September 8, 2010
A Plea for Empathy: The Quest for Malaysian UnityNational unity has advanced over the years despite great gulfs in understanding, sincerity and trust continuing to divide the communities, DR CHANDRA MUZAFFAR tells KAMRUL IDRIS
Q: Some of the 1980s essays in your recent book A Plea For Empathy: The Quest For Malaysian Unity sound almost as if they could have been written yesterday. Has national integration not progressed at all since then?
A: Some of the fundamental challenges remain, which is why there is a certain perennial quality about the issues raised in the book. For instance, there is a gap in the way a lot of Malays and Malaysians of Chinese and Indian descent look at the nation, which has not changed much. For a lot of Malays, the nation, which is still evolving, is one with a strong Malay root, meaning that it is a nation that has to take cognizance of the monarchy, the language and Islam.
But not many non-Malays empathise with that, they dont seem to appreciate why the Malays feel the way they do. For a lot of non-Malays, their idea of the nation is that of an entity that just emerged from their settling in the country and being part of negotiations to create a nation-state called Malaya. There is little acknowledgement of the evolution of this nation-state. I think that gap has to be bridged.
Q: You wrote that the three fundamental controversies in ethnic relations were the special position of the Bumiputeras, political equality and language and education policy. Havent these been accepted, at least tacitly, in what is sometimes called the social contract?
A: In a sense, these have been accepted because people talk about accepting the Con! stitutio n and so on. There is no social contract as such but nevertheless, the Constitution embodies a certain arrangement that was arrived at before independence.
People accept Special Position and the legitimate interests of the other communities that goes along with it, Bahasa Malaysia and other languages, Islam and other religions. Political equality is there in the Constitution.
The problem is that it is often like the proverbial elephant and the six blind men. One grasps the tail and says this is the whole Constitution, another gets hold of the trunk and says this is what the Constitution is. We have to adopt a holistic approach and understand the Constitution in its totality.
You cant take one part and leave out the rest. Implicit in the Constitution is also the notion of responsibility. Its not just about rights. Most of us have a partial understanding of the Constitution; we see it from our own perspective, sometimes our own ethnic perspective. This is what makes the situation difficult.
Q: What are the essential compromises that the main ethnic groups have to make to ease their anxieties and build a unifying middle ground?
A: It is important for the non-Malay communities in both Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak to accept, understand and empathise with the history, background and evolution of the country. You cannot run away from that. Its there in the Constitution, implied in the Rukun Negara. Its something that should not be disputed or challenged.
This is what the constitutional amendments of 1971 tried to do; the status of the Rulers, the Malay language, Special Position these are non-negotiable.
On the side of the Malay community, one has to understand that this nation that has a Malay root has evolved and is evolving. The non-Malay population is very much a part of the landscape. They have rights and responsibilities. This is where they are; this has become their land of ! adoption . As the prime minister said in his Merdeka Day message, we are here, we grew up here, we live here and we will die here.
One has to appreciate their position, their role and understand that they, too, want to be treated as citizens. They want equality, they want justice and it is only right that these are accorded to them.
It is important for a segment of the Malay community to understand that equality as a principle, as an ideal, is deeply embedded in Islamic philosophy. Islam more than any other religion has articulated this notion of equality for all human beings, regardless of creed, ethnicity, culture, gender. Special Position is, in fact, an attempt to ensure equality.
These two big segments of the Malaysian nation, Malays and non-Malays, need to understand each other. Then everything else will fall into place.
Q: One of the aims of the New Economic Policy (NEP) was national unity. There is no doubt that it has succeeded in populating the higher socioeconomic classes with a fair number of Bumiputeras. Yet unity remains elusive. Why?
A: Without a doubt, the NEP in terms of its principles, its two main goals and what it has accomplished over the decades, has contributed to national unity. If this affirmative action programme had not succeeded to a large extent in bringing about a transformation, there would have been no stability. I cannot see how parliamentary democracy could have survived if the situation was what it was in 1969.
The NEP has contributed to parliamentary democracy, social stability and maintaining inter-ethnic peace, which have allowed our economy to grow and to develop, and for all of us, regardless of ethnic background, to benefit.
But the NEP had resulted in certain excesses. In the process of implementation, it had been forgotten that as far as its two goals are concerned, the first one, the eradication of poverty, is clearly non-ethnic, and even the second is ! concerne d about national unity reducing the identification of ethnicity with economic function.
Those entrusted with implementing the NEP at different levels forgot that its goals were actually related to national unity, which means that there is a need for balance. The most glaring manifestation of the absence of equilibrium is what the civil service has become preponderantly of one community, which is not what it is supposed to be. That explains the bellyaching that has happened all this while.
Its not just among the non-Malays. It is obvious that a lot of Malays are unhappy with the implementation of the NEP, and what it has done to the community. An elite has emerged that has benefited much more from the NEP than other segments of Malay society.
