From articles and letters in the media, meetings and seminars among the intelligentsia and conversations with people from different walks of life, it appears that there is a great deal of concern about ethnic relations in the country.
Concerned Malaysians should focus their energies on how together we can improve the ethnic situation in this beloved land of ours. Yayasan 1Malaysia would like to suggest the following five approaches.
One, Malaysians should imbibe the fundamental principles of the Malaysian Constitution. They should understand in depth the “just balance” embodied in this cherished document. This balance should guide each and every Malaysian as she seeks to exercise her rights and discharge her responsibilities towards the nation.
By privileging the position of the Malay Rulers, the Malay language and Islam, the Constitution acknowledges that the Malaysian Federation had evolved from Malay polities, while at the same time it is cognizant of the contemporary environment reflected in the conferment of citizenship upon the non-Malay communities and mirrored in the rights accorded to their languages and religions.
Likewise, it balances the status of the indigenous people with the interests of the then newly domiciled non-indigenous communities. The powers of the Central government are juxtaposed with the powers of the states within a Federal system. Individual and collective freedoms are balanced with the demands of public order.
Through our schools and universities, community centres and religious-cum-cultural outfits, public institutions and private businesses, political parties and civic organizations, we should have inculcated in the nation this idea of a justly balanced constitution from the first day of Merdeka. Even today after 57 years of Independence there is really no concerted attempt to instill in our people a deeper appreciation of the Constitution and its significance for their lives. This is one of the reasons why we have failed to create greater social cohesion within our diverse population.
Two, we have also failed to harness the strengths of the Rukunegara to forge a deeper understanding among our people of the aspirations of this nation. The five goals and the five principles of the Rukunegara announced to the nation on Merdeka Day, 31st August 1970, should have been adopted by the Malaysian Parliament as soon as parliamentary rule was restored in February 1971. Even more important, the Rukunegara should be incorporated into the Malaysian Constitution as its preamble.
Our Constitution does not have a preamble. Since the Rukunegara lays out goals and principles for the nation, it is ideally suited as a preamble--- a preamble that would provide Malaysians with a clear conception of their mission and their destiny. It envisions greater unity among the people; a democratic way of life; a just society where the prosperity of the nation is equitably shared; a liberal approach towards the nation’s rich and diverse cultural traditions; and a progressive society oriented towards modern science and technology. To achieve these goals Malaysians should be guided by belief in God; loyalty to king and country; the sanctity of the constitution; the rule of law; and good conduct and behavior.
The Rukunegara was given some emphasis in the public sphere for a few years after the death of Tun Abdul Razak who led the consultative process that gave birth to this far-sighted instrument of nation-building that goes beyond ethnic and religious boundaries. However, it was sidelined from the eighties onwards. Because it was denied a role in bringing people together, the ensuing vacuum was filled by other forces that were gathering momentum at the level of the masses. One of these forces was ‘Islamic resurgence’ which was largely propelled by rapid Malay urbanization and the intensified ethnic dichotomization of society. The other was increasing non-Malay alienation and anger shaped by some of the negative consequences arising from the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP), divisive communal political rhetoric and the dramatic expansion of Chinese education. Indirectly, therefore, the marginalization of the Rukunegara made it easier for communal and sectarian elements to occupy the public space.
Three, neither the adoption of the Rukunegara as the Constitution’s preamble nor the socialization of the nation into the Constitution will improve ethnic relations if justice is not seen to be done in concrete terms. There should be a holistic approach to justice that is fair to everyone, regardless of ethnic, religious, regional or gender affiliation. Such an approach would be in consonance with the spirit of the Constitution and the Rukunegara.
What this means is that the poor and the needy should be helped because they are poor and needy. The widening gap between the have-a-lot and the have-a-little should be closed. There should be no hindrance to non-Malay mobility in the public and civil services just as there should be no obstacles to the advancement of Malay and other non-Chinese staff in Chinese owned corporations. Efforts to make various sectors of the economy more multi-ethnic should continue.
Four, governance in both the public and private sectors should fulfil the highest standards of honesty and competence. In similar vein, the delivery of goods and services should be efficient. These aspects of good governance impact indirectly upon ethnic relations since perceptions of who manages or delivers a service, or who allegedly gives or receives a bribe are sometimes conditioned by ethnic sentiments.
Five, Malaysians should be made aware in a much more conscious manner that they share a multitude of spiritual and moral values as human beings and as inheritors of diverse religious and cultural traditions. From compassion and love to kindness and humility, from living in harmony with the environment to the primacy of the family, the values that unite us are far more powerful than the differences that divide us. It is a shame that shared values as an approach to forging inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding and harmony has yet to emerge as the central theme of cultural and religious discourse in the country.
Nonetheless, ordinary Malaysians have demonstrated when confronted by grave challenges such as the recent floods in various states that they are capable of heart-warming acts of kindness and compassion transcending religious and ethnic barriers. In their deeds, lie the seeds of hope for genuine unity in the Malaysia of tomorrow.