Special Report: Hurdles on the path to national unity

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 7, 2022 - February 13, 2022.
Special Report: Hurdles on the path to national unity
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ALTHOUGH race relations in Malaysia have frequently flared up, the Ministry of National Unity is seldom in the spotlight. Its deputy minister Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal admits that he usually does not have to handle controversies. In an interview with The Edge, Wan Fayhsal, who was appointed to the post in August 2021, says his work will begin in earnest now, since the restrictions related to the pandemic are being eased.

The 34-year-old senator, who is also Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia youth chief, comes across as humble, affable and honest.

“I speak my mind,” he says at the outset of the interview.

And in the wide-ranging conversation, he does just that, admitting to the flaws of the system, the challenges and difficulties he faces, and his aspirations after the next general election.

There are also questions as to whether the ministry’s work is effective. A year ago, in mid-February 2021, The National Unity Policy as well as the National Unity Blueprint 2021-2030 were released, seeking to put in motion an action plan to foster greater national integration. The documents hinge on the principles of the Rukun Negara and the Federal Constitution.

(Photo by Ministry of National Unity)

Research outfit Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) said after the launch, “Both the Blueprint and policy documents only generally highlight the conceptual framework and overall aims, but unfortunately fall short on detailing to the stakeholders the operational processes and relevant mechanisms involved in realising these aims. What are the new and innovative ideas that the new documents are introducing that will result in different outcomes?”

Despite the doubts and cynicism, Wan Fayhsal is optimistic. He readily admits that there is likely be continued turmoil in the near term, before things stabilise and can eventually improve.

While he may rub many the wrong way, Wan Fayhsal speaks fervently for a fresh approach to national issues. As a voice of youth, his views are still “unspoilt”, possibly because his political career is in its infancy.

Here are excerpts of the interview.


The Edge: How did you get into the Unity Ministry?

Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal: Well, my position was basically the prime minister’s call. It came from the [Bersatu] quota for (former premier) Tan Sri Muhyiddin (Yassin).


You have the National Unity Blueprint that will last for 10 years, but the reality is that Malaysian politics is race-based, so there is a disconnect. How do you deal with this?

To be honest, if I can speak freely, politicians among ourselves, even among cultural leaders, we don’t want to have an honest and sincere dialogue on the burning question, the sensitive issues — vernacular schools, on race-based politics. There are so many cultural issues that we are avoiding, or watering down. As long as we do not discuss this properly, intelligently or professionally, forever we will be stuck in this mode of segregation.

We might live as a multi-cultural society, but in reality, there is no or little interaction between us, in day-to-day affairs, in school ... So, the national unity ministry tries to close some of the gaps. I don’t think we can really make the change that we intended, but at least we preserve the harmony … If the Malays are not ignorant about the other races’ customs, traditions and religions, I don’t think they would fall easily to demagoguery in politics. I’m a Malay nationalist and I’m a Malay conservative — that is my outlook, that is my ideology.


As the deputy minister for unity, do you think [unity-related] things have got worse among Malaysians?

Yes, I believe so — because of politics. Politicians from both sides, not just the Malay nationalists, even from the DAP (Democratic Action Party) side, play the race card during campaigning … Sometimes, it’s unacceptable.


We are going to pay a heavy price for this [lack of discussion, understanding], aren’t we?

Yes, of course, but I think the younger Malaysians may have a different understanding and sensitivities — the younger ones are more open. For example, I disagree with the brandishing of the keris at the (Umno) general assembly. If you want to earn respect from the non-Malays, you must be a good Malay, and people will respect you.


What sort of confidence-building measures are you looking at, since intercommunal relations are getting frail.

I think the good thing about this ministry and what [minister] Datuk Halimah [Mohamed Sadique] is focused on is to bring back the spirit of the Rukun Negara. We don’t have a national ideology like [Indonesia’s] Pancasila, so the closest we have is the Rukun Negara, and from there we can expand to literacy about the constitution.

At our ministry, that is what we anchor our programmes on — the Rukun Negara, especially the preamble: how to create a liberal society. Liberal, not as understood by many Muslims, but the tradition of democracy and respect for human rights. These values are also in Islam.


How difficult is your job?

