Remaking Malaysia: It’s time to heal the nation

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 26, 2018 - December 02, 2018.
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IN the six months since the new government has taken office, it has introduced a raft of progressive reforms that Malaysians could only dream about under the previous administration.

Right from the start, it began cleaning up the nation’s finances, tackling the disastrous debt burden that had been building up under Barisan Nasional’s rule.

Then, it introduced a refreshing range of institutional reforms aimed at restoring the check and balance system in the country's governance.

A new breeze of democratic freedom has begun to blow as well, with the review of authoritarian laws and restoration of civil liberties.

Nevertheless, there remain very important challenges that must be addressed urgently if the country wishes to avoid being shattered by racial, religious and regional differences.

For one, the new government has been soft-pedalling on steps to heal the racial and religious wounds that have been festering in society after decades of identity-based politics.

While it is understandable that the subject is being handled with great caution for fear of a blowback against a new race-blind national vision that the government may wish to introduce, dithering on this issue could cost us dearly.

The leadership certainly looks like it is on the horns of an impossible dilemma.

It may seem inevitable that any suggestion to create an egalitarian Malaysian society would be interpreted by a majority of Malays as a betrayal of their constitutionally-enshrined special rights, and so would guarantee the government’s ouster in the shortest time.

On the other hand, the divisive results of identity politics that have been at play for more than six decades show that the country must break this stranglehold if it wishes to ensure a harmonious and viable future for its diverse people.

It would be a grave mistake to succumb to political paralysis when destiny has offered our country an unprecedented chance to press the reset button on its race relations.

To seize this opportunity, the people will first need to wake up from the spell of ethnic nationalism that they have come under.

In its place must dawn an awareness of universal fraternity, where sociocultural variations are embraced as expressions of the natural diversity of the human race.

Once this perspective prevails, it becomes intuitively clear that diversity is inherent in nature, and we relax into its acceptance instead of straining in vain to maintain artificial boundaries in society.

For the longest time, this idea of universality has been buried under an ethnocentric political discourse that has been exploited for political domination by BN, led by Umno as its lynchpin party.

The political game of divide and rule had served the coalition well, for it was not just Umno, but also MCA, MIC and BN’s former partners in Sabah and Sarawak that had banked on their claim to represent their respective communities’ interests to secure their place in power.

That claim began to lose its hold on voters in the 12th general election in 2008 and continued to erode until the overthrow of the BN in the last election on May 9.

Now, for the first time, Malaysians can see themselves as citizens of all colours, creeds and political leanings who overlooked their differences to come together and choose a new political coalition. Implicit in that change is a promise to give the nation a fresh start.

The deed has been done, but the people have not really moved on from the shock of rejecting the only government they have known since Independence to a sober investigation of its political heritage.

This inquiry is all the more difficult because of the attachment to the ethnic loyalties that these parties appeal to. Further, the record of development that the BN government had achieved during its rule engenders goodwill and gratitude among its beneficiaries.

In a perverse way, the excesses that came to be identified with the BN government in recent years were greatly responsible for waking the people up to the hypocrisy behind its ethnic and religious posturing.

There are difficult realisations that have to be accepted.

Among them is an acknowledgement that it is possible to become trapped in a mindset that ethnic quotas for jobs,  education and other benefits are a birthright.

With the dismantling of the state-sponsored propaganda apparatus, indoctrination of this idea has lost some steam.

Now that the people are not beholden to a paternalistic state benefactor, it would be easier to see that the patriotism that was aroused by nationalists to rally the people for the Independence struggle in the last century had been transformed over time into a tool for political control.

It does not sit well at all in today’s interdependent environment, where the ingenuity of globalised entrepreneurship has transformed our world into a borderless and connected experience.

A mental transformation is needed to bring Malaysia’s political culture in line with the current state of global relations.

This is where political leadership is needed to usher our communities towards a new common identity as globalised citizens.

Ironically, this evolution is coming under threat by a reactionary force that has been gaining momentum with the weakening of the old political order.

There is a real risk that the backlash from this chauvinistic front could reverse the gains in good governance and democratic rule that have been made since May 9.

Led by Umno and Pas, and supported by right-wing organisations, this alliance is gaining mileage with each episode of racial and religious friction that makes the news.

Their influence was shown again on Friday when the Prime Minister’s Office said that Malaysia will not be ratifying the ICERD, the global convention against all forms of racial discrimination.

That marks a step backwards for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, after the premier told the United Nations General Assembly in September that the government would ratify the  UN’s human rights conventions. The new government must not lose the advantage it has won with the unprecedented election outcome but must show courage to set the country on a new path towards a future owned by all Malaysians.

The journey must be taken step by step by the new Malaysia which should be built on better understanding among all its peoples.

To make the transition to this new dawn, our country needs its most capable people to frame the discussion in an inclusive, non-sectarian national philosophy.

The bell is tolling for our generation to rise to the occasion.

 

Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

 

 

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