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Seeking a new vision for Malaysia

Prof. Murray Hunter

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Authors: Murray Hunter, Azly Rahman

“ … I am indeed proud that on this, the greatest day in Malaya’s history it falls to my lot to proclaim the formal independence of this country.

Today as new page is turned, and Malaya steps forward to take her rightful place as a free and independent partner in the great community of Nations-a new nation is born and though we fully realise that difficulties and problems lie ahead, we are confident that, with the blessing of God, these difficulties will be overcome and that today’s events, down the avenues of history, will be our inspiration and our guide …” – Tunku Abdul Rahman, first prime minister of Malaysia, Proclamation of Independence, 31 August, 1957

Today’s debate in Malaysia has gone down to the lowest ebb. Discourse on democracy is dead; bludgeoned by the caretakers of the cult of secrecy of the ruling regime. The dream of a progressive Malaysia conceived by her freedom fighters and founding fathers and mothers such as Burhanuddin Al-Helmy, Ibrahim Yaakob, Onn Jaafar, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tan Chen Lock, V. T. Sambanthan, and even the much contested heroic figures such as Chin Peng, Rashid Maidin, Mokhtaruddin LassoIbrahim Lasso, and Shamsiah Fakeh has turned into a nightmare in broad daylight. If there is a period of decay in destruction of the democratic institutions yearning to grow well this is the time of chaos and anarchy: of Malaysia in the Age of Corrupt Systems.

The challenges of a nation-state today, seem insurmountable not because the idea of a “nation” of many, hybridizing with the singularity, sovereignty, and sensibility of the modern state is an impossibility, but because there is no political will to make Malaysia that nation-state be realized in its entirety. In other words, Malaysia has been made to become a neo-colonialist divide-and-rule hyper-modern polity. The apartheidization of society is deliberate and necessary a design in order for the political-economic elite to rule. Herein lies our intention to explore the theme of the “Malaysian Dream,” and propose explanations to the reasons for the rotting of this neo-colonialist construct and offer ideas towards a remedy. In doing so, we are guided by these questions: What are the ills of this country? What remedies does she need? How do we Malaysians chart a new world of possibilities? What are our visions? — these are the questions we are exploring in this brief essay on the future of Malaysia.

Malaysia’s predicament

Malaysia’s current situation and social condition is one characterized by violence; from a spectrum of hidden and subtle to blatant and outright display of it. Talks of a possible racially-motivated riot in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur and a US terror alert warning for that area, a massive rally calling for the end of corruption and a call for free and fair elections, the immense complexity of the ENRON-like case of the Malaysian investment project, the 1MDB and its story which read like a Watergate and a pulp fiction of global money-laundering combined, the resurfacing of the call to investigate the gruesome murder of a Mongolian model-cum- Russian interpreter of a governmental French-submarine deal, the ugly spillovers of the current war of political survival and relevancy between the camps of Najib Tun Razak and former prime minster of 22-years, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad – all these happenings within the last few months are symptoms of this Malaysian socio-political cancer, or a noli me tangere as the Filipino nationalist of the 50s Jose’ Rizal would call it.

How do we get to this seemingly point of no-return? Malaysians may now be reflecting on the spiritual aspect of the predicament. As Jesus/Isa said in The Sermon on the Mount, on “The Beatitudes,” one cannot serve god and money at the same time; as Thich Nach Han preached of the path of peace and moderation; as Muhammad spoke of Humanity as one and transcends race and tribalism, and that an Arab is no superior than any other race.

The remedy of these predicaments is what we ought to work on, gradually but surely through a long deliberate process of inner and outer change, one simply called “Education” — that gentle profession that will ensure personal and social progress.

Today there is a talk of crafting a peace-making and peace-building plan by parties interested in reconciliation. Our view is that any “common framework of nation-building” must incorporate the voices of those marginalized, and the aspirations of the diverse peoples, and the intelligent design of social change that puts people first and at the center. This is what ought to be done rather than erect materials and vainglorious infrastructure architectured to oppress and alienate human beings – those pentagons of power build with the blood, sweat, tears, and fears of the poor the rich enslaved through crude as well as sophisticated means.

In Malaysia, it might be a futile effort for political parties craft elegant common frameworks of a new-Malaysian when not enough social-philosophical dialogue is done through mass and frequent meaningful intellectual engagements that include the hopes and aspirations of the people rather that exclude them; dialogue that sought their opinion and suggestions on what matters rather than teach them to chants slogans of change to be shouted in unison at rallies. In short, we need to bring big ideas down to the level of language and meaningfulness of the class of people we wish to develop.

Each party attempting to work together must command the language of participatory social change, of social justice, of culturally-tailored socialism, or capitalism with a moral conscience. Party members must learn to view religion as separate from the state and be the champions of that man-made laws that are collectively crafted by living, breathing and thinking human souls. That document called “The Constitution”, that embody the spirit of a nation with common dream and aspirations and future must be the made to be the bedrock of nationhood.

Oftentimes development and the institutionalization of national policies are stylized as top-down, commanding, and of late draconian and punishing practices. For one familiar with the process of creating shared vision in an organization, this kind of transmittance of developmental philosophy is not only unacceptable but in due course will be a reason for a revolt of the masses.

We must examine and scrutinize our “commanding heights,” as the Russian leader Vladimir Lenin would say about our economic model and our ideology and our base and superstructure. We must align these with the question of human nature: as human beings what do we want and what do we need, and how do we differentiate between what we want and what we need, so that we will not be confused and our society will not be evolving catastrophically.

Malaysia – is at a historical juncture of suicide; a bipolar nation breaking down into pieces. We had a dream. That dream is destroyed by the Pied Piper who is projecting himself to serve god and fellow men but in reality, is now having money serve him; that pied piper leading us to Armageddon of our own nation-state.

