Friday, July 31, 2020


By Chandra Muzaffar

The jailing of former Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak is an act of tremendous significance to Malay and Malaysian political culture.

Since Merdeka in 1957, the Prime Minister has been perceived as the principal protector of a large segment of the citizenry. As protector he is not just the most important office-holder in the Malaysian political system. He is the inheritor of political authority in a governance structure rooted in a traditional polity, namely, the centuries old Malay Sultanate. For protecting the interests of his people, specifically the Malays, he is ‘entitled’ to unquestioning loyalty from his ‘subjects.’

Unquestioning loyalty, regardless of whether the Ruler is right or wrong was a much eulogized trait in the relationship between leader and led right through Malay history. Though it has been eroded by education, social mobility, democratic practices, electoral competition and the like, it continues to be perpetuated in contemporary times through the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), as I argue in my 1979 book called Protector? A study of leader-led relationships in Malay society from the Malaccan period to the present. UMNO wore the cherished mantle of protector of the Malays for decades against real and imagined threats to the community---- up to the 9th of May 2018, when it was defeated in the 14th General Election.

Despite its defeat, UMNO is still a formidable political force. It remains to this day, the most powerful political party in the country among the Malays. Its influence within the grassroots of the community is pervasive. In the last two years, it has attempted to present itself as the only genuine protector of the Malays through the articulation of issues, some real, others false, which, on the whole, have resonated with the community. The inability of its main adversary, the ruling Pakatan Harapan(PH) in power from May 2018 to February 2020 to demonstrate that it is more capable than UMNO of protecting the genuine interests of the Malays unwittingly strengthened the hand of the latter. Besides, the two main actors in PH, Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim were engaged in all consuming Wayang Kulit ( Shadow Play) battle revolving around the question of when one should succeed the other. As a result of this Wayang Kulit, the PH and its allies could not concentrate their energies on curbing and curtailing UMNO’s perceived role as the protector of the Malays.

Now the present ruling coalition, the Perikatan Nasional (PN) or at least some components of it, perhaps with the PH, have yet another opportunity to try to diminish the impact of the protector—unquestioning loyalty syndrome. The court decision on Najib focuses upon alleged wrongdoings --- abuse of power; criminal breach of trust; and money laundering ----  of someone who was once a principal protector. Should one continue to be unquestioningly loyal to such a leader?  Surely loyalty is only to virtue. How can there be loyalty to vice?  Isn’t such a perverted notion of loyalty a betrayal of the very fundamentals of Islamic ethics?

Shouldn’t the majority of UMNO leaders and its three million odd grassroots members see the Najib verdict and the trials involving other UMNO bigwigs as a wake-up call to the party to get rid of corruption and wrongdoings?  In other words, shouldn’t this unprecedented event, the jailing of a former UMNO president and Prime Minister on charges related to corruption and venality prompt the party to undertake the sort of introspection that will lead to a thorough cleansing of its body and soul?

It is not just UMNO that needs this sort of cleansing. Given the lack of transparency in electoral funding and the opaqueness of political financing in the country, all political parties should be willing to cleanse themselves. This is why the proposed law on political financing and electoral funding which has yet to see the light of day should be of the highest priority for both our legislators and our citizens. 

We should be encouraged to push for this and other similar reforms at this juncture for two reasons. One, Najib’s conviction reminds us that the Malaysian judiciary ---whatever its warts and pimples --- has over the decades found well-known public figures guilty of wrongdoings and punished them accordingly. There are not many judicial systems in the world which have done this without fear or favour. Two, it is equally remarkable that the Executive, specifically Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyuddin Yassin upheld his pledge not to interfere in the judicial process though the man in the dock is still a political leader of considerable weight in UMNO, the main component party of the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN). Indeed, Muhyuddin’s position as Prime Minister in a sense depends upon the continued support of Najib’s party. It was in that sense a bold and brave move to allow the rule of law to prevail and justice to triumph, as Muhyuddin said he would.           
As a result, the cynicism and skepticism displayed by a huge segment of the so-called educated stratum of Malaysian society on the eve of the High Court verdict in Najib’s case turned out to be totally misplaced. It shows that there is a need for us to show some faith in the willingness of certain individuals at the apex of society to exercise restraint in their use of power and to observe the basic norms of governance. Likewise, there are individuals of integrity in our judiciary who cherish their roles as custodians of justice.

It is such individuals wherever they are who will help to transform our political culture into one that values the dignity of the human being.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar’s Protector will be re-published by Gerak Budaya in the next few months with an Afterword written in the wake of the 2018 General Election.

Kuala Lumpur.

30 July 2020.



Saturday, July 11, 2020


Making the Rukunegara part of this year’s Merdeka celebrations would be endorsed by most Malaysians. Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s pledge to project the Rukunegara as the core agenda of the government will further define the future direction of the Malaysian nation.

However, it is regrettable that at the launch yesterday ( 9th July 2020) it was only the 5 principles of the Rukunegara --- and not its five aspirations --- that were mentioned. A number of us have pointed out on various occasions that the principles and aspirations are intimately linked and cannot be separated from one another.  The Rukunegara should be propagated as a single integrated national ideology.

