How do you solve a problem like Malaysia?
As the country celebrates more than half a century of independence, it’s fitting to reflect on how far it has come and where it is going, as laid out by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in his 2016 Merdeka address.
We are moving from a colonial past towards emerging economy status against a backdrop of political, racial and religious unrest – something that the premier tried to keep off topic but had to address, even if it was in passing. In that, he was much like ordinary Malaysians who have to navigate the intricate multi-everything society we have created.
But with a recent proposed Parliamentary Bill that could threaten the country’s multireligious traditions and entrenched raced-based policies, along with culture clashes like unilateral child conversions, racial street rallies, and bigoted comments from leaders that go unchallenged – one wonders if Malaysia is moving forwards or backwards almost 60 years on.
Can Malaysia still pull itself from the brink of extremism or has it passed the point of no return?
Some of the country’s most prominent thinkers and writers attempt to make sense of how we got to where we are now, the problems we face today, and the best next step forward in a new book published by Star Media Group.
Simply titled Moderation – a mindset The Star has been advocating since 2014 – the book features 28 essays touching on different views of moderation in ever-fragmenting Malaysia.
Star Media Group’s chief executive officer and group managing director Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai says the book, released today, is much needed literature in a time when Malaysians just can’t seem to “disagree without being disagreeable”.
“Everything seems to be seen through the prism of race and religion, and a dangerous cocktail is brewing, especially when those in authority seem reluctant to act against those fanning the flames of discord.
“We tell the world that we are a moderate nation, but at home, many words and deeds seem to run counter to whether we indeed practise what we preach,” he says.
Among the book’s notable writers are Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, Datuk Seri Idris Jala, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, Zainah Anwar, Azmi Sharom, Datuk Seri Azman Ujang, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, Tan Sri Johan Jaafar, Sharyn Shufiyan and Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi.
The diverse writings range from analytical pieces on the Allah issue, policies that created today's antagonistic climate and the growing “Arabisation” of Malay Muslims, to lighthearted stories of growing up in a mixed heritage home and of a Peninsular Malaysian’s first visit to Sarawak.
For The Star Online journalist Michelle Tam, whose essay in the book is titled “Digital Diplomacy”, it was her experience in moderating comments online that best encapsulates the climate of extremism and moderation in Malaysia.
“Social media breaks people out of their silos and lets them speak their mind to an audience of friends and strangers. It can be alarming how one hateful comment can turn into an avalanche of abuse online. But the right platform allows society to listen and provide the needed checks and balances.
“When online comments take an extreme turn, another crowd often gathers to counter it with reason. And I wanted to write about something I see a lot of, with the hope that people know (or know anew) that they can make a difference by speaking up ... because every voice counts in the pursuit of moderation,” says Tam.
One theme tackled by the writers that runs through the book is whether a moderate stance is the best way to counter growing intolerance in the country.
In her essay, “The Root Of The Problem”, former Star2 columnist Sharyn Shufiyan argues that simply “agreeing to disagree” will not change the systemic problems that she feels have caused racial and religious divisions.
“If we just say I value your opinion even if I disagree with you, I feel that is not enough. It depends on what you aim to do. Do you want to bring them to your side? Do you want to get them to see the way you see things? Then maybe the moderate approach won’t work. You need persuasion and a strong stance.
“We have to recognise that some people, like myself, won’t budge in what we think Malaysia should be. How we go forward, I think we are all still looking for an answer to that question,” she says.
Former civil servant and prominent public figure Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, however, writes believing that moderation is the best alternative to Malaysia’s growing extremist climate.
“It’s difficult to say you are wrong, I am right. The way out is to meet them with moderation, not extremism. The middle path takes into account some extremist views that have some good basis,” says the economist, referring to several policies he touches on in his essay, “Is Moderation In Malaysia At Risk?”.
“The problem is people abuse it. And some politicians are taking extremist views and not enough people are reacting against them,” he says.
The Star columnist Azmi Sharom believes peaceful change can still take place in Malaysia if efforts to undermine democratic foundations do not arise.
“This is the dangerous path the Government is putting us on. I am hoping that constant peaceful pressure – for example, civil disobedience – will be enough to put us back on track. I suppose that is The Star’s version of moderation,” he says.
Soo Ewe Jin, an executive editor with The Star who edited the book, sums up Moderation’s appeal: “We are all different but our diversity is our strength. It’s the colour and variety of views that makes this book an interesting read.”
Moderation (Star Media Group), retailing at RM48, will be available to the public at all major bookstores from Sept 14.