Where did we go wrong? Why are we living this nightmare? How do we craft a new Malaysian dream?

Hard Times for the nation-state

In spite of exposure to the world via internet, news, social media, and travel, the vision of what could be in Malaysia has become a dark and gloomy one. Visions are hopeful and positive aspirations that can be shared as a national narrative, an encapsulated version of what could be called “The Malaysian Dream”.

However any dream has been suppressed with healthy political debate muzzled, academic freedom muzzled, criticism muzzled, where those who dare to dream or criticize the neo-feudal establishment are caste away through various means and neutralized.

The ideological apparatuses are now unashamedly used by the power elite to control, cajole, and coerce the rakyat not only into cultural subservience and political submission but also to instil fear of governmental wrath should citizens speak up truth to power to raise consciousness of injustices. The power elite, those that are ruling the country and whose power is derived not only from elections, arguably dubious in its recent outcome, are those whose hegemony is derived from a massive control of wealth through this convenient system of the Constitutional Monarch; a system that works in symbiosis in the overall framework of “Malay Hegemonic and Trumpeted Superiority,” as leit motif.

This is not just a one sided affair. The opposition forces in Malaysia have also become intellectually bankrupt, have lost any passion for Malaysia, and are locked into their own introspection. Of late, especially after the 13th General Elections and after the incarceration of Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and since the beginning of the Mahathir-Najib mahabharatta and vendetta in one, the Opposition itself has gone through as series of implosions breaking it into pieces leading not only to the inability for the coalition to come to terms with issues to be championed for the next elections, but also the implosion in its member party itself, PAS. The birth of Parti Amanah Negara (PAN), formed by those who no longer have the faith of the progressiveness of the Islam in PAS, signify the new forms of implosion leading to “new politics” in the coalition. Still, the Opposition has successfully been broken up rendering it difficult to play the role of contender of Barisan Nasional. The rakyat has lost faith in the Opposition, especially with the loss of DS Anwar as its mover and shaker as well as a Malaysian “prime-minister-in-waiting”.

This has come to the point where people may not even turn out to vote for the opposition just to protest against the government because of the ‘hopelessness’ they are displaying in terms of providing any alternative national narratives, dreams, and aspirations for a modern Malaysian society. Political analysts and social commentators these days are having difficult time writing about the possible triumph of the Opposition coalition in the coming elections. Internal politics in PKR especially since the much-criticized “Kajang Move,” and the plan hatched as a dawn raid for the Selangor Chief Minister’s position, the ongoing and perhaps no-exit-to-an agreement over the implementation of the “hudud” and the open secret of the hardliners in Pas wishing to make Talibanistic Islam as a model of Malaysia’s Islamic state – these two major factors add to the internal political combustion of the Opposition, rendering it now too weak for the disillusioned rakyat to have faith in a much-needed change. Even the crumbling ruling party, especially the one plaguing UMNO as a consequence of Najib Razak’s escapades, fiascos, and the metastasizing effect of the 1MDB, is benefitting from the implosion of the Opposition.

Global exposure, technology, and education have been wasted on Malaysians who are locked within a Malay-centric psychic dome that is completely opaque to what could be. Whilst globalization as a phenomena of movement of peoples, ideas, technology, and goods demand citizens of the world to adapt and prepare for the challenges of a multipolar, multi-cultural, and multi-perspectived world the Malay mind is still caged by its educational leaders to remain monocultural and to defend the rights to be exclusive and sheltered from the prospects and challenges of the world. This is designed and manufactured so that the incomprehensibility of the war cry and white noise of “Ketuanan Melayu,” or “Self-Ascribed and Trumped Notion of Malay Superiority,” can be maintained as a reason to live, work, and play.

No one today dare talk about what could be the best way to realize a society based on the simple principle of unity in diversity. Those calling for the need to remove the veil of racism, cast aside the garment of prejudice and suspicion, and embrace the idea of multiculturalism are made public enemies. These speaking up for the idea that all those born and breed in the country – Malays Chinese, Indians, etc. — are now Bumipteras or sons and daughters of the soil, are shunned against almost to the point of being charged as seditious people that do not know anything about the history of Tanah Melayu and ought to be charged for sedition. This is the dilemma of speaking up against the self-imprisonment of Malaysians caught in a historical time-warp and not able to see the prospects and possibilities of an emerging Malaysian and cosmopolitan society.

That is the discourse on a true Malaysian identity and a good society that has become a new haram, or a taboo, and displeasing to the power elite.

For this trade, the right to think and express, the Rakyat get in return a vision of introspection that makes the dark Middle Ages look like the Renaissance period in Europe.

More sadly while the rest of the region is moving forward, the Malaysian elite are content with holding Malaysia back to the risk where what we know today could and will implode and bring a brave new world of misery and disappear.

Imploding Questions

The big questions of nation building and bangsa are imploding.

Malaysia has no structured and streamlined operational government any more. It is run by kleptomaniac leaders who are purely concerned with getting what they can for themselves and demanding that they be condoned for it.

The states are failing, many not financially viable anymore, run by more morally bankrupt leaders who take their ques from their feudal lords who they pay alms to for the right to rob the country morally.

There is no such thing as proper federal state relations operating in Malaysia; UMNO tore up the constitution long ago and just ad lib as they go along.

The young of the country are bypassed for the old guard whose “Use by” dates have long gone.

Sabah and Sarawak have been raped and put into subservient position vis the federal government which is run by a crony elite.

Islam is now a political tool of persuasion and control. It’s a tool of the government, of which PAS hand delivered to the government with their insistence on HUDUD without Tawhid.

Education is another handy political tool of subservience. It seems to produce new graduates who cannot t think for themselves in fear of offending. People are being programmed to obey in Malaysia’s higher education institutions, after being taught how to go through life without questioning the status quo in the secondary system.

