First published in Malay Mail.

MARCH 10 — I was back in school for eight days across the last two weeks, sent by a company where I’m a director for a course in finance at INSEAD Singapore, in the hope that I will be a more effective board member and ultimately help add value to the company.

I was promptly reminded of the mindset it requires to get up at sunrise to focus in class all day (though group work, lunch and two short tea breaks either side break the monotony), and then muster the discipline to do readings and homework in the evenings.

But it would be an exaggeration to make too close a comparison with old school days: There are no punishments for slacking (apart from the withholding of the certificate in the case of non-attendance), and the desks of INSEAD Singapore don’t have stalactites of chewing gum protruding from under them.

But the biggest difference is the singular purpose of the knowledge being transmitted: Corporate trainings exist to build on competencies deemed relevant to a job function, whereas secondary education or universities prepare students more broadly for adult life.

I was reminded of this too at the South-east Asia Old Marlburian Supper in Johor, where my alma mater has its Malaysia campus. Although none of the other attendees overlapped with my time as a student there, having memories of shared people, places and routines — teachers, classrooms, sports pitches, the dining hall, involuntary early morning runs, sneakily going to the local Chinese takeaway — was sufficient to create a strong camaraderie.

It is a primary objective of nations too to create the feeling of shared loyalties and experiences between people who have never met each other.

That is why countries have flags and anthems, but it is even more important that the most fundamental articulations of a state — typically, its Constitution — inspire citizens to share a space and build a society in which all its members can work for a better future.

These days there is a degree of Schadenfreude among critics of the West: To mock them for the chaos and division seen throughout the US presidential contest and, following the British vote to leave the European Union, a number of upcoming elections in Europe that may see more divisive figures take the mantle of leadership.

Questions of identity and how that is expressed in their constitutions are already active in France, Germany and the Netherlands. As we have seen with the election of Donald Trump, the political outcomes of such dynamics can affect the rest of the world.

Our own diplomacy — from recent bilateral enhancements with China and Saudi Arabia or the way our government is dealing with North Korea — has to increasingly take this into account.

But while some people want others to fail so we can snigger at their failure and feel superior about it, there are also voices in Malaysian civil society that are trying hard to prevent greater polarisation in our country: Through programmes that foster unity with dialogues, facilitating new interactions, volunteerism, charity work, youth initiatives and so forth.

Recently a comparatively novel proposal has been made: To turn the Rukun Negara into a preamble to the Federal Constitution. Many countries have a preamble to their Constitution that boldly articulates their raison d’etre, and Malaysia might benefit from one too.

However, perhaps different options should be considered alongside the Rukun Negara, such as excerpts of the Proclamations of Malaysia or the Independence of the Federation of Malaya by the first Prime Minister, or the speech by the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong at the opening of the first Parliament.

Among criticisms of the Rukun Negara proposal are those from a religious angle: Some have argued that the first principle (“Belief in God”) is discriminatory against atheists, while conversely others suggest that the proposal challenges the rights of Muslims and Malays.

Just like our existing Constitution as a whole, it is essential to understand the motives of the people who wrote, approved and proclaimed it in the first place: Those who sat on the National Consultative Council, the second Prime Minister and the fourth Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Their intention was clearly to foster unity.

Of course, any amendment to the Federal Constitution would need the approval of the people’s representatives in Parliament. But more importantly, our schools need to give young Malaysians the ability to acquire shared aspirations that they will cultivate as grown-ups.

For the adults already stuck in their divisive mindsets, no amount of intensive courses will help.

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