The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) organised the annual Liberalism Conference at Pullman Hotel, Bangsar on 24 September 2016. The full day event was attended by over 80 local and foreign delegates and featured three separate panel sessions which revolved around the overarching theme “Can Liberalism Save Malaysia?”
The conference began with a welcome address by IDEAS Chief Executive, Wan Saiful Wan Jan. This was followed by the keynote speech by highly-respected international economist Dr. Razeen Sally, who is a Senior IDEAS Fellow and Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He spoke on “Malaysia’s future in an increasingly illiberal environment.”
In his speech, Dr Razeen spoke briefly about the interrelatedness of political, economic and social liberalism, both historically and in present day Malaysia. He noted that most governments in Asia are driven primarily by pragmatism, not ideology: citing examples of statesmen like Dr Mahathir, who were politically and socially illiberal, but favoured liberal economic policies especially after failure of state controlled economies during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.
First Panel: Can a Liberal order prevent a GLC scandal?
The first session was a panel discussion featuring YB Tony Pua, Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya Utara; Professor Dr. Terence Gomez, Senior Fellow of IDEAS and Professor at the University of Malaya; and Dr. Razeen Sally, Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The session was moderated by Tricia Yeoh, Chief Operating Officer of IDEAS.
Professor Terence suggested that the rise of GLC scandals in recent years are a result of Malaysia’s single dominant party state, and the extreme concentration of power in the office of the executive. To substantiate this claim, he charted the evolution of GLC’s from Malaysia’s independence in 1957 to present, pointing out that there was little involvement of GLCs in business during the premiership of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak, but that there has been a rapid growth of GLC involvement in the Malaysian economy (and accompanying scandals) under the premiership of Tun Dr Mahathir and Dato Seri Najib Razak. Professor Terence concluded by suggesting institutional reforms, especially the devolution of power from the executive, and a clear separation between the regulatory and ownership functions of government within GLCs. He claimed that these reforms might prevent the next GLC scandal.
YB Tony Pua opined that the initial objective of the Economic Transformation Program (ETP) was positive, because it would allow the private sector to become the engine of growth for the Malaysian economy. However, he argued that instead of divesting, the government had become more involved in business through GLCs instead.
YB Tony also spoke about the negative consequences of state involvement in business, primarily the crowding out of the private sector and other direct costs incurred when the government manages GLCs. He gave the example of 1MDB – its extensive involvement in the real estate industry for example drove out many local private firms to invest overseas instead of the domestic market; this in addition to costs that taxpayers will eventually bear as a result of 1MDB’s financial problems.
He also emphasized the unique nature of privatisation in Malaysia’s history. For example, the wave of privatisation that was introduced by Tun Dr. Mahathir for the most part represented a mere change in ownership from the government to a private corporation or individual, without the accompanying changes in the dynamics the industry. The result was more private ownership, but not necessarily more market competition.
Dr. Razeen Sally noted that the “government is important as umpire, but not as a player” and it should therefore play a limited role in running a country’s economy. He stressed the importance of separating ownership from management of GLCs, giving the example of Temasek Holdings in Singapore – which is a success story because the Singaporean government effectively separated its ownership from management.
Second Panel: Liberalism and Multiculturalism – Does freedom unite or divide?
The second panel session titled “Liberalism and Multiculturalism – Does freedom unite or divide?” featured four panelists including Khalid Jaafar, Executive Director of Institut Kajian Dasar; Suri Kempe representing Sisters in Islam; Dr Hazlin Chong from Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA) and National Unity Youth Fellowship (NUYF) Fellow, Patricia Tan. This session was moderated by IDEAS Senior Manager, Azrul Mohd Khalib
The first panelist Patricia began by stating that all Malaysians have the right to express their views and associate with one another freely, despite differences in opinions. Recollecting her experience of participating in the NUYF program, she explained to the audience that she learnt much from the opportunity to engage with many different groups and that this heightened her awareness of the various issues facing local communities. She noted that many Malaysians were deeply aware of cultural issues and most individuals show respect to others, even those who have different beliefs or ethnic backgrounds.
