Keynote speech at Malaysia Freedom Summit 2015

 Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin Muhriz

 20 September 2015

Shah Village Hotel, PJ

Assalamu’alaikum and good morning:

Thank you Amin – I can’t believe it’s been ten years since Malaysia Think Tank days. Congratulations for organising today’s summit: events like this are vital for the health of Malaysian civil society.

The word “freedom” is often intertwined by supporters and detractors alike with “liberalism” – both are either positive or negative. Indeed understandings of freedom and liberalism throughout the world are diverse, often confusing and sometimes disturbing. For me, it was the British classical tradition provided one framework to understand liberalism, but as I discovered, by no means did it have a monopoly over it. The values of classical liberalism have appeared repeatedly in civilisations across space and time. Inspiration has come from ancient civilisations and the beliefs of the world’s religions. Indeed there is a think tank called the Minaret of Freedom institute that is dedicated to expounding libertarianism in Islam, drawing heavily from the writings of Ibn Khaldun and other thinkers of the Muslim Golden Age.

Having worked and interacted with legislative and international aid organisations in the United Kingdom, continental Europe and the United States, I appreciated how differently even the proponents of liberalism defined it too. Since I returned to Malaysia in 2008, and having travelled throughout the ASEAN region since, I’ve realised that the word “liberalism” is perhaps the most elastic in all of political philosophy.

Certainly in Malaysia, the word has been completely redefined over time to suit political objectives. In a speech in May last year the Prime Minister said that Muslims face a new threat: “humanrightism, where the core beliefs are based on humanism and secularism as well as liberalism.” In June this former Prime Minister Mahathir said that “liberalism has resulted in a lot of Muslims in Britain joining ISIS and slaughtering people.”

And so in my engagements with young Malaysians throughout the years I have tried to remind people that the values that IDEAS is promoting – our four principles which lie at the heart of classical liberalism – have cropped up repeatedly in our history.

It would of course be wrong to say that “we were always liberal”. But there was a clearly a narrative: one that led our Proclamation of Independence to espouse “liberty and justice”, and the speeches and articles of the Father of the Independence made it clear that he held classical liberal values – indeed we have compiled them in a pamphlet available on our website. Our Rukunegara or National Principles proclaimed in 1970 refers to the ambition of “guaranteeing a liberal approach towards our rich and varied cultural traditions”. Even the Vision 2020 of Dr Mahathir is explicit in calling for a “matured liberal and tolerant society”.

And yet, there exists in parallel a strong counter-narrative that seeks to deliberately forget, or worse deliberately contort, what this means, motivated entirely by political expediency.

One favourite tactic is to appeal to class, culture, race or religion – such as in “Asian values” or the “Islamic way of life” – defined by the state instead of by individuals. This enables the state to offer “protection” to these groups, leading to paternalism, authoritarianism and the politics of patronage that inevitably spirals into corruption. We can see throughout history enemies such as “the bourgeoisie”, “the Jews” or “the Chinese” being similarly constructed to further reinforce this paradigm, because of course defence mechanisms in the forms of various policies are necessary to continue this “protection”. It is a familiar story wherever class warfare, religious bigotry or racial supremacy becomes institutionalised.

To promote the idea of individual liberty in such a society therefore is a challenge to the powers that be, because it undermines the logic of government-defined group identity that justifies policies aimed at groups. If necessary, liberal ideas are branded as alien and heretical concepts, and new justifications are dreamt up to consolidate state-sponsored division. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Malaysia Day redshirts rally, one politician from the governing party attempted to argue that there in acceptable “Islamic” form of racism.

The adoption of such rhetoric, coupled with the vilification of liberalism highlights how malleable our political landscape is; how bereft it is of ideological conviction. Worse still, there can be political rewards for anti-liberal measures. Despite clear promises to repeal the Sedition Act, the Prime Minister announced a complete U-turn at his party’s General Assembly and was cheered for it. There have even been calls for the Internal Security Act, which allowed for detention without trial, to be reinstated.

In a lecture series I have been delivering throughout the year on Healing the Nation I have spoken repeatedly of going back to our Constitution and the intentions of our Founding Fathers to repair key institutions like Parliament, the judiciary, the police, the Electoral Commission and others. We are lucky to have well-articulated points of reference to do this in the form of legislation and the speeches and articles of those who established these institutions.

But that process of institutional healing, while already arduous, must be joined by a more long-term, resilient solution, which is to reclaim our indigenous narrative of freedom and put it at the heart of our conception of Malaysian democracy.

This year the United Kingdom celebrated the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, an agreement that explicitly limited the absolute power of the monarch. Even though it was not conceived at the time as a step towards constitutional democracy, it is now a vital moment in the conception of the British state. But we too can point to moments in our history that can provide the same inspiration.

One is the agreement between Demang Lebar Daun and Sang Sapurba, which established a contract between the ruler and the ruled, as well as the Batu Bersurat Terengganu of 1303, which required the ruler to act in accordance with a higher power. The next few centuries saw a rich tradition of law-making, especially in Malacca and Kedah, as the increasingly prosperous sultanates demanded that citizens and traders enjoyed security and justice. The federation of Negeri Sembilan shows us that traditional institutions from Pagar Ruyong – the matrilineal clan structure, decentralised governance and adat courts – could be adapted to fit a new geography. The Johor Constitution of 1895 and the Terengganu Constitution of 1911 show us that rulers were aware of the importance of separation of powers and limits to the authority of institutions.

