What should we learn from South Africa

As the year of 2013 draws to a close, many citizens feel that Malaysia is digressing especially on the issue of religious and racial harmony and of course the economy. In normal circumstances, when the economy is good, people will devote more time to enhance their income and less concerned about other issues.  

However, the inevitable increase in the cost of living especially in urban and semi urban areas will increase public dissatisfaction with the government.Next year the Government will face a tougher challenge to keep the masses content with the proposed hikes in utility and infrastructure costs that will further impact negatively on the relatively good living standards that we have been accustomed to in the last two decades.

This expected dissatisfaction with the rising costs of living will continue to strain the religious and racial unity that we have enjoyed for the last fourty years since May 1969 as the extreme groups from all races like Perkasa , Dong Zong and Hindraf will seek opportunity to benefit from the situation by demanding a larger share of the economic pie for their constituents.

The question is whether the Government which has implemented changes in the way it works through the Economic and Government Transformation program started in 2010 will stay the course and not dilute the implementation of these programs and put BN's political interest paramount instead of doing the right thing and for the interest of the country.

As the Member of Parliament of Pulai in Johor Baru city, the price hikes would anger my voters most and will probably reduce my chances to retain the seat at GE 14. That is a consequence i have to accept even though the postponement of the price hikes previously due have actually benefited and helped the people to cope and maintain their standard of living since the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Going forward i am more concerned with prolonging the religious and racial harmony that will ensure that Malaysia remains a progressive country. Malaysia will still progress economically as we are part of Asia, which will still be the dynamo of world economic growth as the US, and Europe recover, albeit weakly for the next few decades.

But Malaysia cannot afford to harm its globally acknowledged religious and racial peaceful diversity, as this would tear the country apart and defer our future economic potential. Neither can we let politics overcome common sense and divide the country like the selfish yellow shirt leaders in Thailand who rejected the democratic process and overthrew the Yingluck Shinawatra government using street protests.

The death of the great Nelson Mandela last week stirred fond memories of South Africa which i have twice had the opportunity to visit. As a tourist, I have trekked across South Africa from Cape Town in the West Cape to the Cape of Good Hope and to Port Elizabeth on the East Cape. 

Earlier this year i had another opportunity to visit Johannesburg again as part of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation led by the Speaker of Parliament, Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia to the CPA conference there.

For a country that has experienced democracy for twenty years after being liberated from apartheid, the politicians and people have for most part avoided stirring racial and religious strife and focused on developing a nation of proud South Africans.

The people of South Africa have put aside memories of a divisive , oppressive and often violent apartheid regime and concentrated on integrating the various black ethnic tribes , whites, Indians and cape Malays to build a united nation of South Africans. In my travels there i rarely met locals who identified themselves according to their ethnic backgrounds.

They always say they are South Africans.

That is quite a remarkable achievement considering the amount of bloodshed experienced in its turbulent history. The country is also unaffected by the ongoing civil wars in neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe and Congo.

In comparison, Malaysia did not go through such a violent struggle for independence as the South Africans did. But we did not do as well on racial integration post independence as we experienced the racial clashes of May 1969, just twelve years after we achieved independence from the British.

We have had a good relationship with the current African National Congress (ANC) government over the past few decades because Malaysia was one of the nation building role models that was used by the ANC to set up their own governance model. Malaysia helped to contribute monetarily to the ANC to fight for independence from apartheid.

Therefore it is a shame that South Africans who looked up to Malaysia for guidance on building racial and religious unity will today read news about Malaysia that features a lot of racial and religious tensions. It may seem to them that we as their role model are not practising what we preached to them earlier.

The death of Nelson Mandela last week was mourned not only by South Africans but by people the world over. Mandela was truly a great man as he led South Africa by example. There are many facets to this enigmatic personality that we as Malaysians can learn much from him. As an angry young man and the head of ANC Youth, he had advocated an armed struggle and violence against the apartheid regime. He was imprisoned for twenty-seven years as a result. 

As President , he changed his political stand and avoided the politics of resentment and practiced the politics of inclusion. He acted and strived to enforce unity among the whites and non-whites. For example he presided over a unity cabinet that had former President F.W de Klerk and his successor Thabo Mbeki as joint Deputy Presidents. That decision was unpopular with his own non-white supporters and the white opponents too.

His appearance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final to support the hated Springboks who represented South Africa was a difficult decision as the gesture lost him more popular votes among non-whites as they accused him of pandering to the whites.

He later set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the specific purpose to allow the victims and families of the victims to share their experiences and testify against the perpetrators of apartheid and in certain cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators. 

The objective of the Commission was not to punish but to reconcile the victims and agents of apartheid. The Commission was not a popular decision too and was against the overwhelming feelings of Mandela's non white supporters at the time but Mandela went against the majority opinion because he thought reconciliation and not retribution would be the best solution for South Africa.

The courage that Mandela displayed to go against his own base of support to achieve his goal of racial integration and truly create a single South African identity and reduce division in the country is the mark of a true leader. He sacrificed his own popularity to do the right thing for the future of the country. It wasn't a surprise that he did not seek re-election in 1999.

On hindsight, he made the right decision. As a result, the barriers between non-whites and whites in South Africa have substantially been removed. The Springboks are now represented and supported by both groups. Television broadcasts featuring interracial couples are common and accepted by the public.

There is more non white participation in business now due to the affirmative action by the South African government modelled on our bumiputra assistance program.

In my opinion the legacy that Mandela left for South Africa should be emulated by our leaders here. South Africans used to learn from us on how to build a successful racially integrated nation-building model. But now i feel that we should learn from them how to build a nation that is truly for all Malaysians for the future and not to habitually revisit the past for political gain.

Our government should not listen to the extreme groups in society that still want to divide the country by race , religion , education and commerce. It should be more inclusive and not pander to the rethoric of the fringe.

Our leadership should be brave and do the right thing for the long term future of the country. For example they should not submit to the demands of extremist groups that would damage our racial and religious unity in the long term.

The South African government faces the same pressure from similar type of groups but does not succumb to the threats that would endanger the creation of the rainbow nation of South Africans. They know that they cannot return to the past as it would be disastrous for the country.

Finally the ANC and BN face the same problem in government. Both are parties that won independence from colonialists. Today both are struggling to keep a hold on power as a younger educated generation are less appreciative of their independence struggle. 

They are more concerned about mismanagement and corruption and demand better governance of the country's rich natural resources. Sounds familiar?

The BN leadership should follow Mandela and lead by example and pursue stronger racial unity to create a nation of citizens who are proud to call themselves Malaysians. And if it wishes to stay in power longer , it should just practice good governance and reduce mismanagement and corruption. 

That is the only way for a multiethnic and multireligious country like Malaysia to succeed in the future. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all Malaysians.

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