Today in Malaysia, the rakyat have not experienced good governance with any big picture vision. Rather they have been subjected to a government that is ad hoc and acts on whims. Nobody talks policy in Putrajaya. Policy makers only talk greed. Mega projects are mega bucks, and everyone wants a slice.

Government is a winner takes all mechanism, where those outside can eat the crumbs that the elite don’t want (or more rightly cannot handle).

So let us ponder about what could be past the introspection of UMNO, the leadership of today’s neo-fuel elite, corporate cronies, and opposition forces.

A vision for a new Malaysia

Amidst the chaos engulfing the country circa the 58th. Malaysia Day, what is left is hope, although hopelessness lie in the inability to remove those corrupted sectors – individuals, institutions, and ideology. Malaysia needs a vision, a new national narrative that all can debate and get behind to rebuild the country to the potential it really has. That vision was there before Mahathir took power and transformed it into total power over the course of his 22-years in power. The challenge indeed is to liquidate Mahathirism and start this nation-state at Ground Zero with the following changes to be made:

1.            A debate on Malaysia: A national debate on what Malaysia could and should become a national priority. There is an imperative urgency to this. This dialogue must be done openly through the media, schools, universities and all possible forums. It must begin with a true retrospective local of our history, so that it is appreciated, with a ‘no holds barred’ situational audit undertaken publicly on the nation’s political, social, and economic on the present situation today. One when the past and present is honestly reflected up can a future direction be chartered for all and sundry of what we should all call ‘the great nation of Malaysia’. Given the dire state Malaysia is in, with the institutions crumbling and critical consciousness needed for progress disappearing, it is imperative that systematic effort be engineered and architectured to make the citizens be able to think critically and morally. The ‘hang-up’ on the current narratives of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ and ‘Hudud’, and the acceptance of corruption of the highest order, is keeping Malaysia locking into the past, without hope of ever seeing a bright future where we can be proud of the nation we should be calling ‘great’.

2.            A clear separation of powers: A return to a national unity government with checks balances and power sharing until the country is out of crisis is mandatory if the country is going to be free of the past. This requires political parties to set aside their differences temporarily, come together and work on an agreement to save the nation from further descending into chaos. Each party owes its voters the willingness to see through a country that stops bleeding from years of conflict, corruption, and cultural degeneration.

3.            A transcultural-philosophical Islam: A return of the path of a progressive interpretation of Islam that would be an asset to the country. Focus should be given on the big Islamic issues in economy, business, corruption, and work towards the creation of universal set of morals that society will be proud to live within. Malaysia has travelled the mistaken path of Arabization since the days of “Islamization Project” at the onset of the Mahathir Era. Decades of success of the institutionalization of a spectrum of Islamic concept s and applications have yield what is today a process of inching towards Talibanism. This is particularly evident in this administration of Najib Abdul Razak in which there seems to be a loss of control of the political will to monitor the spread of “intolerant-Salafist” version of Islam. Absent is the flourishing of Islam that promotes critical inquiry and philosophical discourse reminiscent of the rigour and splendour of Islam in Cordoba, Spain at the height of the Age of Transcultural-Philosophical” Islam if there is a designation to that period.

4.            A responsive educational system: Innovative education models like the Switzerland system where students are able to master multiple languages should be considered as models to be adopted in multilingual Malaysia. In many places of Europe students are able to attend universities and undertake their work in one of possibly two or three languages. In addition students need encouragement to question what is, and this must start in the classrooms of the nation. No longer should asking questions be considered disrespectful, but rather praised as the ability to think critically. In addition, if Malaysian universities are to excel, they must be de-politicized. VCs must be selected on their ability as professional educators rather than loyalty to the BN Government. No more should BTN connections ever be the qualification needed for a person to hold the highest offices within universities. Reform of Malaysia’s universities must start at the top and be allowed to filter down through autonomy and true meritocracy. Without any changes at the top, Malaysia’s higher institutions of education are doomed to continue their spectacular fall in international rankings.

5.            A new federalism: This is required in Malaysia where there is a genuine respect and acceptance for the division of powers between states and the federal government. This is all laid out within the Constitution of Malaysia but has been abused and ignored by successive BN Governments who have acted to centralize power spurred on by the motivation of greed. State Governments need to be nurtured where good leaders need to be found and developed to look after state interests, independently of any Federal Government. This would be a completely new political paradigm for Malaysia and help bring Malaysia’s leaders closer to the rakyat. National development and management needs to be a cooperative area, free of party politics. Governments must respect the will of the people and work within those wills, whether a State Government be BN, DAP, PAS, or PKR. In addition, BN state Governments must learn to operate independently from the will of the Federal Government leadership, and act on what they have been elected for, the protection of state rights, and development.

6.            A new deal for Sabah and Sarawak: This urgent development is needed; one that follows on in the spirit of federal-state relations, where the 18 and 20 point agreements must be honoured by all, as part of the history and heritage of the formation of Malaysia. New talks about autonomy within the federation must be undertaken within the wide framework of federal-state relations to get the countries bureaucracy working in coexistence and cooperation.

7.            An all-our war on corruption: Malaysians must attack corruption fearlessly and take a lesson from China. Corruption is an Achilles heel of Malaysian Government and is drawing the nation down to a failed state syndrome. A country where corruption prevails has no morals whatsoever. The news of corruption and the nation’s leaders being able to get away with it is not the examples the young generation of Malaysia should be taking their leads from. Radical shock treatment is needed here and it may have to be a death penalty, even though this is an abhorrent punishment. What must be made clearly understood to all is that corruption is not acceptable anymore in the nation of Malaysia.

