Views evolving over the years


THREE recent speaking engagements – with Malaysian soldiers, young economics graduates, and diplomats respectively – saw several participants, in the question and answer sessions, quoting excerpts of past articles of mine.

I was of course gratified in the knowledge that there are people who read my contributions.

As a writer, one aims to illuminate, provoke or entertain, and while some pieces represent a desire to articulate thoughts, promote arguments or share research, sometimes the writing process is more forced: just type out 800 coherent words to deliver the contractual obligation, and hope the reader does not notice.

The other reaction was introspective.

After many years of writing some of this stuff (my first column began in 2008), I have probably changed my mind on certain issues.

On one hand, this can be used by detractors to accuse me of inconsistency, but on the other hand, surely views are allowed to evolve over a decade.

One shift I readily admit to is being too ideological in the past, and more pragmatic in accepting public policy possibilities today.

Still, in response to one interlocutor who said I should pursue a political career, I cautioned against simply wanting “good people” to enter politics: so many “good people” have changed their views dramatically having tasted high office; making compromises, plainly acting in their self-interest, and worst of all, making dubious rationalisations to justify behaviour they would have previously condemned.

Observing this phenomenon has further convinced me that it should be possible, and indeed preferable, to make contributions through civil society, NGOs and non-political institutions.

Indeed, it ought to become the norm, instead of the assumption that “to change society you need to enter politics” – especially now, when the most despised group of people in the country are politicians.

At the same time, one can continue to hope that those who do take the political route retain a strong moral fibre.

The wheel (to borrow a Game of Thrones phrase) can only be broken thus.

Another aspect of writing a regular column is in tracking the Zeitgeist over recurring periods.

One reader remarked that during Ramadan, my articles would usually complain about buka puasa buffets: the chaos that characterise such gatherings, the pathfinding skills needed in navigating the various stalls while carrying mountains of food and avoiding children running around with kuih and sirap bandung, the comparatively high cost (contrasted against the normal a la carte menus which are usually suspended), and the food wastage that often occurs.

Of course, this Ramadan 1442 is now the second in which the normal scenes of Ramadan are curtailed.

We are another year away from memories of those chaotic buka puasa buffets, although it must be said, social media reveals that there are places in Malaysia where buka puasa feasts seem back to normal – a similar contrast is provided by those who diligently stay at home versus the planeloads of families reportedly going on island getaways armed with “work letters” of various degrees of plausibility.

Last year during Ramadan – after celebrating the announcement that tennis was once again allowed under the conditional movement control order – I wrote about the ongoing battle between those who prioritised public health concerns and economic health.

Today, amid debate about whether we are already in a fourth wave, the same concerns ring true, even as we have begun our vaccination drive, itself hampered by doubts caused by reports of blood clotting or simply mind-boggling anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. Last year, there was vigorous debate about the legal permissibility of the MCO itself, involving Article 81 of the Federal Constitution (requiring state executive compliance with federal law), the Concurrent List of the Ninth Schedule (under which public health, sanitation and prevention of infectious diseases is a joint responsibility of both federal and state legislatures), the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (intended to ensure a uniform approach towards infectious diseases) and the Local Government Act 1976 (empowering local councils to preserve public health, prevent the outbreak and spread of diseases, regulate and enforce quarantine and disinfection).

Today, the ongoing state of emergency is fuelling rising cynicism and resignation, with some of those feelings manifesting forcefully on social media.

Last year, I recalled how the 7th Ruler of Negri Sembilan Tuanku Muhammad lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic which killed over 5,000 people in the state, yet he remained a strong proponent of decentralised decision-making.

Today, one quote from his son, the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Rahman, has become potent: “The executive authority must answer to the elected legislature.”

I hope he would consider my quoting that at this time as an example of being appropriately consistent!

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is the founding president of Ideas. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

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