This article is extracted from Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin ibni Tuanku Muhriz's keynote address at the National Aspiration & Leadership Summit 2018 on 4 February 2018
It’s very appropriate that you have put those two statements together. Mapping the ideal Malaysia requires youth to arise. To arise in terms of interest in the country, arise in terms of awareness of national issues, and arise in terms of engaging with others to map the ideal Malaysia.
And I think it’s very perceptive of you to use the word ‘mapping’. To map something is to present all the available data from history and geography so that we can chart a course to reach a destination. As with real maps, there is often more than one way to reach that destination. You will get explorers who will take the initiative to discover new paths to get there; you will get engineers who will try and find the fastest way; and you will get leaders who will motivate others to join them on the journey.
But you will also have people who won’t be as interested as others on that journey: they will be content to stay where they are. Some may disagree that the destination is the right one, and they may even have different opinions about the historical and geographical basis of the map in the first place. And they may be prepared to defend their views with violence.
The point is that mapping the ideal Malaysia is not as straightforward as it might sound. As with my metaphorical example, in our country today we have people with different views about what the ideal Malaysia should look like, and for each of those different visions there are supporters who advocate different ways to get there. They may even have different understandings of the journey that has happened so far.
Today some people want a Malaysia that is based primarily on their understanding of a race-based struggle. Others might prefer a Malaysia that is motivated by a certain interpretation of their religion. Others still might want a Malaysia that is based on socialist principles
For example, outside there is a mural that looks at history through the perspective of a political party. Its portrayal is glorifying, triumphalist, and the assumption must be that there will be more of the same in the future. But others may see history differently, and they may want to shape the future in a different direction as a result.
And so, today some people want a Malaysia that is based primarily on their understanding of a race-based struggle. Others might prefer a Malaysia that is motivated by a certain interpretation of their religion. Others still might want a Malaysia that is based on socialist principles. Some people would accept the general basis of our Federal Constitution but would want certain things changed. Others think the Federal Constitution is outdated and needs to be replaced with something else completely.
Tackling these divisions is the ultimate challenge of your generation. Across the world, from the USA of Donald Trump to the Europe of Brexit, long-established institutions are being challenged. The age of social media and the proliferation of fake news, where any claim can be counter-claimed with false reports, doctored photographs and fabricated data creates new challenges in securing commonly accepted accounts of anything. Instead, echo chambers are created in which people only consume news that confirms their worldview, and only interact with those who share the same prejudices. As we have already seen in parts of the world, this phenomenon can lead to great schisms in society which in the end is counterproductive to everyone.
In response to this, some would say that we need a strong, authoritarian government, in which dissent is prohibited and everyone must obey the leader. While that may lead to unity and even development in the short term, history shows us that such regimes are unsustainable. An environment of fear and culture of patronage means that no one ever succeeds on merit. Rather, people are rewarded for sucking up - or bodek - and protected by blackmailing others. Naturally, money becomes the mechanism by which favours are dispensed, and politics is reduced to contracts and positions.
To the rakyat, this is wastage and corruption, and the anger inevitably starts to build. In response to the threat of losing power, the government increasingly takes control of institutions which are supposed to be independent, and the checks and balances disappear. As has happened throughout human civilisations, such regimes can end in violence, either because they are overthrown or are defeated in war after dictators challenge their neighbours. Only in a few cases can a peaceful transition occur through the ballot box, and much depends on the reaction of leaders.
An environment of fear and culture of patronage means that no one ever succeeds on merit. Rather, people are rewarded for sucking up - or bodek - and protected by blackmailing others
I remember that ten years ago, after the 2008 election, there was a fear of violence after Barisan Nasional lost Penang, Selangor, Perak and Kedah. But it was the leadership of Tun Abdullah Badawi to accept the results of the democratic process that avoided any bloodshed.
And so there is a more democratic alternative to the challenges of the digital age. It is to learn from the lessons of history and, in our case, achieve the principles set out by our Federal Constitution and the Rukun Negara.
Every Malaysian knows about the glory of the Sultanate of Malacca. But today we can still draw lessons from the success of its adherence to the rule of law, separation of powers and liberal trade policies that attracted merchants from all over the world and created prosperity. Lesser known is the Batu Bersurat Terengganu of 1303 that provided that even Rulers were subject to a higher law, and the ancient agreement between Sangsapurba and Demang Lebar Daun that established that Rulers must be fair to the people in exchange for loyalty.
These are the predecessors of our Federal Constitution, which, whatever its flaws, were agreed to by those with authority. Addressing the Dewan Ra’ayat at its first sitting in 1959, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Rahman described it as “a comprehensive declaration of duties and responsibilities, affecting all organs of State and all citizens of the land... it is the compass which will guide us through the unknown future.” And in 1970, it was the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah who promulgated the Rukun Negara.
Democracy is more than just voting once every five years. It is about always seeking to uphold the Federal Constitution and living according to the Rukun Negara
“Maka kami rakyat Malaysia berikrar akan menumpukan seluruh tenaga dan usaha kami untuk mencapai cita-cita tersebut berdasarkan atas prinsip-prinsip yang berikut: Kepercayaan kepada Tuhan, Kesetiaan kepada Raja dan Negara, Keluhurun Perlembagaan, Kedaulatan Undang-undang, Kesopanan dan Kesusilaan.”
Today, everyone is talking about the general election as if that is the only vehicle through which we can express how we want the country to move forward. No doubt, they are important, and earlier the Minister was speaking about the importance of elections at the local level and in schools. But democracy is more than just voting once every five years. It is about always seeking to uphold the Federal Constitution and living according to the Rukun Negara.
These are the parameters within which citizens, especially the youth, should operate to map the ideal Malaysia. Those who operate outside these parameters with an extremist ideology are betraying what has been willingly agreed by those who came before us. And if we don’t respect what has been agreed, then how can we expect our children to respect what we agree?
That is why I am much encouraged by your discussion clusters today. You will be talking about the refugee crisis, youth engagement in politics, employability, interfaith dialogue, sex education, mental health, sustainability and clean energy, the media, and the role of youth in local economic development. These are areas in which advancements can be made in our society whether there is an election looming or not.
In the past few years I have been privileged to understand how positive change is achievable through such efforts. From activists in civil society working to restore the independence of our institutions, to tireless NGO champions working to improve opportunities for stateless and refugee children, and of course the children themselves, who cannot understand why depriving them of the rights of citizenship threatens the lives of others in any way.
From the concerns in corporate board rooms about how to locate the best human resources and further liberalise the economy, to the children of rural Negeri Sembilan who are pondering what the future holds for them in a region of increasing competitiveness embracing the fourth industrial revolution.
From retired diplomats and soldiers who tell me about a previous era where our unity seemed more solid compared to today, to our young squash talent which is already inspiring a new generation of Malaysian athletes.
If we have political leaders who understand these hopes and dreams of young Malaysians, then the future will be bright, even in our uncertain world.
** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of AWANI Review