SHAILA KOSHY discusses with Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim the joint heritage of Malaysians and whether political culture has countered the vision, as encapsulated in the Rukunegara. Following are excerpts of the discussion.
Q: The heritage of the multi-ethnic multi-religious people living here for centuries led to the vision for the Federation of Malaya. The vision was expanded in 1963 to include Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore, thus creating the Federation of Malaysia. Yet, statements and comments over the last two years by various organisations and individuals appear to challenge and dispel this centuries' old heritage.
Why, when it is surely the joint heritage that has led to the vision of a country under their own rule?
RY: Politically, you may want to say there is this big canopy of Malaysian heritage but when you take the pieces from within the heritage norm there are so many glaring elements that are not easy to justify with your environment.
One of them – religion – could, if not well contained, become a loose heritage in terms of interpretation and practice. I'm referring specifically to Islam.
In Malaysia, we have this experience of constitutional or social contract; but after 45 amendments I don’t see much of the contract in terms of the 1957 contract.
When Sabah and Sarawak joined us, the restrictions became more and the rights became smaller.
Within these restrictions we have the Malaysian heritage; not the physical or tangible heritage expressed through cultural manifestations but the rights and norms of the people as enshrined under the Constitution and the various laws.
Q. Would you say that our cultural vision, as exemplified by our political culture, had not supported the vision of 1957 and that's what led to the 1969 race riots and the drafting of the Rukunegara?
RY: When a man feels his stomach is empty, what you consider to be rationality goes out the window. In the pre-1969 situation it was a very laissez-faire situation, where the Tunku (Abdul Rahman) was happily leading the country after the hurrah of Merdeka. But the Malays were very much backward economically. It was economic deficiency that drove the impulse towards the May 13 riots. It was not cultural; it was not religious.
Q. So, would you say that 1969 changed our vision for Malaysia?
Q. Is the Rukunegara the vision of Malaysia, rather than the Constitution?
RY. I would say so. The Rukunegara never saw the light of day until well into the '80s. The Rukunegara was taught in schools and the singing and rhyming of it was beautiful. But the implementation of it is something else and it is questionable, even today.
Political Culture vs RukunegaraQ. Does poor implementation mean that even though we came up with a vision for equality, living in harmony, equitable distribution of the nation's wealth, economic and political considerations will always overshadow it?
RY. I agree with you, totally.
Q. If policies like the NEP don't support the vision of Rukunegara, then you end up with the Malaysia we have today?
RY. The NEP was a programme to fulfil the demands of the Rukunegara, that is, to have a just and equitable society, regardless of race, and not identified with an economic function. Sounds lovely.
Somehow, somewhere, the implementation (of the NEP) became questionable. Hence the 18.9% (bumiputra equity) being barked at or trying to be re-rationalised is still the order of the day for the political masters. That only shows one thing. The philosophy of the Rukunegara has not been adequately implemented.
Q. Would you then say that this is a great failing of the Government?
RY. That is accepted, I think.
Q. Do any of the ministries refer to the Rukunegara in policymaking?
RY. We hold it in high esteem all the time. I tend to believe very few consider what the Rukunegara actually is and how it should be implemented in our daily work. It has been in existence since 1970/1 but we have not galvanised it into national programmes or into schools.
Q. Surely, the ministries don’t expect a directive from the Prime Minister to do this?
RY. That's a relevant hit on the nail! Of course, they say we should do it first and we are doing that. We have been doing it but it's not enough. The translation of the programme, somehow, tends to go off tangent. To overcome that we should consciously create the programmes through schools, through NGOs and translating the Rukunegara into various social norms and programmes.
Q. Do you know whether the Cabinet ministers can recite the Rukunegara?
RY. I would like to say 'yes' but I would not dare suggest they stand up and do it.
Rewrite rewritten historyQ. Understanding our joined heritage is crucial to building our future. We learn our heritage by oral means (family, community) and through our history books. History seems to be rewritten in Malaysia to exclude, or not impress upon its readers, that many people had contributed to this nation.
How do we address that, if we create generations of people who believe that only one segment of society was responsible for the creation of this nation and that the others have no place? That would probably explain some of the remarks we hear today, not just from political parties but also from members of society.
RY. It is true; history is the window or channel of what is heritage. The danger of re-writing history unilaterally is immense. If you are too ethnocentric when you put our history on the storyboard you are not telling the truth. A historian of certain repute must be there to write it.
The major communities should be formed into educational panels to do this. Recently, we wanted to have a book on the students’ relationship with harmony and cooperation, but the writers came from just one sector.
