live a conservative life, the religious live a religious life, the liberals live a liberal life and so on. If we push further into illiberal ways, we will end up breaking up this country and I am sure no one wants to see that happen.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the Chief Executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)

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