Let’s move from politicians to civil society, to discover what lasting Malaysian unity can look like from 2020 onwards.
FOR 2020, let’s do Malaysia differently.
The most important mental shift we need to make is from thinking that politicians (or merely swapping politicians) are the key to fixing the biggest problems in our country, to knowing that we truly have the power to fix the country ourselves.
Once we make this shift, we will be empowered to tackle head on the two things that most threaten to wreck the nation: racial and religious disunity, and a dysfunctional democracy.
For the first part of this year, I’ll focus on the plans some colleagues and I have for working on the first problem. The story and solutions regarding dysfunctional democracy will follow soon, hopefully.
On the peninsula at least, the unity problem is perceived to be largely one between Malay Muslims and non-Malays.
The recent litany of issues is a long one – Jawi, Zakir Naik, LTTE, Wong Yan Ke, the Malay Dignity Congress, and now most recently, the issue of Chinese New Year decorations in a school.
Each and every one of these issues follow the same pattern: from the seeds of distrust stem polarisation and an eventual hijacking of the narrative by extremists who seem to benefit personally from increased racial and religious strife.
Enough. It’s 2020. The line must be drawn here: this far, and no further.
This year, some friends, associates, and colleagues and I are going to work hard at finding real, long-term solutions to the actual root of these problems. Much is still being planned and finalised, but for my first print column of the year, I wanted to describe the broad strokes of what we plan to do.
One key premise we are working on is that once politics enters the equation, almost everything goes to hell. We must note however, that this is often because the political system and structure we have inherited and not changed is almost inherently dysfunctional.
Within this archaic system, there are always people and groups who thrive on division, disunity, and strife. These people tend to be loud.
But Malaysia also has its heroes – the people who really do put others before self, who are willing to work hard to build bridges, cross divides, and carve out meaningful consensus across communities. These people tend to be quiet, or somewhat invisible.
This year, our goal is to make those people visible, and to make the heroes heard.
We want to show Malaysia that beyond the politicians and demagogues (and demogorgons?) that invariably fall over one another to dominate the headlines, there are rational, sincere, peace-loving Malaysians that are perfectly positioned to start healing the rifts.
Mind you, these are not mere flower power hippies with their heads in the clouds. I’m talking about leaders from civil society who have climbed the ranks of their respective organisations by spending their time and energy demonstrating dedication, grit, and a commitment to a better Malaysia.
What they haven’t spent their time and energy doing is looking for shortcuts to fame, which explains why a lot of people haven’t heard of them. I suppose Dumbledore said it best: “Perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.”
From this pool of leaders and organisations that you may not have heard of (yet), we are hoping to build a tightly knit network and create a microcosm of what Malaysia could look like if we brought together credible leaders that represent a diverse set of communities, and gave them the task of finding solutions to problems in an atmosphere devoid of outside political interests.
A good example of the spirit of our project was the event held on Dec 26,2019: “Forum Jawi: Saling Memahami”, in which we brought together individuals from a wide spectrum, including Malay Islamist groups, Chinese and Chinese educationist groups, Tamil groups, and even civil servants.
This event was not a debate or a series of lectures or a competition to see who could outshine who; it was an attempt to have genuine, heartfelt conversations with one another, and use mutual trust as a foundation on which to build common ground, and find consensus.
It was a humble start, but one that I felt was in the right spirit of moving forward together.
We want to do more.
Some months ago, I wrote a column about how Abim (Muslim Youth Movement Malaysia) and Ikram (Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia) are two Malay Islamist groups that are well positioned to play a key role in defining a more united Malaysia.
They are Islamic- and grassroots-oriented enough to have credible Malay support but have also been consistently demonstrating openness, sincerity and good faith when it comes to engaging with other ethnic and religious groups.
While some of us may associate groups such as Dong Zong with extremist positions, our work with them has shown that they have many progressive elements within them as well, who are equally sincere and open about building bridges.
We will try things like showing non-Malays that not all Islamists want to convert the rest of us or turn Malaysia into some sort of hand-chopping nation; a good many of them are simple, God- fearing men and women whose integrity and commitment to service have religious roots, just like many of the rest of us.
We will try showing Malays that not all Chinese educationists are chauvinists with zero respect or appreciation for Malay culture or Islam; many of them speak fluent Malay, grew up close to Malays, and only want to do their part to preserve their culture in a context of diversity and mutual respect.
Of course, the titans that have come before us long ago started the work on building bridges like these, and making important connections. All my colleagues and I want to do is to build on and ramp up these efforts, especially in the sphere of public discourse and visibility.
I think when more and more Malaysians start to see how people who clearly come from concentrated segments of their community (be it Muslim, Indian, Sabah and Sarawak, or what not) are willing to come together, reach across the divide and start building meaningful bonds, a new hope for a truly united Malaysia can finally be born again.
So do watch this space. As the project takes form, we will continue to engage the public and seek your help and support in spreading the good news.
I’m not so arrogant to believe that I have all the answers or know exactly what is going to work and what won’t. I do know in my heart of hearts, however, that if there is one thing that’s true, it is that Malaysia has always, and will always be, #StrongerTogether.
Nathaniel Tan is a communications consultant by trade, and a patriot by faith. He believes that you and I can do this, and can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sunday Star.
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