The next speaker Dr. Hazlin began began by reminding the audience that as a representative of ISMA, she opposed the idea of liberalism. Dr Hazlin noted that freedom is not exclusive to the liberal movement and thus she rejected the idea of equating freedom with liberalism. She also rejected the notion that liberalism can be a unifying factor, claiming that pure adherence to liberal values would be problematic in a multiracial country like Malaysia because it would empower people to do whatever they liked – including offending and hurting the sensitivities of others. She proposed religion, more specifically Islam, as a force to unite society instead. She claimed that Islamic teachings empower people to be free without causing harm to society. She gave the example of France as a country that tries to unite its people by submitting them to liberalism, and that this policy has negatively impacted the freedom of French Muslims and other minorities to practice their faith freely. She concluded her speech by noting that “while liberalism looks ideal, it does not promote unity or multiculturalism, unless all members of the society are liberal. Islam however, (in its perfect form) can promote both”
Mr. Khalid Jaafar spoke next. He preached about the virtues of liberalism and pointed out the fact that many liberal intellectuals do not use Malay language when they teach, and this accounts for the fact that liberalism is poorly understood by most Malaysians. He also spoke about the importance of the constitution and parliamentary democracy in driving the liberal order in Malaysia. He claimed that liberalism was the guiding principle of our independence and noted that there were no contradictions between the liberal order and Malaysia’s multicultural society during Tunku’s rule. He concluded by saying that liberal values are part of Malaysia’s DNA and as such, we should deepen our understanding of it.
The last speaker was Ms. Suriani Kempe. She noted that it is very important that every single individual be heard despite their differences, especially given Malaysia’s multicultural society. She also critiqued Dr Hazlin’s assumption that liberalism would promote absolute freedom and result in social chaos. She also spoke about the practical problems that Muslims in Malaysia face at present, such as difficulties in attempting to leave the Islamic faith if they choose to do so.
The floor was then open to the audience for the Q&A session. To a question ‘does Islam promote freedom of expression?’, Khalid Jaafar gave a few examples of Islamic leaders who sought refuge in liberal Western democracies because they lacked the freedom to express their views in Islamic countries.
One audience member asked whether there’s a contradiction between the liberal values that our founding fathers championed and the fact that we have a king and a national religion. Khalid Jaafar responded by stating that many other Western liberal countries also have kings and queens, including our former colonial master Great Britain.
To a question ‘what is an example of an Islamic country that promotes freedom?’ Dr Hazlin noted that ‘due to corruption, Islam is not being practiced as it should be at present and that Muslims should go back to the roots of Islam.’
To question on ‘whether Islam and other religions can co-exist peacefully in Malaysia?’, Patricia answered that it is more difficult now because the political leaders are increasingly using religion and race as a tool to shape public policies and threaten the freedoms that we used to have.
Panel 3: Getting to General Election 14 – When will race and religion stop being used to win elections?
The topic for the final panel session was “Getting to General Election 14 – When will race and religion stop being used to win elections?”. This session was moderated by Wan Saiful Wan Jan and included Dr. Faisal Hazis from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia; Gan Ping Sieu from MCA and Datuk Ruhanie Ahmad from Perkasa as panelists.
Interestingly, all three panellists shared the same view that the use of race and religion will not be stopped as a tool to win elections in the upcoming general election.
Dr. Faisal stated that there is a regression towards authoritarianism in Malaysia in recent decades. Dr. Faisal emphasised that ethnic-based politics are far from dead in
Malaysia but that it can be moderated by five ways, including revisiting Article 153 of the federal constitution, which calls for bumiputera privilege. Dr. Faisal also added that there was no need to prohibit ethnic-based parties in Malaysia as such a move would limit freedom and are antithetical to a democracy.
Gan Ping Sieu Gan suggested that Malaysians should have respect towards each other by engaging and understanding the issues that other ethnicities face. He also urged social commentators, public intellectuals, civil societies and the media to condemn those who promote hatred, division and violence in our society.
Datuk Ruhanie opined that use of the religion and race in Malaysian politics might die away in future elections if Malaysia moves towards a two-party coalition political system. He also suggested that Malaysians look into the process of nation building based on the history of our Constitution in order to foster a united and harmonious nation.
The conference concluded with a brief closing remark by Wan Saiful Wan Jan at 5.30pm