Q. Do you think that by choosing historians from each race, in trying to give the impression that we will be writing a fair account of our history, we are falling into the ethnocentric trap again?
RY. You can't help it; this country was built by three major political (race-based) parties. They survive today not because of inter-racial significance but because of communal interests. That reality, I think, is the order of the day.
Politics and PolarisationQ. How did our heritage of racial and religious diversity of pre-1957 end up as racial and religious polarisation?
RY. I think the Government should be brave enough to identify these groups and do the necessary to diminish their role in society.
Q. Why the persistence in keeping to ethnocentric parties; isn’t the vision for Malaysia issues-based rather than race-based?
RY. The dissatisfaction, I think, is in the results. The reality of political priorities is so much pivoted on the interests of the immediate circle.
Q. If our visions are always eclipsed by political considerations, maybe, what we need is to educate the political parties, rather than the people.
RY. I agree. As far as I am aware, the Rukunegara is not taught to the party. It comes back to the question of political will – the leader must lead. We're a country that follows the leader and I believe Datuk Seri Abdullah (Ahmad Badawi) will have to do something more on the Rukunegara for the future.
Q. According to sociologist Clive Kessler who said in Archaism and Modernity: Contemporary Malay Political Culture “It is in culture that people fashion power as well as acceptance of it.”, Would you say it is our political culture that leads us in what we do and think rather than the Rukunegara?
RY. Yes, and I would like to add that political culture would be driven by the economic situation. It can never be political culture all the way. If society is comfortable, the change can take place easier.
Q. But what we see now is that the political and economic programmes (two aspects of life) are the driving force instead of the Rukunegara, which covers all aspects of life.
RY. In countries with robust economies, their politics is determined by the well-being of society. In Malaysia, if the economy is identified with the well-being of Malaysians, it will affect the political culture itself. But within the political culture there must be certain norms that must be set and pegged and driven home all the time. Many of us, within the political milieu, are well educated and we are thinking people.
But we are not translating enough into what we believe because we are shy of whether we will be accepted in our own party.
Current Culture vs Vision and IntegrityQ. The following is a snapshot of disquieting current culture in Malaysia: mob rule and/or violence as a means by which to express themselves, suggestion to close one eye, ministers who break traffic laws, councillors who break local government laws, party members who think they are exempt from federal laws, and over-zealous religious enforcement officers.
RY. This is the bad basket full of rotten things. What we can say also is that the negative culture has set in. Attitudes has been formed, behaviour has been subjected to negative norms. We don’t seem to have the means to counter this.
Q. Do we even have the will to?
RY. Before I answer that, I have to say that integrity has been a very recent thing here.
Q. Wasn't integrity part of our pre-1957 heritage?
RY. It's inherent in society but integrity, as the West knows it, does not exist here. Whoever says it does, I’d like to see him look me in the eye and say it.
Some of the issues are related to law enforcement, some to training of leaders, some to the attitude of taking what does not belong to you, some to the tidak apa attitude in terms of certain ethics and some to the raw religious translation of one's belief.
Respect for law has never been taught. As for the training of the police, nobody knows what kind of training is given. As for the training given to teachers in terms of racial harmony, is it in their curriculum?
One thing this ministry will be ardent in is in the transparency programme and how you translate integrity into daily work and relationships. If we don't, the incidents you cited will grow more and more.
Q. How can the vision of the Rukunegara be realised if those entrusted with its implementation instead act to counter it?
RY. We have enough policies but the translation and implementation needs to be revamped. When the incidents of mob rule pertain to religious action, many leaders dare not say anything when it pertains to certain acts done or claimed to be done by the groups carrying out the enforcement. They don't want to be seen to be unpopular within their group. That number is increasing; we have more people just standing and staring.
Q. The executive appoints local councillors; if they break laws, the executive deserves the councillors it gets. The rakyat only deserve the MPs and Adun they get.
RY. Yes, the people deserve the government they get.
Q. But not the local government; they didn’t vote for any of them.
RY. Yes, that's true (laughing). I think it's about time the political system train their leaders and uproot those who don't respect transparency and do not respect multiracialism.
Q. You might be left with a handful of members.
RY. You’re right. How hilarious that would be!
Q. What kind of culture are we perpetuating when those in office keep quiet when wrong is done and only speak out after they have left office?
RY. When you are in power there are certain constraints you must respect. Outside, when you rethink and decide to speak out, then the authorities come after you. We need to change certain things and certain laws for change to occur and I believe this is something Pak Lah would be considering in the next phase of his administration.
Q. What's the best way for the public to audit the Cabinet and the Government in implementing the vision of Rukunegara?
RY. Public voicing. Public solidarity.