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Challenges of Democracy in a Diverse Society

Speech as Keynote Panelist at Interculturadelaide, Adelaide, Australia


Good morning,

The Hon. Premier Weatherill,

Esteemed panellists,

Ladies and Gentleman,

Allow me to begin with a quote from Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman:

“In such a country, what would one expect of a leader? One and all would say, the leader must be one who can mould a nation out of these characteristics into a united whole, for out of our diversities a united Malaysian people can emerge.”

Malaysia’s first Prime Minister was always an idealist. One thing was a constant to him: that Malaysia ought to be a unified nation of many races and creeds. This ideal resonates with many, but not all are willing to commit to it, to see it through. How could it be otherwise, when recently, Malaysia’s most powerful man espoused the most idealistic notion of unity and toleration, but in reality subscribes to a very different agenda?

Malaysia has always been a multiracial and multicultural society since its inception. In popular parlance, biggest racial groups are Malay, Chinese and Indian, and the rest are officially termed as “others.” The political scenario is no different, with the ruling political coalition being made up of racially-aligned parties. That is Malaysia in a nutshell.

Throughout our history, “diversity” within the Malaysian context refers to the many different races living in a single country, but increasingly subjected to different laws and worldviews. The divide-and-rule policy used by our colonial masters is still intact to this day, perpetrated by those in power desperate to maintain their grip on the high offices. For example, no matter how set in stone the Malay position is in the Federal Constitution, you can still hear murmurs of how the Malays’ position is threatened in “its own” country – even and especially in the government-owned media.

In the early 70’s when the Malays—who are Muslims—were struggling to cope with poverty and following the horrific racial riots of May 13, 1969, the late Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second Premier and father to the current Prime Minister, introduced a kind of affirmative action, called the New Economic Policy, to boost the community’s prospects. Almost 50 years on, such policy, which was initially limited to a two-decade life span, still exists. It succeeded in building a segment of middle class yet it has also created a society which is reliant on government handouts and is unable to face the inevitable effects of globalisation. The poor and marginalized of the other races feel ignored by the state.

What has this led us to? A nation divided, full of fear and distrust for the other. Malay versus non-Malay. Muslim versus non-Muslim. Muslims versus other Muslims. This is apparent almost everywhere. It’s in our mainstream media. It’s in our schools. It’s even in our civil society: all championing racial and religious exclusivity to the detriment of nation-building.

A Muslim, gold medal-winning gymnast is hounded for wearing a leotard. Criticising the government can get you charged for sedition, but its okay to threaten a church for putting up a cross outside its premises. A Muslim teacher tells his non-Muslim students they can drink their own urine if they feel thirsty during the Ramadan fasting month. Billions of ringgit go unaccounted for in questionable deals involving government-linked companies. That is the Malaysia of today.


This has not gone unchallenged. Many younger Malaysians have questioned why this state of affairs persist. They have been exposed to globalization and the social media. They are more outspoken and less hamstrung by establishment historical narratives. A new brand of politics has and is emerging in Malaysia.

Ironically, it was the aforementioned affirmative action which played a role in this. The NEP created a nascent Malay middle-class with no strong political loyalties but powerful socio-economic aspirations. At the same time, young non-Malays, denied opportunities by the state, have become increasingly unwilling to be relegated to the margins. This generation of new voters has provided the critical mass for a more competitive Malaysian politics.

As the famous Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra observed, this is a generation which were different than the first generation of leaders like Tunku who were more comfortable with Western ideas nor do they subscribe to the reactionary Asian Values thesis of Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Dr Mahathir. This generation were more comfortable with the synergistic vision of Anwar Ibrahim’s Asian Renaissance.

In 2008, the country witnessed an unexpected, but truly historical political milestone. The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, for the first time since the independence of Malaya, lost its two-third majority in Parliament. The opposition also wrested control of five states. I remember no one gave me a chance when I was running in my constituency where the incumbent won with a 12,000 majority. I managed to however overturn it to a 3,000 majority for myself. It would seem that the country had moved beyond old crass, ethnic politics and into a new kind of liberal democracy. This new dawn, led by the urban middle-class, gave renewed hope that we could finally be the country that Tunku wanted us to be. A country which was a home for all its people, that gave them all opportunity.