I had written about this in September 2017. The article is re-produced below. One hopes that as we observe the Rukunegara this Merdeka, the government and the people will adopt a holistic approach --- which is the only way to do justice to this crucial document of destiny.       

10 July 2020.

                              THE RUKUNEGARA --- WHY ONLY HALF ?

By Chandra Muzaffar

While it is commendable that the 5 principles of the Rukunegara were recited at the grand parade held at the Dataran Merdeka on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of our Merdeka on the 31st of August 2017, it is a pity that once again it was only one half of our national ideology that was given emphasis. 

For the five principles --- Belief in God; Loyalty to King and Country; Supremacy of the Constitution; the Rule of Law; and Good Behaviour and Morality --- are guidelines for achieving the five aspirations or goals of the nation. The Rukunegara states this explicitly. It says that “We, the people of Malaysia, pledge our united effort to attain the ends (goals) guided by these principles.”

What are these goals? Greater unity in society; a democratic way of life; a just society in which the prosperity of the nation is shared in a just and equitable manner; ensuring a liberal approach to the rich and varied cultural traditions of the land;  and creating a progressive society that harnesses modern science and technology.

Why is it that these goals of the nation are seldom mentioned? Why are these national aspirations always set aside? Isn’t it absurd that one should proclaim loudly the 5 principles and yet the 5 goals that these principles are supposed to serve are hidden from the public? This has happened systematically and consistently for more than 30 years. Whether it is in school exercise books or over the media or at public functions, the focus is invariably upon the Rukunegara’s principles while its aspirations are ignored completely.

What explains this wilful, deliberate attempt to conceal the nation’s goals as embodied in the Rukunegara ? After all when the Rukunegara was first announced to the nation by the 4th Yang di Pertuan Agong on the 31st of August 1970, the aspirations and the principles were articulated in that order. And in the seventies, the goals figured prominently in public discourse.

There are perhaps three possible explanations for the neglect of the Rukunegara’s aspirations.  If people are acutely aware of a nation’s goals through constant reminders by those who wield authority and influence it is quite conceivable that they will become more evaluative of government leaders and policies. They will ask if we are really evolving a democratic culture or if the nation’s wealth is more equitably shared today than in the past, or are we becoming more progressive as we embrace the new technologies?  A conscious citizenry with a critical outlook is something that governments are not always comfortable with. To put it simply, a thinking electorate is the bane of both those who want to cling on to power and those who seek to capture power through whatever means.

If fear of critical evaluation by the people is the reason for concealing the nation’s goals, our elites are being unnecessarily apprehensive. In most societies the ideals enshrined in a nation’s ideology or charter are not matched by realities on the ground. There is always a gap between lofty aspirations and actual performance. In fact, if we examined what has been accomplished over the last 47 years in relation to the five goals of the Rukunegara, the pluses and minuses would produce a balance-sheet that is better than what many other societies have achieved. This is why one should encourage our citizenry to reflect upon our national aspirations to see how far we have travelled in our Rukunegara journey.

There is perhaps another reason why there is some reluctance to forefront the goals of the Rukunegara. In the last 10 years or so, some elements in power have developed an aversion to the term ‘liberal’ which is integral to the national ideology’s fourth goal. ‘Liberal’ or ‘liberalism’ for these elements connotes absolute, unrestrained freedom. They may not be aware that some of the greatest proponents of Liberal Thought recognised the limits of freedom. Restraints upon the exercise of liberty they realised were vital for freedom to flourish in society. There are also some Malaysians who equate ‘liberal’ with the advocacy of LGBT. This again is a misconception. There are many liberals whose ideas on gender roles, sexual relations and marriage would dissuade them from embracing the LGBT cause.

In any case, in the Rukunegara, the words “liberal approach” are used exclusively to describe a certain outlook on the nation’s diverse cultural traditions.  “Open”, “inclusive” or “accommodative” would be some of the terms that are synonymous with what the Rukunegara espouses.  It is this liberal approach towards the nation’s cultural diversity expressed in the attitudes of the masses and the elites that is one of our greatest strengths. It explains why we have held together as a nation for so many decades.

There may be another reason why some are opposed to emphasising the nation’s goals through the Rukunegara. For these groups and individuals, the Rukunegara’s aspirations subvert their own agenda of moving the nation in another direction. They view goals such as a democratic way of life or a progressive society as “secular” and therefore antithetical to their agenda of establishing an Islamic state guided by syariah as interpreted by a segment of the ulama. A number of court decisions and other episodes in recent years reveal this push for a state and society which in essence is different from what the Rukunegara and the Malaysian Constitution envisage. Ironically, some of the advocates of this new State hope to achieve their mission through Article 3 of the Constitution which acknowledges Islam as the religion of the Federation. It would be a vivid instance of using the Constitution to undermine the Constitution itself. This is why projecting the goals of the Rukunegara which in a sense embody the spirit of the Constitution is imperative at this stage for it keeps the nation on the path it set out in 1957 --- a path that it re-dedicated itself to in 1970.

