Come forward for a new Malaysian narrative

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 1, 2019 - April 07, 2019.

Syahredzan: We need a new national narrative; we need a message of inclusiveness that can unite us. We need a vision for this ‘new’ Malaysia. Photo by Mohd Izwan Mohd Nazam/The Edge

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ALL groups in the country must come forward to create a new narrative for Malaysia, says civil rights lawyer Syahredzan Johan. The clock is ticking for a new, inclusive national agenda to be accepted by the people, but it is still not too late to make it happen, he adds.

The opportunity was ripe for far-reaching reforms when the people voted for the first change of government in the nation’s history in the 14th general election last year.

“We should have done it soon after the elections, when the mood for change was still strong,” Syahredzan tells The Edge in an an interview.

“It is now coming up to one year since May 9, 2018. I would suggest that the prime minister goes on TV with a state of the nation address. Tell the people: this is what we have done; this is what is not up to par. Be honest. Acknowledge that there have been certain failings. Say what needs to be done in the short term, and what must be done in the long term.

“Then take the opportunity to present a new narrative and call on all the people to work on the common agenda together. Say: ‘We want everyone to come together to build a new future for the country’,” he urges.

However, Syahredzan says that people are not going to come forward if they feel they are excluded from the national discourse.

His remarks come in the wake of increasingly divisive positions on racial and religious rights among the country’s political leaders in recent months. The temperature rose a few notches during heated campaigning in two by-elections earlier this year in Cameron Highlands and Semenyih, both of which were won by Barisan Nasional candidates.

In a commentary carried in the media in early March, Syahredzan, who is the political secretary to elder DAP leader Lim Kit Siang, indicated that inflammatory messages by prominent Umno leaders in the run-up to the polls sent a signal to moderate and centrist people in the Malay party that racial and religious rhetoric in the name of Malay unity was working.

“This sort of politics is toxic for the country,” Syahredzan wrote. “For the next few years, we are going to see every single issue be turned into a racial and religious one as Umno and PAS further entrench their political cooperation. From their perspective, this is their path to power and they will exploit it to the fullest,” he said in the commentary.

The fear, he continued, was that if this tide became a tsunami, even if the new government succeeds in delivering social justice and fulfilling its election manifesto, it would matter little if people voted based on racial and religious considerations.

“We need a new national narrative; we need a message of inclusiveness that can unite us. We need a vision for this ‘new’ Malaysia. A statement of intent of the sort of Malaysia we aspire for this country to be,” Syahredzan wrote.

Speaking to The Edge, he dwelt on the need for a plan of action to replace the old exclusivist discourse with a new national consciousness.


Qualities of a New Malaysia

“To begin with, we need to all agree on one thing — regardless of your race, religion, colour, creed, political ideology, any of these identities and beliefs — that we can accept that every Malaysian has a place under the Malaysian sun,” says Syahredzan.

“This may look simple enough, but looking at things that have been going on, at the quality of discussions, people want to exclude others from their definition of who is Malaysian.

“People who are LGBT, for example, are not Malaysians. ‘There are no LGBT people in Malaysia,’ as one minister said. Some want to say that people who are not able to speak the national language are not Malaysians.

“We need to come back together and realise that there is this promise of a Malaysian nation. In 1957 and 1963, we, the various communities, all agreed to form Malaysia. We wanted a new nation.”


Principles of a common identity

“Whatever vision we have of a Malaysian nation must be inclusive. It cannot be exclusive. It cannot try to define the Malaysian identity within certain parameters only. The only parameters that all of us should be concerned with are what is stated in the Federal Constitution. The Federal Constitution doesn’t say that to be Malaysian, a person must be able to speak the national language, for example, or is only heterosexual, or must believe in a particular religion, that he cannot be an atheist,” he declares.


Appropriating national identity

“The term identity politics is quite recent, but Malaysia has been operating on these lines all along. Maybe when it started off, it was a way to get the different communities to agree on certain things,” Syahredzan observes.

“But as we go along, it has shifted from: ‘We all have differences, but let’s build the country together’ to a situation where: ‘I have more rights than you. I am only going to take care of what I think is my sphere. You take care of yours. You don’t venture into my interests, my sphere of power. And if you do you’re encroaching.’

“Slowly, that sphere has been changed to mean that: ‘You must now conform to what I want.’ And that’s the result of politics,” he says.

“We have seen that more and more in the past 11 years. As the ruling coalition at that point in time felt that their political position was threatened so they resorted to trying to push this very right wing, ethno-nationalistic agenda, because they felt that it was the only way for them to cling on to power.

“And now, when they have lost that power, they feel that it is the only way for them to get back into power.”


The dangers of identity politics

“At the end of the day, we have to realise that we are not competing against one another,  but are competing against the world. The only way we can progress is if we realise that we need to work together. We need to realise that we are not enemies, we are in it together, and our competitors, the people we should be looking at, are people outside,” says Syahredzan.

“The only way we can face these challenges is by coming together, working together to build the country. We cannot do that if we are not united, if we are still looking at another person through racial and religious lenses. That will be a stumbling block towards our progress as a nation.

“If we do not arrest this right wing, identity politics, it will result in a situation where we become more polarised. One day we could end up with a government that only takes care of one community,” he cautions.

“Throughout Malaysia’s history, the government had been controlled by one political party, Umno, but despite its faults, it tried to serve the needs of all communities. If we continue along the current path, if political parties feel that the only way they can come back to power is if they play this racial-religious game, then it may mean that one day we are going to have a government that is mono-ethnic and will only put the interests of the majority ethnic race over and above all the other communities.”


Institutions identified by race and religion

“We have to address the elephant in the room, which is the special position of the Malays. A lot of the discussion, when you talk about unity, is going to come to that. I am not saying that we should dismantle that,” says Syahredzan.

“If you are going to start that conversation, immediately you are going to exclude a lot of people. If you want buy-in from the Malays, you cannot start by saying that we should do away with their special position. We cannot also start by saying, ‘Let’s no longer have any ethnic identities’, because to a lot of people, who they are includes their race, religion, and so on. I think that is not helpful to start off with,” he explains.

“We must realise that whatever it is — you can be Malay, Chinese, Muslim, non-Muslim and so on, at the end of the day, the shared identity of all of us is that we are Malaysians.

“We need to go back and see what it is in the Federal Constitution. I would say that the Malay special interests clause has been misrepresented to become this justification for discrimination, to impose certain values on other Malaysians. It was not meant to be that. It was meant to be a way in which the position of the Malays as a majority in the country is safeguarded. At the same time, Article 153 also talks about the legitimate interests of the other communities, so it is a balancing act,” he points out.

“What we need to look at now is whether we have been able to balance it as it should be, or whether it has now become imbalanced.

“That sort of discussion needs to take place, and it can only happen in an open environment and if the government is truthful about the situation. I would think that could not happen in the previous regime because it is in their interest to continue to say that Malays are under siege, under threat and so on.

“We can now hopefully have this conversation because this government was formed not on the backs of just the Malays, but a cross-section of the people. In that sense, they do not have the same necessity to pander to the majority race,” Syahredzan sums up.


Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge


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