The opposition parties, namely the centrist People’s Justice Party (KEADILAN), the Chinese-dominated left-of-centre Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) banded to form Pakatan Rakyat – or the People’s Alliance. The alliance was built on a common policy framework; calling for a more just system of governance, endorsing excellence and meritocracy and a renewed focus on the people’s wellbeing.

As you can imagine, this did not sit easy with the powers-that-be. The establishment and its surrogates responded with an onslaught of demagoguery, fanning racial sentiments with a view to further divide the nation and restore their definition of social order. Journalists and opposition politicians were held up under the now-defunct Internal Security Act and later on the Sedition Act, which Prime Minister promised to repeal but has reneged on. Meanwhile, racist political leaders were protected for the ruling government’s own benefit.

This continued throughout the first term of the nation’s sixth Prime Minister, Najib Razak. He introduced the so-called “1Malaysia” policy without defining what it entails and all the while maintaining the nation’s status quo. Most Malaysians did not buy into his idea, and made known of it in the 2013 General Election where the ruling coalition lost more seats as well as the popular vote in Parliament for the first time in the country’s history. This despite the fact that Barisan Nasional ran a well-funded campaign backed by foreign consultants. In the end, they only won because of Malaysia’s brand of gerrymandering.

For a moment it seemed that the nation had finally woken up, that the people were unified on the need for greater diversity and tolerance.


However, it seems as if thinks have taken a turn for the worse. Within two years of winning the most number of seats in Parliament by an opposition alliance ever, Pakatan Rakyat disbanded.

Conservatives in the Islamist party, PAS, who were never comfortable being part of Pakatan, mounted a campaign to demonise the moderates in their ranks. They tried to implement Hudud, or the Muslim penal code, in the state of Kelantan, which they have governed for decades. This led to a rupture with the DAP and KEADILAN. Eventually, the conservatives routed the moderates in party elections and chose to sever ties with the DAP, in effect bringing Pakatan to an end.

Pakatan Rakyat – for all its flaws – will go down in history as one of Malaysia’s most successful experiments thus far in multiracial opposition politics. No one ever thought it would last as long as it did. It eventually came apart because we could not address the growing chasm between the secular and religious sides of Malaysia’s polity. What befell the alliance was not induced by race and religion; rather it was the inability to look past strict ideologies and work on a common ground. There is now, as I said, a great divide encompassing factors which are individualistic rather than whole.

While there are continuous exposés of government mismanagement of national wealth, politics in Malaysia are still hung up on sectarian strife. Bigger issues that are blighting the nation are ignored as they continue to angst over identity politics. Should we be more or less Muslim? Who gets to define what Malaysia is? What right do they have to do this?

The society is not even speaking on the same wavelengths. Sectarian elements continue to be concerned with preserving their special position. Urban liberals continue to fear the intrusion of religious fundamentalism in the public sphere. Working-class Malaysians groan under the rising cost of living exacerbated by a hurried and flawed implementation of a Goods and Services Tax. Unaccountable establishment figures remain unrepentant over their mishandling of the administration.

We are torn over religion, language, ethnicity and culture. Increasingly, the conflict is intra- rather than inter-racial and religious. Non-Muslims are cowed into silence. Muslims are not being allowed to think for themselves. Questioners and dissenters are harassed and vilified.

Why have things gotten this bad? It is because we have lacked leadership.


The ruling elite have lost touch with the aspirations of the people. Asking for transparency, for debate is deemed as unpatriotic and a threat to national security. They are continuing to demand servile deference from a society which is no longer in the mood to give it.

Our elite simply cannot deal with the fact that many Malaysians, no matter their race nor religion, no longer want second-class status. No one wants to be side-lined. No one is content with trickle-down economics. But instead of listening to the people, the Malaysian government continues to push the policy of divide and conquer – creating a mess which they themselves have not been able to control.

