One of the most positive developments in the wake of the 13th General Election is the willingness of a number of Ministers in the Federal Cabinet to invite Opposition politicians to join them in policy formulation and planning at the ministerial level.
Hopefully, cooperation of this sort --- if it works out --- will reduce the antagonism and animosity between the Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat which has poisoned the political atmosphere in the last five years or so. Adversarial politics upon which our political system is built often undermines the etiquette and respect that should govern relations between actors with different perspectives on society.
If the Federal Government and the Federal Opposition demonstrate that they can work together on certain matters, the Centre and the Opposition states should also aim to achieve a higher level of understanding especially on issues that have divided them in the recent past. Since there is always the possibility of a State and the Centre being ruled by different political parties, it is imperative that the rulers at both levels transcend partisan loyalties and focus upon the well-being of the people. Opposition leaders at the State level should perhaps initiate moves in that direction, since some Federal Ministers have already reached out to the Opposition.
In the spirit of reaching out to each other, the BN and the PR should also give serious attention to a proposal that has re-emerged in the post-election scenario.
I had first mooted the idea of a Consultative Council on National Unity in 1987 when I was heading a local NGO. Later, when I joined the Opposition, then known as Barisan Alternatif (BA), I revived the proposal and developed it further. The BA accepted it and the concept of a Majlis Perundingan Perpaduan Nasional (MPPN) was presented to the public at a media conference on the 2nd of April 2001.
I had suggested then --- and I remain convinced --- that the MPPN should be established through an Act of Parliament. It would be independent of the Executive and would be answerable to Parliament to which it would submit half-yearly reports to be debated by both the Dewan Rakyat and the Dewan Negara. These reports would also contain recommendations which if adopted by Parliament would be implemented by the Executive.
Since the proposed MPPN would be answerable to Parliament, its members would also be appointed by the same body. What is envisaged is a membership of about 40 to 50 persons comprising representatives of citizens’ groups and individuals who have researched and written on ethnic relations in Malaysia. The membership should reflect the wide spectrum of ethnic concerns that characterise our society and should be as inclusive as possible. Political parties and serving politicians will not be part of the MPPN. This is to ensure that the consultative council will not be subjected to the pulls and pressures of partisan politics. It will also help to elevate issues pertaining to national unity above politics which in some ways has been a bane to the quest for national unity.
The MPPN would meet behind closed doors. There would be no media coverage of its deliberations. The media and the public would have access to its work through its half-yearly reports presented to Parliament. It is through Parliament that the MPPN would be accountable to the people.
It is crucial that a platform like MPPN be established expeditiously, given the situation we are in. When political polarisation conceals deeper ethnic-cum-religious polarisation, it is important to create opportunities for citizens with divergent ethnic perspectives to meet and share their innermost feelings in an atmosphere that allows for honest, sober reflection. If anything, the 13th General Election and its outcome has revealed that a substantial segment of the Malay and Chinese populace subscribes to notions of the character and identity of the Malaysian nation which are diametrically different. It is partly because many Malays felt in the week leading to the polls that the idea of the nation that they were comfortable with was being challenged by a view of Malaysia that ignored its historical foundation that they rallied around UMNO. The election also showed how ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ are increasingly seen through a communal prism that has little or no empathy for the other and how it understands its own situation. The impact of young voters who mirror some of these communal tendencies and yet are different in their political orientation from the older generation is yet another development that merits serious thought. Add to this the role of the new media in fostering and reinforcing both communal and non-communal attitudes. Among these attitudes are those related to religion and its role in the public sphere which in the election generated responses from a segment of both the Muslim majority and the Christian minority.
What this shows is that there are issues of great magnitude that should be addressed outside the arena of electoral politics through sincere and continuous engagement and interaction with the diverse citizens’ groups that constitute our multi-ethnic nation. Hence the case for MPPN.