by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun Daily 13 February 2014
LAST weekend on Feb 8, IDEAS celebrated its 4th anniversary in conjunction with the 111th birthday of Almarhum Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, the country’s first prime minister. Speeches by Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam and IDEAS president Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin Tuanku Muhriz were reminiscent of the Tunku’s leadership qualities and principles he stood for.
The Tunku is known to have strongly emphasised equality for all regardless of race or religion; strived to ensure unity and harmony among Malaysians; promoted meritocracy and competition, not forgetting to care for the poor and underprivileged; and stood for religious freedom.
In their speeches, both questioned just what the Tunku would say about the Malaysia of today, recalling how he had once said, “I am the happiest prime minister in the world” – would he conclude the same if he were prime minister today?
In the past few weeks alone, one group has offered financial rewards in exchange for slapping a senior female politician (for a Chinese New Year video of purportedly offensive nature), Christian gravestones were damaged in Kuantan, and a church had Molotov cocktails thrown into its premises. These are black marks in the nation’s history, and surely the Tunku would have been greatly saddened.
Yet, perhaps we romanticise the past, since the country in 2014 is a very different animal from what it was in 1957.
Then, spirits were high after having gained independence from the British. Malayans were united in efforts towards rebuilding the nation they could finally call their own. Inter-personal differences would have been overlooked above the bigger picture of freedom, self-rule and ownership. The Tunku said in his speech in Malacca on the return of the Merdeka Mission in 1956, “we have been able… to uphold God’s gift of self-pride, dignity, justice and an unwavering spirit … we the people of Malaya have been united in our aim for independence …”
Perhaps, then, the more accurate questions are: Has collective responsibility over the country’s future been replaced by individual interests? Would the Tunku have allowed for circumstances to descend to what they are today? Or are current developments of ethnic and religious discord merely an inevitable result of our multi-faceted society?
It is not for the lack of trying. Each time in our past when such tensions arose, leaders have attempted to respond through a mix of experiments: the New Economic Policy in 1971, accompanied by the National Culture and Language Policies, the National Economic Consultative Councils, and more recently the New Economic Model, and PEMANDU’s Government and Economic Transformation Programmes.
The government’s approach has been to intervene by ensuring the bumiputra (in reality, Malay) communities are protected in all possible socio-economic spheres: academic, corporate, land and housing, government service and so on.
But each time a policy for a level-playing field – by creating a more open and free economy – is announced, this is reversed due to protests. The imposition of these obviously has not worked.
The relationship between economics and inter-ethnic or inter-religious tension is clear – in 1969, when a large percentage of Malays were living in abject poverty despite being the majority, steps were made to primarily address this. But today, statistics show the tremendous growth of Malays in professional positions, forming part of the middle and upper income classes. It can no longer be said that Malays are the sole underprivileged lot.
If anything, differences are inter-regional and not inter-ethnic. Sabah, Sarawak, Kelantan and Terengganu – ironically the states with oil and gas resources – are those in dire need of economic development. And there are certainly pockets of very poor Indians, indigenous, and yes, even Chinese families.
But the trend shows it is no longer about facts and figures, at least to the many groups formed recently that have as their mottoes “to defend the rights of Malays”. They are not referring to the inherent human rights and dignity everyone possesses, but their exclusive rights and privileges over and above any other group.
Perhaps the predicament Malaysia is in emerged out of the then differentiated economic conditions, but today it has transformed to becoming much more than that. And how does one argue against the deeply embedded belief that this birth-right is naturally bestowed, regardless of socio-economic status?
If it is the perception of being downtrodden upon that is causing such violent reaction from the likes of Perkasa, Pekida and others, then this must only stem from a deep insecurity that cannot be easily or quickly corrected, despite efforts from the most earnest of human rights activists. The silence of the ruling government only serves to embolden such voices. Given the lack of inspiring leadership, what then can be done?
Where arguments fail, action may have to prevail.
Alternative groups have emerged to dispel the notion that the conservatives speak on behalf of all Malaysians. Multi-ethnic groups turning up to distribute flowers at churches, and taking casual walks in parks to emphasise unity and friendship between races are simple examples of how we can take matters into our own hands. Changing the discourse cannot be done overnight; there exist real misgivings over “the other”, which can be addressed only through developing real relationships and acts of kindness and service. But this has to happen through a lot more channels to connect people with diametrically opposed opinions.
In the Tunku’s speech during the formation of Malaysia in 1963, he admitted that the road to nationhood has not been an easy journey, with “surprises and disappointments, tension and crises, (which) have marred the way”.
Likewise, many of us may feel we are on the verge of a crisis. But it is the “common destiny” we must emphasise, looking to our individual human dignity and collective goals.
The Tunku’s closing remarks in that speech were: “… the Malayan Nation(‘s) multi-racial society emerged, endured and survived as a successful and progressive nation, a true democracy and an example to the world of harmony and tolerance. As it was with Malaya, so it can be with Malaysia. With trust in Almighty God, unity of purpose and faith in ourselves, we can make Malaysia a land of prosperity and peace.”
We can still make Malaysia that land of prosperity and peace he envisioned – but maybe we have to do it ourselves, without government and its policies that attempt to unite us but fail.
Happy 111th Birthday to Almarhum Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj!
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Tricia Yeoh is the chief operating officer of IDEAS