As 2020 approaches Malaysia remains peaceful and perfunctorily functional but deeply mired in the concerns about unresolved issues of the past two decades. Perhaps Malaysians don’t show or articulate much appreciation of the peace, order and tranquility that prevails. There is also industrial peace enabling an environment for economic growth, albeit at a sharply reduced rate from the country’s heyday.
This peace which often ‘passeth understanding’ is largely attributable to generally good political sense in leadership but it is also a tribute to a largely professional police force and a sound judiciary. The police force deserves credit for responding promptly to critical situations with appropriate action and advisories. Such prompt and professional action has defused tense situations associated with sensitive issues like places of worship, inflammatory utterances and the curricula of various teaching institutions in Malaysia’s distinctly multiracial society.
Sound Institutions & Unity
The role of the police, the Attorney General’s Chambers and the judiciary particularly since May 2018 in handling legacy issues of the past arising from outrageous corruption and kleptocracy is also commendable. Most of the country will continue to be fixated on these trials involving a former head of government and his key allies through the early 2020s. Staying power is needed to ensure a successful conclusion of these cases.
Two states, Sabah and Sarawak, continue to remain stellar models for emulation in regard to race and religious issues. Ironically the two states are intrinsically reminiscent of what Peninsular Malaysia was in the 1950s and 1960s, comfortable in chosen attire, accommodating in terms of shared but distinct types of cuisine, charitable in safeguarding con-sanguinity and camaraderie while adhering to different religious traditions and not being judgmental about another person’s conformity with prescribed religious tenets.
Christmas like other festivals in Malaysia, in the old days, used to see a lot more young school going children mixing and mingling with children of other faiths in each other’s homes. Today there is discernibly less of this in Peninsular Malaysia. This is a sad but true reflection of the country today.
Our oldest premier schools in Kuala Lumpur and the state capitals in the peninsula have become institutions not so much of imparting learning but bastions of upholding and reinforcing particular religious beliefs and sowing, by default, divisions even at primary and secondary levels of education. The average Malaysian school going child is deprived of the rich diversity of his or her grandparents’ times when close knit inter ethnic relations were normal, more interactive, cordial and teachers were from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. State-sponsored and bureaucratically run, these schools now seem hopelessly misguided and while high ideals are often touted by policy makers the preference for STEM biased education remains a difficult and distant goal.
For some social activists these issues of fostering and fortifying solid inter ethnic relations and all rounded STEM-biased education does not seem to be a priority.
Their preoccupation seems to be on achieving and promoting authenticity and orthodoxy of a kind, even of a pristine Arab genre, that is alien to a historically harmonious plural society in the heart of Southeast Asia. Sadly the government led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad seems woefully ill-equipped, indifferent and unprepared to counter these activists and state funded bureaucrats. The larger civil service is also not perceived as being particularly enthusiastic about some of the current government’s agenda. The incapacity of Dr Mahathir’s Government to address these problematic issues is perhaps the biggest challenge of the 2020s.
A strong thrust is needed is to create a more united and equal society, socially and economically. The current situation seems to be one of relying largely on a hierarchy of political and administrative power bases to establish a hierarchical set of state owned companies and enterprises with monopolies or near monopolies. Sixty two years after independence there is a need to move away from this model of development.
The equality of status of all Malaysians needs to be acknowledged and emphasised. Private enterprise and animal spirits are essential to grow the economy and these activities should be the mainstay of the economy which should gradually replace state-owned enterprises. Government must have minimal involvement in business.
It is clear that Dr Mahathir has proven himself somewhat injudicious in managing this equity, ethnicity and education problem. He has instead, probably by default, made the approach to better inter ethnic relations more difficult by endorsing the presence of a callous and controversial Indian Islamic preacher and by recently commenting adversely on the citizenship status of non indigenous Malaysians.
The issues of kleptocracy, corruption, state capture and mismanagement of state institutions and resources have been somewhat well identified by the current government of Dr Mahathir’s especially since they took over the national leadership in May 2018. A good team of Dr Mahathir’s collaborators have carried out an impressive exercise in analysing shortcomings in the socioeconomic situation, institutional bottlenecks and the need to reinvent government. The harder part is to initiate and institute some badly needed radical changes. The relatively freer press and media in Malaysia has, since May 2018 played a key role in boldly pointing out the pitfalls that exist in the country’s path to greater national unity and more robust economic development with equity. Here again, the main hurdle is that the current education system and the existing education establishment are unable to grasp or are slow in initiating and implementing a more enlightened policy.
Malaysia, it would seem to me is in desperate need of a new and fresh leadership at the top. The phase of stopgap measures and band aid is over. The excitement about ousting the former prime is also over. A whole country is now anxiously waiting and hoping that the government would provide some indications that it is capable of ushering in an era of new direction, greater growth and prosperity.
At a minimum generational change of leadership would be better than the status quo. Dr Mahathir, the greatest icon of the May 2018 election seems to have lost his lustre and the special appeal he had. He seems to have lately lapsed into a state of being hopelessly out-of-touch with the problems of national unity, poverty, great social inequality, the high cost of living and the need to accord to the Sabahans and Sarawakians their rightful status as being both co-equal stakeholders and citizens on par with their brothers and sisters from the peninsula.
The deployment of his time, the scarce resources of the country and its elite bureaucracy to the hosting of a highly divisive, poorly attended and a vacuous Islamic Summit in December 2019 again showed a leader caught in a time warp of not only his own beloved Malaysia but the Islamic ummah. In contrast, almost five decades earlier on 21-25th June 1974 Malaysia hosted its first biggest international meeting which was the 5th Foreign Ministers Meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Countries which was attended by almost all Muslim-majority countries and the major international Muslim NGOs. That conference was organised largely by the Prime Minister’s Department and Wismaputra and it was a resounding success in terms of the resolutions passed , the affirmation of the unity of the Ummah and the visionary values it espoused for the Islamic world. That OIC conference also contributed towards making Malaysia better known in the Muslim world. Generally reaction by Malaysians to this last superfluous mini-Summit held on December 18-21 2019 has been muted.
In a more aware, activist and focused country like the Republic of Korea, a country that Malaysians are constantly called upon to emulate, the hosting at great expense of an inconsequential, irrelevant and ineffective summit of this sort would have brought out the crowds seeking an ouster of the government of the day. In this regard Malaysians are perhaps a lot more mature, measured and well-mannered toward their leaders. But the country’s leaders must not take Malaysians for granted even if some of them are adept at keeping them disunited through manipulative tactics.
There are serious existential challenges for the country and they can be largely addressed with the country’s own resources especially its splendid pool of technocrats, experts, educationists, diplomats and professionals. It is essential to rebuild some state institutions so that there is a better mix of the representatives of the older and young generation in the leadership of those key areas of administration, agriculture, health, education, industries, IT development, social justice and national unity. That rebuilding process must start immediately.
Dato ‘ M Santhananaban
The writer is a retired Malaysian ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG