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More than promises needed

Working on unity: Th e prime minister is offering ‘1Malaysia’ as a new guiding principle.

SHARING THE NATION by ZAINAH ANWAR

The realities on the ground have changed; our political leaders and governing institutions need to undertake the transformation needed.

I wonder what Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Razak and Tun Hussein would say of this country if they were alive today. Did they ever imagine that come 2010, some controversial politicians would have become the poster boys of what portends for Malaysia?

Could they have imagined that 53 years after independence and 40 years after the New Economic Policy, that this beloved country of ours is worn out by these figures flying the flag of race and religion? And that it is their voices that some in authority seem to be listening to? Not the voices of Malaysians who believe in our founding fathers’ vision of a modern, democratic, secular, culturally pluralistic and inclusive political community?


Has Malaysia really lost its middle way, as many believe? Have we forever lost the path so painstakingly negotiated and treaded by our leaders of the past to manage an ethnically divided society?

Last Wednesday, as I passed a few neighbours on their morning walk, I overheard the now common refrain of frustration, “Well, those with money can leave the country, how about us? Is there a future for us here?”

I would have liked to be able to say a resounding yes to them, but I really don’t know any more.

The message we seem to be getting is that we just don’t care about you. Those who have a differing opinion, be it on Islam in general or on the Allah issue or the caning issue in particular, will be silenced.

Police reports are lodged against them and they face investigation under the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment, the Sedition Act, the Penal Code and the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

Nor can there be any rational public discussion on the so-called “social contract” and “Ketuanan Melayu”. Protests have been organised to whip up Malay sentiment against any attempts to discuss concerns arising from the incremental transformation of the Constitutional idea of “the special position of the Malays” into Malay supremacy.

How did we come to this?

Yes, a constitutional “bargain” was struck in 1957. It granted the non-Malays citizenship on the principle of jus soli for those born after independence and five-year residential status requirement for those above 18 and born before 1957. It was agreed that their property would be protected, their economic activity left unhindered, their culture respected and the use of their mother tongue assured.

In return, the Alliance leaders reached consensus that Malay would be the national language, the economically backward Malays should gain a proportionate share of the economic pie, and that the delineation of constituencies would facilitate a Malay majority in the legislatures to reflect the history and demographics of the nation.

The governing mechanism chosen was a coalition of ethnic-based parties; and through an elite accommodation process its leaders were to sit behind closed doors to thrash out problems and conflicts and negotiate a compromise solution. A zero-sum game was eschewed. Each community accepted that it would win some and lose some.

But 12 years after independence, the Malays felt that their side of the constitutional bargain remained unfulfilled. While the non-Malays were granted citizenship, took part in the political process and pursued their economic activities unhindered, the Malays felt excluded and marginalised from the country’s economic growth and development.

Racial riots broke out on May 13, 1969. For the prescient Australian scholar of Malaysia, Professor Clive Kessler, this was just a symptom. Writing in the September 2009 and February 2010 issues of Off the Edge, he called this a fundamental “regime crisis” .

The riots, he said, marked the collapse of what can now be seen as Malaysia’s first post-independence governing formula and political dispensation.

A new governing arrangement was devised. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was launched, designed to eradicate poverty irrespective of race and to restructure society by eliminating the identification of race with economic function. The Rukunegara was drawn up to rebuild a sense of national unity and purpose – of a government and its citizens committed to building a democratic, just and progressive society with a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions.

Yes, in those days, progressive and liberal were national aspirations! It all sounded noble, reasonable, and promising.

The framework chosen to govern the country was still inter-communal, but this time through an expanded grand coalition of parties, drawing into federal government a total of 13 parties, seven from Peninsular Malaysia, four from Sarawak and two from Sabah.

Malaysia entered a new political phase. The avuncular first prime minister who saw himself as the happiest prime minister in the world, but insulated from the simmering discontent on the ground, was retired. Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, his long-time loyal deputy, took over, leading a new “Umno-centred and Malay-led power bloc that was eager and ready to preside over a strong state”, as Prof Kessler put it.

At that time, the strong state was justified as necessary for the successful implementation of an unprecedented social engineering project of rebuilding national unity and affirmative action for a majority population left behind.

But what was a necessary policy instrument to redress a historical injustice eventually became the mechanism to sustain Malay dominance. A new language of “Ketuanan Melayu” was grafted onto the Malay political consciousness as the NEP neared its end in 1990.

As the Kok Lanas politician Abdullah Ahmad said in his infamous “Ketuanan Melayu” speech in Singapore in 1986, “The NEP must continue to sustain Malay dominance in the political system in line with the contract of 1957.” And thus the die was cast as Umno politicians and Malay nationalists and journalists on this side of the Causeway translated “Malay dominance” into “Ketuanan Melayu”, an idea of one racial group’s supremacy over others, as something that was agreed upon by the founding fathers of the nation at the time of independence.

It was presented as a “done deal”, constitutionally embedded, sacrosanct and not to be questioned.

But as it was in 1986 and as it is now, the idea of “Ketuanan Melayu” sits uncomfortably among many Malaysians, be they Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazan-Dusun, Bajaus, Orang Asal, Eurasians.

It is a very different idea from the simple political reality that Malays as the majority population of this country will be the politically dominant group. And different from the constitutional notion of the “special position of the Malays” which legitimised affirmative action as a temporary special measure to enable a historically disadvantaged group to catch up.

This is a principle that most Malaysians remain committed to, the same principle used to demand for women to hold at least 30% of decision-making positions.

But 40 years of affirmative action policies have not achieved the desired results for the Malays. There is an urgent need for a rational and intelligent public dialogue on the New Economic Policy. But this cannot begin if people label those who question, challenge, raise the shortcomings, abuses in implementation, and unintended consequences of the policy and those who offer alternatives as pengkhianat bangsa (traitors to the race) and other such sinister accusations in order to silence the debate.

In Ooi Kee Beng’s book of the late Tun Dr Ismail’s memoirs, the former Deputy Prime Minister wrote that reaching agreement on the special position of the Malays “proved a less intractable problem because the leaders of the Alliance realised the practical necessity of giving the Malays a handicap if they were to compete on equal terms with the other races. The only point of controversy was the duration of the ‘special position’ – should there be a time limit or should it be permanent. I made a suggestion which was accepted, that the question be left to the Malays themselves, because I felt that as more and more Malays became educated and gained self-confidence, they themselves would do away with this ‘special position’ because in itself this ‘special position’ is a slur on the ability of the Malays and only to be tolerated because it is necessary as a temporary measure to ensure their survival in the modern competitive world: a world to which only those in the urban areas had been exposed.”

If the venerable Tun Ismail were alive today, what would he say to find that the Malay “special position” that he believed was to be a temporary measure has been elevated to “Ketuanan Melayu”, and transformed into a permanent, sacrosanct contract, sealed in stone? How could nation-building based on supremacist thinking ever take place in an ethnically divided society?

Obviously, we are into another “regime crisis”. The realities on the ground have changed; but some of our political leaders and political and governing institutions seem impervious to the transformation desperately needed.

The NEP era political phase and governing mechanism exhaled its last breath on March 8, 2008. The Opposition have still not coalesced into a viable trusted alternative with a common political vision of Malaysia. How the DAP and PAS could ever find an enduring common ground remains an unanswered question. The prime minister is offering “1Malaysia” as a new guiding principle.

Too much water has flowed under the bridge that it needs more than rhetoric, exhortations, showcase events and one-off promises of reform to renew the faith that this is for real.

With elections two to three years away, is there enough time, enough political will and courage for the politicians to exemplify that they indeed are able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

The nkkhoo.com comment board with Facebook account.