Vision 2020 was launched with much fanfare three decades ago to make Malaysia a fully developed country and to establish a united Malaysian nation with a sense of a common and shared destiny. In the long term the nation was to be made up of one “Malaysian race with political loyalty and dedication towards the nation. “ When one assesses the prosaic reality of Malaysia today it is a stark contrast to that prospect.
Malaysians are divided more than ever.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s 22 months in prime ministerial office since from May 10, 2018 was not used productively or imaginatively to unite the country. His own rhetoric about the Malays having lost political power caused the collapse of the nation’s most representative and multicultural government.
He seemingly spent more time straddling the globe to be recognised as an international Islamic leader than in addressing familiar and important domestic issues. He failed to utilise the talent in his government to build a better and more equitable nation. Before we knew it Malaysia had a new unelected government with some unpalatable elements and the Covid-19 pandemic to contend with.
This 57th anniversary of Malaysia is now upon us. There is a sense of being adrift with a small regional religion-based party wielding formidable power over the current government. That party is foisting unhealthy fissiparous and fractious activism in the country.
For that reason partly Malaysians are observing the commemoration of both August 31( Merdeka) and September 16 (Malaysia) this year generally in a chastened and sombre situation.. In a claustrophobic COVID-19-dominated cataclysm they have had little choice. Unheard, unprecedented and ugly things are being unleashed partly by the global COVID-19 pandemic but also by long decades of poor governance, misguided priorities, false promises and pathetic political leadership. National unity founded on equality, fraternity and some equity remains elusive.
The hollowness of national unity was borne out most emphatically in Najib Tun Razak’s 1Malaysia slogan which sapped both our trust in government and our nation’s coffers.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the two main marathon maestros of Malay politics are protesting with vehemence and passion for the continued need for a purist peninsular Malay preeminence and predominance.
The two veterans of the Malaysian political scene were featured prominently recently in news portals in the country. One had founded an all- Malay political party called ‘ Pejuang’ or a struggle or a movement to protect the preeminence of that peninsular majority community.
The other in order probably to be not outdone had quixotically advised his UMNO ministers to abandon the weakest national government in Malaysia’s history. This second veteran,Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, with more than haif a century in politics had taken umbrage that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin’s Bersatu party was planning a subchapter to include in the party those who were not Malay or indigenous.
The irony is that both these veterans had been integral parts of a purportedly multiracial government from which they obtained their fame, the highest titles of the land and their exalted status in society.
After 63 years of independence they were attempting to clamour for the well established peninsular Malay community to further entrench and enhance its preeminent, primordial and powerful position in the government. Such was their preoccupation and obsession with this matter that they had overlooked the reality of the current Muhyiddin Administration which has less than two ministers and five deputy ministers out of seventy such posts from the country’s two largest minorities who easily make up a third of the total population.
The Peninsular Malays dominate not only the political establishment having always provided the nation’s prime minister but they also make up the predominant component of the entire government machinery, the elite administrative and diplomatic service, the education service, the judicial and legal service, the police, military and all uniformed services as well as being the mainstay of all GLCs.
The GLCs control between 40 to 45 percent of the listed corporate equity in the country. The policy direction and executive leadership of these GLCs is not only firmly but largely in the hands of those politicians affiliated to the Muhyiddin Government.
Given this reality when Tengku Razaleigh draws attention and disputes an attempt by the incumbent prime minister to include some non-Malays in the latter’s political party it does seem bizarre. The Tengku, an octogenarian and Dr Mahathir, a nonagenarian seem to find incomprehensible a token effort by Tan Sri Muhyiddin to open up a small window of his party to accommodate compliant non- Malays. This can only be a token effort because Muhyiddin has long been acknowledged as saying he is a ‘ Malay first.’
All these three leaders seem to be living in a bygone era. Peninsular Malaya in the late 1930s and early 1940s was made up of the Federated Malay States, the Unfederated Malay States and the two Straits Settlements(SS).