8.            A civics-minded populace: Malaysians must also play a role in everyday government and this is why local government should be democratized. Local people should stand for local elections for local government and learn the role of authority and responsibility. Local government is the third tier of government which has had little transparency. Local government is actually more relevant to the everyday lives of the rakyat and it’s time for the rakyat to take this responsibility. People with political party affiliations should not be allowed to run public office, so that city councils can remain independent.

9.            A new breed of leaders: It’s time to bring forward the young leaders of this nation into the political arena. No more should politicians whose ‘use by’ dates have long gone take up all the positions of power. It’s time for the younger generation to take over. Within this, the gender balance of national leadership needs a drastic tilt towards more female representation.

10.          A major political paradigm shift: Malaysian politics needs a massive paradigm change away from personality, race, and nepotism and move towards policy. The same stories and narratives about race and privilege are getting Malaysia nowhere. In fact it’s going backwards relative to the rest of the region and becoming deeply introspective. All political discussions should be in terms of policy within the framework of Malaysia’s institutions. That is true constitutional Government at work.

11.          A powerful senate: This means revamping the National Senate to become a true house of review instead of a house of reward and convenience it has become. The Senate should be a true state house where the interests of each state and territory is looked after by members directly elected by proportional representation, rather than the appointment system currently in place. In, addition the Senate should have the power to call inquiries into issues of national interest, and the power to block budget Bills, as a check and balance on the Government of the day.

12.          A passage to decentralization: As Malaysia is a complex country, its time through federal-state relations and local government to decentralise government operations within the country. Malaysia is not a communist country, but insists on operating as one through centralized planning and centralized decision making. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has become enormously powerful and this power and authority, as well as responsibility should be channelled back to local areas where decisions affect the people living there.

13.          A people-first economic philosophy: It’s time for massive market and economic reforms to take place to modernize the Malaysian economy to one that is influenced through market forces rather than regulation protecting the power elite and their cronies. Import permits (APs) must be done away with to allow a level playing field develop in the Malaysian business world today. The current heavy regulation and artificial monopolies that exist in Malaysia just go to keep a small section of society wealthy in the name of the New Economic Policy (NEP). There must be transparency, along with the emphasis on sustainability when land is handed out to corporations. The national land bank is held in trust for all Malaysians and should not be a mechanism to make a favored few ultra-rich. Rather than build luxury resorts where the local economies see little benefit, true community projects should be planned and developed. The gap between those who have and those who have not is widening. Market reforms are urgently needed.

14.          A shared decision-making: Consultants must be stopped from being the instrument that is making so much policy within the Malaysian Government today. Pemandu and the corridor authorities are on a gravy train racking up massive consultancies to develop policy for implementation. The policy making process must bring in public processes that involve the public into the process of determining their own destinies and develop more consultative government.

15.          A broader choice of political parties: On the political front, parties should be broken up and reorganized into strong grassroots state organizations that pick their own state leaders. State members should select their own parliamentary candidates and political leaders, so that states can operate government independently. National party offices should operate only as peak bodies and facilitators. Such a move will distribute political power back to the grassroots within the parties and prevent any one group dominating the political organization. This means that there may be a much larger number of political parties representing Malaysians much better than the narrow choices available today.

16.          A thinking-feeling-doing civil service: Malaysia once had one of the best civil services within the region. However, Mahathirism whittled away at the independence of the civil service until today it is a zest pit of political cronies there to serve those in power. The civil service needs to become independent again and made more efficient where the spending wastages are eliminated. Meritocracy must be brought into the civil service as a major uncompromising principle if the service is going to become independent and professional.

17.          A new paradigm in economic planning: There is a need for Malaysia to find new industries to invest in. The current portfolio of Malaysia’s earners is very narrow. The country is now suffering from low petroleum and commodity prices, and needs to be urgently diversified so the country can be brought to new levels of prosperity for the next generation of Malaysians.

18.          A return to cottage-based industries: However it is not just large industries that must be sought as winners. The country must focus on developing community based industries across the country. These small scale rural industries must not only be compatible with but act as a means to enhance the nation’s various indigenous cultures. This should include food production and be centred around local trade so that local communities can be self sufficient. Self sufficiency in food production may assist Malaysia withstand the coming ‘Euro’ type economic calamities that are occurring today in countries like Greece.

19.          A new peg for the national currency: With the reputation of the Ringgit partly destroyed by the Kleptocractic elite and massive capital flight from the country, the Dinar and Dirham should be encouraged as an alternative local currency arrangement. Not only would the Dinar hold value (being based on the value of gold), but it would serve as alternative medium of exchange, that is not subject to the forces that have caused the Ringgit to sink in value. This could be supplemented by encouraging local savings cooperatives that are run by the local people, for the local people and are owned by the local people, as alternatives to the large Malaysian Banking Corporations owned by the elite. This will help curb speculation within the Malaysian economy.

20.          A newer vision of a foreign policy: Malaysia’s future relies upon being a contributor and hard worker within the region the nation is domiciled within. Current foreign and economic policy towards the region is ad hoc and requires an intellectual revamp to place the nation within the region as a cultural and economic power once again. A new thought out foreign policy is needed so Malaysia can play a leading role within ASEAN and its entry into the AEC at the end of this year.

21.          A new Malaysian citizenship spirit: The nation must be made to be Malaysian once and for all. Malaysia is one country and cannot be considered in part. There can be no such thing as first and second class citizens anymore. This Malaysian brand of apartheid is morally reprehensible and must be abolished once and for all.

Essentially, below is a grand plan or the big picture of change that need to respectively be created and painted in order for Malaysia to offer a pathway to the realization of the ‘Malaysian Dream,” preceded by key premises.

We cannot escape from the idea that there ought to be winners and losers, whether it is in the way we give grades to students, design economic policies, organise the political system or, ironically, even in the way we understand religion and God and how these relate to what Mohandas Gandhi would call the harijan (children of God).