Being the deputy minister, I’m quite isolated from the controversies. I’m not the one who must respond about any mistakes made by the ministry, but as the deputy, I can see what my minister has done, because she works very hard; I can see her sincerity. I would like to translate whatever she has planned, for the youth … I know senior politicians have difficulty engaging the youth because of the age gap, so I can become the bridge, hopefully, especially among university students.


Have you engaged them [the youth]? We hardly talk about racial issues; they seem to be swept under the carpet.

Yes. This year is supposed to be the year in which all of us in the ministry implement all our plans — last year, we had many restrictions because of Covid, so this year should be the year we go down to universities, schools, tabika and others. I am looking forward to it, actually.


If you talk about the youth, I don’t think they even trust the government. So, how tough is your job?

It’s quite tough, actually. As much as there is optimism among urbanites on Undi18, when I go down to rural areas, most of our youth don’t even care about politics. The urban youth have great mistrust of the government. The rural youth don’t care because they have more pressing matters such as their livelihood or rice bowl issues to think about.

So, there may be 700,000 additional voters for the Johor state election (as a result of Undi18) but I think only half will vote.


In the Sarawak state elections recently, fewer than 50% of voters turned up in some areas. In Pending, for example, voter turnout was only 48.3%; Padungan saw just 42.7%. There seems to be no faith at all [in the elections].

You are right.


Some say it is a waste of time to go, queue up and vote.

But that is also a vicious circle.


If you go down to the poor, they are not race-conscious, they have bigger issues to worry about … It [racism] starts at the middle class — and it’s usually brought about by politicians.



So, how do you control this?



So, you can’t [control it]?

You can’t.


As the deputy minister for unity, do you make it a point to ask politicians not to create racial issues, using the race card to gain support or brownie points? Do you actually tell any politicians off? Is there any slap on the wrist for any wrongdoing?

From Bersatu’s point of view, that is what we focus on, not what I call machismo Malay nationalism. After he became president, Tan Sri [Muhyiddin Yassin] in his first general assembly spoke about shared prosperity. Basically, that is our mother policy: to tell Malaysians that, if Bersatu runs the country, what we want is a more progressive affirmative action.

It is to be fair and just to all races, and we have to improve from the mistakes made before.


While we are talking about racial unity — even among the Malays, there is a huge divide between the rich and poor. If you can’t even address this, how can you take care of the interests of the other races?

It’s very true and that is why I think Malays should look into our own institutions, especially religious institutions. You have zakat, wakaf — all this untapped wealth — not being developed properly. Why? Because those who govern these institutions are religious scholars; they are not trained … The right appointments can transform Islamic institutions to be more progressive in terms of wealth generation.


If you go to the akar umbi, the grassroots, a common statement you hear is ‘kaya bertambah kaya, miskin tetap miskin’. It’s almost like a slogan. It’s very sad that these people have a sense of hopelessness. And these are Malays.

It’s true. And this is why Malay politics became so regressive. It has to do with how Malay politicians or how Malay politics view Islam. If Malays are being separated from Islamic teachings, that is why you have these problems. All the good things are being done in the name of charity, but they steal from the rakyat, they give to orphanages, they build religious schools, but [what is] the source of [the] money?


The leaders preach that the people must unite, but at the same time there is corruption by those who preach…

It’s hypocrisy; it works because they are hypocrites. There are many examples of great leaders in Islamic history who lost it along the way, like the Ottoman empire and the Malay Sultanate. They too became decadent because of wealth and power.


What has your ministry done to promote unity?

One of the main things is to strengthen the Rukun Tetangga programme. This is the basic agent of unity at the grassroots level, and we do have mediators among our communities, encompassing all races. If there are disputes in certain localities, they are trained to help and resolve such issues.

We do have schools such as tabika perpaduan, and the Kemas programmes (run by Jabatan Kemajuan Masyarakat), which involve mostly Malays, in FELDA kampungs.

These days we stay in condos, so things are no longer like before. Modern lifestyles have changed the unity concept and the people’s practices.

We are trying to address this in our ministry, but we have to work together. We also have Kelab Rukun Negara at the school level.


If Bersatu runs the country, what we want is a more progressive affirmative action. It is to be fair and just to all races, and we have to improve from the mistakes made before. (Photo by Zahid Izzani/The Edge)

Do you get enough funding for all this?

