by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Borneo Post 7 August 2015
There are institutions that endure. Last Saturday I was in George Town to give the keynote speech at the launch of The Crescent Moon: Sharing the Same Moon, a month-long exhibition part of the George Town Festival in collaboration with the New Zealand High Commission and the Asia New Zealand Foundation. This was similar to last year’s exhibition at one of our historic educational institutions, the University of Malaya – but this time, it was at the more spiritual and more historic venue of Masjid Kapitan Keling.
In my speech I touched on the geopolitical context of the foundation of the mosque by a leading textile trader from Pondicherry who had become the leader of the local Indian Muslim community in 1801, fifteen years after the Sultan of Kedah ceded Penang to the British East India Company. Decades later, there was another significant wave of Indian Muslim migrants escaping harsh conditions and seeking a better life, but still the community thrived alongside others who worshipped in churches, temples gurdwaras and even a synagogue. Today Muslims of Indian origin in Penang number between 40-50,000, which is similar to the total number of Muslims in New Zealand.
I was amazed to learn that some descendants of the early migrant families are still engaged in the same trades as their forefathers – testament to the resilience of the community’s institutions. Looking around the exhibition (and coming across some familiar faces) it became clear that although the community is now professionally diverse and truly international in reach, the mosque remains a spiritual home.
Thanks to a grandson of Raja Tun Sir Uda (no, not Raja Petra Kamaruddin) I discovered that the first post-Merdeka Governor of Penang used to frequent the mosque during the time he made some truly progressive speeches. When addressing boys of the Malay College Kuala Kangsar he said: “There is some danger that pupils here will regard as normal a condition in which they are largely sheltered from the harsh but bracing wind of free competition as the boys of other races. We live in a competitive age, in which success requires determination as well as brains.” When addressing Home Guard trainees on another occasion he said, “Forget your race or colour. You must all be one and show no discrimination.” I urged the Chief Minister to revive the legacy of this great man.
There are institutions that rehabilitate. On Monday I was in Phnom Penh to address the successful 50 (out of 2,400) applicants of UKM’s ASEAN Youth Volunteer Programme on the topic of ASEAN identity, the role of youth and civil society. I gave my usual spiel about the importance of democratisation across the region, the necessity for a successful common identity being organic and not imposed by political elites, and the contribution of the private sector in expanding civil society – but in the lengthy dialogue session the vital role of national institutions took centre stage. More than one participant from Myanmar and Cambodia yearned for the day their countries had institutions like Malaysia. It is easy to understand why in countries ravaged by communism, ASEAN is seen by many young people as a hugely important platform.
Later I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where horrific instruments of torture still lie amongst the photographs of some of the 20,000 people who were brutalised and murdered. The most important gallery contained the testimonials of survivors: every one concluding with a plea that young Cambodians never forget the evil that human beings can commit upon other human beings when institutions fail. I was honoured to meet one of the twelve known survivors, Chum Mey, whose book Survivor is as educational as it is emotional.
Some of the country’s old institutions have been rehabilitated – like the now-constitutional monarchy – and others are new. But what is common is that the more citizens understand the roles of these bodies, the faster the process of national healing, and the greater the optimism for the future.
There are institutions that are under attack. In between these two trips I was on a panel with a Cabinet minister and a senior former civil servant at the first Global Policy Symposium organised by an impressive array of international Malaysian student bodies, where more than one student lamented the degradation of our institutions – educational, governmental, constitutional, and in civil society.
I thought about once-great civilisations that fell because of compromised institutions. In Penang I saw how communities can be protected by institutions throughout turbulence, while in Cambodia I saw an extreme example of when institutions fail.
Today many Malaysians see their inspirational institutions under attack and in their own way are moved to protect them. They should be regarded as patriots, nothing less.
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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS