As we conceive of a new regime in Malaysia, there are various ideas for a new political structure which must be articulated further. One of these, that of a two-party political system having great potential for transforming Malaysia’s current democracy into a means to national character and human flourishing.
Malaysians are the nation’s stakeholders, and thus this maturation of this new regime has the potential to define their national culture in terms of holistic values. This national culture is a powerful ‘soft-force’ that can form, support and move a nation – building and rebuilding it especially in severe conditions such as war, epidemic, natural disaster, collapse of governance, and regional economic melt-down. Can the two-party regime support their collective aspirations for a holistic, rich and cohesive 1Malaysia culture or will the regime further fragment this community, leaving any newly developed or reformed policies on paper only?
The post-colonial governance, in all of its strengths and weaknesses since 1957, has persevered to secure the physiological needs of Malaysians. However, as Professor AR. Embong wrote in “The Role of Social Sciences in Malaysian National Development,” the implementation of Vision 2020 was, as Joseph Stiglitz called the roaring 1990s, “a decade of clutching over wealth and profit.” There is some truth in this, and so for good reason, some Malaysians doubt the efficacy of this new vision. Hence, progressive efforts to revitalise the nation’s soul and identity through 1Malaysia, and its reorientation towards the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, are perceived with great suspicion.
Unfortunately, as political scientists like Dr. Farish A.Noor have articulately explained, there is a gap between the vision and the reality. The state’s narrative of 1Malaysia is incompatible with the reality at the grass-root levels. Of course some of the barriers also arise from collective memories and psychology against the ‘other’. This gap cannot be simply narrowed down by policies but must be addressed with a genuine determination to champion sustainable human values as the economy develops. Whose responsibility is this?
The answer is obvious: all Malaysians – especially political and religious leaders, scholars and civil activists, media and parents. If the new regime fervently advocates that every citizen at private and public spaces be responsible for living according to common principle such as, “Do unto others, what you want others to do unto you,” then the flourishing of 1Malaysia’s culture is more hopeful. Shaping a national culture with engrained humanistic and ethical values will produce well-rounded citizens that can powerfully drive politics, economics and social performance. Values shape human progress, and Malaysia’s historical inability to grasp this foundational concept has hindered Malaysia from optimising its achievements.
Politics cannot enrich human souls but good values can. Politics cannot directly alter one’s ethnic or genetic makeup, but it can strategically transform a national culture by decoding self-image and by innovatively reshaping the citizens’ mental models and sentiment. This discussion will focus on the cultural dynamic of the new regime and political leaders’ roles in transforming Malaysia’s ethno-centric politics.
Many leaders fostered inclusivism in political parties, including Tun Onn Jaafar, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Professor Hussein Alatas and Mr. Lim Kit Siang. Unfortunately, cross-cultural and faith engagement is still limited to macro-level collaboration. Thomas Pepinsky predicts that in the new regime, these features of racial and faith-based coalitions will remain. At the micro-level, all parties are still racially-based. None have the vibrant spirit of 1Malaysia yet. Dr. Diana Eck of Harvard University expounded that surface-level relationships in diverse communities amount to “mere tolerance,” a deceptive virtue and active hostility which enables coexistence but is not genuinely an “engaging relationship.”
Engagement happens when mutual, respectful and co-dependent relations are founded on common values that each faith tradition and/or cultural background cherish in order to produce cohesiveness, bonding, trust and deeper understanding with one another while maintaining some cultural and faith particularity. The regime will not be able to bring the 1Malaysia vision to fruition if it fails to address this deeply rooted national problem. Ruling parties come and go, but good can continuously fuel healthy human progress if they are lived from generation to generation.
It is important to note that racially or faith-based political parties, regardless of which demographic they represent, too often end up with sovereign authority and discriminate against those ethnicities or faith traditions not in power. Relevant examples are apartheid in South Africa (1948-1994) and prejudice against the Kurds in Turkey. And although Singapore is rightly admired for its economic exponential growth during Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s 50 years of leadership (from $400/year per capita income to nearly $40,000), there are worrisome reports that Singaporean Malays experience discrimination there. Xenophobia and xenophobic government policies further polarise ethnic populations which to further segregation or make segregation permanent. It is urgent and important, especially in the early stages of a regime, to create appropriate conditions and to develop strategies that can overcome these geographic and demographic difficulties.
Hopefully in the new regime, parties will avoid dividing Malaysians; e.g. Kaum Tua (the old faction), Kaum Muda (the new faction), Melayu Baru (the New Malays) and Melayu Lama (the Old Malays), or splintering their memberships according to economic status, education, culture, faith, gender and age. Engaging all Malaysians can lead to an unprecedented reformation that can put healthy pressure on all parties to liberalise beyond these boundaries. In advocating that Malaysians vote for Malaysian parties, irrespective of historical ethnic groupings, political leaders will have to persevere in the face of suspicion. At first, there may be some backlash as some people will feel that such unity entails “selling out” on their race’s or faith’s honor, but this sentiment will gradually diminish as trust is established. Changes take time and demand patience.
