Historians will compare the 14th general election with the aftermath of the May 13, 1969, racial riots, when Malaysia was last “redefined” with a new sociopolitical compact and the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP), Rukun Negara and amendments to the Sedition Act.
The state became significantly more active in socioeconomic matters, and improving the economic position of the Malays and eradicating poverty took centre stage. The formation of Barisan Nasional (BN), the much-enlarged coalition of governing parties, in 1974 then transformed political competition as well.
In GE14, Malaysia became the beacon of light for democracy during its darkest time since the fall of the iron curtain, or “the end of history”, as Francis Fukuyama so famously coined it. The first change of federal government in Malaysia’s 61-year history happened peacefully, a great tribute to Malaysians at large, who kept faith with the ballot box and our institutions.
GE14 ushered in a new government armed with an ambitious reform manifesto and theme of bringing about “New Malaysia”. Both expectation and apprehension have run high since.
International media and political scientists have, however, been slow to celebrate this Malaysian triumph of democracy. Why? Because most remain sceptical. Has there been merely a change of political actors? Will Pakatan Harapan (PH) soon look much like BN of the 1990s? Will reforms be genuine and sustainable, or superficial and reversible? Only time and real actions will tell. I only have a view.
When I received the invitation to speak here, the first thought that came to my mind was of Oxford, September 2016. My wife and I were hosting a roundtable we called “Conversations on Malaysia” at the Blavatnik School of Government. We had gathered a group of 25 Malaysian leaders and thinkers (but no politicians) to have open, frank and robust discussions about the future of our country.
The mix of background experience and intellect we had around the table was quite astonishing. Among the attendees were former deputy prime minister Tun Musa Hitam, Pemandu CEO Idris Jala, business leaders Yong Poh Kon, Tony Fernandes and Kamal Badawi, media chiefs Tong Kooi Ong of The Edge and Wong Chun Wai of The Star, human rights and anti-corruption activist Cynthia Gabriel, G25 leader Sheriff Kassim, other social activists and researchers like Marina Mahathir and Ben Suffian of Merdeka Center, and lawyer and former member of the MACC’s operations review panel Lim Chee Wee. We also had academics Jomo Sundaram, who went on to join the CEP, and Maszlee Malik, who went on to become the Education Minister. Wan Saiful Wan Jan of IDEAS was there, too; he went on to help draft the PH manifesto.
We had an immensely rich set of conversations, during which it became abundantly clear that everyone, without exception, had deep concerns around communal relations, religion, economy, institutions, corruption and politics.
The problems were complex and intertwined, and every solution seemed insufficient or had unwarranted side effects. We concluded that Malaysia was in dire need of holistic structural reforms; the system, substantially made in the 1970s, was broken and had been broken for some time.
The 1MDB scandal was a symptom, albeit extreme, of the broken system. By the time we met in Oxford, our institutions had already failed to deal with 1MDB. The deputy prime minister and attorney-general had been summarily removed and various investigations stalled for one reason or another. Even the attempt by the Conference of Rulers to ensure that oversight institutions acted as they should had fizzled out.
Despite the obviously diverse political leanings of people at the roundtable, there was a powerful sense of unity and purpose: We all wanted a better Malaysia; we even coined it “New Malaysia”, ironically. Unshackled of political allegiances and committed to just arguing for what we each believed was right for the nation, the room blossomed with passion, but also empathy and reason even when debating the most contentious issues.
We agreed on a host of reforms, including a needs-based affirmative action, institutional reforms, political reforms, development of moderate Islam, freedom of the media, separation of the prime minister and finance minister, and term limits for the prime minister. We could not get consensus on some issues, notably vernacular schools and whether we needed a new constitution.
These reforms, however important, were only going to address symptoms; they would not fix the system. We felt that what Malaysia needed was a fresh sociopolitical compact upon which we could rebuild and realign our institutions, politics and socioeconomic strategies.
Malaysia has refreshed its sociopolitical compact once before. In 1970, following the May 13 riots, Tun Razak set up a National Consultative Council (NCC) comprising the good and great across society — academics, NGOs, business
leaders, religious leaders — to debate the causes of the riots and recommend reforms to bring back and sustain peace, stability and development.
The NCC came up with various recommendations, including the NEP and Rukun Negara, which set the foundations of the new Malaysia that rose from the ashes of race riots to become one of the most successful developing countries in the world.
It was time that a similar platform be set up again and we concluded our roundtable with a commitment to campaign for the establishment of National Consultative Council 2.
The NCC2 idea was initially well received; even some BN cabinet members voiced support. But then, suddenly, the official government position came down — the NCC2 was not welcomed; it is a taboo. The powers that be were, let’s just say, firm in the way they clamped down on our NCC2 campaign towards the end of 2016.
At about the same time, the political challenge to the BN government, led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, was gathering steam. I was still very despondent though, because I could not see the political process yielding change. But I underestimated the resolve of Malaysians. The rest, as they say, is history; change is all around. Of course, change is never easy and always needs to be carefully managed.
