December 12th

These blog posts are thinning out to say the least, partly because I'm busy, and partly because I've already said a lot of things I wanted to. Which is better, repeating yourself endlessly, or staying silent once you've said your piece?

Quote of the Week

  • "This house has been far out at sea all night, |The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills, |Winds stampeding the fields under the window |Floundering black astride and blinding wet |Till day rose; then under an orange sky |The hills had new places, and wind wielded |Blade-light, luminous black and emerald, |Flexing like the lens of a mad eye." - Ted Hughes, Wind

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Raja Nazrin's Speech to All Malaysians - Regardless of Colour.

It is my pleasure to be here to deliver the keynote address at this Roundtable Discussion on National Unity and Development in Malaysia: Challenges and Prospects for Nation Building. I am always happy to take part in an event where there are many young informed Malaysians. I find that this is time well spent. Not only does it give me a chance to share my thoughts, but it also lets me do a bit of opinion research among the younger generation.

We like to say that our youth are the future of this country, but then we proceed to ignore or marginalise them. We want our future generations to be able to think and act wisely, but then we do not give them sufficient opportunities to do so.

In my view, this is not a good way to prepare those who will take our place. If the young are to be good leaders and citizens, they must be exposed to more than just abstract concepts. Even those nation states which have failed miserably have had great political ideals.

I believe that good and upright leadership must be demonstrated. It has to be both taught and observed at work. Then, those who are found to be able, must be mentored by those who are capable. In this way, success can be learned and replicated.

Finally, the young must be given responsibilities they can handle. They should be allowed to make mistakes along the way as part of their overall learning process. If we do these things, our actions will echo loudly into the future.

My address this morning is on the challenges and prospects of nation-building, a topic that is of the greatest and gravest importance. Nation-building is essential to national unity which lies at the heart of what this country was, is and will be.

With the passage of time, it seems that we are starting to forget this and it is imperative that we do not. In the time available, I hope to say enough to provide some fuel for the discussions to follow. It is my earnest wish that you will gain some further perspectives on the nature of nation- building and that you will also deliberate on specific actionable ways to further it in this country.

Confucius insisted that language must be properly used if things are to get done, if justice is not to go astray, and if people are not to “stand about in helpless confusion”. He disapproved of those who misused words to hide their true intentions and actions.

So what exactly is nation-building? Not surprisingly, there are many definitions, some which differ by a little and others by quite a lot. In his book, The Making of a Nation, for example, Prof Cheah Boon Kheng defined it as “both economic progress and socio-political integration of a nation, that is prosperity and national unity”.

This captures what are hopefully the two end-results of nation building, but it makes no mention of its nature and process. I prefer the more common understanding, which is that it is the use of state power across different dimensions to ensure that a country is politically stable and viable in the long term. These dimensions include ethnicity and religion.

As a brief footnote, it should be noted that nation-building is a heated and even hated notion in some parts of the world. The main reasons for this are, first, that it is taking place in the midst of great domestic turmoil and, second, that it is primarily initiated and managed by foreign powers.

Trying to cobble a functioning state by papering over deep social and political rifts is, of course, easier said than done. History has shown us, time and again, that it is much easier to break down, rather than build up, nations.

In the case of Malaysia, nation- building has occurred in generally peaceful circumstances. It was not imposed by another country. And it is undertaken mainly by collective choice rather than compulsion.

The fact that we have been able to forge a nation without resorting to the rule of the gun has made us something of a rarity and a case to be studied, if not emulated. It has allowed a relatively effective system of governance to develop. Our track record in development and resolving problems such as illiteracy, poverty and poor health has been good.

There is, of course, much more that can be done. Our institutions of governance are far from perfect and quality improvements will probably occupy us for at least the next 50 years, if not longer. Nevertheless, for all the criticisms that have been made, it is only common sense that we could not have survived, let alone prosper, these last 50 years if government institutions had not been responsive or effective.

So, what are the central challenges to nation-building going forward? Let me speak first more generally about the world, and then move specifically to Malaysia.

To my mind, there are many challenges, but one that stands out most is that of having to balance the need for change with that of continuity.

Globalisation, in particular, has unleashed sweeping economic, political, social and cultural transformations that have weakened national institutions, values and norms. It is as if all the boats on the ocean had suddenly lost their anchors, rudders and compasses overnight.

Naturally, this has produced a strong reaction in the form of a desire to preserve identity, character and tradition. These are among the strongest motivations known to mankind and have been at the foreground or background of practically every conflict that has ever been waged. Add to this, a deep sense of deprivation, powerlessness and injustice, both real and imagined, and the tension between change and continuity mounts greatly.