Just as a political system takes a long time to develop, so a holistic cultural and national identity only comes about through trial and adjustment. Dr. John Keane in his book The Life and Death of Democracy writes that, since Athens, democracy has come a long way in shaping and reshaping itself. Australia itself used to be called a laboratory for democracy. In the USA, racial segregation was the norm for a long time before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded, a full 133 years after the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1776. Rosa Park (1956), Martin Luther King Jr. (1968), Ku Klux Klan, and post 9/11 Sikhs murder are among names and events that evidence that a fluidly democratic two-party country cannot eliminate racism. It should be no surprise, then, that multi-ethnic and multi-faith based political parties also struggle to accomplish this. However, they can reduce division by intentionally creating and wisely facilitating a secure space for coexistence.
Do Malaysians have the ability to develop this secure space and to cultivate mutually respectful conversations and relations? Malaysians have assimilated and done well abroad in many various situations. Clearly, then, Malaysians’ pattern of ethnically-based political parties is not due to some low Cultural Quotient (CQ). Malaysians can be liberated from the “epistemological captivity” that colonial stereotypes often create – stereotypes in the vein of ‘Ali, Ah Chong and Ramasamy,’ and other reductionistic tropes of ethno-nationalist’s protectionist ideology. Malaysia’s struggle is not that some people groups have inherently inferior genes, but rather that Malaysia’s social science management and engineering that need greater emphasis in developing the citizens’ character and critical thinking. Failure to address these elements increases the possibility of democracy placing a tyranny ruler in power.
The good news is that the birth of a two-party regime indicates that a democratic system does exist in Malaysia. This is also an achievement of the past ruling party which prepared the nation to democratically vote out a less-performing party, even if that be the ruling party itself. Both the ruling and opposition parties deserve credit in toiling for decades to produce upper-middle-income citizens who can think so critically. Acknowledging the government’s strength, while diplomatically and objectively analysing its weaknesses, is the best way to encourage it to do better.
In evaluating any political regime, early thinker Syed Shaykh Al-Hady (1867-1934), who in his time found independence as unthinkable, set a good example on partiality by affirming the “genuine contributions of the Malay elites, and observed that it was these contributions, and not the luxurious lifestyle, that brought them honour”. This speaks to leaders of other ethnic backgrounds too. A new regime is not about, ‘sudah menyeberang, tongkat tidak berguna lagi’ (having crossed over to the other side, the walking stick is discarded). It is about greater competitiveness, self-correction and adaptation to new challenges.
Every change of regime involves a reorganisation of power which is, for a time, chaotic.
As the old ruling party’s power declines, the institutions, organisations and individuals that it once supported also experience temporal disorder and disruption of performance. Slight ethnic tension could escalate until the dust settles. In the meantime, the citizens may critique the new ruling party’s inability to lead in harmony, their preference lingering nostalgically on the previous ruling party’s ability to keep Malaysia together since independence. This is the risk of undertaking a new regime.
A healthy democratic Malaysia lies in the hands of charismatic, courageous, and competent leaders with integrity who can transform all political parties with a genuine 1Malaysia spirit: embracing the values of reciprocity, love, care and respect for others. If the new regime fails to transform the underserved intellects that cling tightly onto the racially based political party model, then there isn’t much different between the old and the new. It is simply an old book with a new cover.
Since 1511, generations in the region called Malaysia today grieved under the ruling of colonial powers: the Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese and British. And yet they persevered in striving for 446 years towards independence in 1957. It is this bottomless spirit of hope and love for the motherland that inspires citizens to compromise, modify and adapt. This spirit holds people together throughout the continuous formation of their national culture, spirituality and style of modernity. This burning vision keeps a Malaysian a Malaysian. By this spirit of faith, the formation of 1Malaysia is possible.
In conclusion, a ruling party that strives for cognitive empowerment and cultivation of ethical values, held dearly by all cultures and faiths, will not only remain competitive and relevant but also have a higher chance of continued public support. A national culture that is rich with good values sustains the enrichment of its human growth, which translates into strong national development. At the end of the day, it is the people – the citizens – whose desire for excellence drives a nation to develop, enriches its soul, and selects good leaders.
Norani Abu Bakar is a postgraduate fellow at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and is the Asia Director for Pathways for Mutual Respect. She is the founder of Home Sweet Home – an organisation that cares for the unsheltered, parentless and differently-abled in Shanghai. A Malaysian, Norani is a process engineer. She blogs at Loving God and Loving Neighbors”.