Q: You say that it is in the interests of some politicians, in both government and opposition, to perpetuate communalism. To what extent is this still the case?
A: I dont think we will be able to overcome this completely because politicians would want to mobilise support through avenues that ensure votes, and ethnicity has an appeal. Politicians seeking power will not be able to resist exploiting ethnic and religious sentiments.
The only way this can be checked is, apart from enacting laws, through public opinion. A society that is aware of what is happening and people who are prepared to stand up to politicians of this sort are safeguards in a multi-ethnic society.
Its wrong to see this as exclusive to a particular community. You have politicians of this sort in all communities, all manipulating ethnic sentiments, communal feelings, religious emotions, for their own narrow interests. The impression is that this is connected with one group. But that is untrue. It is not the reality.
Q: You proposed a collaborative national culture grounded in universal Islamic values. Is this feasible?
A: One should! not emb ark on a mission to create a national culture; it is something that evolves. You have to create conditions which will allow people to interact with one another, to absorb, to integrate elements from the culture of the other. The best example of this is in the area of cuisine. We dont have a national policy on food in relation to unity. But we have created the conditions that enable people to savour each others cuisine, as a result of which some interesting amalgams have emerged.
The values embodied in Islam are universal. These form the cultural base of this land. It is this base that has the most intimate relationship with the history and evolution of this land and with a majority of its population. That has to be reflected in the way Malaysian culture evolves in Gods good time, no one should set the pace or hurry people towards this goal.
Q: You said in 1988 that closet communalism is slowly creating a two-faced culture among Malay-sians, one for their own kind and one for the others. Has this got worse?
A: It has. A lot of Malaysians are closet communalists. Among their own kind they pour out their grievances and so on, but are guarded in the presence of the other. There has been a lot of this hypocrisy as far as ethnic relations go, where people pretend to be what they are not. There is a lot of venom and anger in the way their unhappiness is expressed. And that has become more serious compared with 20 years ago.
It is happening on all sides and is having a negative impact on our society. Distrust among the communities has become more serious. When there is a total lack of trust, ethnic relations will break down. All you would then need is a tiny spark to light up a conflagration.
Q: Some ambiguity in the 1Malaysia concept is certainly no bad thing given how far apart the major races can be. Should it not be made more concrete at some point?
The principles of the Constitution that are closely related to ethnic relations are Special Position and the legitimate interests of the others, Bahasa Malaysia and other languages, Islam and other religions.
1Malaysia is not going to veer from that because we know how important it is to adhere to this carefully crafted document. The Malaysian Constitution, given the situation at the time and what has happened over the last five decades, is amazing. It addresses the key element in keeping this society together the principle of balance or equilibrium.
You balance interests taking into account the history, background and evolution of the country, its contemporary situation, and, most of all, its future.
1Malaysia will have to evolve within the framework of the Constitution and the documents that have come after that. There is an umbilical cord linking 1Malaysia to Vision 2020, Rukun Negara and the Constitution. Its a question of socialising our people to them.
Q: It has been said that continuing racial divisions and the policy formulations that come out of that are impacting the countrys economic competitiveness. Do you agree?
A: I would hesitate to come up with a forthright conclusion of that sort. Economic growth in the 1970s when the NEP was at its peak was fantastic. All through those decades except for periods when we had a recession, growth was high.
The lack of foreign investment now and our becoming less competitive cannot be blamed entirely on the NEP or certain ethnic policies. It is complex. Among the reasons, which the New Economic Model (NEM) is co! ming to grips with, is that we are caught in the middle-income trap.
One of the issues that the NEM addresses is ethnicity. It says that we have to look at affirmative action from a different perspective. A person who is poor and deserves help should be helped. Likewise, the various sectors of the economy should be made as multi-ethnic as possible. The private sector should step up. There must be reciprocity, people helping one another.
We also have to say proudly that we have done better than many other multi-ethnic societies under objective criteria. We have kept communal violence to a minimum, and thats a tremendous achievement, and we have achieved a socioeconomic transformation which is almost without parallel. Many other countries which have attempted affirmative action have failed to bring about change.
Q: You say that the post-1969 elites do not have the benefit of a community-transcending, nation-embracing experience. To what extent is this still true?
A: One major difference between the pre-1969 and post-1969 elites, or more so those of the last 20 years, is an all-transcending goal, which was Merdeka and establishing a new nation-state. The earlier elites had certain things in common: they all went to English schools and came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds by and large.
Today, you dont have an all-transcending goal to keep everyone together. As for background, it is becoming evident that they cannot fall back on the experience of a common school system. Their social backgrounds are disparate compared with the past.
There is a need to bring people together again. We need things that transcend community, such as the Constitution, Rukun Negara and Vision 2020, and the ideals that they embody. We have to build upon what we have. We have to improve and elevate. I hope through 1Malaysia we can do some of these things. An adventure in another direction would be a disaster.
D! r Chandr a Muzaffar is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the 1Malaysia Foundation and professor of global studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia
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