When Merdeka was granted half a century ago, we inherited a number of items of unfinished business, the most critical of which was the urgent necessity to create a united Malayan nation and, soon afterwards, a Malaysian nation.
The late Tom Harrison, the famous curator of the Sarawak Museum, described Malaysia as “a tangle of peoples” in an article published in the Malaysian Outlook, a small journal I edited in Australia in 1963, in a fit of patriotism. “Konfrontasi” was in full swing then, and, given the dangerously unpredictable and volatile behaviour of Bung Karno of Indonesia, our future as a nation was by no means assured.
Harrison was not thinking so much about the Malays, Chinese and Indians of the Malay peninsula, but rather the often forgotten peoples making up the many different tribal and ethnic groups with their many different customs, religious beliefs and languages inhabiting Sabah and Sarawak. Almost overnight, they found themselves the citizens of a new and, to them, somewhat vague political creation called Malaysia. The Kadazan Dusuns, Bajaus, Punans, Penans, Kayans, Muruts and various others, I fear, still remain very much outside our consciousness, even after more than four decades of Malaysia. Need I say more about this serious lapse of memory? What national unity are we talking about without them?
When the British government responsible for the administration of these two colonial territories decided to bring to an honourable and dignified end of their stewardship and allow the sun to set on these, the last remnants of their Eastern Empire, the newly-proclaimed state of Malaysia took on not only additional responsibilities for her new citizens, but also assumed a new character and identity. National unity with which we had been preoccupied all those years before and since Merdeka took on a new urgency.
Young Malays of my generation, growing up under colonial rule, saw Merdeka as a great opportunity to bring about change, with courage, compassion and wisdom, and rectify those aspects of colonialism that we had considered repugnant to our sense justice, pride and dignity.
Creating a truly united Malayan nation was the number one item on the national agenda, one that was inspired by Tunku Abdul Rahman’s exemplary personal example of inclusiveness in which race was nothing more than an accident in the larger scheme of things Malayan, and later, Malaysian. Tunku saw strength in diversity and did everything possible to drive home the need for all races to unite as one and to show their love and affection for the country of their birth. Those were the early days of independence when the Constitution absolutely guaranteed the citizens their rights. The people felt they belonged and had full confidence in the institutions of government which remained largely unsullied. The same cannot be said of many of our national institutions today.
Looking back now over the last 50 years, we have achieved a great deal in material terms, far more than the most bullish among us would have dared to imagine. If material progress were the only measure of success in creating unity out of diversity, then we could reasonably claim to have arrived. But, have we? Or are we just postponing the evil day by papering over the cracks and glossing over issues that divide us, while ignoring the legitimate concerns, demands and aspirations of our people for a rightful place in the Malaysian sun.
The time to rediscover and re-establish our sense of Malaysian-ness is now and this can best be done by allowing the people of each community, large and small, the freedom to retain their cultural practices, traditions and values, always recognising that with freedom there is a corresponding responsibility to contribute to national unity. In matters of culture and language, people can usually be relied upon to decide for themselves. All cultures must be treated as Malaysian, and celebrated as such. They must not be politicised.
We must, for a start, accept cultural diversity, in the fullest sense, as an article of faith. Merely tolerating the cultural traditions of the other races is simply not good enough anymore for a country that, after 50 years of independence, is still groping for that elusive Malaysian identity. Our aim should be to achieve smooth and seamless integration that will stand the test of time as an essential prelude to achieving the essence of Malaysian- ness, that state of being that defies definition or description, but captures our imagination as nothing else can.
The role of education in nation building and in bringing about social and economic change is not in dispute. We have seen what investment in education has done for thousands of our people, of all races, particularly the Malays who have, within one generation, completely transformed themselves in social and economic terms.
On the debit side, the thousands of unemployable young men and women have hampered efforts to develop and improve our human capital. Our decision to downgrade English more than three decades ago has completely rendered our young people ill-equipped for employment in the new knowledge-based industries. The more serious overall consequence of our policy of neglecting the most important international language makes Malaysia a much less competitive investment destination for the higher-end technologies that could help Malaysia to leapfrog up the knowledge and value chain.
The application of some aspects of the New Economic Policy has not helped in the process of human capital development because by our depriving many non-Bumiputeras of equal educational opportunities and by discriminating against them in public sector employment, there is still today an overwhelming sense of alienation and injustice. I have always subscribed to the view that you could only justify a policy of positive discrimination if it was implemented in strict observance of the aim and spirit of that policy which was, in this case, principally to alleviate the poverty that afflicted many millions of people of all races in our community.
I have said it before, and I will say it again. When it became evident that the spirit of this great social experiment was being violated blatantly to serve the interests of the few politically connected breed of self-proclaimed Melayu Baru instead of improving the lot of the disadvantaged, the NEP tragically lost its legitimacy. But I digress. The point I am making is that unfair policies whether social or political detract from our efforts to develop and enrich our human capital with the result that the essential spirit of common heritage and shared values, of being part of an important national initiative is lost in the politics of discrimination. There is no evidence to suggest that people will give of their best, make sacrifices, and be loyal to the country of their birth when they are made to feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are second-class citizens.
National unity must be predicated on equality of opportunity, justice and equity. Anything less is unsustainable. Fifty years of Merdeka still finds us groping in a tunnel of darkness for that elusive, overarching spiritual experience that defines the essence of “Malaysian-ness”.
It would be unfair to blame the government entirely for the present state of race relations in our country. It must, however, admit that it has not always been energetic and competent in dealing with problems that are largely associated with official policies that are seen as Malay-centric. Policies affecting education, language and culture tend to generate a highly-charged emotional response, and are always divisive. Change has to be managed with compassion and imagination.
A word about our international competitiveness. A stable political system is a prerequisite as is an efficient and incorruptible bureaucracy. We need to ensure a ready supply of trained and trainable human resources, hence the need for investment in developing our human capital. But above all else, we all need to operate in an ethical way, fight and reduce corrupt practices so as to be able to attract investments to sustain our national economic development. Corruption adds a cost to doing business, and it is in our interests to reduce it so that that we can improve our competitive position.
In summary, therefore, the future of Malaysia, given its racial and cultural complexity, depends on our ability to encourage and promote unity in diversity, focus on similarities and values that unite us rather than harping on differences that divide us. We have our work cut out for us as we seek to bring about a convergence of interests as a basis for developing mutual trust, and respect for diversity in all its manifestations.