After the Japanese Occupation the British Government sent Sir Harold MacMicheal to obtain the consent of the Malay Rulers to the proposal for the creation of the Malayan Union. Most of the Rulers, especially those of Kedah and Trengganu seem to have strongly resisted this overture initially although eventually they had to succumb because of unavoidable and unbearable pressure. Of course Dato Onn bin Jaafar and other Malay leaders were able later to successfully scuttle the whole scheme.
That was three quarters of a century ago. At that time even the idea of a panMalayan political entity was somewhat distant and resisted even by the Rulers.
Today it is a different world. The Federation of Malaya has existed in tact for 72 years and for the past 57 years it has been the predominant player of Malaysia. Peninsular Malays exercises preeminent ceremonial, political, economic and administrative power and influence over at least four major ethnicities which can be classified as of Sabah, Sarawak, Chinese, Indian and other origins. Their hold on the national leadership is not a tenuous but a tenacious and total one.
Today Malaysia is a much, much bigger and more self conscious political entity but the bulk of its landmass is drawn from Sabah and Sarawak. The Malaysian citizenry (not just population) is made up of a diverse group of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazan-Dusuns, Dayaks, Murut, Kayans and a host of other people. Properly governed , the country would draw exceptional strengths and skills from such a diverse people. It cannot be denied that these various groups retain certain unique characteristics, affiliations, associations and aspects of their individual cultures.
The people of Sabah and Sarawak need to be given special recognition and attention as they had had a relatively late start in being introduced to the basics of heath, education and social amenities. As they are located in dispersed communities over a relatively larger landmass extra per capita costs are inevitable to bring the benefits of modernisation to them.
The Malaysian federal leadership must be seized with this issue so that the benefits of development are shared equally by all citizens. It must not be forgotten that Brunei’s refusal to join Malaysia stemmed partly from the then Menteri Besar Dato Marsal Maun’s apprehension that his people would be “taken over” and become a “ inferior minority” in Malaysia.*
National Unity Paramount
As we approach the 57th anniversary of Malaysia our thoughts and energies should focus on how we can build the best and most durable bridges to reinforce national unity amongst the different races, religions, and regions of the country. Understanding has to be greatly strengthened.
Aspiring politicians must hone their skills to foster greater unity on the basis of equality, fraternity and shared values of mutual respect, love, affection and cooperation. Leaders that are seeking preeminence, primacy and predominance on the basis of their race, religion and region and their seniority risk becoming dinosaurs.
Syed Saddiq’ s Defiance
It is encouraging and refreshing that a former minister, the youthful 28-year old Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman has taken the courageous initiative to form a youth-centred multiracial party which will seek clean and accountable governance. Saddiq has categorically rejected money politics. Such a move is long overdue. It is probably borne out of a rather listless and chaotic situation in Malaysia where the old leaders seem to have outlasted their shelf life.
Saddiq’s action is one of disobedience and defiance of the existing establishment politicians. It is important that Syed Saddiq’s courage in stepping out of the shadow of a gerontocratic Dr Mahathir’s old race-baiting strategy is understood and appreciated. This initiative will hopefully gather momentum and assume the highest profile in every part of Malaysia. The country desperately needs the kind of leadership that will transcend race, religion, region and the restrictions of provinciality and prejudices of the past.
Saddiq must aspire to serve 99 percent of the population.
Seasoned Malay leaders must also stop treating the inclusive Anwar Ibrahims, Tawfik Tun Ismails , Syed Saddiqs, Khalid Samads, Tajuddin Rasdis, Adenan Satems, Zaid Ibrahims and Maximus Ongkilis like the way the old leaders treated Sir Harold MacMicheal and the colonial Chief Secretary A J Newboult. That disdain must end.
The leaders of the past had valid reasons to protect their national heritage and historical narrative of belonging in a nascent nation. In a much much later time, one that is more literate, open, globalised and affluent the singular obsession with the preeminence of any race is misplaced. It suggests that most of the older leaders are caught in a time warp.
This is not 1946 or 1964 but we are fast approaching 2024 and 2026. The paranoia and negative baggage of the past must give way to the possibilities and promising prospects of the future. Government and governance must be inclusive of all and aspire for the participation of all.
