19th September 2015, Kuala Lumpur – Discussions on liberalism have been growing in Malaysia, for quite some time. In this country, the word has been portrayed in extreme negativity, by those in power, to suit political objectives. Various figures from the Government have and continue to paddle the narrative that portrays liberalism as a threat.
In the conference titled, “The Liberalism Conference: Trends, Challenges and Future Prospects, panelists discussed the state of and challenges facing liberalism in Malaysia and the region. The discussion touched on the framing of the discourse in South East Asia. There were specific focuses on the relationships between liberalism, religion and nationalism. There was also a session on the viability of economic liberalism, in light of the blaming of market economics for the financial crisis of 2009. The conference sought to provide a different narrative on liberalism as opposed the conventional one propagated by the Government.
Following opening remarks from Wan Saiful Wan Jan, Chief Executive of IDEAS and Dr Michael Connors from the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, the keynote address was delivered by Mr Kasit Piromya, the former Foreign Minister of Thailand. The conference then proceeded with a panel discussion on the challenges facing liberals and liberalism in South East Asia. Panelist included Dr. Razeen Sally, the IDEAS Chair of Political Economy and Governance, Mr. Kasit Piromya and Dr Ooi Kee Beng, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies.
Mr.Kasit urged businesses and citizens to demand for governments to practice good governance according to the rule of law, and a free society is imperative in order for such demand to be met by governments.
Meanwhile, Dr Sally stated that although the discourse of liberalism in South East Asia gives the impression that people in this region oppose to the theories of this ideology, the region has subconsciously practiced the principles of economic liberalism. He cited the economic boom in South East Asia is attributed to more economic freedom for businesses despite the presence of some government’s intervention. Dr Sally added that we should strive for economic liberalism as it is relatively easier to achieve compared to political liberalism and the fact that economy affect our life directly.
Later during the “Question and Answer” session, he stated that a reason why countries that strive economically but lack of societal freedom such as Singapore have high economic development as they are “plugged-in” to the global economy. Dr Ooi gave an interesting opinion of how Malaysians may not use the term “liberalism” when describing their take on life but their seemingly indifferent attitude on various issues to certain extent connotes some principles that is embodied in liberalism. He also touched on the concept of state building and compared how Singapore and Malaysia did this differently, with the former put its economic development as the center of its state building while the latter focused more on nationhood. This means for Malaysia, its state building project would heavily touch on how it frames various issues related to race such as citizenship and race-based rights.
The second panel discussion was centered on a more controversial topic, the relationship between liberalism and faith. Panel members included representatives who professed opposing views such as the President of Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, Ustaz Abdullah Zaik and Dr Patricia Martinez from the Christian Federation of Malaysia. The ideologically varied composition of the panel made for a very intriguing discussion. Interestingly, Ustaz Abdullah Zaik from ISMA stated that liberalism can go hand-in-hand with Islam; however, he noted that it can only be so if liberalism is shaped and reformed by Islam and not the other way around.
The subsequent session discussed the compatibility of liberalism with National Identity; it sought to address the question as to whether liberalism is detrimental to national identity. Moderated by Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah, CEO of the Global Movement of Moderates, panel members included Dr Wong Chin Huat from the Penang Institute and Datuk Ruhanie Ahmad from Perkasa and Khalid Jaafar from Institute Kajian Dasar.According to Dr Wong, there are opposing viewpoints in regards to suitability of liberalism to be practiced in a plural society, where one side says it’s possible while the other says otherwise. In the end, he concluded that liberalism allows us to be who we want to be rather than what is been dictated by other people.Khalid Jaafar meanwhile claims that liberalism has always been part of national identity, citing Malaysia’s founding fathers were all liberals. Meanwhile, Datuk Ruhanie claims that wrong misconception of liberalism could lead to the breakdown of societal security. He stated this in the context of how Malaysia Constitution already safeguard the rights of all races in Malaysia including the non-Bumiputera to not lose their Malaysian citizenship should there be any change in government leadership.
The Conference concluded with a fourth and final panel discussion on the viabil-ity of economic liberalism. Among the aspects explored was whether such an economic approach led to more inequality. The session was moderated by the Chief Operating Officer of IDEAS, Tricia Yeoh and panelist included Dr Linda Quayle from the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and Dato’ Charon Wardini, CEO of the Khazanah Research Institute.
Speaking at the sidelines of the event, IDEAS Chair of Political Economy and Good Governance, Dr. Razeen Sally stated that liberalism in the country was in a precarious position.
“Liberalism in Malaysia is especially fragile at the moment. The politics of racial supremacy perverts liberal democracy and suffocates the social atmosphere, making Malaysia’s more intolerant”.
Dr. Razeen also said that a toxic mixture of race, religion and politics was bad for the country.
“Racial politics, bound up with militant Islam, corruption and cronyism, is stalling attempts to liberalise the economy.”
“Malaysians need liberalism in the round, political, social and economic”. He added that “economic freedom is at least as important as other freedoms”.
The solution, according to him, was economic liberalism.
“A more prosperous, globalised economy is the best foundation for building a plural, tolerant society and a stable polity that combines mass democracy with the protection of individual liberty.”
Commenting on the Conference, the Chief Executive of IDEAS, Wan Saiful Wan Jan stated that contrary to the efforts being made to negatively portray liberalism as something foreign and incompatible with Malaysia, it is actually the basis of our country.
“Liberalism is the founding and guiding principle of this nation.”
“Our Proclamation of Independence and Proclamation of Malaysia both state that ours is a nation based on the principle of “liberty”, the Rukun Negara commits us to creating a “ liberal approach” towards the diversity in the country and Vision 2020 aspiring to create “ a liberal and tolerant” society”.”
Wan Saiful also noted the success of the Conference in bringing together an ideologically diverse group of panelist because despite the differing, and in some in-stances outright contrary, views, the end goal for everyone is the same, that is the betterment of the country.