Managing change on a national level is never easy, and certainly not on the scale and speed that we are witnessing. Multi-ethnic countries have to be especially watchful, and particularly if they have a weak sense of national collective identity.

In the absence of a strong binding nationalism, they are prone to polarisation and competition along ethno-religious lines. The state, which may well start out by being a relatively honest broker, can become increasingly pressured to act in ways that favour the interests of one group over another.

If the pendulum swings too far in one direction, dissatisfaction and frustrations will inevitably result. These can be expressed in ways that range from passive non-cooperation to active opposition and even violent conflict. To a large extent, this has led to the fragmentation of states.

Countries need to recognise the larger macro forces at work and understand their implications. They have to engage creatively to ensure that there are sufficient investments in social capital and cohesion. They must create and capitalise on cooperative systems within societies.

In recent times, it has become usual to try and place the blame for the disintegrating state of world affairs on the doorstep of religion. This is a misunderstanding of the first order. Religion is not the cause of societal dystrophy; it is the antidote. It is a social stabiliser that allows believers to reconnect to values that are fast being lost in today’s ever more materialistic and self-centred world.

What does Malaysia have to do to ensure that it continues to be successful at nation-building? Psychologists say that our short-term memory can only hold seven items. Let me outline seven guidelines that I think will have to be borne in mind in future nation-building efforts.

First, Malaysians of all races, religions, and geographic locations need to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have a place under the Malaysian sun. Only when each citizen believes that he or she has a common home and is working towards a common destiny, will he or she make the sacrifices needed for the long haul.

In Malaysia, the Federal Constitution, the Rukun Negara and Vision 2020 encapsulate the rights, hopes and aspirations of the population in a way that no other documents do. The integrity of these documents must be defended and promoted, especially the first.

Second, when we seek solutions to problems in nation-building, we must be careful not to assume away problems. Nation- building is required precisely because there are stark differences within society. If we all walked, talked and thought the same, it would probably not be needed.

There will therefore be chauvinistic groups in this country, just as there are in others. They will fight the idea of national unity, block social change and try to be politically dominant. The existence of these groups, however, does not mean that nation-building is a futile exercise.

It does mean that we must be prepared to negotiate our way through and around these differences. We can, for example, create social movements that aim to enlighten and dissuade popular support being given to them.

Third, nation-building requires accommodation and compromise. In our haste to be prescriptive, we should not be so idealistic that we are incapable of also being practical. We should not allow perfection to be the enemy of the good. Yes, we should seek the best solutions and expect the highest standards of performance.

But we should also be prepared to sacrifice some part of our positions for the good of the whole. The virtues of pure self-interest are largely a myth. What seems to be a reality is that individuals end up worse off when they act out of self-interest, as opposed to acting in their collective group interests.

Fourth, if nation-building is to be successful, enforced solutions must be avoided. Nation-building is effectively rendered null and void by coercion or the threat of violence. Might cannot, and must not, be shown to be right. If solutions cannot be found within the political and social structures, there will be a strong temptation to resort to illegitimate ways and means.

Fifth, nation-building occurs when society is open, tolerant and forward-looking. So important are these values that they are embedded in Vision 2020’s nine strategic challenges, as are those of mature democracy, caring society and innovation. Only by being inclusive and participative can the various sectors of our society be productively engaged. It follows that all forms of extremism, chauvinism, racism and isolationism must be guarded against. They must be soundly sanctioned socially, politically and, if necessary, also legally.

Sixth, nation-building is a process rather than an outcome. When Malaysia started off 50 years ago, there were no examples to study. There were no manuals to follow. Mistakes were made and, to a greater or lesser extent, lessons have been learned.

While a sense of impatience is perhaps fully understandable, nation-building takes place over a period of time and only with persistence. Where there is no trust, trust has to be built. Where there is no cooperative network, one has to be established. Building on layers of foundation is the only way to ensure that the process is solid and sustainable.

Seventh, the political, social and economic incentives must reward good behaviour and penalise bad. I know that this statement is virtually self-evident, but it is a fact that many countries are as likely to punish good behaviour as to reward it. After all, if there are benefits for corruption, then there is a real cost to being honest. The incentives for building up a nation must be greater and more compelling than breaking it down. The price of racial and cultural intolerance must be made prohibitively high.

I believe fostering national unity is the responsibility of every Malaysian. However, schools, institutions of higher learning and sports centres have a very special role to play. This is because the sense of national unity is best inculcated in the young.