The PH government has promised a lot of change and reforms in its manifesto, and we have seen several important moves to strengthen the independence of key institutions, notably the Parliament, MACC, attorney-general and Election Commission. Separation of the prime minister and finance minister, and indeed the prime minister from any portfolio has also lessened the concentration of power. In addition, an institutional reform committee recently put forward several major recommendations that are being considered.
There is no doubt that the PH government’s reforms will significantly reduce corruption and strengthen checks and balances. I think that would get us to a most welcomed “Better Malaysia”, but not what I would describe as “New Malaysia”. If we only address the symptoms, I fear that we will fall ill again. The same social and political im-balances and vulnerabilities may well undermine the system again.
In other words, the case for the NCC2 remains valid.
Our system today remains the one substantially designed by the NCC of 1970, but Malaysians, Malaysia and the world have changed so much. The challenges faced by a fledgling nation and those of a middle-income economy are quite different.
The NEP was meant to last only 20 years, yet it is now almost 50. And worse, it has morphed and been abused to serve all sorts of vested and twisted interests.
On the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are still losing our best talents because they cannot accept the rules established by and for their parents’ generation. There is worrying empirical evidence (in a 2017 study by the Blavatnik School of Government and Merdeka Center, among others) that despite early success of the NCC reforms, Malaysians have been living together, but growing apart.
How wedded are we to multiculturalism or should we strive for Bangsa Malaysia? What forms of affirmative action should we have today? Do we continue with race-based political parties or consider alternative models of communal representation? Do we persist with vernacular schools?
As for religion, how do we address tensions between our secular constitution, the rhetoric of being an Islamic state and aspirations for comprehensive shariah laws? What about the balance between federal-state power in the peninsula, and between the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak? These are some of the big, sensitive issues that need to be addressed in arriving at a new socio-political compact. The issues are intertwined; they should not be addressed in isolation.
A new sociopolitical compact should be deliberated patiently and dispassionately by represen-tatives of different groups and Malaysia’s brightest minds. Today’s technology will also enable us to draw on ideas from the public at large. The energy of modern society and especially the ambitions of the young people must be built into the process.
One could call the NCC2 a process of delibe-rative democracy; not a vote, but discussion and persuasion towards a new way forward that can carry the support of the majority of moderate Malaysia.
Establishing the original NCC was straightforward as Tun Razak had dictatorial emergency powers and it was in response to a breakdown in civil order. I think the NCC2 should be set up as a neutral body, perhaps under the auspices of the Conference of Rulers to submit recommendations to Parliament for ultimate endorsement.
Parliament would not be the right platform for inter-communal dialogue for it is divided along party lines and absent of comprehensive group representation, but its approval would be necessary to legitimise the NCC2 recommendations.
Negotiating a new compact certainly cannot be left to the executive branch. The “realpolitik” of reforms that alter established communal balance has confronted the new government very quickly, with the massive Malay rally against ICERD, recent by-elections witnessing blatant use of racial and religious rhetoric, and the Umno-PAS so-called “marriage”.
We wait anxiously for how PH will respond to this new dynamic. Extreme politicisation of race and religion is an existential threat to our nation, yet one could argue it is encouraged by our conventional electoral system.
The NCC2 could look to recast the rules of political competition. Every multicultural society needs to devise its own political structure to suit its history, cultural traditions and range and depth of diversity. After all, the modern state and democratic system was designed with culturally homogenous societies in mind.
While reaffirming our commitment to democracy, we could, for instance, consider requiring electoral constituencies be either sufficiently multiracial or part of group representation constituencies in order to mitigate racist politics and ensure sufficient minority representation.
I would imagine that a rebalancing of voting power would only be acceptable to the Malays if they felt more secure about their position vis-à-vis the constitution. As an example of the kind of inter-communal trade-offs to be made, the NCC2 could also propose updating the constitution to unambiguously enshrine and define bumiputera privileges, for a time or forever, and the position of Islam.
Please note that I said “examples”: I am not suggesting solutions; my whole point is that the NCC2 needs to benefit from much wiser minds than mine and with all options on the table.
I am sure that some people will argue that the conditions do not demand a systemic recalibration of the scale of 1970. My view is that the system is broken, 1MDB was a major crisis and power might easily have not been peacefully transferred on May 10, 2018. Furthermore, it is smart to be pre-emptive.
The permanent agenda is for Malaysia to be a stable, democratic, progressive and fair multicultural nation as envisaged by our founding fathers. They were pragmatists who accepted a negotiated post-colonial compact and Westminster system. In 1970, they boldly recalibrated the compact and the system according to the needs of Malaysia then. In my humble view, another recalibration is overdue for the needs of Malaysia today.
Datuk Seri Nazir Razak is a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. He delivered the keynote address at the UK and Eire Council of Malaysian Students’ Projek Amanat Negara XVI 2019 conference in the UK on March 9.