MALAYSIANS have always been known for our civility and respect. As other supposedly mature democracies like the United States, France and Britain degenerate respectively into angry partisans violently speaking past each other, gilets jaunes (yellow vests) demonstrations, and Brexit polarisation, we should take care that we do not ourselves become a similar manifestation of an uncivil society.
Plus ça change, as the French would say; the more things change, the more they stay the same. The “political temperature” of Malaysia is always rising, no matter when it’s taken. After a year of the Pakatan Harapan government, too many insignificant issues have been unnecessarily politicised. Instead of being an effective opposition focused on the true and large challenges facing Malaysia, they have found an easy (and therefore tempting) way to score cheap points and play to the populist gallery. This is unfortunate; the component parties of the former Barisan Nasional can do so much better, and should.
I was there at the Rome Statute Public Forum in Universiti Malaya on Saturday. I am proud that such a forum could take place in Malaysia Baharu, a forum unthinkable just a few months ago. Although it was largely an echo chamber due to the absence of opposing viewpoints, this is still a step forward for our civil society.
Let me build on that forward progress by first stating that I am supportive of Malaysia’s accession to the Rome Statute for the reasons elaborated by many others. I will add one more reason for accession: We must recognise that Malaysia has soft power in South-East Asia, in Muslim-majority countries in the Islamic world, and in post-colonial emerging economies due to our non-aligned political stance. I have seen this soft power first-hand in my eight years abroad for work and travel to over 60 countries. We must protect and, indeed, enhance our stature in the world as Towering Malaysia, and be on the right side of history by acceding to the Rome Statute. In other words, the Statute gives us stature.
Further, I agree to the following: That our accession has been wrongly and unnecessarily politicised; that the Pakatan government can do a better job communicating their decision to the public (including BN’s original decision in 1998); that the opposition has dominated the narrative and has misrepresented the truth; that the government must not pander to the whims of a minority (the tail cannot wag the dog and democracy cannot be a dictatorship of the few over the many); that governments cannot lead by consulting opinion polls; and that our government must lead Malaysia to what’s right, not what’s popular with a minority.
I agree to the benefits of accession, and I agree to the disadvantages of not acceding. I agree to all of that.
Let me add a few more thoughts. The first is that Malaysians are increasingly anxious, for very many reasons. One reason is political uncertainty. We have replaced one set of political elites (BN) with a new set (Pakatan), and predictably, many Malaysians return to race, religion or royalty as very natural “original identities” where they can feel psychologically safe.
I am not speaking of identity politics, although it exists and we should try to drag Malaysia to ideological politics as the next step in our society’s evolution. I am referring to a more biological imperative, the basic human need for psychological safety, sitting just above Maslow’s first level of food-shelter-clothing in the hierarchy of needs. This anxiety in Malaysia mirrors the anxiety of the loss of privilege of the old-white-male in America and Europe, as society over there becomes younger, more colourful, and less patriarchal.
The “cure” for such anxiety is not name-calling, labels, or arguments based on pure logic and rationality, as though that is enough for anyone. No, the cure for anxiety is reassurance. Let’s add reassurance through concrete policies to make Malaysians feel more secure, culturally and financially if not politically.
Let’s also add reassurance through a communication strategy that employs the right use of the right words with the right tone in the right medium, and not speak at or past each other. As leaders, there is a duty not only to lead a country into the brave future but also to reassure those who are understandably a little afraid. Let us meet that duty.
Secondly, there is an increasing imperative to add civics classes to our national education system. There is enough uncontroversial and non-partisan “middle ground” content that can be taught directly to schoolchildren as young as 13 years old and starting secondary school.
Examples of uncontroversial content include the history of Malaysia’s political system, the nuts-and-bolts of an election and the process of law-making. To ensure that a good idea doesn’t become politicised, we can take existing already approved economics, sociology and political science curricula in undergraduate courses in public universities, dramatically simplify the concepts to suit school- children, and begin teaching civics within just one to two years.
The Malaysian education system was founded on a philosophy of creating large numbers of educated workers in Malaysia’s industrialisation drive during the 1970s-2000s, alongside the imperative for national unity. We must now retool our education system towards nation-building, alongside the timeless imperatives of national unity, creative thinking for a knowledge economy, and the maximal expression of an individual’s talents.
Finally, our national politics call out for statesmanship, not just leadership. Mere politicians still bestride our national stage, using profane language, archaic thoughts and angry/thoughtless tweets to hide their intellectual and moral bankruptcy. Stop, please.
We have elected you to provide a compass for society, and to show us some form of elevated behaviour in thought and deed, and not to hurt your own reputation and dignity. You are allowed to be angry and passionate and to call out lies and deception whenever you encounter them, but there is a way to create a public space for constructive discourse. Respectful debates are fatal to prejudice and intolerance. Yes, it is challenging to listen to those who do not share your own opinion; no wonder the Dalai Lama says that warm-heartedness is for the strong, not the weak.
Moral righteousness is a very pleasant feeling, which is why we must guard against our own cognitive and psychological biases coming in between two citizens both wanting peace, justice and prosperity. All of us citizens, not just our leaders, must create more spaces for joint discourse that is inquisitorial, not adversarial.
Malaysian society can no longer afford to have ships passing in the night, citizens living in our own carefully curated bubbles, and politicians speaking past each other. Let us unclench our fists and extend our hand. Open hands are neither naïve nor aspirational; they are becoming existential.
DR KHOR SWEE KHENG
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