The continuing issues of succession plaguing the leadership of the major components of all the ruling parties, for example, reflects a virtue-less leadership. It even reflects the system of dictatorship and authoritarianism that we have allowed to take root in all parties. We are seeing the development of another dangerous excess of authoritarianism – the development of political dynasties. We continue to see this culture in the Malay and Chinese political parties as well.

If all that energy is used to design a better system of participatory democracy and philanthropy, and to reach out to other ethnic groups to collaborate in solving the issue of poverty, we, as Malaysians, will become a miracle nation. Poverty is not the problem of Indians or Malays or Chinese – it is the problem of Humanity.

How can the rich be saved if the poor are multiplying in large numbers? We will have a society that will need more sophisticated surveillance system in order to reduce robbery, kidnapping, etc.

The poor look at rich and ask themselves: “Am I poor because I am lazy? Or is he rich because he works a hundred times better? Or is it the system we build that will continue to make the rich richer and the poor poorer?”

What resources do the rich have à-vis the poor to compete in a world that is increasingly technological and technicist and informational? We have created a system of ethically-based structural violence. It is a complex problem but one can certainly make sense of it all.

We need to bring back ‘virtue’ to the forefront of our political philosophies and into our economic paradigm, and next use it to design a virtuous foundation of our economic system. From a virtuous foundation we will then see a healthier characterisation of how we design and reorganise our lives as economic beings.

Education, and education alone, though slow and tedious as a process of transformation, will be the most powerful tool of cognitive restructuring and the teaching of virtue. Education for peace, social justice, co-operation, tolerance and spiritual advancement will be the best foundation of this mode of operation.

How do we even begin creating a republic of virtue if we do not yet have the tools of analysing what a corrupt society is and how corrupt leaders are a product of the economic system created to reproduce more sophisticated forms of corruption?

We must engineer a revolution of our very own consciousness. From the revolution in our minds, we move on to the revolution of our consciousness, and next to our collective consciousness. Gradually, as we realise that a better collective consciousness can be created, we will be aware of the oppositional forces that are making real human progress disabling.

We must now become makers of our own history and help others do the same. We must first learn to deconstruct ourselves and draw out the virtue within ourselves, even if the process can be terrifying. We must then each create a manifesto of our own self and de-evolve from then, until we tear down the structures within and outside of ourselves and reconstruct the foundations of a new republic.

Our first move

In conclusion, here is the essential question: Where do we go from here — from the premises of change and considerations we outline above, to a course of action framed thematically? What ideas do we need to move in order for our nation to progress the way our common dream pictured? Here are our concluding thoughts on a new Malaysia one which needs the following:

“ … a brand new political will, radical political change, an overhaul of the system, a fresh new and different mandate, a prison complex big enough to incarcerate the long-time corrupt ones, a plan to redistribute wealth, to dismantle educational apartheid, a rewriting of Malay and Malaysian history, a re-threading of the moral fibre of the armed personnel, a massive arrest of political tyrants of past doings, a restructuring of the casino capitalist economy, a stronger local government established, a clampdown of racist and hate-groups, a return to the rule of law, a return to agricultural society, an experimentation with a radically new form of communal-styled living, a dismantling of systems that allow global corporate giants to continue to prey upon the natives, a return to the cooperative system, strengthening of labour, a re-education of political official on management, ethics, and political philosophy, the separation of religion and state, the dismantling of useless cultural and religious rituals, a restructuring of society based on the principles of radical multiculturalism and the celebration of transcultural philosophies, the reduction of TV time and TV channels, the introduction of the reading of the great works of arts, humanities, and literature from the cradle to the grave, the curbing of rhetoric on Islamic or any religious state, the compulsory teaching of philosophy from the cradle to the grave — all these and more to overturn the system on its ugly head.

As Malaysia’s most revered founding father said in 1957, proclaim in the country’s independence:

“ … But while we think of the past, we look forward in faith and hope to the future; from henceforth we are masters of our destiny, and the welfare of this beloved land is our own responsibility: Let no one think we have reached the end of the road: Independence is indeed a milestone, but it is only the threshold to high endeavour-the creation of a new and sovereign State. At this solemn moment therefore I call upon you all to dedicate yourselves to the service of the new Malaya: to work and strive with hand and brain to create a new nation, inspired by the ideals of justice and liberty-a beacon of light in a disturbed and distracted world. … “

Indeed, when people believe in the future of their nation, it will be strong. That belief in Malaysia must be rekindled and recreated.

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

Ahok biopic: The making of a man, the unmaking of a nation

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After comedies, ghost horror films are the genre most liked by Indonesians, with 44 percent saying they enjoy them. Apparently they produce a thrill, stimulate the imagination, invite curiosity and induce anticipation that the protagonist will prevail over evil forces.

Personally, I’m not a fan of such movies but I found myself looking forward to Nov. 8, when a “ghost“ movie was to be screened in theatres all over Indonesia. How come? That’s because the film was A Man Called Ahok — yup, about Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, former governor of Jakarta, currently jailed on blasphemy charges. I thought he was one of the best governors Jakarta has had, indeed, one of Indonesia’s best leaders, someone who wasn’t afraid to shake up the status quo.

It was a “ghost” movie in that it contained an apparition of Ahok, which embodied not just his spirit, but also the spirit of values that Indonesia seems to have forgotten, values needed to build a nation.

Controversy never seems to be far away from Ahok, from the no-nonsense way he ran his office, his zero tolerance for bad management, laziness and corruption, his unpopular policies (notably the eviction of squatters from slums), his fiery temper and tough talk (which enraptured and excited, agitated and outraged at the same time), his blasphemy trial and subsequent imprisonment, his divorce from Veronica Tan, his wife of 21 years while in prison, but also his amazing achievements during the short time he was Jakarta governor: disciplining civil servants, eliminating the ubiquitous pungli (illegal levies), transparency of the city budget, responding to citizens’ complaints, transforming Jakarta city transportation into one fit for a metropolitan city, cleaning up filthy polluted Jakarta rivers, beautifying and greening the city — achieving many things his predecessors were unable to do.