While the Reid Commission looked to the Westminster model in the writing of our Constitution, there is no doubt that history played its part: the Rulers and political leaders involved in the Merdeka negotiations would not have accepted a paradigm that was alien to what the people were used to – after all, that lay at the crux of the rejection of the Malayan Union. In a sense, the 1948 Federation of Malaya settlement, the 1957 Merdeka Agreement and the 1963 Formation of Malaysia were echoes of the 1773 Federation of Negeri Sembilan: different institutions with different histories fusing together in an attempt at create modern sovereign states in the Westphalian system.

Today, it is perhaps in the economic sphere where history and policy most openly meet. Every Malaysian knows that the Sultanate of Malacca was a thriving polity that was founded upon trade, and economic historians have shown that its comparatively low taxes was a main factor for its success. Apparently no more than eight percent custom duties were charged on any ships leaving or entering Malacca: but while Malacca’s success was genuinely exceptional, Malaysians often forget that there were polities before and after that used similar methods to achieve economic prosperity.

Another economic policy tool, favoured by the Sultanate of Johor in the nineteenth century, was the Kangchu system. This essentially created autonomous zones where authorisation letters were issued by the political rulers to heads of clans selected internally, with the mandate to develop plantations. The economic growth that resulted played a key part in the creation of modern state of Johor.

Today of course the language of Malaysia needing an open economy and the centrality of the Straits of Malacca directly harks back to some of this history. In what seems an amazing speech in 1993 Dr Mahathir said:

“The paradigm shift towards open regionalism, espoused by many liberal thinkers in the East and West, is what is needed to spur freer and greater world trade and stimulate investments… The malaises that affect both Europe and the United States can and should be remedied through harnessing the East Asian economic engines and through greater openness, greater liberalism and greater free competition… While bearing in mind the need to increase its sources of revenue, the government will continue its liberal tax policies in order to encourage private investment… the current liberal policies towards foreign investment will be maintained.”

Dr Mahathir said “liberal” or “liberalism” four times in that excerpt.

The current Prime Minister too has spoken of liberalisation of the economy, but many of the positive aims of his New Economic Model were watered down or even contradicted by later policies in response to pressure from pressure groups. Still, some liberal rhetoric survives in relation to free trade efforts such as the ASEAN Economic Community or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and in language designed to attract international investors. But as some international investors and commentators have observed, government assurances are not enough. Rather, improvements in governance such as ensuring the rule of law, fostering transparency and reducing avenues for corruption are also needed, and in this regard the many league tables that rank countries on such indicators can act as a useful incentive.

Unfortunately, at the same time, foreign policy objectives can run counter to the strengthening of democratic institutions – such as when a country’s law enforcement agencies might hold key information relating to corruption scandals in another country, but that information is used as blackmail instead of law enforcement.

When it comes to freedom in the social sphere, the transformation since Merdeka has been remarkable. Most people in this room might have seen at least one P Ramlee movie: his work chronicles the phenomenal transformation very well, but also look at the photographs and journals of schools, universities and even public institutions and you will get a sense of how things have changed. Entire art forms like the Bangsawan or the Manora dance have been erased from public consciousness, and the depiction of human and animal forms in art is now frowned upon. Tunku Abdul Rahman saw what was happening, writing in 1975: “In the old days people never bothered about what others did, so long as they were free to do what they liked themselves. Today one cannot sneeze without being corrected, let alone enjoy oneself. That’s what politics has done to our society.”

And when it comes to religion many have forgotten that Malaysia under Pak Lah signed the Amman Message which accepted the legitimacy of Muslims across the Sunni and Shia divide, and yet today we can see the persecution of Shia. It is a far cry from 1968 when we hosted a Shia in Masjid Negara: the Shah of Iran who was here on a state visit.

Ladies and gentlemen, despite this transformation, there are still remnants or our liberal narrative still surviving. Even as the word “liberal” itself has been subjected to pariah status, in favour of formulations like Hadhari, moderation, wasatiyyah and 1Malaysia, and even their invocation is more to do with political expediency rather than ideological conviction, it still means that the political classes believe that these ideas resonate with many citizens. It is up to us to ensure that they resonate every more strongly in these tough times.

I will conclude with a quote from the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman. In the first Royal Address to Parliament on 12 September 1959, His Majesty said:

“This Constitution is the guardian of the rule of law. It protects the integrity, the freedom from influence, and the independence of our Courts and our Judges and our Law Officers and the Members of our various Commissions of the Public Service… In this way it ensures the security, integrity and impartiality of the Civil Service.

“The Constitution belongs to all of us – it belongs to Us as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, it belongs to you as the Members of Parliament, it belongs to the people as the fount of power.

“We wish all Our subjects on this historic day to know and understand that the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya, our charter of rights and liberties, is now, finally and completely, in operation and with the establishment of this Parliament under the Constitution, a new era begins for our nation.

“We urge you always to remember that you are the representatives of all the people without exception, and that what you do here shall be done for the benefit of all the people.

“We urge to conduct your affairs in such a way that the Parliament of the Federation of Malaya will be a shining beacon of democracy at its Federation brightest and best.

“We are sure that throughout the free world where parliamentary institutions are the guardians of democracy the future of this Parliament will be followed with keen interest and goodwill.

“It is Our earnest hope and desire that however hard your feelings may be on any particular subject or matter which is brought up in this House for discussion that you will adhere strictly to the Standing Orders and to the principles of parliamentary democracy.”

Ladies and gentlemen: with this, let all work towards reminding our parliamentarians and our fellow citizens of our history with its narrative of freedom.

Thank you very much.


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