IT was a meeting of minds to answer a single question: “How can we make Malaysia better?”
In what some deemed a “rebel” gathering, a group of concerned Malaysians, representing diverse interests, huddled together at the University of Oxford, England, in September 2016.
For two days, they tirelessly brainstormed to find answers for what they saw were troubling signs ahead for Malaysia. They slept at the university’s student hostels, cramming in hours to churn out ideas on how to reform Malaysia. There was one rule, though – no disclosure of their meeting and no posting of pictures on social media.
Only until recently, the cat came out of the bag when the man behind the meeting, Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, posted a picture of the group on his Instagram account.
Exclaiming “Now I can post this!” in his entry, Nazir said the meeting called “Conversations On Malaysia” was between a cross section of non-political thinkers and leaders at that time to discuss reforms towards a new Malaysia.
The band of prominent individuals included former top ranking government officials like deputy prime minister Tun Musa Hitam and former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Idris Jala.
Others included G25 founding member Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim, economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, social activist Marina Mahathir, Star Media Group managing director and CEO Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, Mercy Malaysia founder Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, AirAsia group chief executive officer Tan Sri Tony Fernandes and Islamic scholar Dr Maszlee Malik, who is now Malaysia’s Education Minister.
All were well aware of the sensitivities of the meeting and they did not want to send wrong signals.
But sure enough – it caught the attention of some people who were unhappy with the gathering. Nazir said great ideas from the meeting were made available, including to the Government, at that time.
“But sadly, we were labelled as a rebel gathering and the suggestions got nowhere,” the CIMB Group chairman noted in his Instagram post on May 18.
Nevertheless, he described the meeting as “two memorable days of learning and socialising in the city of dreaming spires.”
Among others, the group’s recommendations were to set term limits for the office of Prime Minister, separating the Finance Minister’s portfolio from the Prime Ministership, re-introducing English-medium schools, repealing laws repressing civil and political rights like the Sedition Act, allowing a free press and forming the National Consultative Council 2 (NCC2) to seek a fresh socio-political compact.
They also suggested separating the Attorney-General’s roles of Chief Legal Adviser and Public Prosecutor, providing more powers to the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission to deal with agencies that fail to act against errant personnel, especially the police, and allowing local government elections.
While Nazir first proposed the NCC2 in October 2015, the Oxford meeting debated and agreed to push for it.
“After Oxford, we moved and started to gain support even from Barisan Nasional component parties. The Star gave the idea publicity and suddenly, Wong and I got attacked on social media. Word went around that NCC2 was taboo to certain individuals,” he said.
Fast forward to the present day, some of the proposals appear to be similar with the current Government’s moves.
Asked how he felt about this, Nazir dismisses any thoughts about it.
“I don’t think about that because there was nothing really new or proprietary about our recommendations. Oxford showed me that there is so much more than unites than divides us. With the right environment and leadership, we can build a great new Malaysia,” he tells Sunday Star.
Nazir also believes the peaceful transition of power was a sign that Malaysia is moving towards a healthier, more mature democracy.
“For a start, governments can change peacefully. So power is genuinely with the people and politicians have to perform. We also see progress in terms of media freedom and institutional reform.
“Democracy is not just about the votes, it is equally about strong, independent institutions,” Nazir stresses, adding that the Oxford meeting’s recommendations were also passed to Pakatan Harapan leaders.
Calling the gathering a healthy exchange of views, Mohd Sheriff does not see why anyone would label it a “rebel meeting” as it wasn’t about being hostile against the government or ruling party.
“It was about making proposals for change, creating a progressive and tolerant society and a clean, transparent and accountable government.
“It is remarkable that the suggestions from our meeting – strengthening Malaysia’s economic resilience, raising standards of governance, human rights, freedom of expression and tolerance for our diversity – all happen to be the same policies adopted by the new government in its reform agenda,” he says.
Mohd Sheriff says he doesn’t know if the meeting’s suggestions had any influence on the politicians.
“But I believe the winds of change and thirst for reforms were blowing stronger each day. We are delighted that the victorious Pakatan Harapan is on the same page with us on reforms for a better Malaysia,” he adds.
On the most important change for Malaysia, Mohd Sheriff says it’s the need for strong institutions and checks and balance against abuse of power at all levels of government.
“With independent institutions, Malaysia will be assured of stability regardless of changes at the political level,” he says.
Recalling the aftermath of the Oxford meeting, Wong says Nazir had to explain to Najib the outcome of the gathering because they were suspected of plotting with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to topple the then government.
“Nazir explained the outcome and our suggestions. But our proposals were not accepted by Najib,” he says. “We are not politicians, we are concerned about Malaysia. We were invited by Nazir to attend the meeting. There was a follow-up meeting in Kuala Lumpur but some didn’t attend the meeting out of fear after Nazir and I were ‘marked’.”
Reflecting on the current situation today, Wong says it is important to see a new Malaysia evolving now.
“The past is the past. Malaysians have spoken up clearly and loudly. There is no turning back. We have to push for greater reforms,” he stresses.
And such reforms, including the culture of having open discussions, has already started since May 10 after Pakatan won the GE14, Marina points out.
She says the meeting at Oxford was kept hush-hush since it was under the Chatham House rules – a principle that information in a meeting may be reported by its participants but the source of such information cannot be openly identified.
“If our recommendations coincide with the Pakatan policies now, that’s because they are the most sensible policies to have. Most importantly, there must be a mindset change that forefronts justice and equality for all Malaysians,” she adds.
Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism founder Cynthia Gabriel says the new Malaysia today allows for openness and there is no need to go to Oxford to hold similar meetings.
“We must strive to make our institutions independent and our country free of corruption. The people have instituted a two-party system despite the odds. It’s been a remarkable victory for Malaysians.
“So we must not regress. We have a chance to build a better future, and it must happen here and now,” she says.
Datuk Azlina Aziz was the co-conveyor and co-host of the conference. Azlina is a Malaysian doctorate candidate at Oxford.