TAN Sri Ramon Navaratnam is 80 but shows no sign of slowing down. The Harvard-trained economist and Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute’s (Asli) Centre for Public Policy Studies chairman says he practises “moderation in everything, excess in none”.
Navaratnam joined the civil service in 1959 and helped draft the New Economic Policy (NEP) following the 1969 riots. He remained in the civil service for 30 years and was promoted to Transport Ministry secretary-general in 1986. Prior to retiring from the Government in 1989, he also served as the World Bank’s alternate executive director. An avid reader, he continues to speak out when “there’s something I need to get out of my system” and eagerly engages in nation-building debates. He shares his views on racial polarisation and the NEP with Sunday Star.
> The NEP, some claim, has created dissatisfaction in a multi-racial nation. Do you still stand by it?
Yes, proudly. But I regret how it was implemented. After the traumatic May 13 riots (in 1969), people questioned why most businessmen were Chinese while the Malays and Indians were limited to being farmers, fishermen and rubber tappers. Why should the Malays be stuck in rural areas and the Chinese in urban areas? These were genuine questions. Some ideas discussed during the drafting stage were extreme but we hammered it out in the best interest of the nation. We need to go back to the NEP’s original purpose.
Initially, the NEP (1970-1990) was fair but I can’t defend its bad implementation. There was much deviation and abuse from what was originally envisaged by Tun Abdul Razak. The NEP’s ideals were to eradicate poverty regardless of race and to remove the identification of race with occupation – are these not in line with national unity? Sadly, those ideals were distorted and corrupted by politicians who used it (the NEP) to build their power base. Selfish leaders who are greedy for political power and financial gain use the racial card and cause fear to get votes.
Disillusionment caused by a system which perpetuates ‘state capture’ (political corruption where private interests influence a state’s decision-making process) happens everywhere in the world, including Malaysia, and this leads to religious, social and political extremism.
> There have been suggestions to do away with vernacular schools to address the issue of polarisation in education. How important is education in building a united nation?
I wish we could give greater attention to education as an inclusive unifying agent rather than a divisive tool. What makes us different from countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore that were once behind us is our education system’s lack of meritocracy, quality and competitiveness. Let everyone have equal access to education and reward students based on merit. The lack of need-based policies is what is causing the resentment – not vernacular schools.
Youngsters get angry when they feel like they have not been treated properly. If vernacular school students do well, give them scholarships and provide them with facilities that are as good as those in national schools. The best way to address polarisation in education is to treat all schools equally.
Don’t treat vernacular schools like stepchildren. Let vernacular schools carry on but national schools must also teach Chinese, Tamil, and where possible, languages from Sabah and Sarawak as part of the co-curriculum.
Right now, national schools are not doing it properly. (Language) classes are badly organised and all kinds of excuses are given not to conduct them – no teachers, students are not interested and all sorts of nonsense. It should be compulsory.
Every national school must have quality teachers and the necessary facilities. Otherwise, give the students private tuition vouchers and allow them to sit for the exams. Let parents and pupils have a choice whether to go to a national or vernacular school to learn their own languages.
The Education Ministry must be serious and sincere about this. Vernacular schools are assets but we’ve converted these assets into liabilities either advertently or inadvertently because a Chinese or Tamil school graduate is not viewed in the same way as their national school counterpart. If you alienate them, they will alienate themselves but if you treat them well, they will respond.
Youngsters are not born with anger, hate, rejection and resentment. And, it’s untrue to say that the non-Malay (graduates) are not interested in the civil service. Many have either been rejected many times or stuck in the same position for so long that they are fed up and resentful.
> Why is religious extremism on the rise?
Insecurity, the inability to cope with modernisation, urbanisation and globalisation, and poor understanding and interpretation of religious teachings have led to confusion. I don’t know any religion that teaches us to exploit or kill fellow human beings. Do you?
> What was the main factor that eroded race relations among Malaysians?
Bad politicians! They use race and religion to win votes at the expense of national unity. Things started to go downhill after 1969. The riots could have been avoided but the leadership failed to anticipate sentiments on the ground and nip it in the bud. Instead, they exploited the situation for personal gain. If we sense resentment from whichever community, we must quickly introduce policies to address it.
