AS we stumble into 2017 in a Malaysia and a world full of uncertainties, and a US President shooting from his hip, causing global turmoil, I am glad that there are actually two important discussions taking place now in Malaysia on the kind of country we want to live in.
One is the TN50 series of national dialogues with young people on the Malaysia they envision by 2050. The other is the effort to make Rukunegara the preamble to the Constitution. And I believe they should feed into each other.
Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin who is leading the TN50 dialogue, rightfully said this process is not just about defining policies for national development, but importantly, also about defining our national identity.
That many politicians are still determined to use ethnicity and religion to not only define us, but to divide us remains a dominant leitmotif of Malaysian politics to this day.
In his recent interview with The Star, Khairy stated that one of the areas of engagement in TN50 will be the subject of “an inclusive, vibrant and open society”.
This, he hopes, will lead to a discussion on values and what a Malaysian identity should be.
I hope these dialogue sessions will be a platform where diverse groups of stakeholders can get to listen to each other and think. And in this process the “I” can become a ‘We” – we, Malaysians.
Over the years, ethnic and religious polarisation has gotten from bad to worse in Malaysia.
The sad thing is that much of this divisiveness is driven by desperate politicians who manufacture fears and threats in order to maintain their power and privilege, and by non-state political ideologues burning with self-righteousness about establishing an Islamic state and syariah and Malay supremacy.
Never mind if such strategies lead to the destruction of the Malaysia we know and love, and the Malaysia that our founding fathers envisioned.
That vision remains valid today.
I have always believed that this country is big enough, and blessed enough for us all to share.
That was how the founding fathers saw it as they developed a political system and policies where political power and economic wealth of the nation could be equitably shared.
As other ethnically divided countries fell apart, Malaysia stood in stark contrast because of a fundamental belief that this country has no other path to follow for its survival and well-being, but for its people to choose to live together in peace and to share the wealth of the nation.
To continue to label the Chinese and Indians as pendatang, to portray them as threats, to regard other religions as a threat to Islam when the Constitution is clear in recognising Islam as the religion of the Federation and for other religions to be practised in peace and harmony, is nothing but a deliberate and mischievous attempt to manufacture a new ideological infrastructure for an exclusivist Malaysia to serve the short term interest of the privileged few.
With all the corruption scandals perpetrated by those elected and appointed to protect the supposed interests and rights of the bumiputeras, it is time that we start to think beyond our own ethnic and religious boundaries.
For there are larger interests for the national well-being that can unite us.
So I welcome the TN50 dialogue initiative which I hope will start a national conversation on the kind of Malaysia we aspire to by 2050. Will it buttress the recognition of Malaysia’s plurality in the 1957 Constitution or submit to the demands for an exclusive identity based on ethnicity and religion, and even then, one that embraces only a certain kind of Malays and Muslims, while others are labelled deviants?
Will we continue to see our diversity as our strength rather than a curse and a threat as these extremists portray? Do we want to live in fear or in hope?
The proponents of the initiative (I am one of them) to make the Rukunegara the Preamble to the Constitution is embarked on an effort to reinvigorate and reaffirm this national commitment and turn it, in the words of Tocqueville, into “habits of the heart”.
The objectives and principles of the Rukunegara, carefully crafted after the trauma of 1969 and launched by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on National Day in 1970, were designed to rebuild a sense of national unity and purpose – of a government and its citizens committed to building a democratic, just and progressive society with a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions.
They contain values that recognise our diversity and represent our commitment to inclusiveness, and our belief in democracy, justice, equity, and unity.
While some of us embrace these values until they become “habits of the heart”, too many others in powerful positions, in their rhetoric and actions, are determined to upend the best in the Malaysian character to refashion a new identity where those different are demonised and labelled, and therefore to be feared and excluded.
Make no mistake the project to create a new ideological infrastructure for Malaysia has been many years in the making.
If the leaders continue to ignore this real threat or to be complicit in this for short-term political gain, and the rakyat continue to be blinded by demagogues who abuse ethnicity and religion for narrow sectarian interests, then we will end up fighting for crumbs indeed come 2050, or even earlier.
As expected, any effort to be inclusive, consultative, realistic in facing the challenges of today and the future, is regarded as a threat by these ethno-religious extremists.
Revitalising the Rukunegara to make it the preamble to the Constitution is damned as an effort to erode the special status of the Bumiputeras and undermine Islam as the religion of the Federation.
Dialogues to provide a platform for young people to envision the Malaysia they want by 2050 is criticised for not using Islam as its framework.
Such myopic attitudes reveal the intent of these supremacists to turn Malaysia into a mono-ethnic and mono-religious country or at least, one that serves the interest of only one group of citizens.
We want to move forward and embrace the values and ideals of the Rukunegara that remain relevant today, if not even more.
We want to explore new ideas and build new understandings that will keep us together and promote our collective well-being as we face the difficult and complex challenges of an uncertain new world order.
We want to stride into the future with knowledge and confidence, not with self-inflicted fear and myopia.