My Say: Seizing the moment

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 28, 2018 - June 03, 2018.
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Malaysia has indeed experienced historic change. A party in power for more than 60 years, and thought to be near impossible to defeat, was ousted by the public through the ballot box. No extraconstitutional method (such as the 1986 people power revolution in the Philippines or military coup in neighbouring Thailand) was employed to oust the government.

The outcome demonstrated the power of popular sovereignty.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad deserves much credit for this. His credentials as a Malay nationalist and a good manager of the national economy, and his previous experience in government, did much to enhance domestic and international support for change.

Much credit for this historic transformation must go to the leadership of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) political parties, especially that of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who mooted and continuously supported the idea of Reformasi and the outgoing Barisan Nasional (BN) leadership, which accepted the people’s verdict and did not create obstacles such as declaring a state of emergency to prevent the transfer of power. The Rulers, who recognised and supported the will of the people despite the personal misgivings of some of them, the commitment of the security forces to a peaceful transfer of power, and most importantly, the Malaysian public, also deserve much credit.

There is no doubt a new era has dawned. At the same time, many challenges lie ahead. Public expectations may overwhelm the capacity of the new government to deliver on its promises. A change in mindset is required on the part of the new government. Here, the stance of Malay nationalism and autocratic tendencies, which the country had experienced with Mahathir, may be a hindrance. Accommodating Anwar’s desires may also prove a challenge.

The sooner Anwar becomes part of the government, the better it will be for the new prime minister. Highlighting these challenges does not underplay the historic change that has just occurred. However, it is important to sensitise the public to the challenges ahead and reduce euphoric expectations. The purpose of this column is to draw attention to the need for political development, which must proceed on the basis that ultimately, sovereignty resides in the people.

GE14 and its outcome should be viewed as a politically defining moment that should be seized upon to push through some hitherto unimaginable (and to some, unpalatable) positions and policies to ensure the long-term health of the nation state. Mahathir has said that the economy and the country’s finances will be his

priority. This includes replacing the Goods and Services Tax with the Sales and Services Tax, trimming the national debt, cutting back on excessive government expenditure, increasing transparency in government procurement to prevent abuses, and generally increasing the effectiveness of governance, including efficient management of the economy.

A pre-election survey by the Merdeka Center indicated that the high cost of living was one of the foremost concerns of the people. These concerns should be addressed as people often vote with their pocket books. At the same time, it is important to recognise and act on the basis on which GE14 was contested. The differences between the PH and BN coalitions were not limited to economic and financial goals and policies but extended to fundamental political issues, including clean government and the basis for the Malaysian nation.

It is important not to lose sight of the Reform Agenda. I am not arguing that economic growth and development are unimportant, only that it is equally, if not more, important to address issues of political development that will have long-term effects on the health of the nation.

In the absence of political development, it will be difficult if not impossible to sustain economic growth. Political development is key, but it has been ignored by most Asian countries, including Malaysia, which chose to focus on economic growth.

Mahathir’s vision to create a developed country by 2020, for example, was increasingly interpreted by the previous government in economic terms. A democratic Malaysian Malaysia was an integral part to of becoming a developed country. Conveniently, the administration of Datuk Seri Najib Razak focused on becoming a high-income economy as the overriding goal of the 2020 vision. It is crucial to avoid the same mistake. The focus must be on both political and economic development. By focusing on political development, Malaysia can become a beacon for countries confronting political (and economic) challenges rooted in dated conceptions of nation, state and sovereignty.

Political development can occur across many dimensions. Here, we focus on three crucial prongs: making a strong nation; building a strong, representative and effective state that is politically neutral in implementing government policies; and consolidating democratic governance in the country.


Making a strong nation

In brief, two ideas have dominated nation-making in Malaysia: making a nation on the basis of the majority ethnic community and making a civic nation in which all citizens share equal rights and obligations. The ethnic approach is invariably zero-sum in nature, making for race-based politics and arguing for justice at the group level, creating several classes of citizens.

The civic nation approach is more inclusive, less zero-sum in nature and seeks justice at the level of the individual. Although the two approaches appear to be at logger heads with each other, they are not mutually exclusive. Ethnicity is a reality that cannot be wished away and must be factored into decision-making in a multiracial country like Malaysia. However, it need not, and should not, be the determining factor.

Both conceptions of nation making were articulated at the time of Malaya’s independence. Datuk Onn Jaafar, who initially emerged as a Malay nationalist in response to the 1946 Malayan Union proposal and later became a Malayan nationalist helming Party Negara, advocated a nation in which all Malayans would be equal.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, considered the father of the Malayan and, later, Malaysian nation, advocated an ethnic approach with liberal elements in which Malaya would be a Malay country but where all non-Malay citizens would have rights and live peacefully in the country. As a consequence, race-based politics became the mainstay for political mobilisation in the country. A delicate mix of the ethnic and civic nation conceptions was embodied in the Constitution. The idea of a Malay country became deeply embedded in the thinking of Malaysians after May 1969.

