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Our rise or fall depends on moderate path ahead

I refer to the thoughtful letter written by my former colleague Sheriff Kassim recent letter in The Star (July 7) and also in the NST (July 8) on ‘Moderation?’ Sheriff rightly concludes that “the growth of the economy and the happiness of the people depend on the country taking the moderate path, in line with the principles enshrined in the constitution and our obligations as a member of the international community”.

Sheriff indicated that there are many ‘sacred cows’ like the resistance to change, the New Economic Policy (NEP), the university entry qualifications, the Education Policy and inter alia , government procurement policies. I believe that these sacred cows  have to be managed better and removed for Malaysia to progress.  

I fully  agree with Sheriff  that the return to the moderate path in our national policies and practices will enable Malaysia to succeed and prosper and rise as a united nation in the longer term, or fall.

However, I have to confess that I fear that Malaysia will gradually decline, decay and fal, if  our beloved country continues to veer from the path of moderation. Indeed Malaysia could slowly slide like Greece has if we  adopt more extremist and parochial policies and tolerate narrow and polluted practices.

Return to glory and rise

I also believe that Malaysia can return to our glorious days when all our races mixed freely and regarded our diversity as our strengths. Then we enjoyed greater national unity, less Islamisation in our society and our national schools. There was also certainly much lower levels of putrid politicking, on both sides of the House.

But I would respectfully disagree with the views sometimes expressed that the moderate path can only be achieved if we are prepared to accept English as our sole medium in our national schools.

Surely we can carry on with Bahasa Malaysia as our main medium in our national schools, but with English taught seriously as a second medium of instruction.Why should we forgo our national language, Bahasa Malaysia, as our main medium of instruction? Children worldwide are known to be able to learn several languages with ease. So why can’t our children do so? We could also teach English literature and Science and Maths in English, to raise their capabilities.

Chinese and Tamil as compulsory subjects?

At  the same time, the mother tongues like Chinese and Tamil for can be made compulsory subjects for Chinese and Tamil students, while Arabic could also be taught for those who opt to learn another language.

This way the vernacular schools would have to compete with the national schools for pupils and teachers, to enhance their quality. This merging of all Malaysian students in the old ‘English Schools’ would reduce the stigma of growing Islamisation and would raise national unity and quality in our national school system.

Proposed new national consensus for the moderate path ahead

However, there are many more national challenges that we must overcome, to succeed in adopting and sincerely practicing the Malaysian middle path of moderation.

I have listed out some Moderate Measures below, for further consultation and debate. But  more modifications will have to be made to develop and adopt a new national consensus, as follows:

1. We must all reaffirm our loyalty to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the sultans and heads of states.

2. We have to fully support the federal and state constitutions in word and spirit and reaffirm our commitment to strengthen the Rukunegara.

3. We must all agree that Malaysia belongs to all Malaysians, regardless of race and religion and geography. We have to remove the acute divisive feelings caused by notions of ketuananship, racial and religious bigotry and supremacy .

4. Bumiputraism has created racial and religious divisiveness and dichotomy in Malaysia. This can and should be phased out as soon as possible and replaced by the bottom 40 percent income anti-poverty policies and programmers, enunciated so well in the 11th Malaysia Plan.

Most of the poorest and most underprivileged Malaysians are still the Malays, Orang Asli and Orang Asal of Sabah and Sarawak. So all Malaysians regardless of race or religion should benefit equally from affirmative action policies to enhance national unity, instead of eroding it. Divisive policies and practices are not moderate issues, but can be construed as somewhat ‘extremist’.

5. As pointed out by Sheriff, meritocracy, competition, efficiency, countering corruption and slashing government expenditure wastage must be given much higher priority, to build good governance and moderation. These important goals have been getting much less government attention, hence the declining quality of governance over the years .

This is one major reason why Malaysia is now caught in the middle income trap and is suffering from so many social, economic and political ills.