Our funds are from the government budget. And the largest budget goes to Mitra (Malaysian Indian Transformation Unit) for Indian welfare and transformation — RM100 million.


Do you see things picking up? Do you see your ministry being successful in uniting the people?

Yes, I believe so. Based on the findings of what we have done, based on our year-end review, I think things are getting more positive on the grassroots level, with Rukun Tetangga and with our school teachers.


After the floods recently, this is one thing we heard: The people, irrespective of race, helped each other. So, now, the feeling is that politicians are irrelevant; so, they [politicians] will find a way to divide the people again. What do you say to this?



Divide and rule. The politicians will find ways to break the unity to remain relevant.

It depends. If you ask me, some politicians capitalise on the mistakes made by other politicians … For me, my Achilles heel is vernacular schools. So, in parliament, DAP targets me on this, purposely asking me to make my stand on vernacular schools. So, I have to bersilat [be evasive], as I cannot contradict my ministry’s or the government’s stand on this. Previously, I had said we should abolish vernacular schools — abolish meaning not tutup [close them down], but making the schools keep in line with national policy. The teaching of the Malay language must be balanced with Mandarin.


Do you find yourself a minority, in terms of how you think?

In certain areas, yes. In Malay politics, you are right, I am a minority. In Bersatu, I am a minority. Why? Because there are not many educated Malays who want to join politics.


There is a view now that rasuah [bribery] is okay, if it’s ikhlas [sincerely given]. What is your take on this?

Whatever you say, it is wrong, it is haram. You cannot whitewash it.


But it’s so prevalent now.

You are right. Research has been done by many bodies. Transparency International, UPM [University Putra Malaysia] and others have done studies on how our youth view corruption, and it’s quite worrying. Many seem to feel it’s okay. I know many people blame politicians for corruption, but if you ask me... [it’s not the case].


We need to ask you — not meaning to be rude — but are you taken seriously among senior politicians? First, you are young; then, your ministry is, well, National Unity. So, do they take you seriously or take heed of what you say?

No. It’s true … Why? Because, one, I’m not an MP. Second, I’m a new kid on the block. So, I will fight in the coming elections. I will have my own seat, in Perak. I try to survive as much as I can. It’s not easy … Even in Bersatu, the patronage culture is still there.

But I’m afraid the non-Malays may not understand the dynamics in Malay politics. I want to see what happens in [the] Johor [state election]. I want to see how they [the other political parties] negotiate with my party, on one-to-one fights against BN [Barisan Nasional]. For the sake of reform, we have to bury the hatchet. We have to have a dialogue with the non-Malay leaders, the community leaders, the cultural leaders. All races have their identity politics, right? So, we have to find the common ground … So, let’s focus on defeating BN and let’s learn from our past mistakes in PH [Pakatan Harapan] … Do not touch the sensitivities of each race.


Do you see the abilities of politicians in the country as being very low? I mean, when you see the level of debates in other countries we seem so far behind.

Yes, it’s true — with the exception of those who have done their homework.


One thing that political analysts have said is that the Umno general assembly is more important than the general election for deciding on the country’s direction.

Yes, it has always been [more important].


But do you think you can beat Barisan Nasional?

In Johor, no, but at least we have to deny them a two-thirds majority, and hopefully they get only a slim win. Umno is very strong in Johor, and there is no issue now for us to ride on.


How do you break the current system? For instance, in the outskirts, let’s say we are living in a kampong. If my son or daughter was getting married, I can go to the ketua bahagian (division head of a political party). If I tell him my child is getting married, I can expect a large cash handout or assistance. So, there is a dependence on the political party. How do you break something like this, that is so entrenched?

To me, you have to strengthen the Malay institutions. If others can provide — other than politicians — then, slowly, politicians will be reduced to their proper role: policymaking. Now, politicians are also doing DO [district officer] work. People at the grassroots level expect politicians to know how to do everything, to know everything, whereas we have limitations as well. Sometimes, a clogged drain — is that a politician’s job?

We have to educate people as well about what politics is all about. But, then again, politics cannot be divorced from people; you just have to entertain all types of people … We all know that, in democracy, the masses win. So, you have to play to the masses.


