By Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Setiawangsa MP.
Cities across the United States are continuing to seethe with mass protests over the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This also follows a string of other killings of African Americans such as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others.
These protests are just the latest eruption against America’s systemic racial and socio-economic injustice as well as police brutality.
Matters have been exacerbated by the outright racism and gross incompetence of their President, Donald Trump.
The US, which prides itself in lecturing other countries about freedom, needs to take a good, hard look at itself.
It has no right to pontificate while its ethnic minorities, indigenous citizens, disadvantaged and vulnerable peoples, peaceful protestors and refugees seeking succour in its shores are brutalised by its so-called law enforcement agencies.
This is above and beyond the horrific suffering the foreign policies undertaken by its predatory elite have caused in Palestine and other countries.
Many Malaysians have been angered by the events that led to the George Floyd protests—and rightfully so.
It been pointed out—also correctly—that our own human rights record, especially in relation to policing—is likewise far from ideal.
It is hypocritical for us to condemn what is going on in America, while ignoring our own shortcomings.
Police cannot function effectively without the trust and confidence of the communities they serve. It is a two-way street.
Victims of police brutality and abuse can be found across all ethnic groups, such as the cases of N Dharmendran and Aminulrasyid Amzah.
Even one death—whatever the race or faith of the victims—is too many.
Any wrongdoing, abuse or malpractice by authorities must be exposed, brought to justice and corrected immediately if the rule of law is to have any credibility in our country.
Yes, Malaysia is—thankfully—very different from America. But what is going on there right now is a warning to Malaysia of what could happen if we keep ignoring or kicking the can of these problems down the road.
The Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) deserves the respect and support of all our people.
Their personnel have served honourably and rendered sacrifices in all major national crises our country has faced—including during the on-going Covid-19 novel coronavirus pandemic and the Movement Control Order (MCO) period.
Making our police more professional, as well as responsive to human rights is in everyone’s interest—especially the PDRM’s personnel.
In 2004 Tun Mohamed Dzaiddin Haji Abdullah, the former Chief Justice of Malaysia was appointed by the Yang Dipertuan Agong to chair the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police.
The Commission’s findings, which became known as the “Tun Dzaiddin Report”, was published a year later with more than 600 pages and 125 suggestions to make the PDRM more people-centric.
The report’s Strategic Objective argued that Malaysia’s police:
“…must continue to uphold the law, maintain law and order and combat crime, but must pursue these ends in compliance with human rights, restricting and infringing upon them only when necessary and permissible in law. PDRM must see itself more as a ‘service’ than as a ‘force’ and the guardian of the people’s rights though it will need to retain some of its paramilitary capabilities and characteristics. Finally, PDRM must be more transparent and accountable, especially to independent bodies established by the government and to the people.”
The report talks about democratising the police force to engage all stakeholders in society, thereby capturing the PDRM spirit of “polis dan masyarakat berpisah tiada”. It also talks of a dignified police service, that acts for the national good, not narrow partisan interests and enjoying better working and living conditions.
This brings me to the proposed Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) which was one of the 125 suggestions of the Tun Dzaiddin Report.
This proposal—for better or for worse—became the main point of debate arising from the Commission and its Report.
14 years later, a Bill to create it up was finally tabled by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in 2019.
While the Second Reading was postponed in December that year, it was still a step in the right direction.
All stakeholders—including the leadership of the PDRM—have had opportunities to give feedback on it.
Certainly, existing mechanisms like the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) are inadequate in relation to the PDRM. The EAIC’s shortcomings are well known, including the fact that it lacks the ability to independently sanction misconduct.
Any coalition that runs the government – Perikatan Nasional, Muafakat Nasional or PH Plus must take up the IPCMC Bill. This is yet another piece of urgent parliamentary business that it is being neglected.
My colleagues and I will certainly rigorously debate the Bill when it comes before us in Parliament to ensure that the reasonable interests of all stakeholders are protected.
All feedback can be considered. For instance, new names can be considered if “IPCMC” has become too divisive or if it makes the police and their supporters feel overly defensive.
But the key is that the Bill should be passed and the body that the Tun Dzaiddin Report called for comes to life as soon as possible—in letter and spirit.
But improving policing in Malaysia cannot just end with the setting up of the IPCMC.
After all, it was just one of the 125 recommendations of the Tun Dzaiddin Report. A PDRM that is able to keep Malaysians safe, as well as free from corruption and other abuses will require the recommendations of the Report to be implemented in full—including its suggestions regarding recruitment, training, equipping and the improvement of the welfare of personnel.
As the Report noted:
“The Commission is of the view that human resources should be significantly increased in certain sections of PDRM, such as in CID and in the Commercial Crime Investigation Department…The Commission also notes that modern policing is increasingly becoming more complex and sophisticated, requiring diverse professional competencies that are not part of conventional police competencies.”
“The Commission considers remuneration for PDRM personnel as well as promotion prospects relatively satisfactory because they are comparable to the situation in the Malaysian Armed Forces and the general public service. The Commission however recommends a special allowance for all police personnel who are posted to urban areas where the cost of living is higher.”
“…PDRM will need to implement comprehensive and integrated programmes for the effective utilisation of lCT solutions in police operations. Similar IT methods and means are required with respect to asset management including transportation to ensure that available resources are adequate and sustainable. These are vital factors in determining the effectiveness and efficiency of PDRM.”