> What is moderation to you?
Understanding, loving and being charitable to your neighbour and rejecting extremism of all kinds and from all quarters.
> Are the loud extremists an accurate representation of Malaysians today?
They are a small minority who sound like they are the majority. How many true Malaysians want to be hateful, racist, bigoted and supremacist? It’s un-Malaysian. We must treat extremists as evil.
> Is legislation really effective in keeping extremists at bay?
There is no country in the world without laws to safeguard national interests and security. The National Unity Consultative Council, of which I am Inclusive Committee chairman, has proposed the Harmony Act to counter extremists. This new Act could replace the Sedition Act which has been abused. The Sedition Act is too general, loose and can be used to persecute on flimsy grounds. The Harmony Act, meanwhile, has tighter provisions so only those genuinely guilty of extremism and are out to disrupt racial harmony, unity and religious understanding, are nabbed.
> What is your greatest hope/ fear for our country?
For us all to become better and truer Malaysians who will put the country first. Do away with racist policies and practices.
Malaysia is losing her Merdeka aspirations and we are deviating from the path of moderation set by our founding fathers.
> What is the biggest threat to us achieving unity?
Supremacy, greed, racism, religious bigotry, corruption, cronyism, mediocrity, inadequate competition, not enough being done to fight poverty and poor educational and environmental quality and standards.
> When was racial harmony strongest in Malaysia?
Racial harmony was thriving from colonial times up to 1969 when some politicians caused the riots. There were racial disagreements but these could have been settled through discussions and consensus, not disturbances and destruction.
> Who, to you, best represents a moderate Malaysian leader?
Today, because of a new culture that tolerates divisiveness, extremism, racialism, bigotry and supremism, it’s very difficult to find moderate leaders but from the old guard, Tun Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah are moderation champions.
> You turned 80 last month. What was your birthday wish?
For Malaysia to achieve her full potential as a multinational united nation and be an example to the world. To be blessed with unity, peace, prosperity and well-being. I also wish for everyone to have a greater sense of responsibility.
> Would you tell your four grandchildren to stay and contribute to this nation the way you have done?
I am very happy that my three sons chose to remain here but when it comes to my grandchildren, it may be different because polarisation has deepened and the sense of alienation has grown. I won’t be like others who encourage their children or grandchildren to do well abroad and not return but neither will I encourage them to come home because it is a different country now from the one I used to know.
Back then, we never looked at each other as Chinese, Malay, Indian, Kadazan or Murut. We were all Malaysians and proud of it. If there were differences, we cherished them. We had meals together. We were open-minded but followed our respective religions scrupulously. If I was narrow-minded, divisive, jealous of other people’s wealth, I would regard myself as a bad Christian.
Similarly, my friends would regard themselves as bad Muslims or Hindus if they wished others harm. The basis of our friendship was understanding, love, charity and compassion because that’s what all religions teach. Now people approve of killings and remain silent when others are murdered in the name of religion. Isn’t that a different country? It breaks my heart.
> How do we move forward?
We are at an important crossroads. It can become dangerous, sooner than later, if we do not address some major problems. Fortunately, we are a country blessed with a lot of assets. We are multiracial, multicultural and resilient. We need a strong leadership that will go all out for good governance, ensure fairness for all Malaysians, and prioritise the bottom 40% of our population regardless of race or religion.
Let’s see what’s in the 11th Malaysia Plan (to be unveiled in May) and new economic model. I’m optimistic because this country has gone through many problems after Merdeka – the confrontation, May 13 and the Asian financial crisis, but we have come through time and again.
If the Government is fair and treats everyone equitably, Malaysia will be a truly wonderful nation. The leadership must be tough. Deeper insight is needed to recognise the dissatisfaction rising from income disparity, poor education quality and religious bigotry. Some individuals are spewing poison in the media but if you say anything they will sue you. These people are not exclusive to one race.
The Government must take action against all of them to show that it is serious. Those in the higher levels are making a big issue of moderation which is good but they are not really implementing it when they tolerate these extremist thoughts and actions.