Do you feel you should be the [deputy] education minister instead of the deputy unity minister? We ask this because a lot of the values you are talking about should be instilled in school.

I grew up in a national [primary] school, in Melawati in Ulu Kelang. It was an urban school, multi-racial, and I had many Chinese and Indian friends in primary school.

But when I went to boarding school, it was mostly Malays. That time in primary school shaped my view on Malaysian identity. Even though I’m more Malay now, I do respect my brothers and sisters from other races and religions. We were raised in that environment for five or six years … but why I’m not there [in Education], you have to ask the prime minister.


But do you see unity as being within the purview of the Ministry of Education?

True, it is the single-most important institution to shape the Malaysian identity.


Talking about Malaysian identity, we [previously] interviewed former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who came up with Wawasan 2020, which was to have [shaped] a Bangsa Malaysia. We asked him his definition of Bangsa Malaysia. What is yours?

I don’t believe we can achieve it. The idea of Bangsa Malaysia is not like an ideology; a nation is always ascribed to a race, like Bangsa Indonesia. It is a real category because the Chinese there, or whatever ethnicities you have in Indonesia, have become one through their language. They are really proud of their Bahasa Indonesia. Remember, [the first Indonesian president] Sukarno was a Javanese but he chose a Malay language from Riau to become the national language of Indonesia to unite all these thousands of ethnicities.

In Malaysia, we want to do that through Bahasa Malaysia, or Bahasa Melayu, and we have proven it. [Look at] Kelantan ... We don’t ask [the Chinese and Indians] to become Muslim; they can retain their culture. But at least in communication, there is some sort of belonging — to the Kelantanese identity.

So, this is what has hampered our ability to achieve Bangsa Malaysia. Although Tun [Mahathir] tried to do it, one of the things he failed to implement was the Sekolah Wawasan [concept]. If you can’t close down vernacular schools, you can ensure those schools co-exist in one area: During recess, they can mingle with each other. To me, it’s a good idea. The early interaction is very important, as it will clear the prejudices.

So, Bangsa Malaysia will never exist. First, we cannot do forced assimilation. But, in Thailand or Indonesia, Chinese citizens do not carry their family name; they have to take local names. So, they lose their most important identity, their heritage, their tradition. I disagree with that as a Malay. In Islam, we do not force people to change their name even after they convert. So, I think you should be able to retain your Chinese name.


Do you think you are an idealist?

I am. I believe in certain ideals. Other politicians do not see Malays as a civilisation, but I do. In my view, Malaysia didn’t start in 1957. You have to go back further to the Melaka period, even to the Srivijaya time, to trace back the foundations that created what we have today.

Why must we limit our identity to what the colonialists have given to us — the Pangkor Agreement? This is not a new world, this is Nusantara, and there is no reason for the Malays to be racist because they have been hosting the Chinese traders, the Indians from Malabar — the Peranakan came and they became part of us, our heritage.

[Bendahara Sri Maharaja] Tun Mutahir, who was the Bendahara, or prime minister, of the Melaka Sultanate, was not a pure Malay but of Indian Muslim descent.


If you could change one thing in politics now, what would it be? What do you think is most important to change in politics?

There has to be proper education before one can become a politician. There is no proper training before you become an MP or a senator. So, any Tom, Dick or Harry can become an Ahli Dewan Rakyat or Ahli Dewan Negara by virtue of grassroots support. This is not complete. I’m not saying it’s wrong; I’m saying it’s not complete. In Islam, I was taught that you carry this responsibility as a leader, and a prerequisite to it is knowledge. One of the most important ideas is to know yourself. Otherwise, you become corrupt; you easily get corrupted by power. Not everyone is suited to hold office.


Take the situation in which the Islamic authorities tell Muslims not to wish Christians ‘Merry Christmas’. At the ministry, how do you handle this?

The Wahhabis — the most conservative scholars — say it is haram, non-permissible, to wish someone Merry Christmas, but other Muslim scholars say otherwise. You have to understand the context. Wishing Merry Christmas means you acknowledge Jesus [Christ] was born on that day. In the normal context, it’s just a normal, cultural wish; it doesn’t have any bearing on theology. So, there is nothing wrong in Muslims wishing their Christian brothers ‘Merry Christmas’, as it doesn’t touch or involve religious dogma.

