Being Human: Where do we begin to build a successful nation?

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AS we ponder the national issues that will demand our attention in the new year, the many challenges that the country is facing tend to induce sobering thoughts about our prospects of becoming a stable, prosperous and advanced society.

Not only are the structural challenges quite daunting, including the huge deficit in our human capital development and an overdependence on primary commodities and non-renewable resources, but sociopolitical tensions have risen to unprecedented levels, to the dismay of all communities.

As if these difficulties are not pressing enough, we are reminded of systemic problems like the illicit flight of capital from the country, amounting to a staggering RM1.3 trillion in the 10 years from 2003 to 2013, as recorded in the latest annual report of the Washington-based research and advocacy group Global Financial Integrity (GFI).

Yet, this is only the tip of the iceberg of troubles that could sink the Malaysian enterprise. Obviously, much effort could be expended in merely identifying the multi-faceted socio-economic and political issues that need to be addressed. Indeed, many of these challenges have been pointedly focused on in publications such as the World Bank’s recent reports on the country, the UNDP’s Malaysia Human Development Report 2013 and even in the New Economic Model blueprint.

As always, the political will to drive often painful reforms is the key to the resolution of the most difficult of these challenges. In the Malaysian experience, independent experts have consistently pointed out that while its policy formulation and planning efforts mostly generate confidence, progress towards the stated goals is invariably contingent on effective implementation.

Clouding the outlook further in a rather disruptive fashion, we have witnessed in the recent past the escalation of racial, religious and political tensions that will continue to reverberate in many spheres of life in the year before us. One half of the problem is created by the constant harping on perceived attacks on Malay and Muslim sensitivities and the erosion of Malay political power.

In the total scheme of national affairs, these voices belong to a few extremely vocal people. However, the damage that they are inflicting on the national consciousness is by no means small or fleeting.

The other half of the problem lies in the instinctive reactions of non-Malays and non-Muslims to this incessant stream of chauvinistic statements and inter-religious issues in the public space.

The inevitable deterioration in intercommunal and inter-religious relations has taken place as a sense of being wronged takes hold in the minds of the non-Malay population, while the Malay-Muslims continue to be exposed to a potent mix of ethnic and religious extremism.

Our folly, as a nation of diverse cultures and faiths, is to lose sight of our greater unity, common values and common aspirations and focus instead on the narrow, divisive chatter that is bubbling away in our midst. As we can see, only one outcome can result from this interplay — an escalation of tension and breakdown of intercommunal relations.

So, how then should we orient ourselves in order to create an alternative ending for the Malaysian journey?

As in all genuine reform, the starting point has to be rooted first and foremost in ourselves. Here, an observation by the great reformer Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

In this season of peace and compassion that embodies the deeper spirit of Christmas, perhaps it is a little easier to dwell on the sublime qualities that Christ showed through his life and teachings, to show us the way to face our present difficulties as a nation.

And if we care to look, we will find that these values are common to all the great religions, which means that we only have to let go of our limited notions of our faiths to realise that there is really only one universal message underlying all of them.

So, what then is all the quarrelling about? Should we not respond to provocation by wishing peace and goodwill on the other? Isn’t it incumbent on us to show a better example?

To take this nation forward, therefore, we must firstly put aside the negative qualities that prevent us from accepting others as our fellow citizens, as compatriots sharing a common destiny. Secondly, we must feel united in our pursuit of happiness and prosperity despite any differences. And thirdly, we must take ownership of the nation’s problems and make positive contributions toward overcoming them.

If we can internalise these values, we will surely become highly motivated, energised and united in solving the many challenges that threaten to derail our dream of becoming an advanced nation.

In the early years of our nationhood, a number of successful Malaysians had contributed generously towards the country’s social capital, supporting schools, cultural institutions and foundations. They were obviously driven by a vision of developing Malaysia into a great nation that we can all be proud of.

Today, the need perhaps is for us to rediscover that vision of a great nation that we could become, and to make that dream a reality.

In 2015, we have an opportunity to renew our commitment to become a successful nation, both for ourselves and for the generations to come. Let us rise to the challenge.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 29, 2014 - Jan 4, 2015.