Through textbooks, sports and interaction, educators should eliminate ethnic stereotypes. Through the imaginative teaching of the history of Islamic, Chinese and Indian civilisation, educators could foster greater understanding among different ethnic groups.

It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. I believe this is true. To me, the village comprises three main institutions - family, school and community.

From birth, we should be taught to respect and honour each other’s culture and heritage. Learning to interact with others is part of this process. Playing with children of other races on the playground and in friends’ homes, we learn to go beyond the colour lines early in life. In school we should be taught about other cultures and beliefs under the same roof as others of different ethnic groups - once again cutting through the colour lines.

I am aware that there are many Malaysians who are deeply troubled at the state of national unity in this country. What I have tried to do today is disabuse you of the notion that there are any “quick fix” solutions in nation-building.

If you look closely enough at any country, even those that are regarded today as highly successful, such as Japan, you will find there have been episodes in their past where events were very tenuous.

I hope we will do our best to guard against cynicism and hopelessness. And I hope we will all stay the course. Failure, may I remind you all, is a costly option.

Raja Nazrin Shah

Crown Prince of Perak

Unsung Heroine, First Class

I’ve been taking my time over this particular post, simply because I find it particularly hard to write. Then again I believe this is a tale worth telling, so here I go anyway. Just after we finished the Maliau Basin Trip in Sabah, dad and I were in Tawau licking our wounds. As recommended by our fellow trekker Mr Chung we went to a massage parlour near the hotel.

Let’s set the scene: Standard Chinese massage parlour, with dad and me occupying the same cubicle, separated by a curtain. Dad got a pretty young Chinese lady from China, while my masseur was a young Indonesian girl, the kind of girl who would be a maid back in West Malaysia. If you’ve been to one, you’ll know that it’s nothing seedy. If you haven’t, let me repeat: it’s nothing seedy.

The session begins, and the Chinese lady starts by asking whether dad wants any special lotion, and describes its extremely useful qualities to the extent that a professional advertiser would seethe with envy. When dad says no, she then asks whether he wants a traditional Chinese foot massage, then a traditional back rub, and so on and so forth, all for an extra premium of course. When most of these attempts fail, she claims the time she needs to do the complete massage was longer than expected, and proceeds to charge him double. Meantime, my masseur simply begins a standard massage, without attempting to sell any of the extra massage products that the Chinese lady was so vigorously promoting.

With half a brain acting as translator between dad and the Chinese lady, I used my other half to talk to the Indon girl. She hails from a tiny village in Kalimantan, and crosses the border to find a decent job. Initially she works at a restaurant, but then realizes that she doesn’t earn enough to support her family. Soon enough, she enters the massage trade, without the knowledge of her family members – they think it’s unclean and dishonourable.

I asked for her view on the whole “massage parlours are unclean” business. She put it simply: if the masseur doesn’t do anything funny, then why should it be considered unclean? After all, she isn’t prostituting herself. Far from it, she makes wannabe hikers like us feel at least a little better after we go on near-suicide runs into jungles.

This struck me, because I realized that the unassuming young girl who was causing me a good amount of pain was actually a noble and capable lady, and a far better person than the one massaging my dad, who left a bad taste in my mouth as she spewed out endless advertisements.This Indon lady, on the other hand, decided to risk the wrath of her family to improve their lives, even though she knew they would at best frown upon her job, or more likely, disown her.

The lady had also seen beyond the veil that her own society placed on her – that the massage trade is unclean – and realizes that though not glamorous, it is noble. In fact, I’d say it’s even nobler than being a doctor or nurse, because there is no reward. A doctor will be rewarded with respect, admiration and decent salary. This girl will get none of that.

Lady, I know you’re not reading this because you don’t have computer access and probably can’t read English. But I take my hat off to you. I really do. And if it means anything to you, I think you're a stronger person than I'll ever be.

Sell me your soul...

Get up out of bed today,

In my head since yesterday -


Voices call to me:

Do something for humanity.


Shake them, violently

If need be, out of the fantasy


That we call reality,

That so few recognize to be


The beginning of the end

Of the final descent


Into a human wasteland –

Money becomes command.


The strong get to say to

The weak: “Hey you,


Buy my product!

It’ll bring you luck;


It’ll make you belong,

Else you won’t last long.


Out there in the cold,

You’ll die before you’re old.


No money, no problem.

That ain’t the end -


Just lend me your soul –

I’ll keep it for you...”

Non-communal parties and the key problems they face.

