by Khalid Jaafar. First published in Malaysiakini 7 July 2015. This is the text of the speech delivered at IDEAS Public Forum “Is Malaysia ready for a liberal political party?” Clip of the event can be found here.
It is a sign of growing intellectual and cultural maturity, confidence and dynamism that there now exists a demand for lively debate on liberalism, for or against, in Malaysia.
When liberalism is seriously contested, or even vilified or misrepresented, I think we have arrived at a stage where we need a conscious and serious discussion on what constitutes liberalism.
To my mind the majority of reasonable Malaysians are more than 50 percent liberal, albeit unconsciously. In many ways we are all liberal now. Even those bearded and turbaned people who denounce liberalism from their pulpit and in their ceramah sessions are no less liberal than a professed secularist.
IDEAS chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan, despite being a life member of PAS, is a liberal, or rather, a libertarian. Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, too, despite his Islamist credentials, even his now less-beloved leader Abdul Hadi Awang, is to a substantive extent a liberal, as long as we don’t include the support for LGBT or same-sex marriage as a requirement to be a liberal.
Several months ago I was engaged in a debate with Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, the president of Isma, a new grouping with great animosity towards liberalism. But I asked him several litmus test questions, one being: Are you for or against slavery? And he answered: “Of course I am against slavery.”
I asked that question because one of the very first achievements of the liberal movement was the abolishment of slavery, a social institution that denied the most fundamental aspects of human freedom and dignity, which plagued all civilisations until modern times.
The first British resident was murdered for trying to abolish slavery, debt-slavery as well as slavery out of the kidnapping of Orang Asli to be sold as slaves. So, if there were martyrs of liberal causes in this country, JWW Birch must be the first.
Then I asked the Isma president, “which one do you choose, absolute monarchy or constitutional monarchy?” He chose constitutional monarchy, a historic achievement of The Glorious Revolution, which was a watershed in the liberal struggle.
I believe he would share the content of the Oxford Manifesto 1947, the founding document of of Liberal International.
However the revision of the manifesto 50 years later did not take into account the depth of commitment of Asian societies, even those with liberal persuasions, towards religion, the sanctity of the traditional family as a fundamental vehicle for the transmission of values and the continuation of Asian civilisations.
In a hundred years, the size of the Asian middle class will be bigger than the total population of the modern, liberal West. And I don’t have to belabour the fact that the age of the modern liberal West, glorious as it was, is just a blip compared to the oldest world civilisations in Asia.
I believe Asian societies, Malaysia included, will progressively embrace core liberal principles: human freedom and dignity, human responsibility, political and economic freedoms, rule of law, free and fair elections and representative government.
Be that as it may, Asian societies will continue, even with greater vigour, to draw intellectual and moral sustenance from their traditions and sacred books: the Quran, the Confucian and Taoist texts, the Dhammapada and the Mahayana sutras and the Vedas.
The trajectory of liberalism in Asia in decades to come will not be simply the adoption of the ideas of John Locke, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, Keynes, Hayek and Rawls.
Decide what is productive for Asian liberalism
Their ideas will be contested, there will be synthesis with cherished Asian worldviews and values. The practices of liberal politics and policies, in the economic and social sphere, their successes and failures will be examined and interrogated.
Finally, Asian liberals will have to decide what is useful and productive for their societies. Contrary to the assertion of Francis Fukuyama after the end of the Cold War, history has not ended. The evolution of ideology, social and political philosophy will continue.
Otto von Bismarck, whose 200th anniversary of birth the Germans were celebrating earlier this year, was quoted to have said in an interview: Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen. Or, politics is the art of the possible.
Liberals who want to form a political party will have to learn to swallow the bitter pill from the Iron Chancellor. One cherishes convictions, but one must walk many miles to meet up with the hopes, aspirations and the priorities of the people.
Ideals will be confronted by stark realities, compromises have to made. One can find many instances where the people were not very kind to dogmatic political parties and politicians.
The need for social justice
As for myself, I consider my party liberal enough. Certainly it is not libertarian. It is as liberal as a political party could be within a Malaysian context. My party espouses political and economic freedoms, competition and attacks monopolies. We uphold human rights and the rule of law.
We express the need for social justice and the need to reduce income inequality. This position, I believe, is shared by our partners, the DAP and the Islamic party PAS, which is unfortunately much maligned today. I wish my party could be more liberal, but I wouldn’t want to suffer the fate of Dzulkefly and his group.
I believe what is urgently needed is greater cohesiveness among Malaysian liberals to articulate and clarify liberal philosophy, to forge synthesis with Asian worldviews and values, to offer the public liberal positions with regard to economic and social policies.
There is a dire need to articulate a liberal position with regard to security and stability, domestic as well as regional. Liberals must be deeply concerned with the rapid militarisation of the conflict in the South China Sea and the race of military might building up between China and the United States in the Asia Pacific.
As liberals, we are disgusted with the propensity of the leaders of the ruling regime to break new records in scandals and corruptions, while other countries in the region, which were in the past behind us in economic, social and educational achievements, are now surpassing us and leaving us further and further behind.
Finally, I would be failing in my duty as a liberal if I do not mention this. Someone who has done so much to promote the idea of political and economic freedoms, to lead the way in rejecting the NEP, forging an unprecedented coalition of liberal forces in Malaysian history, is today languishing in prison on trumped up charges.
The rule of law and the integrity of the institution of justice is undoubtedly one of the cardinal principles of liberalism. Anwar Ibrahim is languishing behind bars because of the subversion of the judiciary.
One of Anwar’s favorite quotes is from Edmund Burke, whose writings also inspired F A Hayek, the economist and philosopher who, more than anyone, has contributed to the revival of liberalism in the last and our century.
Now let me quote Edmund Burke, so that we will not forget Anwar Ibrahim: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”