But you’ll see none of that in the film that was far from controversial. A review of the film stated that the “biopic about one of Indonesia’s most divisive, loved and hated political figures chooses to play it safe through a family friendly narrative and storytelling” (‘A Man Called Ahok: Journey from childhood to prominence’, The Jakarta Post, Nov. 10).

While the review provides a good summary of the film, I don’t think it was at all a matter of playing it safe. The filmmakers made a very deliberate, wise and insightful choice to portray the making of a man, from his childhood origins in Bangka Belitung, which makes us understand better why he turned into the leader that he did.

The film started when Ahok was aged 10 ( 1976), and stopped just about the time he became regent of East Belitung (2005). Ahok was born and raised in Gantong, East Belitung. His father Kiem Nam was a tauke (Chinese businessman), owner of a tin mining company, who raised his five children with tough love, teaching them to cooperate with each other, instilling the values of hard work and ambition, not for selfish personal reasons, but to serve others.

Kiem would drive his wife to despair, as he was always giving out money to people in need, even borrowing, so he could continue helping them. He said to her that their family still had a roof over their heads, and good food to eat. Yes, that was the case, because she sold some of her gold jewelry, so that the family could continue to eat.

While their relationship was often strained, clearly Ahok was a chip off the old block. He gave up being a doctor (his father’s dream) and a businessman (his own dream), to become a politician so that he could help people in a systematic way, unlike his father, not using his own money, but state funds.

The film is a biopic, true, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s in fact a microcosm of Indonesia, raising issues that remain relevant.

Discrimination: despite Kiem’s known humanitarianism and generosity, when Ahok decided to run for office, he faced resistance because of his Chinese ethnicity. As a child, he had once asked his father, “Are we Chinese or are we Indonesian?”. The father responded unequivocally, “We are Indonesians”. The film shows clearly how his father instilled the love of people and nation in his son.

Bangka Belitung has one of the largest concentrations of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, who have helped the tin industry flourish. Indonesia is the second-largest producer of tin in the world, after China, this means the ethnic-Chinese have contributed to creating revenue for Indonesia.

That’s not the only thing they have contributed. They have contributed to our culture (look at all those dragons, phoenix, snakes and Chinese lions motifs on batik!), food (too many to mention), much needed capital, sporting prowess and guess what? Also Islam, which was brought in by Chinese traders in the 15th century. And yet the Chinese remain reviled and have been targeted as scapegoats throughout Indonesia’s history.

Poverty: There was clearly poverty depicted in the film throughout Ahok’s life in Bangka Belitung. While in 2018 poverty has fallen to a historic low, the Statistics Indonesia (BPS) figures show that almost 10 percent (27 million) of Indonesians are poor. That is still a very large number.

Corruption: in the film, there was a corrupt government official who kept trying to extort money from both Kiem, and later Ahok when he was an adult running the company. So far, corruption is still the cancer that is eating up the nation. According to the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Indonesia ranks 96th out of 175 of the least corrupt countries. Well, at least it’s better than in 2007, when we ranked 143rd.

The lack of health services portrayed in the film is still the reality for many families in Indonesia, as are education facilities, still out of reach for many children.

Watching the film was a very emotional experience for me because of the injustice Ahok has had to endure. Talk about being punished for doing good! But it was emotional also because I thought of Indonesia and how the nation is currently ruled by mindless sectarianism, where religion is used to incite evil instead of fostering good, where selfish, narrow group interests prevail over the greater good.

A Man Called Ahok is a timely reminder of what it takes to build a nation. Hopefully, like a good ghost movie, the (good guys) protagonists will prevail over the evil forces currently haunting Indonesia.

An early version of text appeared in the Jakarta Post

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What Were Shapers Shaping at the SHAPE APAC 2018?

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Photo: Career Mentorship series organized by Global Shapers Bangkok Hub

Just over a week ago over 150 young people across Asia-Pacific gathered in Bangkok for four days in an event dubbed as SHAPE APAC 2018. For outsiders little was known about what was to happen. For Global Shapers that are now 7,000 strong globally the event was one not to be missed. The event was organised by Global Shapers Bangkok Hub, an activity largely by and for fellow Global Shapers Community, a volunteer initiative of the World Economic Forum. The Bangkok Hub has been in existence since 2012 just before the first World Economic Forum in ASEAN held in the same year. The past years have seen many changes including in leadership and collective power of young people to contribute for “the greater good”. That said, as the Hub is evolving out of the SHAPE APAC, which is in many ways its tipping point, the question it is being presented is: to what extent can the power of this autonomous collective– run completely voluntarily and without external funding, and now bigger than ever –turn into positive energy that results in lasting change to the outside community, precisely those they are meant to serve? So I made a conscious effort to sit Raghav Mettakhun, the current lead of the Bangkok Hub, down to share his thoughts and vision for Bangkok. Let’s see what we get out of this conversation.

First of all, could you share what SHAPE APAC is all about?

SHAPE APAC 2018 was tasked to bring together Global Shapers from the region under a specific theme. There are 7 more SHAPEs organised annually in other parts of the world map. Our main drive was to connect, empower and inspire young people to initiate impactful projects in their home communities. We selected Green Evolution and Sustainable Lifestyle as a theme as we wanted to raise awareness of the impact of their daily lives on the communities they live in. Participants chose a track that was most relevant to them. We had ‘Blockchain and Smart Energy‘, ‘Sustainable Cities‘ and ‘Future of Food’. We also included filed visits in and near Bangkok to expose participants to sustainability issues in real life contexts. Some of these activities included visiting local neighborhoods looking at how local residents have coped with rapid urbanization and tourism growth. Another one was at local fishing communities in Samutsangkram during which participants had the chance to participate in community lifestyles in the coastal mangrove ecology.

