On the 19th of October 2019, The Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs held their 4th Liberalism Conference at the Renaissance Kuala Lumpur Hotel. The theme for this year’s conference centred on the notion of “Identity”. There were three separate panel discussions, and two featured presentations from representatives of the Property Rights Alliance. The conference began with Laurence Todd, Research Director of IDEAS, giving his welcoming speech. He highlighted in particular the theme for this year’s conference, “Identity” and what this means for Malaysia. He finished his speech by briefly covering on the day’s agenda.
The first panel discussion, titled: ‘Redefining Malaysian Politics, Moving away from identity to policies’. The panelists include YB Maria Chin Abdullah (Member of Parliament), Ooi Kee Beng (Executive Director of Penang Institute), and Serina Abdul Rahman (visiting fellow at ISEAS – Yusoff Ishak Institute). The panel was moderated by IDEAS’s fellow Tricia Yeoh. The discussion centred around on the challenges of moving away from identity politics and how best to move towards more inclusive policies. All three speakers emphasized that politics should not solely dictate how identity is formed; specifically, in Malaysia, the notion of uniformity and unity has driven the need to have a unified national narrative. According to Ooi Kee Beng, the federalism angle is a very good reason to push this idea that nation building needs uniformity. He notes that the angle is not necessarily reflected in the daily lives of people in Malaysia, but more so in politics. He then emphasised the isolationist and introverted nature of post-world war nation building in Malaysia. Ooi Kee Beng then added that nation building in Malaysia has been conceptually introverted as we continue to maintain conservative thinking in ethnic and cultural matters and this needs to change to make a new Malaysia possible. YB Maria Chin put emphasis on the importance of identity and criticised how it has become politicised. She then expands on how this has created distrust and disunity that has persisted for years making it harder to overcome as it requires the changing of mindsets. She also pointed out that JAKIM has received a large sum of 1.3 billion in the 2020 budget allocation and therefore carries a big role in building a narrative – that we, the people, can be diverse and differ in our opinions and beliefs and still move forward positively. Serina reminded us that rural people are often discriminated and they have little care for the governance. She stresses the fact that they often barely survive and that their lived realities matter; to them, implementation on the ground is more important than the bigger picture. Finally, Serina cautions that is the masses that keeps people in power, so it is important to learn to speak and listen to the masses.
Following that, two presentations from the Property Rights Alliance. The first, a presentation by Prof. Sary Levy Carciente, a Venezuelan economist, on the 2019 International Property Rights Index. Prof. Carciente, who authored the report, elaborated on the methodology and measurement used to inform the Property Rights Index. She then focused on the improvements made and setbacks faced by certain regions as well as the global aggregate. Prof Sara-Levy also reinstated the importance of property rights for the development and growth of nations. Secondly, a case study titled “Economic and Consumer impact of banning brands” presented by Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr., founder and President of Minimal Government Thinkers, a think-tank based in the Philippines. This case study focused on the unintended consequences of prohibitive laws, supported by evidence from similar studies done on the topic as well as drawing from the relevant literature on this issue.
The conference was resumed with the 2nd panel of the day, “The role of the state in arts and culture”. Moderated by Wan Ya Shin, research manager of IDEAS, the panelists featured were Eddin Khoo (founder and director of PUSAKA), the political cartoonist Zunar and Prof. Dr. Joseph Gonzales (founder and artistic director of ASK Dance Company). Professor Gonzales first elaborated on the importance of integration in inter- ethnic dance culture, and that there needs to be a depth of study in the intercultural and interethnic curriculum. When asked about how the government plays a role in dance and culture, Professor Gonzales brought up the point that there is not enough funding going into the arts. Zunar began his argument by highlighting the importance of the artist to have a stance. He then talked about the censorship laws in Malaysia and how it affects artists and the important discussions on the state of affairs. Lastly, Eddin Khoo discussed on the distinctions between art and culture, with arts having a very structured model and the attraction and the power of culture is messy and difficult to control. The state has a lot more power to interfere with culture and when it does it, it does so very authoritatively.
The final panel of the day focused on Education, specifically on the topic of “Celebrating diversity vs promoting national Unity’. Moderated by Aira Azhari, Senior Executive at IDEAS, the panel members were Dato’ Satinah binti Syed Salleh (board member of UPSI), Dr Kua Kia Soong (SUARAM advisor), Jayum Jawan (Professor of Politics and Development, UPM), and Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin bin Mohd Rasdi (Professor for the School of Architecture and Built Environment in UCSI University Malaysia). The panel discussion covered a multitude of aspects in the Malaysian education system, such as the vernacular schools and the responsibilities of the government. The discourse involved each panelist bringing their differing views on education in Malaysia while also adding suggestions on improving the system.
To close the conference, YAM Tunku Zain al’Abidin ibni Tuanku Muhriz, IDEAS’ founder and Chairman, was invited on stage to give his closing remarks. Tunku Zain summarized the discussions and suggestions made throughout the day, while providing his observations on the values of liberalism and the role liberalism plays in Malaysia