In 1963 together with our brethren from Sabah and Sarawak, we started calling ourselves Malaysians. Our nationhood was based on the 1957 Merdeka social contract that promised us much but delivered little.Fifty years ago, we were promised democracy. We were promised justice. We were promised equality. We were promised rule of law. We were promised integrity. We were promised to be treated with human dignity and we were promised freedom.
We are still awaiting these promises. Why haven’t these promises been fulfilled?
First, our fundamental human rights, civil and political liberties embodied in the Federal Constitution as the highest law of the land, were slowly but surely diminished, diluted and finally rendered meaningless by repeated amendments. The number of years of independence has been far exceeded by the number of times our constitution has been amended.
Second, those provisions that could not be amended were ignored and summarily shoved aside by a unilateral declaration by the prime minister on Sept 29, 2001 that Malaysia is an Islamic state. No heed was paid to the pronouncements made by our first three premiers prior to the 1980s or to the ruling of the highest court in 1988 that the Federal Constitution clearly defines Malaysia as a secular state.
Third, the promulgation of state interventionist economic policies led by the New Economic Policy (NEP) that promoted racial preferential quotas under the pretext of equitable wealth redistribution and sanctioned political patronage and self-aggrandisement under the guise of wealth creation. While the goal of the NEP was also to eradicate poverty regardless of race, the primary focus was the creation of bumiputera millionaires and an accelerated expansion of a bumiputera business community by all means necessary.
This primary focus gave NEP a bad name as a vehicle for corruption, cronyism and abuse of power especially when it was extended beyond its 20-year shelf life in 1990. US finance house Morgan Stanley has estimated that US$100 billion has been lost to corruption since the 1980s.
The NEP also alienated and angered many non-bumiputeras who could not understand why they had to sacrifice for the wealthy bumiputeras. Non-Malays are not angry with the NEP for helping poor Malays. Neither are Malays incensed with the NEP for helping poor non-Malays. What all Malaysians are furious about is that the NEP is used as a tool of crony capitalism and patronage to enrich the wealthy.
Finally, the insidious erosion of our national psyche by systematically dividing Malaysians by race and religion – bumis and non-bumis, Muslims and non-Muslims. While we can blame the British for introducing this divide-and-rule policy, the insidious fault lines created have sheared our souls and haunt future generations by creating many nations of different races within a nation-state. Ethnicity and religious beliefs, not universal values of justice, will shape outcomes.
Unlike in America where everyone is an American, here in Malaysia we are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan or Iban. This is probably the greatest injustice of all in refusing to treat every Malaysian equally. Bangsa, agama dan negara is only directed at one community.
We continue to be divided by the colour of our skin or the beliefs in our hearts or our political affiliations even though our blood is of the same colour. Instead of one people, one Bangsa Malaysia in a secular state we have racial dominance and an Islamic state. What is so difficult about accepting Bangsa Malaysia which Mahathir described “as people being able to identify themselves with the country, speak Bahasa Malaysia and accept the Federal Constitution”.
Until we revert to Bangsa Malaysia and ketuanan Malaysia, can we reclaim our Merdeka heritage and the promises made? The damage done from such misguided policies is most obvious in the economic sphere. The foreign specialists of Malaysian affairs can not fail to be puzzled at the stubborn refusal of ordinary Malaysians, who are no less educated and intelligent than them, to see through the self-serving economic policies that are detrimental to the common good.
Perhaps such inertia explains why the European Union Ambassador to Malaysia Dr Thierry Rommel was moved to severely criticise the NEP as anti-competitive, a lack of a level playing field and an unacceptable cost of doing business in Malaysia. He added, “Together with an inefficient public service, corruption and the questionable and unchecked practices of Malay preferential treatment, it had also dampened the business environment and economy of the country.”
Even the government has conceded the defects of the NEP when it exempted investors in the Iskandar Development Region in Johor from its requirements. A million Malaysians who voted with their feet by emigrating overseas for the last 35 years provide the strongest indictment of the failure, injustices and discrimination of the NEP. Money lost can be earned back but the loss of human resources and brain power is irreplaceable.
These are among the many challenges we face in realising the promises of Merdeka 50 years ago. What has stopped us from overcoming them is the failure of leadership, the absence of moral courage and outrage as well as yes, the smallness of our politics.
We should look at the big picture. Globalisation is upon us and yet we are so unprepared. Looking at the big picture entails an international global mindset that empowers every Malaysian with equal opportunity and not one that entraps us within mediocrity and mindless slogans like ‘Towering Malaysian’, ‘Life-long Education’ and ‘Islam Hadhari’.
To lead Malaysia into the 21st century, we need intelligent, rational and unprejudiced Malaysians who respect diversity. There is no room for MPs who are foul-mouthed or who disparage minorities and demean women as sex objects. Only decent and competent Malaysians can make Malaysia better.
The new Malaysia
At a time when we are celebrating our 50th Merdeka celebrations, we should be looking forward to one national ideal grounded on democratic principles of justice, respect for human rights, freedom, integrity and human dignity. Let us transform Malaysia through ‘Malaysian First’, based on democracy, political equality, equal opportunity and social justice that ensures economic prosperity for all.
Let us transform Malaysia into crime-free neighbourhoods, especially for women and children. Malaysians should enjoy the four basic rights of security – to live, work, study and play in a safe and secure environment.
Let us transform Malaysia to pursue excellence and value our best and brightest students by rewarding them with university places and scholarships.
Let us transform Malaysia to share national wealth with workers who can live with dignity with a minimum wage.
Let us transform Malaysia into an environmentally-friendly place with sustainable living consonant with being one with nature and all beings created by God where orang utan, hornbills, pygmy elephants, tigers and rhinos roam freely.
Let us transform Malaysian sports and the football team into one that we can take pride in, which is praised rather than pilloried.
Let us transform Malaysia from what it is now to what it should have been as envisaged by our founding fathers by restoring the Merdeka Constitution. The original Malaysian Merdeka Constitution did not allow for preventive laws such as the ISA that sanction detention without trail. Neither were there repressive laws such as the Printing Presses & Publications Act and freedom of the press was sacrosanct.
Not only was there independence of the judiciary, there was independence of the Elections Commission where no gerrymandering was permitted and variances in voters between constituencies were limited to only 15 percent. And there were local government elections then unlike now.
Let us also transform Malaysia into a civil society that is inclusive. We can no longer rely on the traditional government and business sector to fulfill our expectations and needs. To ensure that every Malaysian is allowed to participate in the democratic and political process some of the elements of civil society must be evident: free association and expression; regulated, but open and market-oriented economies; aid to the poor, orphaned, elderly, sick, or disabled; and finally, civic cultures that cherish diversity and individual freedoms but also respect human needs for community and shared visions of the common good.
Our young people should be allowed freedom of expression in the famous words of the French philosopher Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”. We may disapprove of their views but we should not eat our young for their courage in expressing them. Repressing their courage will finally result in a creativity deficit.
Can we discard our diverse ethnic background and different religious beliefs for Bangsa Malaysia? I have faith that fellow citizens have common decency, respect for diversity and proper sense of justice to believe that Bangsa Malaysia Boleh!
Only by transforming Malaysia through unification of all our hearts and souls as one Bangsa Malaysia, can we ensure prosperity and fulfill the promises made 50 years ago during those halcyon days when cries of “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” rang throughout the land.
Aspirations without accomplishments mean nothing. We must commit ourselves to do our duty with faith and without fear to accomplish our aspirations of political equality and economic prosperity shared by all in a civil society that cherishes democracy, justice and the rule of law.