Malaysians in the vital construction of a united, diverse, unique and unmatchable Malaysia. There is certainly no need for any ‘ Project IC’ or a 70 million population target for our lovely country. These kinds of ideas distort, derail and damage the country’s solid equilibrium and the dignity of its people.
All the bravado and bragging that was created about Vision 2020 when there will be a Malaysian ‘race’ has been proven to be one of the most misleading, deceitful and fraudulent fantasies. The concept of a Malaysian ‘race’ is itself a nonstarter. It is time to acknowledge the futility of that fantasy. Instead the focus should be on enhancing the confidence of the people of Sabah, Sarawak, the Orang Asli and the majority as well as the other minorities. It should be all inclusive, not exclusive to a particular ethnicity’s predominance.
Hussein Onn’s Character Required
The era of the Big Brother like Dr Mahathir or Bosku like Najib must pass. Let us come down to earth like the way the honourable and humble Hussein Onn was. In proposing Tun Hussein Onn, the then prime minister to chair the ASEAN Summit in early August 1977 Philippines President Marcos had described him as ‘a soldier, a lawyer and a statesman’ for he was all these. Much more than that Hussein was an extremely cautious, careful, deliberative and courageous man. When the then Attorney General, Tan Sri Hamzah Abu Samah (AG from 1977-1980)brought any matter for his decision he would apparently take a long time to decide. Yet he saw to the charging of a then dominant Dato Harun Idris for corruption and the clipping of the wings of the then jet set Tun Mustapha Harun. He did not believe in grandstanding but in conscientious, serious and meticulous hard work which his able judges- Tun Suffian, Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman Pawan Teh , Raja( later Sultan ) Azlan Shah , Tan Sri Wan Hamzah, Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader and his SolicitorGeneral Tun Salleh Abas delivered unfailingly.
He relied on the first class civil service that the country then had. He did not seek out personal or private back channels to handle any business of government. In his cabinet he had ministers who could speak out and disagree with him. The country needs to go back to that spirit and thrust of a prime minister who was humble and honourable who respected the supremacy, even the sanctity, of the constitution. Given the existing misgivings in Sabah and Sarawak the leadership should also find ways to satisfy the fundamentals of the Malaysia agreement.
A Major Reset Required
In order to be inclusive and appear inclusive a reset of many things is perhaps needed. The dates August 31st and September 16th while historically important and memorable continue to generate some divisive and disturbing sentiments. As we move on there has to be a consensus on one national day for the whole nation. As a compromise why can’t Malaysia, for instance, celebrate Merdeka and Malaysia Day on the second Monday and Tuesday of September.
This would be the midpoint between the two dates, it would provide a longer weekend and once and for all resolve the existing unease between the people of two separate geographical territories. This can be explored, proposed, discussed and a consensus can be reached through the proper channels, taken up with the Conference of Rulers and ￼Parliament.
It is a small compromise to respect the integrity and the unique history of the country. The date will be uniquely Malaysian , a national act of sacrificing a historical date for the much larger overarching goal of forging and strengthening Malaysian unity. It should not be perceived as an imposition on one group of Malaysians by another but a mutually agreed solution to focus on more imminent and fundamental challenges. Privately people can observe these dates in a manner they deem fit.
Other issues relating to the Third World wages paid to the workers in the lowest rungs of the economic strata should also be addressed so that no one feels alienated and unrewarded in the country. The reliance on foreign workers has to be reduced gradually so that Malaysians don’t become aliens in their own cities and towns.
Essentially Malaysia must embrace all its people and move on in this competitive world. The country must revamp its educational institutions to produce those fine products of the the 1960s and 1970s with admirable standards of achievement and acceptance which were well recognised internationally. Politics and religion should not be the main or material considerations in the provision of sound education.
Dato’ M Santhananaban
September 3, 2020
Dato Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador
*This is taken from Muhammad Hadi Abdullah, BRUNEI’S POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT AND THE FORMATION OF MALAYSIA:1961-1967. Dissertation submitted to the University of Hull, June 2002.