I often wonder why Gerakan decided to join Barisan National (BN) after it had done so well in the 1969 elections. Then again I suspect if it hadn't, the May 13 riots would probably have been far, far worse.

However, now that Gerakan HAS joined BN, I don't seem to hear any news of it in the papers or on TV. Even when MCA made a cursory move to defend Namewee, Gerakan remained deafeningly silent. In fact, the rest of BN besides the MCA seem to be completely cowed by UMNO (and MCA is not that much better). Meantime, Gerakan's composition now is largely Chinese, to the point that sometimes it seems to be a very slightly more secular version of MCA.

As far as I can see, once a party joins BN it becomes not much more than an UMNO-entity, though why or how on earth that happens I cannot myself tell. Basically, this means that if a party intends to maintain its own ideology, it must remain outside of BN, period.

Some person expressed the view that a completely secular (e.g. non-communal, non-race orientated) party should be formed, my guess is that it would have to face a lot of pressure to obtain the number of voters it needs in any election - on the one hand, there are the Malays, who want their rights protected. On the other, there are the Chinese who feel that Malay rights are depriving them of opportunities they deserve. A hundred different groups - the educated, the farmers, the different races, the businessmen, and others - lie scattered in between. Finding a policy that can woo voters of all walks of life is at best difficult, and at worst Mission: Impossible.

The Labour Party, Gerakan, IMP and others all started as secular parties, but were drawn into communal politics to obtain votes. To counter this any new party would need to have a completely secular leadership, and a fairly balanced ratio of members - otherwise it would be forced into communalism. In the meantime, safeguards must be in place to ensure members aren't infiltrated by racists (read inciters and those who would benefit from the party being forced into communalism). How the party achieves that remains to be seen.

Personally, I believe that education is part of the solution, with the current national schools being the template. To improve racial relations, students would be grouped into classes with roughly balanced ratios of race. To appease non-Malays, additional language classes in these subjects could be taught in after-school sessions for those interested.

The problem is that the Chinese and Indians are stubbornly refusing to leave their old educational centres in favour of a more united system, and the Malays are none too keen to encourage the Chinese to do so. This leaves nationally-educated Chinese and Indians volatile and more easily incited into responding to racist comments, which plays into the hands of BN. BN can then use the race card to divide voters into "Malay" and "Chinese", and naturally the rural "Malays" who have little access to non-government controlled news end up voting for BN, its 'saviour'.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Silence

For those of you so unfortunate as to be involved in family arguments, you probably know how it goes. First there’s the thing that triggers off the argument itself, then possibly an attempt to solve the problem in a non-destructive way. Then comes the extreme noise when those involved try to impose their own will on the other, followed by possibly violent plate-and-knife-throwing episodes.

Then comes silence.

I’ve been through all of it, too many times to count. I’m glad to say that I manage to end most arguments in the non-destructive way. But of course, I do not have a spotless track record. And I know firsthand how much pain a drawn-out argument can last.

I know how silence can be a period of rest for both parties to reconsider what they’re doing and make a diplomatic attempt at the problem. People think more clearly when it’s quiet and they don’t have to dodge plates.

But I also know that silence can be deafening. I’ve seen silence being used as a weapon to break peoples’ wills. I’ve seen it signal a total and complete end to hope and reconciliation. I’ve seen the way silence and guilt can be used to destroy people from the inside.

In silence, there is hope. There is a chance to think and reconsider. There is reconciliation. But there is also fear. There is loneliness, deep and terrible. There is guilt. And there is also a sign that the point of no return was crossed a very, very long time ago.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

In light of the coming Merdeka celebrations, a few questions to ask yourself

How many good friends of other races do you have?

When was the last time you talked to them?

Is it easy for you to talk to someone you don't know who is of a different race?

When did you last catch yourself swearing "stupid Indian/Malay/Chinese!!!#"?

Do you plan to become a citizen of a different country the moment you can?

Do you plan to bring your mother/father/siblings/extended family/dog with you?

If 'YES' to the above, how do you feel about the people who may never get the chance to leave this country for a more 'equal' one?

Would you die for your country?

If 'NO', how much much would you be wiling to sacrifice for your country?

Do you favor unity, or would you rather keep your children separated from children of other races by placing them in non-national schools?

And FINALLY...

Are you Chinese, Dayak, Indian, Serani, Bugis, Kadazan, Iban, Malay?

...Or are you MALAYSIAN?

Before we point fingers at everyone else, let's have a good look at ourselves first.

Happy Merdeka, Malaysia.