Photo: SHAPE APAC participants at Portuguese Embassy, Bangkok Thailand

Why was sustainability chosen for SHAPE APAC 2018 – what is its significance?

Since 1987 when the term ‘sustainability’ was formally put forward as an agenda to guide the global development, it has transcended from a political rhetoric into fields of business and lifestyles. These were amplified due to recent events related to climate change – record temperature and floods in Japan, tsunami and earthquake in Indonesia, drought in China, you name it. Not only environmental effects but social and economic issues too. Bringing my passion in the environment, we also integrated the resource minimization aspect to it where everyone was encouraged to bring their own refillable water bottles as SHAPE APAC is the first ever single-use plastics-free event.As Bangkok Hub, we realised that these issues should be priorities for young people and they too should have a role to play in driving the change. In shaping SHAPE APAC, we were contemplating over how Global Shapers can make a difference. Our key objective is to get them inspired and implement related projects in their communities.

How were you initially involved in sustainability issues yourself…what was your personal background?

Although I was born and lived in the city almost my entire life I must admit that I’d always lived in the bubble, a pretty big and thick one. I came from a middle-class background where my family is managing a textile business in Bangkok for the past 50 years. I was educated in a private all-boys Catholic school and an international school before heading off to the UK for university for a degree in Environmental Science – the subject that have raised eyebrows of many Asian parents, a subject that is unlikely to bring substantial income comparing to Engineering, Law or Medicine. I have been labelled into so many different things from my surface-level background. I am by no means an expert on the issue but my willingness to make change remains the same. For me, sustainability is not just about protecting the environment, not using plastic bags and straws in the name of saving the world but viewing life and business from the ground up, seeing what we can change, what impact we can make in our community in Bangkok. Let’s try not to fall into the trend and abuse the buzzword that can sometimes lead to greenwashing.

So building on from this big SHAPE experience, which was somewhat a “gamechanger” for Bangkok Hub? What’s the Hub’s gameplan in relation to sustainability issues looking ahead?

As many previous SHAPE organisers have said, organising SHAPE is either make or break. I am sure that everyone in my team would agree with me that it is the former. We became closer than ever before. Continuing on from SHAPE APAC, we will bring topics of SHAPE APAC’s tracks to integrate into existing projects from now, at least for the year ahead. We plan to seek collaboration from neighbouring Hubs and roll out some of these projects. Maybe I am over ambitious but I think it is not impossible. I have seen positivity from participants attending, and I am sure many will be more than willing to lend us a hand to impact a couple of hundred to many thousands! One of specific plans I have in mind include implementing tree plantation and monitoring across cities in ASEAN, educating locals on compost, and blockchain 101 for beginners.

Let’s zoom out just a little bit. So Bangkok Hub has been existing for six years now? What do you think is special about the Hub and the Community itself?

The hub has come pretty far since our founding curator Nick Pisalyaput, Director of Sasin Entrepreneurship Center, who was nominated by the Global Shapers Community in 2012.  What is special about the hub is the members – its utmost important composition that keep the Hub going. Our members came from all walks of life and nationalities, from a hotel owner, social enterprise leaders, to human rights expert and food connoisseur. Our hub is more diverse than ever before with a common goal of adding value to making Bangkok a better city to live for all. We look for young people who are passionate, driven and committed.

Photo: Some of Global Shapers Bangkok Hub 2018

I think that what we do should at least resonate with the World Economic Forum’s vision which is ‘Committed to Improving the State of the World’. Not only do we look for talented young individuals but we also look for those with exceptional level of integrity and service mind because without the will to serve the community, especially on a voluntary basis, members can be easily distracted by their full-time job and other priorities.It is really important especially in the volunteer setting that members get to know each other. Projects are best executed when there is trust, and teamwork is an absolute vital. Previously members were mostly from recommendations and referrals within our network of friends but now we strive to be more inclusive, what I mean is people with whom we are less likely to cross path in our daily lives. My aim is also to recruit more volunteers from the creative sector to enhance our diversity – with this could create comprehensive projects with greater impact.

Any final thoughts you want to share?

My vision is to educate and empower local communities to be more aware of the impact we are currently making in their daily lives – and how we could make a real difference. Resilience and adaptability are the keywords I would like to emphasise during my tenure in leading the Hub. For example, how we could live our lives sustainably through technological disruptions, demanding skill sets, increasing stress, higher cost of living but not higher income and climate change. The Hub will plan to create mini-projects led by Hub members e.g. mental health, environment, career planning, blockchain technology and sustainable fashion while we would concurrently drive a bigger project at the same time. Actually, we will have the meeting in a few weeks’ time to discuss next steps in more detail. So, let’s see.

It seems that the Hub’s ambition is still running high under the current leadership. Like any other human structures, it seems that leadership is one of the key ingredients in shaping the overall direction and success for the Hub. However, the definition of success for Bangkok Hub should derive not from its members benefiting from the structure itself, but how much impact it truly creates on the community they live in. I suppose there is only one way to find out! If anything, SHAPE APAC 2018 was an instance of what young people can achieve when they come to work together and a reminder of the reason that a structure such as Global Shapers Community exists. To hear more about Bangkok Hub or support the group you already know how to find them!

The SHAPE APAC 2018 summit was sponsored by Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage and Thai Beverage PCL. Also supported by SPCG, Tesco Lotus, TCEB, Six Network, Alvaascé, Makkha Spa and 192 Logistics.

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Reforming the Faith: Indonesia’s battle for the soul of Islam

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Nahdlatul Ulama, with 94 million members the world’s largest Sunni Muslim movement, is bent on reforming Islam.

