Nazir Razak book: a time to build bridges not fences

  • Books
  • Sunday, 07 Nov 2021

Nazir’s book is an autobiography, but it traces the thinking and context that shaped the decision-making of the writer’s father Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister. Photo: SC Shekar

What's In A Name by Datuk Seri Nazir Razak is a book that was needed to be written and must be read by all Malaysians who care about the country.

No one who has family disagreements could not be moved by the terrible choices one has to make between loyalty to family, honour and dedication to the nation. When one is a member of the family at the leadership and founding of Malaysia, these choices are fateful because they decide not just the direction of the family, but also the nation.

I salute therefore Nazir for writing what must be very painful to write, but necessary to explain why very difficult choices face the nation and each and everyone of us.

This book is an autobiography, but it traces the thinking and context that shaped the decision-making of the writer’s father Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, one of the founders of Malayan and later Malaysian Independence. It started with the author’s own discovery of cancer, in the same year that he had been forced out of the bank that he led to become one of the largest in ASEAN. Fortune and misfortune never come in drips but it pours. Thanks to modern medicine, his health recovered, but it also clarified in his mind both the determination and need to write this book.

Time and tide waits for no one, which is why this book is a timely and critical narrative in a crucial phase of Malaysian nationhood, when we must choose our collective path forward.

A collective reset

The book lays out clearly why Malaysia may once again need to do “what it did in 1970, undergo nationhood recalibration, a thorough re-examination of what it means to be Malaysian and how its democracy, government, economy and society works.”

In this book, Nazir knows “which I choose”. I agree wholeheartedly with him, and his choice would be mine. But I am afraid literally that not every Malaysian may agree. That is the real Malaysian dilemma: how to convince fellow Malaysians that we can no longer wait for others to decide our future and why we must urgently begin our national conversation.

The book is structured chronologically, taking us from remembering Tun Razak as the second Prime Minister and the road to Merdeka, to the author’s growing up as an investment banker, universal banker, facing up to 1MDB, and then the crucial part five, conversations on Malaysia and postface.

Books must be read from a personal perspective, and I have to say that this book evoked in me all my memories of childhood, growing up, career in Malaysia and abroad, and now confronting the same issues that Nazir has challenged us to address.

Having grown up in Sabah to first-generation immigrant parents, I witnessed the growing pains of statehood and nationhood. Sabah is truly multi-racial, since she comprises many minorities like Kadazans, Muruts, Bajaus and others who are true natives of North Borneo. Sabah and Sarawak joined to form Malaysia in 1963 and today the conversation of what it means for minority Bumiputera to be part of Malaysia needs urgent input.

Section One covered the Tun Razak family story to Merdeka and the formation of Malaysia. Section Two described very well the heady days of banking and the stock market in the roaring 1970s and 1980s, when Nazir became an investment banker. Until the Asian Financial Crisis gave everyone a rude awakening, that period seemed a golden era of growth and development.

Section Three covered the period after Tun Mahathir stepped down, when Nazir merged the investment bank into a universal bank that became the largest banking footprint in ASEAN, no mean achievement.

Section Four is about 1MDB, an unsavoury story which grew like a nightmare unfolding. The big lesson for me is that when institutions corrode, they threaten to bring down the whole structure like a house of cards.

To me, Section Five on “Conversations on Malaysia” is the most important contribution to the current context.

Nazir is spot on that the issues facing Malaysia are identity, money and centralisation.

A sense of belonging

I totally agree that identity under ethnic and religious lines creates division, distrust and dysfunction in every policy issue within the country. To be fair, the identity crisis is universal in today’s globalised world. It has become centre-stage in every country, because globalisation created multiculturalism with the migration of ideas, people and culture, so every culture or tribe feels threatened.

Indeed, those who are most threatened are not necessarily the majority, but the ethnic minorities such as aboriginal natives who face huge problems in integrating within modern society. But perception is complex when a majority begins to have a minority complex and becomes fragmented and insecure.

Thus, politics, culture, religion, ethnicity and economic interests today all converge to a complex situation where everyone must confront what is at bottom a conflicted identity. The old must give way graciously to the new, because the context has changed rapidly due to technology, climate warming, geo-political tensions and demographics.

The young think very differently about their future than the old. They will inherit the messes that the old has bequeathed them. To adapt, mitigate and evolve in the face of greater competition from within and without, we must confront our own strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats, tragedies and hope, so as to forge a new future together.

Malaysia is like a beautiful tapestry, woven from different traditions and culture. Polarisation is tearing these bonds, causing some to migrate or thinking the unthinkable issues of independence.

If we care about each other, we must forge an honest and frank conversation in order to explore how to work and live together for the greater good of the nation and our children.

As a Chinese Malaysian, let me say that the demographics and politics are such that the Malays are the majority and it is right that the majority should rule, with due concern for the interests of the minorities. Pushing political ideas along racial lines will not lead to ideal outcomes. Polarisation is not the way of prosperity and stability.

If you ask me which issue is the most important within the three of identity, money and concentration, I would say identity.

The demographics and power structure are such that neither the Chinese nor Indians increasingly matter in terms of voting power and political power. Power is in the hands of the Malays, and the rest can only hope that the Malays will select a leader who can take the nation to greater heights, bring up the Malays or any disadvantaged person or community out of poverty or disadvantages.

Without narrowing the income and wealth gaps, there will always be fertile ground for racial politics. To break out of this gridlock, there has to be a social compact in which those who are better off must sacrifice to ensure social cohesion. To do this will require conversations on how this can be done.

As a Malaysian, I hope that Malaysia could be the first Islamic-majority country to break out of the middle-income trap to become an advanced income industrial nation. For I do believe that you need to have a growing cake in order to share the cake more equitably. Malaysian non-Malays have a huge capacity to help take the nation to greater heights.

The real fear today is not that Malaysia will not do well. Given her abundant natural resources, favourable demographics and geographical positioning – Malaysia is truly blessed and can grow at 4-5% without much effort. The real strategic concern is that within the region, the 100-million plus economies like Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines and further afield Bangladesh, will grow at 6-8% and rapidly overtake us in both GDP size and GDP per capita, so that increasingly Malaysia’s voice in ASEAN and global affairs will be relatively weaker, if not marginalised.

The nation faces not just an identity problem, but also a succession problem because one leader has led the nation so long that we never had a proper conversation on how we should frame the future of the nation and our children in his wake. Instead, we allowed different social bubbles along ethnic and religious lines to fragment our conversations together.

No one is listening to monologues of those deaf and blind to the huge challenges confronting us.

To conclude, I commend this book not only for its lucid analysis, but also constructive ideas that recognise that it is in our inner strength and will to change and exchange ideas that we will forge a stronger nation.

Read, reflect and let’s begin the conversation and consultation together. Our children’s future depends on this important step for the nation as a whole.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng, one of Asia’s top economists, writes in his personal capacity.

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