With the resurgence of Islam, ethnicity became intertwined with religion. Race and religion became the dominant basis for analysing Malaysian politics. Najib articulated the idea of “One Malaysia”. Though inspiring, it did not gain much traction as the machinery for political mobilisation was based on race. There was a fundamental contradiction between goals like “Satu Bangsa, Satu Negara” and “Satu Malaysia” and the race-based machinery for political mobilisation.

Najib deployed the idea of “moderation” to overcome the polarisation among races. That could only blunt the sharp edges but not overcome the fundamental contradiction. Malaysia’s nation-making under the ethnic approach had reached a stalemate and could not proceed further, leading to such questions as to why, after 50 years of independence, Malaysia had not made much headway in nation-making. In hindsight, the answer seems simple. The ethnic approach adopted and practised over the last 60 years had reached its limits and was beginning to backslide. Hence, the Malaysian nation was considered fragile, requiring constant vigilance and intervention from the top.

It is now opportune to start adopting the more inclusive civic-nation approach. All citizens should have equal rights and obligations and there should only be one class of citizenship. This more-inclusive approach would reduce racial polarisation, mobilise the potential of all citizens to serve the country, and promote greater unity.

Affirmative action may still be necessary, but at the individual level. Justice at the individual level would also imply that deserving Malays, as opposed to affluent Malays, benefit from government assistance. Though not articulated coherently as an alternative approach, there is deep commitment to the idea of the Malaysian nation among PH’s component parties. Now that PH is the government, it should take steps to push through and entrench this idea of the Malaysian nation.

The Malays should not feel threatened by this approach. Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, when the demographic balance was highly delicate, the Malays/Muslim now make up about 70% of the population. They also have a higher birth rate compared with the Chinese and Indian communities. Having benefitted from government assistance over several decades and now in a relatively strong economic position, there should be little worry that the Malays will be left behind.

To further assuage their concerns, Islam can continue to be the official religion, but it must be stressed that this does not make Malaysia an Islamic country. All other religions can be practiced without being subordinate to the official religion. Further, Malaysian culture should be grounded in Malay (not Islamic) culture, incorporating relevant elements of Chinese and Indian cultures. It is important to distinguish Malay culture from Islamic and Arab culture.

Islam can continue to be a marker in defining who is Malay but that religion must not be imposed on the rest of Malaysian society. It must be made clear that Malaysia is not an Islamic nation and state. Federal law, inspired by British common law and based on parliamentary procedures and the Constitution, must be supreme. It is important to make this civic nation-making basis and approach clear in the Constitution and in policy. That will also enable the realisation of Mahathir’s vision of a Bangsa Malaysia by 2020.

GE14 must be viewed as carrying significance similar to the 1928 Sumpah Pemuda in Indonesia that recognised the overriding identity and loyalty of all peoples living in the territories of Dutch Indonesia to the new Indonesian nation.

Nation-making in Malaysia confronts two challenges. One is the ethnic dimension discussed earlier. The second relates to the relationship of states, and Sabah and Sarawak, to the political centre. Peoples must want to be part of the Malaysian nation. Should the people of Sabah and Sarawak desire to continue to be part of Malaysia but restructure their relations with the Malaysian state, they should be free to do so through negotiations.

If they desire to be separate countries, they should have that option as well based on the principle of popular sovereignty. Such desire must be expressed in a peaceful manner through a negotiated referendum. Violence must not figure in that effort. No state should be coerced to remain part of the Malaysian federation. Malaysia should become a politically mature country, like the UK and Canada, that accepts autonomy or separation for constituent states as expressed through negotiated referendums. Such an approach and arrangement will respect the will of the people. The relationship of states to the political centre and changes therein must be viewed as a political, rather than a security, issue. It should be accepted that political maps will continuously change based on the will of the people and that force must have little or no role in that.

The relationship of states to the political centre must be subject to periodic review, maybe once every 10 or 15 years. The underlying principle must be popular sovereignty and effective governance. As much as possible, authority for governance must be delegated to the states and the local level, with the political centre limiting itself to coordination of delegated matters and exercising authority in crucial areas such as foreign, monetary, fiscal and defence policies.

The present Constitution is oriented toward concentration of power in the political centre. It needs to be revisited periodically to ensure that the distribution of power and authority between the political centre, states and local levels accords with the desires of the people and enables effective governance.

The above basis for the Malaysian nation should be expressed in the nature of the Malaysian state. This is in line with our earlier contention that though not the determining factor, ethnicity must factor into nation-making and governance.

Next week, in part two, I will discuss the building of a strong, representative state that is politically neutral in implementing government policies and consolidating democracy in the country.

Datuk Muthiah Alagappa is Distinguished Scholar in Residence, School of International Service, American University Washington, DC, and Visiting Professor, Asia-Europe Institute, University Malaya

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