You can always respect your brothers and sisters from other religions by knowing your limits. There is no harm in wishing someone or celebrating their cultural celebrations.

More dialogue should be done between religious scholars as well. I live by this principle: Humanity comes before religiosity. It’s a very famous saying by an Arab scholar, Habib Ali (Al-Jifri).


There has to be proper education before one can become a politician. (Photo by Ministry of National Unity)

Do you think that all these things — you can’t wish your Christian friends ‘Merry Christmas’, women cannot wear certain outfits and so on — add to the racial tensions, which makes it hard for the races to be united?

Dialogue, we need more dialogue. Many misunderstandings happen or linger because we lack honest dialogue between important stakeholders in society. We rarely see any interfaith dialogues now. If you can’t do it [dialogues] in public, do it in the universities. Universities should be the place where critical issues are discussed, right?


How do you feel about the brain drain, migration of Malaysians, even Malays, as they do not see a future here? Some leave because they are disgruntled with the way the country is being run.

I can be sympathetic towards that, especially the non-bumis, as they feel oppressed or [treated in an] unjust [manner], because they are not given proper chances to thrive.


So, you are saying it’s true that they are not being given proper chances to thrive?

I do believe so, in certain areas, yes. For example, the government cannot give scholarships for everyone from every race equally, for reasons of equitability. So, the Malays have to be given a little more than the Chinese and Indians; but, are such efforts the sole responsibility of the government? I don’t think so. The private sector should be given the mandate to help the government in addressing this gap.

If JPA (Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam, or the Public Service Department) cannot give [scholarships], ask Petronas, CIMB, Khazanah to give [scholarships] lah … You don’t want to lose the brightest talents to Singapore. These are things I regret as well; there must be more progressive ways to address brain drain. I don’t think the government should be given the sole responsibility to resolve this.


We have friends who were close to ministers when they first started and, from what we hear, initially many politicians were like you, but after a while, they get sucked in. Do you see that happening to yourself?

Yes, the temptations are there, the pressure from the grassroots is there, and for me to keep my sanity, I have to really go back to my fundamentals as a Muslim. I have to remind myself why I’m here in the first place — to serve the nation. It’s not easy. I will try my best to remain on the right path. I know it’s not easy to remain upright on the right path in politics, I know…


How do you feel? … The general perception of politicians is, well, not very good. How do you work with them on a daily basis?

Sometimes, it is depressing; sometimes, there is inner conflict as well. I joined politics to do good things, but I can’t do the good things because of politicking — it’s about ‘how do we win elections?’ It’s tiring. The situation doesn’t warrant that, and it frustrates me as a young politician. I know younger people think politics is all about public policy but, no, politics these days is all about retaining power, preserving the status quo.


What do you think about social media when it comes to unity?

It’s a double-edged sword — it could break or make things. It depends on who pushes the narrative. I’m very unhappy with the liberal-leaning English media. It seems like they are not being just in covering both sides of the story. I wish we had fairer coverage. You cover the liberals, but also cover the conservatives. Speak to both and compare notes, but they don’t do that. I’m sure there are many enlightened Malays who can write well in English, speak good English and can argue coherently on many unpopular stands that the non-bumiputeras might misunderstand — affirmative action, religious issues, cultural issues, language. You just don’t give them space.


Where do you see Malaysia in five years?

[Further] down the spiral. We have to hit rock-bottom first before we can rise again — economically, education-wise. In my experience for the past two years, at the moment we are going downwards. If we want to survive, this election is more important than GE14, as it will [set] the trajectory for the next 10 years. The real change will come in GE16; the Undi18 voters will be more mature, the old guards will go off. Slowly, the transition will happen and things will be more stable. Then we will be able to see more reform.


How long do you think you will be in this position — Deputy Minister of National Unity?

We are planning until July. Based on the current situation, July is per the agreement between Tan Sri [Muhyiddin Yassin] and Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri. The MoU ends in July.


In your opinion, who are our future leaders? From any party…

Anthony Loke; Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin could be a dark horse in my party; Datuk Seri Azmin Ali as well. Umno has many; Tok Mat [Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan] is one.

My passion … if I hadn’t become a politician, I’d have been a lecturer; but, since I’m already in this line, I will do my best; I’ll try to survive by being an MP first.


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