My Say: The power of ideas

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They were few, but they were right, and they saved Britain.
Margaret Thatcher (1987)

THE above statement by Margaret Thatcher, who was the first female prime minister of the UK, was well known and well shared among free marketeers and classical liberals globally.

In that short statement, the Iron Lady credited “they” — a few courageous and principled intellectuals — with the eventual victory of classical liberalism and free market ideas over the collectivism and planned economy of the Cold War era. “They” were Friedrich A Hayek, a philosopher and a Nobel Economic Prize winner; Anthony Fisher, the founder and funder of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA); Ralph Harris, the former head of IEA; and Arthur Seldon, the first editorial director of IEA.

They were not only a minority, but were considered “heretics” at a time when the rise of collectivism seemed unstoppable in Europe after World War II. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, they waged a tireless campaign, spreading the ideas of classical liberalism and market economy to everything from housing to agriculture, welfare to exchange control, against all odds.

By the mid-1970s, it was clear that the consensus was turning away from state planning and towards market solutions and it was also clear that the IEA was responsible. Indeed, on becoming prime minister in the summer of 1979, Thatcher wrote to Fisher, “You created the atmosphere which made our victory possible.”

And from then onwards, the march of free markets and classical liberal ideas was inexorable. The change in the course of history was best captured by Oliver Letwin, a British politician, when he wrote in The Times magazine in 1994: “Without Fisher, no IEA; without IEA and its clones, no Thatcher and quite possibly no (Ronald) Reagan; without Reagan, no Star Wars; without Star Wars, no economic collapse of the Soviet Union.”

In short, that statement by Thatcher underscores the power of ideas. Ideas change the world. The power of new ideas is the engine that transforms the way we live and think. Our world view was fundamentally changed because of a new idea, as when people understood that the sun does not revolve around the earth.

In fact, a nation is born and founded on ideas. For instance, our forefathers founded this nation with the idea of building a “sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people …”, as espoused in the 1957 Proclamation of Independence almost half a century ago.

Yet, as we learn from history, not all ideas are good. In fact, some are downright evil! The irony is that some of these bad ideas were initially backed by the people, or at least the majority of the people, through ballots in a parliamentary democracy. Adolf Hitler’s Nazism is a classic case. Many of us forgot Hitler was voted into power by popular votes. His reign brought about a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions. And only the mightier force of the Allied armies was able to bring his tyranny to an end.

Now, on the international scene, the fight against ISIS’ violent extremism globally has been described as a battle of ideas, which was what the West was waging against communism too during the Cold War era.

James Glassman, the former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs under President George W Bush, when asked recently by CNN what the US needs most to fight ISIS, put it bluntly:  “A commitment to the war of ideas.”

According to him, fighting the terrorists on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria will not be enough. They need to be engaged in an ideological war, “just as what the democratic world did during the battle with communism”.

One cannot fight and win the battle of ideas if one has no ideas to offer in the first place. Likewise, one cannot run an economy and create jobs by empty slogans. In this case, the battle of ideas is between a forceful defence of global good governance principles based on freedom, justice, peace and tolerance and the extreme ideas of fanaticism, violence, intolerance and tyranny.

Back on the home front, our nation is also confronted with another battle of ideas — on which ideas are better as the foundation upon which our nation stands.

Apparently, there are two conflicting ideas at play here. On one end, we have those who strenuously defend the ideas of our forefathers in founding this nation.

One the other, there are those who say the time has come to reshape the foundations of this nation by incorporating more of the values of the majority.

The former group’s stand is best summed up by an open letter issued by 25 eminent Malaysian figures, comprising former high-ranking civil servants, including directors-general, secretaries-general, ambassadors and prominent individuals, all of whom are Malays.

In their open letter, they decried the “lack of clarity and understanding” on the place of Islam within Malaysia’s constitutional democracy, as well as a “serious breakdown of federal-state division of powers, both in the areas of civil and criminal jurisdictions”.

They expressed concern about how religious authorities were “asserting authority beyond their jurisdiction”, and that fatwas issued had violated the Federal Constitution as well as the consultative process.

The contrary view is best represented by a group of 33 Muslim scholars. They reasoned that “no country can ignore the wishes of such large majorities without adverse consequences to stability and peace. We need to find ways to accommodate the Muslim need for syariah within a democratic constitutional framework without impinging on the rights of minorities.”

 They further argued that “therefore, the government should set up a high-powered committee to review our Federal Constitution and to recommend amendments to incorporate the needs of the Muslims and entrench the rights of minorities. A constitution is not cast in stone as to be unchangeable. It is a living document and has to grow with the changing needs of our people.”

The battle of ideas between these two groups is on and a rational and consultative approach to resolve this conflict is definitely the best solution.

In this regard, Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, the youngest son of our former Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, was recently reported to have said that “it is time to set up another national consultative council”, like what his late father did in 1970,  to discuss critical issues aimed at preserving harmony and fostering unity among Malaysians.

Nazir’s call could not have been more pertinent and timely. Above all, Malaysians want this battle of ideas to be discussed, debated and resolved in the best interest of our future generations, like what our forefathers did.

Khaw Veon Szu, a former executive director of a local think tank, is a practising lawyer. Opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s personal views.

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 2 - 8, 2015.