More seriously, our leaders – who are privately Westernised but hypocritical – have failed to cope with the growing diversity in thought and attitude within the Malay-Muslim community. This was instead outsourced entirely to Malaysia’s religious bureaucracy. Authentic moderate religious voices are marginalised. The results have been disastrous: the secular component of the society has been largely ignored, while extreme religious rhetoric has been allowed to dominate the mainstream. As the focus increasingly is on narrow definitions of shariah such as hudud, the developing concept of higher objectives of the shariah (maqasid shariah) is not being given enough attention. Meanwhile the rest of the people are told to buck up and face the calamity of the government’s creation on their own.


The last several months have been truly been a challenging for Malaysia. The people’s hope for the emergence of a genuine two-party system has been shattered. The economy is looking bleak, troubled by the mishandling of government coffers especially by an entity called 1MDB, another government sovereign wealth project gone awry. There are power struggles even within the ruling coalition and its lynchpin, UMNO.

To top it, no one knows what to do with an increasingly agitated public who are finding fault with one another on every single social issue.

However, I believe these are the growing pains of a maturing democracy. Malaysia’s leadership, both the government and opposition, needs to come to terms with a critical society that demands more than just proper governance, but also inclusivity in all aspects.

Throughout the history of this diverse nation, the dominance of the ruling party was unquestionable. There has only been a spatter of resistance from small sections of the community. Now, the tide has turned and the government is at the beck and call of almost the entire society who is spurred by the opportunities at expression created by the cyberspace, social media in particular.

The people are seeking reform and there has been a wider public debate on what those reforms entail. Politicians must not only have good policies but be able to communicate them effectively. They must also resonate with voters. They need greater credibility.

“Credibility” in this sense does not only mean more equitable economies and good governance: it also means just societies where all, including women and minorities—are treated with respect and whose rights are assured.

This is not to say that the formal political system in Malaysia has been completely without accomplishment. More accountability and transparency have been demanded in parliament and every single error in judgment has been questioned. This could not have happened without a strong opposition alliance, the loss of which will definitely be felt after so much progress has been made.

That being said, the past should serve as a lesson to us and no more. It must not be dwelled upon. I see no reason why the country cannot move on from this troubled present.

Moving forward, people who wish Malaysia well must seek both social and political change. It is not enough to simply want to vote UMNO and Barisan Nasional out of power. We must be equally concerned with the kind of Malaysia and Malaysians who are around when that happens.

Something must be done to bridge the divide I alluded to earlier. How? They are no easy answers, but I think we can lay the building blocks for this. Progressive Malaysians need to forge a movement for change encompassing political parties, civil society, faith groups and grassroots organisations.

Malaysia is built on the back of its Federal Constitution, which ought to have guided us in our dealings with each other, as we navigated the competing claims of secularism and religiosity. Unfortunately, it has oft times been abused or ignored in the past. Therefore, the new movement must uphold the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law.

Anwar wrote in the Asian Renaissance, “We must have the courage to address the state of contradictions within our societies. For instance although we take pride in religiosity continuing to be a major element in our lives, yet our society seems to be indifferent to the moral decadence and the erosion of the social fabric through widespread permissiveness and corruption.”

Like many other societies across the globe, it is the new generation that has to drive the change. The values of democracy and the sovereignty of the nation are foremost in any effort, and any resistance towards these principles must be thwarted. Young Malaysians must find a way to bridge the gap between all sectors of society to ensure that attempts at a united movement for progress are successful.

Diversity of culture, religion and race should be an advantage instead of a hindrance. We should heed the lessons of history which show that the greatest civilizations thrived when they accepted diversity but crumbled when they closed their hearts and minds. Malaysians need to learn to live together and to respect each other’s differences, as we seek to move Malaysia forward in a geopolitically and economically challenging world.

Without a strong, principled leadership all efforts will surely be in vain. However, I have seen enough of our young generation to have confidence of a secured future for the nation – a nation of leaders. I have faith that history will look back at this moment favourably, as the moment in which Malaysia blossomed as a democracy.

I would like to end this speech as I began, with a quote from Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman:

“We must each always think first of Malaysia, of the national need and least of ourselves …Everyone must try to help and see that the people are one-minded, with loyalty and one aim, to make Malaysia – the land we love – a happy abode for all of us. If we all do this then we can guarantee liberty, security, prosperity and happiness for the future.”

Thank you.