We seem to find it very difficult to break out of this income trap ,while many of our Asian countries that were once behind us have forged ahead of us. Some of our neighbours who are still behind us, are also catching up with us. They will progress faster than us if we continue to advance at a slower pace on all fronts, by being caught in the trap.

Don’t slide like Greece

6. Although we are proud of our relatively strong economic fundamentals at this time, can we  honestly ask ourselves - how long can we remain strong and sustainable? After all, some former very healthy countries like Greece have now become failed states. Can’t we later become like Greece, too?

With the current worrisome political uncertainty, the declining ringgit, which does not appear to be temporary, our national and international confidence levels are not high or rising. Furthermore given our narrow buffers for our budget deficits, national debt and weakening balance of payments, even the encouragement derived from the recent favourable Fitch ratings, may be temporary and not sustainable.

We therefore need to buttress our economy with more real reforms and transformation, to ensure sustained growth and development and better equity and income distribution, to benefit the rakyat.

7. Thus I agree with Sheriff that the rule of law must be protected and promoted more strongly, to preserve and enhance our national and international confidence.

However, crime has been high ,and we especially in the urban areas, still feel insecure. I have never seen so many gated areas in housing estates in the past. The national institutions like the Judiciary, the police, the civil service, Immigration, Customs, the education system and indeed the whole government machinery is suffering from poor overall public perception problems of decline and deterioration.

Some would argue that we are experiencing the early signs of a failing state? I do not believe this, but there are many who do think this way and that is the problem of less confidence and more pessimism.

How else do we explain the continuing severe brain drain, where many of our best brains are in Singapore, Australia, UK and indeed all over the world. At the same time Malaysian businessmen and entrepreneurs will tell you quite openly now that they are finding it very difficult to recruit and especially retain, able and experienced managers and professionals.

Where have many of our bright minds gone and why have they left us for greener and fairer pastures?

8. Many former civil servant colleagues like Sheriff and those in the G25, G33 and most Malaysian moderates would be aware that many senior civil servants like us did often advise the government in the past, while within the service. We urged them professionally and politely to cut the national coat according to the available cloth, to live within our means, and to think long-term and not just seek short-term political gains.

But they did not always listen to us. In fact we were often overruled. In some sad ways, the birds are now coming home to roost.

9. The reason for the government to rush forward in the past, regardless of longer-term adverse socio-economic and even political consequences, was the pursuit of the concept of ‘state capture’. Many countries all over the world practice this policy of using the apparatus of state or the institutions of state to remain in political control, for as long as possible.

But in most countries state capture does not last long, because of frequent changes in governments at election time. However, here in our country, we joke that civil servants who become permanent secretaries hold their posts for short periods of time or temporarily, while many ministers stay in their posts for longer periods or more permanently. That is why permanent secretaries are now renamed secretaries-general.

So how can we get real government and economic transformation when checks and balances are reduced, please? We must therefore reject state capture that can keep us stuck - in the middle income trap.

10. Conclusion - strive for the Malaysian dream

It’s not too late to rise and not fall. For this we need a new Malaysian dream.

We can go back to the good old days of stronger national unity, greater faith and confidence in our beloved Malaysia, and enjoy much more national happiness and a deeper sense of well-being and higher hopes for the future.

But for this ‘Malaysian dream’ of our forefathers to be realised, our leaders must show greater political will to move forward along the ‘moderate path’ - regardless of parochial political and short-term party gains, selfishness, greed, self-interest and racial and religious bigotry.

Then Malaysia will rise and shine.

Rather than fall, fail and decline.

All true Malaysians will work hard and pray that Malaysia will succeed.

Instead of some political leaders becoming less moderate and even extreme,

- and then we will all recede?

So Selamat Hari Raya kepada saudara semua

Harap Malaysia maju dan jadi lebih kaya.

Terima Kasih.

Jumpa lagi.


RAMON NAVARATNAM is chairperson of Asli/Centre of Public Policy Studies.