Lately diverse organisations have invited me to address audiences on the topic of healing the nation, so from a base text I have made suitable amendments: the symbolism of JWW Birch’s assassination in Pasir Salak for the Perak Academy, Malaysian reactions to the passing away of Lee Kuan Yew for the Diplomatic Academy of Singapore (the equivalent of our IDFR), and references to numerous Malaysian Nottingham alumni for the Malaysian British Society at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.
I begin by tackling how we should conceive our nation, citing Benedict Anderson’s definition in his seminal text Imagined Communities. The constitution is our supreme foundational document, but various interpretations – especially of particular articles – have been used to strengthen claims of what, and who, the constitution is for. Such attempts are treacherous and easily exposed as nonsense when armed with a competent understanding of the context and intentions of our founding fathers. These were clearly and beautifully enunciated in 1957 and 1963, following centuries of institutional development in each of the constituent parts of our country that made federation possible. There are thus pragmatic as well as historical grounds for these intentions to form the primary reference point in assessing our nation’ s story since – which includes grand statements like the Rukunegara and Vision 2020.
In assessing the health of a nation, there are several methods. We can use the many international indices that compare countries according to aspects like democracy, human rights, economic freedom and so forth – but these necessarily apply external criteria and might serve ideological or political causes. It is much more difficult to scientifically measure how well our institutions are performing according to their constitutional mandate, particularly in cases where performance relies on the interplay between institutions: for instance, the Auditor General might expose ludicrous waste and inefficiency, but other institutions might not do anything to rectify the weaknesses. Conversely, branches of government which ought to be independent of each other under the doctrine of separation of powers, or indeed the spirit of federalism, might instead be colluding with each other. Given these difficulties, perhaps we should accept that the only assessment of our nation’s health that matters is that of its people: not by something as crude as looking at election results, but through the lens of civil society and a media that maximises the opportunities in the democratic space available to them.
At IDEAS we routinely remind Malaysians of our founding fathers’ intentions, in trying to recreate a shared consensus of what our nation is really about. Yet, we accept that there may be those who genuinely oppose it. They might want a socialist state, or a theocracy: setups that our constitution – even with plenty of creative interpretation – cannot sustain. In actuality they want to live in another nation.
However, if the majority of Malaysians do still believe in the Merdeka spirit, even if it is not deeply understood, then civil society as well as government must ensure it is practised and taught in properly in our schools, particularly in history and citizenship classes – proper narrative history explaining how our institutions developed, not just disparate chapters on different civilisations and periods.
In the meantime, we must do what we can to reform our institutions in the genealogy of the founding intentions of our nation, like IDEAS’ current efforts with other NGOs, the Bar Council and the MACC to moot the creation of an Anti-Corruption Services Commission. Of course, in today’s toxic environment where provocateurs are desperate to affix party political labels to imagined enemies, such efforts lead to risible accusations of our goals. But we have to keep at it: for few in the political class seem willing to reference our optimistic past in their visions of the future.
The wounds of our nation are occasionally symbolised by tragic events. The protest on Sunday outside a church in Taman Medan that led to the removal of their cross is one such example. For sure, the protestors seemed to show little respect for their fellow human beings (let alone the constitution, which they unlikely know much about). But what is even sadder is the possibility that they were there not because they were actually upset by the cross – a symbol which should not shake the faith of any genuine Muslim – but rather, in the pursuit of someone else’s (possibly party political) interests.
The incident has resurrected discourse on religious sensitivities, minority rights, the legality of places of worship in shop lots – and thankfully many leaders have condemned the incident. But even in the official response to the protest, we see personalities in our institutions treating this as a game for self-preservation, instead of being guided by our nation’s founding principles.
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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS