by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 18 September 2015

After the much-anticipated Malaysia Day redshirt rally, comparisons are eagerly being made with Bersih 4: the numbers (difficult when estimate ranges are so wide and doctored photos are circulated), the behaviour of the crowd and police response, and the chants and objectives. Those in opposition to the rally expressed their feelings by participating in patriotic social media campaigns or attending events like the conference organised by IDEAS National Unity Youth Fellows.

While it is always convenient to argue that people are bought and manipulated into doing things, the reality is that there are Malaysian citizens who genuinely do have diametrically different ideas of how the country should be. It is an indictment of the failure, after all these years, to inculcate strong shared values and a feeling of common destiny.

Certainly, the rally and its surrounding rhetoric overshadowed what Malaysia Day is supposed to celebrate: the liberation of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore from colonialism and their coming together, each as equals, with the Federation of Malaya to create Malaysia.

The last paragraph of the Proclamation of Malaysia (whose English and Malay Jawi versions adorn IDEAS’ Merdeka and Malaysia Day cards this year) signed by Bapa Malaysia states that with the concurrence and approval of the four relevant heads of state, he declares and proclaims that Malaysia will “forever be an independent and sovereign democratic State founded upon liberty and justice, ever seeking to defend and uphold peace and harmony among its peoples and to perpetuate peace among nations”.

The fulfilment of the Malaysian dream began with the conception of the idea of a democratic country spanning the South China Sea, getting the support of the leaders in each territory, creating the legal, bureaucratic and political infrastructure to define how it would be governed, and negotiating with the British Crown for the necessary transfers of sovereignty. But most important of all was ensuring popular support for the project.

Today that popular support is not universal. Indeed some actively want to see the federation’s break-up. Amidst discontent in Sabah and Sarawak there are those who argue that the methods used to justify the creation of Malaysia were not sufficiently democratic – the Cobbold Commission and the United Nations Malaysia Mission, whose final report authored by the UN Secretary-General U Thant concluded that “the majority of the peoples of the two territories… wish to engage, with the peoples of the Federation of Malaya and Singapore, in an enlarged Federation of Malaysia [sic] through which they can strive together to realise the fulfilment of their destiny.” Others say that the whole arrangement was invalidated when Singapore was expelled in 1965, as the Malaysia Agreement never envisaged such a circumstance. Yet another argument places primacy on the 18 and 20-Point Agreements: if they have been breached, secession is justified.

But the reality in our country today is that many of the promises of the nation have been breached. Over the decades, institutions that were envisaged to operate in certain ways have been curtailed or redefined, and many noble principles articulated by our founding fathers have been abandoned. Does this mean that the whole country should be disbanded? No: surely it means that we as patriots must do our bit to steer the country back towards those principles. Rectifying the failure to inculcate strong shared values and a feeling of common destiny rests on active participation by us.

That is why we need to maximise and expand the democratic space so that petitions, open letters, joint statements and peaceful rallies can take place: for the public airing of views, pleas and requests in the name of bettering the country will enable other citizens to show, or at least think about, whether they agree or disagree. Other mechanisms can then assess how genuine some of these initiatives are: for example media querying whether participants were sponsored to attend rallies, or opinion polls indicating the extent of popular support for them.

It is through this process that the political leaders of tomorrow might get their cue. While some will be happy to perpetuate the degradation of institutions because it will benefit them, others might try and address it but will fail either because of temptation or impotence. Still, maybe, just maybe, there will be the rare statesman who will emerge to resurrect a grand vision for the nation that can be shared by the overwhelming majority of people of the country.

On the same day a new political party was launched with orange as its official colour. It is an appropriate choice, for at this juncture the country needs a party or movement that can appeal to those who favour either of yellow or red.

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS

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