First published by Tunku Abidin Muhriz on 4 March 2016

One frequent accusation levelled at KL-based think tanks is that they rarely go outside their geographical or ideological comfort zones. The phrase “preaching to the converted” is often heard at forums and book launches where speakers and participants are all essentially on the same side.

So I’m pleased that in the past two years IDEAS, rather uniquely among KL-based think tanks, has conducted research and focus groups in small towns like Tapah, Panampang, Machang and Tanjung Sepat. And of course in our National Unity Youth Fellowship, participants traversed the country from Kangar to Kota Kinabalu, Seremban to Kuching.

In our events we have also featured ideologically diverse panellists including representatives from ISMA and Perkasa, and just this week IDEAS’ CEO made a stoic defence of the right for people to learn about ideologies that we utterly disagree with, after the Inspector General of Police announced on Twitter his intention to ban a course about Marxism organised by Parti Sosialis Malaysia. We think it would much better to demonstrate that the ideologies of the far left have been catastrophic for societies that have adopted them, and that constitutional democracy combined with a free market system – what we espoused at Merdeka – is a vastly superior alternative.

A more recent criticism focused on the fact that we had all male panels at an event (there is a social media hashtag designed to shame organisations which don’t include women in their panels), but I’m glad to say that recently our COO Tricia Yeoh took part in an all women panel. Unfortunately as diverse as the intended invitations can be, much also depends on the availability of speakers to all turn up at the same time on the same day.

This week I too went out of my comfort zone, by giving a keynote speech centring around the topic of Malay unity, at a forum to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Malay congress organised by Dato’ Sir Onn Jaafar to oppose the Malayan Union. Essentially I argued that political competition does not necessarily contradict unity – indeed Dato’ Onn founded UMNO and then two other parties to oppose it – and that the reality is that millions of young Malays are growing up with no singular understanding of what it means to be Malay: their role models are hugely diverse and international.

In the panel discussion and question and answer session afterwards many delegates – who came from all parts of Malaysia – repeatedly expressed disappointment and frustration with the current political situation. Many people supported one panellist’s enthusiasm that the Conference of Rulers could be more proactive in restoring unity to the country, even while acknowledging the constitutional constraints of the heads of state having to stay above party politics.

Where I was most divergent with the prevailing opinion was on the Dual Language Programme that is being introduced in schools to enable the teaching of selected subjects in English, if certain criteria are met. Responding to the hostility towards this programme, I pointed out that the programme is voluntary, and one of the conditions is strong proficiency in Malay. But these were dismissed as irrelevant, for in their eyes the constitution requires all teaching to be done in the national language.

I could have riposted by suggesting that the Ministry of Education exists to serve Malaysian parents and cater for their preferences – but there was so much else to talk about over nasi kandaq, which encapsulated the warm hospitality I received.

On the flight back, I realised a tinge of hypocrisy in some urban liberals who field accusations that we aren’t interacting enough with those outside the Klang Valley: for they are also prone to making sweeping generalisations. These days it is chiefly that any supporter of the conservative Malay agenda is aiding and abetting theft, corruption and institutional destruction. That is not the case. There are many Malay conservatives who care deeply about democracy, freedom and fairness.

Indeed, some of them have never been a member of any political party, and see the cause of Malay unity not necessarily as a political project, but also as a cultural project, even if their narrative begins with the congress that Dato’ Onn organised. As I reminded the hundreds of delegates who had gathered in Penang seventy years later, at that historic event at the Sultan Sulaiman Club in Kuala Lumpur (then still in Selangor) on 1 March 1946 Dato’ Onn said: “truly amongst us there are those with different opinions and understandings, diverse backgrounds and lifestyles, but nonetheless we share an aim; that is to nurture and advance the dignity and honour of our race.”

His political, ideological – and perhaps literal – grandchildren would do well to remember those words.

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS

Leave a comment