Creating a liberal society in Malaysia was an aim of the Perikatan coalition, the precursor to Barisan Nasional (BN), which was pledged by none other than the country’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Speaking in a 1960 interview with Malay nationalist newspaper Utusan Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman said that this aim was one of the five pillars of the Perikatan government.
This historical fact was revealed at a forum on liberalism in Kuala Lumpur, to show how ingrained liberal political values are in Malaysia.
This is even while the term liberalism has been turned into a bad word in the public sphere by Malay supremacists, religious bigots and some BN leaders.
In fact, speakers at the forum said that Malaysia have always had liberal political parties and statesmen who are liberal in outlook even if they did not call themselves “liberal”.
Another example is the Rukun Negara, which states that Malaysia “nurtures the ambitions of guaranteeing a liberal approach towards her rich and varied cultural traditions…”
“The majority of Malaysians are already liberal albeit unconsciously. Even the ones who are bearded and turbaned subscribe to liberal ideals,” said Khalid Jaafar, executive director of think tank Institut Kajian Dasar.
This is since liberal political values are the foundations of Malaysia’s political system, said Khalid, and these include free and fair elections, the concept of a constitutional monarchy and human rights.
In a recent debate with Muslim group Isma, Khalid said its leaders subscribed to all these “liberal” ideals even though the group publicly denounces liberalism.
“We already have liberal parties. The PKR is a centrist liberal party, the DAP is a more left-leaning party.”
Umno, said Khalid, once had leaders who were liberal in outlook.
“The Rukun Negara was forged by (second Prime Minister) Tun Abdul Razak, who envisioned a liberal society and now his son openly speaks against liberalism,” said Khalid.
On May 14, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had said liberalism was a threat to Muslim identity and were presenting tough challenges to the community
Khalid was speaking at a forum titled “Is Malaysia ready for a liberal political party?” organised by the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs.
Another of the forum’s speakers Dr Juli Minoves explained that liberal values also encompassed a respect for rights to free speech, conscience, association and belief, the right to own private property and equality of opportunity.
“Every country is ready for liberal political parties. Why wouldn’t they be? Your foundational documents already state that you were founded on liberal ideals,” said Minoves of Liberal International (LI).
LI is a global federation of more than 100 liberal and progressive parties, whose members are both in government and the opposition.
PKR and BN component Gerakan are listed on LI’s website as being bserver members.
Another speaker at the forum Dr Dzulkelfy Ahmad said a popular misconception was the liberalism was against Islam.
“Liberalism hinges on reason and is not against Islam at all. Liberalism is not intrinsically against religion. It is non-committal on religion,” said Dzulkefly, who is a former head of PAS’s research department.
After the forum, Khalid explained that liberalism started getting a bad reputation during the Islamist revival of the early 80s, when Muslim activists claimed it was a vestige of Western mental colonialism.
The decline in liberalism’s public profile coincided with the rise of Islamist groups such as those in the Iranian revolution, the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood and Jemaat Islami in Pakistan.
“So anti-liberalism became a consensus because liberals did not defend themselves. It is now time to resurrect liberalism as a political ideology”. – July 4, 2015.