Everyday Matters: Our nation ’tis of thee

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 12, 2022 - September 18, 2022.
Everyday Matters: Our nation ’tis of thee
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“True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.” — Clarence Darrow, American jurist and civil rights advocate (1857-1938)


Happy birthday Malaysia! We are 59 years young this year.

This federation of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak, born in 1963, has weathered many storms in its short history. Threats and challenges from an unaccepting neighbour, insurgencies from within our fold, corrupt and debilitating misuse of power by people who should know better — we’ve seen it all.

But despite our many differences, the citizens of our proud nation have a knack of coming together when the going gets tough, and we have prevailed.

This country seems to be doing reasonably well economically, despite supply-chain disruptions and global headwinds. We are not at war, despite distant war drums beating ever so close. We are not a bankrupt nation, despite treasury plunders by heartless “leaders”.

Yes, we have our problems, but they are not as apparent as they presently are in Europe, the US and the UK, cold war or hot war. And for that, we thank God.

We will have our parades. Again. Not that I mind, because the celebrations have always given us memories to make our hearts full. And we owe a lot to the patriots who make it their calling to fight for God and country.

Now, as I write about God and country, I could go to one extreme or the other.

In times of economic and political crises such as the present, we tend to trigger some severe comments and attitudes toward our nation-building efforts. There are among us naysayers who continue to critique our nation. They will do what they can to spoil our celebration.

There are those who take pride in debunking the memories of our forefathers. Those same voices emit harsh tones when speaking about our current leadership. They deplore the path we are embarked upon. If there were no elements of truth to what they say, we would not be so threatened by them. God forbid that we take this choice occasion to point out all of Malaysia’s wrongs.

At the other extreme, there are those who would drape their sanctuaries (and their automobiles) with the Jalur Gemilang, our red, white, yellow and blue bunting. Pulpits become political platforms as our successes are exalted. Some will eulogise about our forefathers, attributing to them an aura of demi-godliness. And I always get a little amused when I run into the super patriots who quickly say, “My country, right or wrong!” Really? If so, they would have sided with the British and the colonial administration against our freedom fighters!

We forget that our forefathers were “revolutionaries”. They fought against the British colonists. The “Malayan Union” was anything but a pleasant policy. Our forefathers were rebels who used unorthodox methods to throw off what they considered to be foreign tyranny. Their kind did not march in lock-step precision as did the British. They functioned behind ideas of freedom and self-rule, pushing against the foreign occupiers to accomplish their mission by less bloody means. And they succeeded in liberating their homeland, and forced a referendum for both North Borneo and Sarawak.

Let us lay aside our negative criticism and our tendency towards nation worship to give a prayer of thanks. Let us come together as a people of God to give thanks for His goodness. Let us enthusiastically celebrate this important day, realising that our nation has both its weaknesses and its strengths, but reaffirming our understanding of what it is to be Malaysians.

Patriotism often unites a country, but contrary to popular belief, the English-speaking world did not invent the word or the act. So, then the obvious question is, “Who did?”

To answer the question, we must first determine what the word means. Google and Webster define it this way: a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.

Typically, it means one who loves his or her nation. The word itself originated among the Greeks many centuries ago. “Patria”, the root of our terms “patriot” and “patriarch”, is typically associated with the allegiance to one’s clan or family.

But some will ask this question: Can a patriot be a God-loving person? Absolutely, he or she can, as long as God is first. This is the mark of a true patriot. A real patriot knows that God must be central to all that he or she does. And that His word should be law.

A God-fearing patriot is one who warns us of danger; one who is deeply concerned about what is happening within the boundaries of his beloved nation.

Many of his fellow citizens may hate him for his warnings. The fight against misuse of power, of corruption and of economic plunder is never a comfortable or well-received message but a true patriot will keep trying, for he cares about his nation.

Some may ask: then, what is the difference between a patriot and a nationalist? I hear those two terms being bandied around a lot these days.

A nationalist typically abides by some of the tenets of a patriot but separates him or herself by expressing a feeling of superiority as compared to other nations or peoples. A nationalist seldom aligns him or herself with God and His principles. To him: My Nation Above All — the perfect recipe for international confrontations.

What do all these mean for ordinary folk like you and me? I believe that now you and I are called to intelligent and conscientious participation in the political process.

You may say, “But politics is a dirty business. What place is there in politics for a good citizen?” Yes, politics can be a dirty business for one simple reason. It is dirty because not enough honourable men and women have taken seriously their responsibility to involve themselves in the business called government.

We have got the idea that we are too good to get mixed up in the complicated and vulnerable business of providing leadership. And then, when we do get involved, some of us tend to have a “winner-take-all” mentality, which many find very offensive.

We tend to try to legislate our religious morals and ethics to be the norm. Obviously, a society would function better if it held to religious standards. But you cannot ask, in a society that is multi-religious, for all to accept the high standards of religious revelations. Many simply will not.

We have to understand that fact and realise that we all march to different drum beats. We can argue for the validity of our own values, of course. At the same time, we must be aware that in a democracy, the majority rules. What the majority says is right is not necessarily right. A minority of one can be right, standing alone against the 99% who take the opposite position that in God’s eyes is wrong. At the same time, we need to honour those who may disagree radically with us.

Let me say it bluntly. Malaysia needs you! Now!

There is untold trouble when value-driven folks fail to assume their political responsibilities. This leaves leadership to selfish, partisan, non-spiritual men and women. A failure to involve ourselves is a failure in citizenship duty. Every one of us, our children, and our children’s children will ultimately be hurt by our “hands-off attitude” when it comes to politics.

So, what is a good patriot to do?

In my reckoning, a good patriot is one who has an “open-eyed allegiance” to his country. She can acknowledge her nation’s wrongs. He will prize and protect what is good. He knows the difference between singing jingoistic words about military conquests and those prayerful thoughts.

A good patriot has a healing love, acknowledging both his nation’s strengths and weaknesses. He feels emotion for his nation. He loves and is loyal.

When was the last time you prayed for your senators, your parliamentarians and the members of the judiciary? Maybe on the eve of our 59th Hari Malaysia, we should.

Zakie Shariff is executive chairman of Kiarafics Sdn Bhd, a strategy consulting group. He is also an adjunct professor at the Faculty of Industrial Management, Universiti Malaysia Pahang.

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