Bridge more divides

THE memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Pakatan Harapan and the government was quite an unprecedented development in Malaysian politics.

Of course, it was not universally welcomed. Any political move is almost guaranteed to have its detractors.

I am not qualified to conduct a detailed discussion on the contents of the MOU, but I thought to share some views regarding the context and significance of this development.

I think the greatest significance of this MOU is how it reflects growing consensus that we can no longer do business as usual in Malaysia.

Indeed the “business as usual” systems and culture that has defined Malaysian sociopolitics for decades now has been increasingly exposed as defunct, corrupt, and hopelessly unreflective of the true democratic aspirations of the Malaysian people.

These will obviously not all disappear at the drop of a MOU.

I am of the view, however, that almost any innovation and change at all – no matter how small and imperfect – is on aggregate more positive than negative.

As a side note, this is also why I still believe the recent change in the government’s top leadership is more positive than negative.

Even if the only important thing to come from said transition is a key change in the Health Ministry, I think it would still probably have been worth everything that led up to it.

The MOU reflects sentiments expressed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who summed up his hopes for a new way of doing politics in the phrase “those who win should not win all, and those who lose should not lose all”.

The contents of the MOU obviously closely mirror the offer made by the previous Prime Minister during his last days in office.

The fact that a new Prime Minister would work with the Opposition to pursue these reforms – reforms that have been fought for by civil society for such a long time – demonstrate that once the genie has been let out of the bottle, it cannot be stuffed back inside.

This, again, is a good thing.

I have often preferred to celebrate Malaysia Day a little bit more than I celebrate National Day.

Besides the obvious fact that National Day has considerably less relevance for our brothers and sisters in Sabah and Sarawak, there is the matter of what Malaysia Day commemorates.

Malaysia Day commemorates the day four different states decided of their own accord to come together and form Malaysia.

This act of coming together is incredibly powerful.

In doing so, we become greater than the sum of our parts. Disparate entities coalesce and bond over common values and common goals. This is also partially the context of the recent MOU.

Coming together is an especially important goal in the context of Malaysia, where we have spent decades being pitted against one another.

Race, religion and more have all been used as excuses to make distrust, resentment, and even hate between communities a common feature in Malaysian society.

The good news is, ever more Malaysians are conscious that this is not the kind of Malaysia we want.

I have always been impressed by the deep dedication and commitment shown by ordinary Malaysians from civil society.

They have fought – without nearly enough pay, recognition, or promise of success – to help their fellow Malaysians through hard times, and to build the kind of Malaysia that we truly deserve.

Having reflected on this for a long time, I think the only reason these great Malaysians haven’t completely transformed our landscape yet is because to some extent, we mostly still work in silos.

The fault lines among different movements in civil society tend to reflect the fault lines in Malaysian society in general.

Over the last few decades, we have faced the combined pressures of political manipulation and how the Internet has (somewhat counter intuitively) created more division and echo chambers instead of fostering better mutual understanding and unity of purpose.

This has pushed Malaysians further and further into the familiar comfort zones of working primarily with people who speak the same language, look like each other, and watch the same kind of TV shows.

This is not something “morally wrong” or anything like that. I too have certainly been guilty of the common phenomenon where we want to work primarily with people that we feel comfortable around.

Given the particular types of challenges we face in Malaysia, however, for us to continue these habits will mean that we are very unlikely to create the major changes we need in the near future.

Forces for reform will always meet against forces that want things to stay the same.

Even if there are millions more people who want reform than there are people who want things to stay the same, things will not change unless those millions of people work together.

Especially in these last few months, as the systemic failure of our political structures became more and more painfully obvious for all to see, so many groups and movements have emerged, all talking about similar themes – essentially, the need for a comprehensive shift from the old ways to newer ones.

Everyone is excited about building and/or re-engineering our systems and structures so they actually reflect the democratic aspirations of ordinary Malaysians.

There has been no shortage of intelligent, dynamic Malaysians full of energy and ideas on how to fix this problem and transform Malaysia.

Obviously, everyone has slightly different ideas on how to achieve this. If we concentrate on those differences, however, each individual and separate group or movement will smash itself against the looming monolith of “how things are”, most likely having somewhat less of an impact than hoped.

I believe we will only smash that monolith if and when we run at it together, in at least some semblance of a coordinated effort.

Again, we need not agree on everything, but if we work hard enough at it, I am confident we will find that there are more commonalities than differences in our goals.

The bigger challenge is to negotiate the different ways each group likes to work, and finding ways to compromise among the many large and looming personalities.

In my experience, these tend to be the biggest impediments towards creating the type of critical mass that can really push through all the changes Malaysia truly needs.

It remains to be seen whether the MOU between Pakatan Harapan and the government will be a true game changer. I recommend we keep an open mind for the time being.

In the meantime, we should never fall back into the trap of leaving things to the politicians.

Ultimately, a better Malaysia can only be built on the back of ordinary Malaysians, and it can only be built if we decide to reach beyond our comfort zones, and work together with people we don’t usually work together with.

Nathaniel Tan is a strategic communications consultant who works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. Twitter: @NatAsasi, Clubhouse: @Nathaniel_Tan, Email: #BangsaMalaysia #NextGenDemocracy. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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