THE great tragedy in Malaysian political history is that neither Tun Abdul Razak Hussein nor Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman lived long enough to ensure the principles, policies and objectives of nationhood they had identified after the May 1969 racial riots were fulfilled.
They both died young, Tun Dr Ismail in August, 1973 and Tun Razak in January, 1976, at the age of 57 and 53 respectively. They worked so hard and so closely in the aftermath of May 1969 to revive the nation and plan its future.
No Malaysian national leader and his deputy have worked as effectively together as they did. They had such clear common purpose that either, or both, could have fulfilled the vision for Malaysia’s future – and we would all today be the better for it.
Tun Razak, with Tun Dr Ismail always in support, became Director of the National Operations Council – to restore law and order from 1969 to 1971, when it was dissolved with the restoration of Parliament.
Meanwhile, a closed-door forum, the National Consultative Council (NCC) – comprising 65 individuals from a wide spectrum of society – was set up in January 1970 to “establish positive and practical guidelines for inter-racial cooperation and social integration for the growth of a Malaysian national identity.”
The Rukun Negara was proclaimed on Merdeka Day 1970, dedicated to greater unity of all Malaysia’s peoples; maintaining a democratic way of life; a just society with equitable sharing of wealth; a liberal approach to rich and diverse cultural traditions; and a progressive society oriented to modern science and technology.
The objectives were to be guided by the following principles: Belief in God; Loyalty to King and Country; Upholding the Constitution; Rule of Law; Good Behaviour and Morality.
Thereafter the New Economic Policy (NEP) was launched with the Second Malaysia Plan (1971-75). Its underlying objective remained national unity – through redistribution of wealth and eliminating the identification of race with economic function and geographical location, and through the eradication of poverty irrespective of race. It was to cover a 20-year period.
Both Tun Razak and Tun Dr Ismail restored Parliamentary rule that year, despite the vast concentration of power they had in their hands – showing their commitment to democracy was not just so many words.
As newspaper editor, merchant banker who grew a small bank and established CIMB, founding chairman of the securities commission and corporate leader in a variety of sectors, I interacted with their successors sufficiently to get a clear view. There are many stories to tell, but this is not the place.
Suffice to say that the greatest deterioration in what we now say has gone wrong took place in the long years that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was in power. There was no greater distance from the truth than when he said Vision 2020 was intended also to achieve a Malaysia that was “liberal and tolerant.”
That was in 1990. I had had to pay for it in 1986 because I was “too liberal” for wanting to have in this country newspapers with credibility, for openly expressing in writing in 1985 my disgust when the ruling party cheated on the Sabah state election result.
In 1998, as a securities regulator, I was the only one arguing against a calamitous decision which he insisted on in the presence of some senior ministers and officials – none of whom came to my assistance and a number of whom today are calling for institutional reform, objective and independent institutions.
The NEP was selectively implemented. The eradication of poverty irrespective of race was forgotten.
It became very much the Bumiputra against the rest affair. When the economy was growing in the roaring nineties particularly, nobody bothered. The corporate Galacticos (superstars) reigned.
The thing is we all are responsible for how we got to where we are. Running for cover, remaining silent, enjoying forbidden fruits of growth. But it is not too late. For there are dangerous extremists running around out there who are threatening national unity, the Constitution and the system of government of our country. All the good work Tun Razak and Tun Dr Ismail had done, and the future that they had wanted for us.
I fully support Datuk Seri Nazir Razak’s objectives, and perfectly understand his “desperation” and, I dare say, impatience, to arrest this cancerous deterioration. I do have a reservation, however, about involving the Council of Rulers in forming NCC2.
When you ask the Conference of Rulers to establish and appoint such a Consultative Council, but the Prime Minister’s advice to the Rulers is against it, what likelihood is there that the Rulers will go ahead and set up such a Council?
Even if the Rulers were on the same page on those critical issues, which likely as not they are not, would they act against the advice of the Prime Minister and precipitate a Constitutional crisis, another crisis?
There does not seem to me to be any other avenue but to persuade the Prime Minister and Government to set up the National Consultative Council, or at least to set in train the processes to address the critical issues facing the nation – given that there is no admission by the Government of the existence of a crisis that must be resolved, as was the case in 1970 after the racial riots in May the previous year.
But should we wait until something like 13 May happens before acting? This is part of the strong argument to persuade the Prime Minister to act now.
However discouraged, agitated and angry anyone may be, we just cannot de-recognise the Government and the Prime Minister.
The other reservation I have about necessarily having NCC2 is that we already know what the main problems are that we have to resolve. Do we want to run the whole course again? Open up wounds rather than work immediately to heal them?
Can we not return to the Rukun Negara and the true sense of the NEP, see how much we have deviated from and undermined them, work out a return to some kind of status quo ante? We also already have the New Economic Model to provide guidance, and the 16 recommendations of the National Unity Consultative Council that was formed in November 2013, to re-examine. There have been many conversations, many writings.
I would fully support any process that would achieve the following:
> Politics: Renew and reiterate Malaysia’s commitment to the democratic political system based on the Constitution, as further proclaimed by the principles and objectives of Rukun Negara in 1970;
> Social: Check the threat to national unity caused by non-adherence to and disrespect for the multi-racial and multi-religious character of Malaysian society – as recognised by the Constitution;
> Economy: Prepare the country for the digital economy which is characterised by innovation and use of technology, stiff competition but huge opportunities. Immediately, slowing economic growth is a big challenge that has to be addressed, including by working to have the Asean domestic economy as an engine of compensatory growth and make Malaysian firms take advantage of it.
Let’s find solutions. What I would favour are high-powered working groups, appointed by the Government after wide consultation, to study and report on how to achieve the three objectives I have identified, in a set time frame. The reports should be made public.
The Conference of Rulers has an exalted and clear role in the Constitution in specified matters, some of which relate to certain entrenched issues. I would not say the Rulers Conference cannot have a role in the affairs of State but the Rulers’ involvement would signify an assumption of a level of crisis which the Government might not agree with.
I know there will be at least two arguments against this view:
> The Government may not make appointments to the consultative council, or high-powered working groups as I suggest, which are representative and comprise competent individuals;
> The Government would not take seriously, even ignore, recommendations made. The case of the New Economic Model comes to mind.
Ultimately, however, there is no substitute for good faith. Power must be recognised. But power must be exercised with responsibility, as Tun Razak and Tun Dr Ismail amply showed.
There is a chorus of support, I know, for NCC2. I suggest a different approach towards the same ends without rejecting anything. To make sure, in whichever way, we move forward, it is important that that support however is not narrowly based and is representative of the nation.
We do not want people to say: there they go again; the usual suspects; the urban, English-speaking elites. The buah berangan (chestnuts) argument which was used by the Deputy Prime Minister in a different context can be made to be hangat (hot).
It would be good to fully reach out, with humility and balance, to all segments of Malaysian society for support to secure the nation’s future.
> Tan Sri Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.