Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Nation’s Road Signs by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar

As the 13th General Election looms large on the horizon, politicians and media commentators are talking about a nation at the crossroads. If we are at the crossroads, nothing is more important to the ordinary Malaysian voter than clear road signs. In a multi-ethnic society where internal divisions are more pronounced than in other societies, such road signs are crucial.

For a road sign to make sense in multi-ethnic Malaysia, it should fulfil a basic pre-requisite. It should be a road sign that accommodates the interests and aspirations of each and every community. Because it is accommodative and inclusive, all Malaysians would be able to identify with it. What this means is that while the component elements of Malaysian society will be able to identify with it, the sign itself should transcend the various communities and embrace the Malaysian nation in its entirety.

There are four road signs that meet this condition---- the Malaysian Constitution, Rukunegara, Wawasan 2020 and 1Malaysia. All four of them are inclusive and resonant with Malaysians as a whole, regardless of ethnicity or religion. This is their fundamental strength.

The most important of these road signs, the Constitution, not only acknowledges the Malay root of the nation by placing the Malay Rulers at the pinnacle and recognising the Malay language as the national and official language and Islam as the religion of the Federation but it also embraces the languages and religions of the other communities as part and parcel of Malaysian society. Similarly, the five goals of the Rukunegara--- a united, democratic, just, liberal and progressive society--- guided by five principles ---- belief in God, loyalty to King and country, upholding the Constitution, the rule of law, and good behaviour and morality ---- appeal to the vast majority of Malaysians. Wawasan 2020 is in many ways an extension of the Rukunegara incorporating some new challenges such as creating a psychologically liberated, secure and developed society; a fully caring society and a caring culture; and a fully moral and ethical society as part of its nine strategic challenges. Again, these challenges transcend cultural and religious boundaries. 1Malaysia needless to say is an all-encompassing idea whose essence is inclusiveness.

How have these road signs helped to shape Malaysian society over the last 54 years since Merdeka? An objective appraisal would reveal that in some respects the government has followed the signs; in other respects it has not adhered to them. The inter-ethnic equilibrium in the Constitution for instance has guided the Barisan Nasional leadership in ensuring a remarkable degree of inter-ethnic peace. However, it could have done more to develop a sense of common citizenship. Reducing absolute poverty from 49.3 per cent in 1970 to 3.8 per cent in 2010 is a laudable achievement from the perspective of the Rukunegara’s just society but its significance is diminished by the fact that disparities between the have-a-lot and the have-a-little have been widening in recent decades. Besides, there is hardly any mention of the Rukunegara’s five goals in our schools or through the media--- a point I first raised 25 years ago. Likewise, what most people know about Wawasan 2020 is the aspiration to attain ‘developed nation’ status by that year measured largely through per capita income. They are not aware that creating an ethical society is an equally critical challenge in that vision. 1Malaysia may have generated a feeling of oneness to a limited extent but it has yet to come to grips with the formidable communal challenges emanating from both sides of the ethnic divide.

If this is the credit-debit balance as far as the BN government is concerned, how does the opposition relate to the nation’s road signs? Opposition political parties have seldom viewed the Constitution or the Rukunegara or Wawasan 2020 or 1Malaysia as vital instruments for forging national unity or building the nation. They only serve as darts to be thrown at the government for its alleged failure to live up to certain principles or promises.

It is not difficult to understand why PAS, as a case in point, lacks any real attachment to the nation’s road signs. It has always been committed to only one road sign: an Islamic State as defined by the party. It is a sign that the 40 per cent non-Muslim population will not be able to empathise with, however accommodative PAS’s notion of an Islamic state may be. Given that PAS’s concept of an Islamic State reflects a specific interpretation of the religion---- as it is with Islamic movements and states elsewhere --- a lot of Muslims who may have a different approach to Islamic law, or the position of non-Muslim minorities or the role of women in society, will also be uncomfortable with the party’s ideology. In other words, PAS’s road sign can never ever be inclusive.

Neither is the DAP’s road sign inclusive. Its ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ is perceived by the overwhelming majority of Malays as a repudiation of the history and identity of the land. Some of the party’s stances including its demand that Chinese education be put on par with education in the national language lend credence to this perception.

PKR’s road sign is of a different kind. It points in the direction of an individual. Though the three parties that constitute the Pakatan Rakyat follow different road signs they are all, ironically, on the same road to Putrajaya. What keeps them together especially when the DAP rejects outright PAS’s Islamic State? Is this an example of opposites getting attracted towards one another? A law in physics at work in politics? Or are all three parties attracted to something else? The irresistible magnet of power?

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia.

Petaling Jaya.

9 April 2012.

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