ON the eve of every anniversary of our independence day, we tend to recollect the past, contemplate the present and wonder about the future in our beloved country, Malaysia.
In many ways, it’s like how we all feel about our own birthdays. We are grateful for the many blessings we have enjoyed, and hope and pray that our regrets and concerns would be overcome in future.
I belong to the merdeka generation in the sense that we closely watched Tunku Abdul Rahman lead us to independence from the British. We helped our political leaders to develop our country in both the government and private sectors to progress and to benefit all our people regardless of race or religion for most of the time.
I recall the pride, patriotism and great promise my generation shared as Malaysians on Aug 31, 1957. I was at the Victoria Institution on Petaling Hill, overlooking the Merdeka stadium with a grandstand view of the historic and grand ceremony. We all saw our dear founding Father of Independence Tunku Abdul Rahman accept the instrument of independence. We all joined him to shout out joyously “Merdeka!” seven times. We had a strong sense of gratitude to God, loyalty to king and country, a new sense of freedom, and a deep feeling of belonging and national unity.
Many of us were studying at the only university in Malaya and Singapore then, University of Malaya, and had come home for the holidays. Most of us joined the public service as civil servants, doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants and many other professions.
Indeed, we were the pioneers who took over from the reluctant, departing and depressed British officers. Members of the illustrious Group of 25 (G25) were some of my colleagues then.
Looking back, there is a lot of gratitude that we must have and currently share. Although there were many doubters at home and abroad before and just after independence, we somehow succeeded in a complex and somewhat complicated multiracial and multi-religious country and society.
Poverty gripped about 50% of our population at independence day. This has come down dramatically to only about 2% now (World Bank figures). Living standards and all the social indicators, like health, education and incomes, have all risen significantly from pre-independence days. Our infrastructure has expanded beyond our dreams and our overall quality of life has improved enormously. More importantly, we have progressed to being almost a developed country under conditions of peace, stability and relatively high social cohesion and national unity.
Indeed, we thank God, our founding fathers and leaders, and all our Malaysian brothers and sisters of all races and religions for their great sense of unity and purpose in bringing us all so far ahead.
But we cannot take our many successes for granted. We have to continue to strive to achieve greater progress, unity, harmony and sustainability as a developed nation.
And here is the real challenge. Can we sustain our achievements despite the many odds, and progress even further? Or do we slow down and weaken and, God forbid, fail in many areas and even fade?
Following are some concerns and solutions as well.
1. National unity is not as strong as it used to be. The basis for increasing polarisation is the growing economic problems – income inequality, some distorted new economic policies, rising inflation, unemployment especially among graduates, low wages and corruption.
The solution is to have a planned phase-out of the NEP, which could be replaced with the New Economic Model that was seriously considered by Government but then withdrawn. The reasons for this rejection have to be explained to the public and the model modified where necessary but not discarded, please.
2. “Bumiputraism” is a divisive title and connotes negativism. It provides undue protection and curbs competition and the competitive spirit of bumiputras. It even inhibits their long-term growth and the healthy development of their talents, and heightens their future tribulations.
The solution is to treat all low-income Malaysians equally. Hence, the underprivileged of all races and religions can be easily categorised under income groups. Priority could then be given for the accelerated development of the low-income groups like the Bottom 40%. Race considerations should thus be removed.
3. Religious intolerance is a new and dangerous phenomenon which needs our urgent attention. The solution to this global problem is to follow the principle of wasatiyah or moderation in religion. This policy should be more actively promoted by all governments at federal and state levels. Malaysians, especially non-Muslims, are feeling anxious over what appears to be the erosion of religious understanding and tolerance in our country.
There is growing evidence of the rise in Islamisation in our schools, universities, government agencies and government policies especially in the implementation of some policies. These trends are divisive and do not promote a sense of belonging or cohesion and national unity.
The solution is to follow the Constitution and Rukunegara closely and regard Malaysia as a Muslim-majority country but certainly not a Muslim country.
As I have been told by my Muslim brothers and sisters, and non-Muslims as well, all religions promote understanding, tolerance and mutual respect for other beliefs. So why can’t we all just faithfully follow our religious teachings. In fact, we should actively discourage extremism, ultra-conservatism and bigotry.
So on National Day, we thank God for all His Blessings these last 60 years. Then we have to summon our courage and sincerity to address our concerns for the present and future progress, unity and harmony of all Malaysians.
Selamat Hari Merdeka to all Malaysians.
TAN SRI RAMON NAVARATNAM
Asli Center of Public Policy Studies