The powerful Indonesian conservative and nationalist group that operates madrassahs or religious seminaries across the archipelago has taken on the ambitious task of reintroducing ijtihad or legal interpretation to Islam as it stands to enhance its political clout with its spiritual leader, Ma’ruf Amin, slated to become vice president as the running mate of incumbent President Joko Widodo in elections scheduled for next April.

In a 40-page document, argued in terms of Islamic law and jurisprudence and scheduled for publication in the coming days, Nahdlatul Ulama’s powerful young adults wing, Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, spells out a framework for what it sees as a humanitarian interpretation of Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic in nature.

The initiative is designed to counter what many in Nahdlatul Ulama, founded in 1926 in opposition to Wahhabism, see as Islam’s foremost challenge; the rise of radical Islam. The group that boasts a two million-strong private militia defines as radical not only militants and jihadists but any expression of political Islam and asserts that it is struggling against the weaponization of the faith.

While it stands a good chance of impacting Islamic discourse in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, it is likely to face an uphill battle in making substantial headway beyond Indonesia despite its links to major Muslim organizations in India, the United States and elsewhere. It also could encounter opposition from the group’s more conservative factions.

Mr. Amin, the vice-presidential candidate, is widely viewed as a conservative who as issued fatwas against minorities, including one in 2005 denouncing Ahmadis, a sect widely viewed by Muslims as heretics. Violent attacks on Ahmadis by extremists have since escalated with mob killings and the razing to the ground of their homes.

Mr. Amin is also believed to have played a key role in last year’s mass protests that brought down Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian, and led to his sentencing to two years in prison on charges of blasphemy against Islam.

The vice-presidential candidate appears to have since mellowed. In a recent speech in Singapore hosted by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Mr. Amin projected himself as an advocate of an Islam that represents a middle way and stands for balance, tolerance, egalitarianism, non-discrimination, consultation, consensus and reform.

Mr. Amin’s speech appeared to be not out of sync with the reformist thinking of Ansor.

To achieve its goal, Ansor hopes to win Middle Eastern hearts and minds in a roundabout way by targeting European governments as well as the Trump administration in a bid to generate pressure on Arab regimes to promote a tolerant, pluralistic form of Islam rather than use the faith to garner legitimacy and enhance regional influence.

To further that goal, Yahya Staquf, a diminutive, soft-spoken general secretary of the group’s Supreme Council and a member of Mr. Widodo’s presidential advisory council, met in June with US Vice President Mike Pence and Reverend Johnnie Moore.

Mr Moore is an evangelist who in May was appointed by President Donald J. Trump as a member of the board of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Mr. Staquf also paid in June a controversial visit to Israel where he met with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu against the backdrop of Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office trumpeted the meeting as an indication that “Arab countries and many Muslim countries (are) getting closer to Israel” despite Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians becoming with US backing more hard line. The meeting served to strengthen Nahdlatul Ulama’s relations with Mr. Trump’s evangelist, pro-Israel supporters.

While making significant inroads in the West, Nahdlatul Ulama risks being identified with autocrats like United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed who strives to depoliticize Islam as a means of ensuring the survival of his regime. It also risks being tainted by its tactical association with Islamophobes and Christian fundamentalists who would project their alliance as Muslim justification of their perception of the evils of Islam.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s association could further bolster the position of evangelists locked into battle with expanding Islam along the 10th parallel, the front line between the two belief systems, with Nigeria and Boko Haram, the West African jihadist group, at its core.

If successful, Nahdlatul Ulama’s strategy could have far-reaching consequences. For many Middle Eastern autocrats, adopting a more tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Islam would mean allowing far greater social and political freedoms. That would likely lead to a weakening of their grip on power.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s credibility in pushing a tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Islam rides in part on its willingness to subdue its own demons, first and foremost among which sectarianism manifested in deep-seated prejudice against Muslim sects, including Shiites and Ahmadis. That may be too tall an order in a country in which ultra-conservative Islam remains a social and political force.

As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s battlefields are as much at home as they are in the larger Muslim world. Proponents of the reform strategy chose to launch it under the auspices of the group’s young adults wing in an admission that not all of Nahdlatul Ulama’s members may embrace it.

Moreover, the group’s meetings at times coincide with clashes between its militia and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned non-violent organization that seeks to re-establish the caliphate.

The most recent clash occurred last week on the eve of a meeting in Yogyakarta of the Ansor-sponsored Global Unity Forum convened to stop the politicization of Islam. Attendees included Mr. Moore as well as Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi of the All India Imam Organization and imams from the United States.

Beyond militants in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama’s foremost rival is Turkey.

It is a battle that is shaped by the need to counter the fallout of a $100 billion, four decades-long Saudi public diplomacy campaign that enjoyed tacit Western support to anchor ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam in communities across the globe in a bid to dampen the appeal of post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal. The campaign created a breeding ground for more militant and violent strands of the faith.

The battle for the soul of Islam finds it most geopolitical expression in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well as Iran. The battle with Turkey has come to a head with the killing earlier this month of journalist Jamal Khashoggi while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to certify his divorce papers.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan drove the point home by exploiting the Khashoggi crisis to advise religious leaders that “Turkey with its cultural wealth, accretion of history and geographical location, has hosted diverse faiths in peace for centuries, and is the only country that can lead the Muslim world.”

If Nahdlatul Ulama couches its position in terms of Islamic law and jurisprudence, Mr. Erdogan’s framework is history and geopolitics. “The Turkish president’s foreign policy strategy aims to make Muslims proud again. Under this vision, a reimagined and modernized version of the Ottoman past, the Turks are to lead Muslims to greatness,” said Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s focus may not be Middle Eastern geopolitics. Nevertheless, its strategy, if successful, would significantly impact the region’s political map. In attempting to do so, the group may find that the odds are humongous, if not insurmountable.

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