This is the most compelling reason for bringing back the Rukunegara in its entirety, both aspirations and principles.  If we do not succeed to empower the Rukunegara, its aspirations and its principles, we would be disappointing the man who pioneered the Rukunegara, who saw it as a platform for re-building the nation, after a tragic riot.  Indeed, it is only by preserving the Rukunegara intact --- by striving to achieve its aspirations while upholding its principles --- that we would be honouring one of Tun Razak’s great legacies.

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

Petaling Jaya.

3rd September 2017.                                                                     

Monday, July 6, 2020


By Chandra Muzaffar

Ethnic stereotypes are a bane upon any society.

Most of the time they are based upon simplistic generalisations that do not reflect actual realities. They exacerbate ethnic relations in multi-ethnic societies. Worse, they impede the growth of understanding and empathy among individuals from different communities that have had minimum social interaction over a long period of time.

Recent remarks by former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad that “ the Chinese are  a wealthy lot” and that they “control all the towns in the country” would be examples of such stereotyping. According to the Department of Statistics, 70% of Chinese Malaysians in 2016 belonged to the working –class. In fact, even at the time of Merdeka, the majority of Chinese, as the well-known economist, the late James Puthucheary pointed out were employees not employers of capital. If some Chinese from working-class backgrounds have become rich over the years it is because of opportunities and mobility afforded by the prevailing socio-economic system, apart from their own hard work, perseverance and frugality.

As for towns, while it is true that many present-day towns were pioneered by Chinese, their current management and control are in the hands of largely Malay bureaucrats. Local government bureaucracy in turn is linked to a mainly Malay political order.

This leads us to yet another stereotype which needs to be scrutinised.  There are many non-Malays who argue that Malays exercise total monopoly over political power. This is not true if one appreciates the nature and evolution of political power in Malaysia. Monarchical power which has been exclusively Malay for centuries was preserved by British colonial rule and shared with the people through democratic procedures and practices embodied in the Merdeka Constitution of 1957. It was the Malay Rulers and the UMNO elite who decided to confer political rights upon the domiciled non-Malay populace through extraordinarily accommodative citizenship provisions in the Constitution which had no precedent or parallel anywhere in the world.  Of course, a number of factors contributed to this momentous decision, including colonial interests. But what is critically important is that the decision transformed the entire political landscape forever: from a people associated with a land, the Malays became a community among communities. If this process of accommodation and acceptance is understood, no thinking Chinese or Indian Malaysian would talk of the monopolisation of political power by the Malays. There would be a more empathetic attitude towards the Malay position.  It would improve inter-ethnic relations in the country and contribute towards national integration.

To explain the question of ‘political power’ in more concrete terms, it is often forgotten that the UMNO led Alliance coalition from the first Federal legislative election itself in 1955 set a trend that has remained through 14 general elections. In that election 17 Chinese and Indian candidates from the MCA and MIC were fielded though there was a Chinese majority in only two out of the 52 constituencies. All the MCA and MIC contestants won, most of them needless to say, with Malay votes. This phenomenon of cross ethnic voting is not confined to the Alliance or its successor, the Barisan Nasional.  Other parties have also demonstrated their capacity to elicit support transcending ethnic boundaries. And yet the myth about Malay monopolisation of political power persists.   
There are other ethnic stereotypes that are equally pernicious even if their political impact is not as serious as the two we have just examined.  Segments of different Malaysian communities believe that greed is a Chinese trait; that Indians are untrustworthy; or that Malays are lazy. These are stereotypes that are easily demolished. That many Chinese have displayed tremendous generosity is an irrefutable fact; that there are trustworthy Indians is so many sectors of society is an unchallengeable truth ; that industrious and diligent Malays are found in all walks of life is obvious to any casual observer of Malaysian society.

The stereotype about Malay laziness is perhaps the only instance of a stereotype subscribed to by certain leaders of the targeted people themselves. It is a stereotype that two-time Prime Minister Dr Mahathir has clung on to stubbornly for decades ---- in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and in spite of the wide range of persuasive arguments marshalled in Syed Hussein Alatas’ much lauded classic, The Myth of the Lazy Native published in 1977. It is a pity that Mahathir does not seem to understand that this myth is rooted in the ideology of colonial capitalism and has been exploited by both the colonialists and by purveyors of communal politics to denigrate native peoples.

The persistence of stereotypes of this sort underscores the importance of emphasising public education on the impediments that obstruct integration in societies like ours. It is revealing that there has not been a single discussion on The Myth over any Malaysian television channel. It is not just the media that should be harnessed for this purpose. The school and the university should also play their role. The family is even more crucial since so many of our values and attitudes are formed through intimate interaction within the confines of the home.  Religious and cultural organisations are equally decisive in this mammoth task of raising social awareness on how destructive stereotypes are.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar has been writing on Ethnic Relations since the early seventies.

Kuala Lumpur.

6th July 2020.