“…one of the major problems afflicting PDRM is inadequate housing and the poor condition of its housing and work premises, although there are modern and comfortable structures as well…The poor living and working conditions of a significant portion of police personnel cannot but have a negative impact on their morale and self-esteem. The condition also affects their performance. Equally important, the poor condition of a number of police stations, administrative offices and training institutions as well as inadequate facilities create a negative impression of the police among the public. The situation aggravates public perceptions of poor police efficiency and service. This unsatisfactory state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.”
Today, now 15 years after the Tun Dzaiddin Report, Malaysia’s policemen and women are still facing these issues.
Pushing to implement the recommendations of the Tun Dzaiddin Report holistically would help to win over many of those who are resistant to transformation in the police service to make it equipped to face 21st Century Malaysia.
The George Floyd protests have revived global debates about the role and nature of policing.
Clearly change is needed, including in Malaysia.
One gets a sense that not only the public and civil society, but also politicians and the police themselves understand this.
With political will—there is no reason why this cannot be a positive change for stakeholders across the board.
There are many paths for Pakatan Harapan to choose. However, I do think there are three mistakes that we need to avoid.
1. Harapan cannot wait for PN to implode
First, we cannot rely on Perikatan Nasional (PN) imploding.
Coalitions of expedience (which is what PN is) as opposed to coalitions based on principles (which it certainly is not) stay together only when their components believe that the alternatives are worse for them.
The individuals who brought about the downfall of the first Harapan federal government bolted because they would have been the “biggest losers” had the alliance succeeded and carried out the Buku Harapan manifesto.
Don’t get me wrong: the country and its people would have profited handsomely had Harapan gone the distance – but the cabal behind the “Sheraton Move” would have been left out in the cold and so that is why they went off to form PN.
The PN’s main proposition – the only reason why it was formed and why it is sticking together right now – is power. Even the so-called Malay-Islam agenda is secondary to power, as those who even actually believe in it convince themselves that to implement the agenda, one has to have power by any means necessary.
So, while concerns about its infighting and disunity are valid, PN will likely hold together until the 15the general election – if only to ensure that Harapan doesn’t get back into power.
There will be passive-aggressive statements or social media posts, even open arguments or disputes about seats. But they will stick together if it means holding on to the levers of incumbency.
Their components will be willing to accept any compromise, bear any indignity and even start acting like a proper coalition – all to stay in office. Make no mistake: they will do anything to stay in power.
2. PN cares nothing for the rakyat
But when it comes to governing justly and for the many? No – because that would be the antithesis of their existence.
If they really cared about the rakyat, the architects of PN (below) would have stayed in Harapan.
What does it tell you about their priorities that they have just started working on a Covid-19 related temporary relief measures bill – which will only be tabled in Parliament in July?
Singapore got theirs sorted by April 2020.
But when it comes to appointing PN-connected individuals to GLC posts? Well, look who has the bandwidth all of a sudden!
3. Harapan must offer a better future for Malaysians
That leads me to the next mistake Harapan could make: believing we can win without good policies.
Certainly, calling PN to account for the Sheraton Move and their failings in office – especially during the Movement Control Order (MCO) – will be a major issue during the next general election.
But that cannot be the only thing Harapan brings to Malaysian voters.
As I have argued before: we didn’t win the 2018 general election on the back of the 1MDB scandal alone. We were going up and down campaigning about fighting kleptocracy. I am sure many Malaysians don’t even care or understand the word. Buku Harapan was what Malaysians desperately needed at the time and it played a major role in our victory.
The world and our country are, of course, very different places right now. But I strongly believe there are two important sub-lessons here: one positive, the other negative.
The positive is that we can come up with substantive policy ideas while in the opposition. Harapan’s achievements in government, including reducing the voting age to 18, have and will change the country forever.
The negative is that it shows what happens when we abandon our principles and policy lodestar.
As history will show, certain senior Harapan leaders have rubbished the Buku Harapan. Some even made it their mission to do the exact opposite.
We must never repeat the same mistake: failing to live up to our manifesto and getting distracted by other things.
For supporters of Pakatan Harapan (PH), the 2nd anniversary of the 9 May 2018 General Elections will be a sombre affair.
It is more than just because our alliance lost power at the Federal level due to the controversial “Sheraton Move”.
Malaysia is also beginning to grapple with the socio-economic fallout of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus pandemic and the Movement Control Order (MCO).
Even with the opening of our economy via the Conditional MCO (CMCO), which, lets face it, has also been marred by disagreements between our Federal and State governments, it will take a lot of work and time before we get back to where we once were.
This is the health and economic ‘new normal’.
The fluid political situation following the ‘Sheraton move’ is the political ‘new normal’.
All the same, ordinary Malaysians were suffering even before the country was hit by the last wave of political chicanery and the pandemic. This suffering will continue and even exacerbate without wise and transparent policies that are centred on the rakyat rather than vested interests.
So yes, while we must “focus on the economy”, it will all come to naught without good and open politics.
Any economic recovery or future growth will not be sustainable or equitable without strong institutions as well as political reform.
And I believe the best hope for this in Malaysia lies in PH getting its act together.
As the old saying goes, if we fail to learn the lessons of history, we will repeat it.
Why PH won
Forging a better political and hence economic road ahead for Malaysia’s ‘new normal’ is key to understand why PH succeeded and failed.
Two points are clear.
First, we must acknowledge that PH won in 2018 not just because of the rakyat’s anger over the 1MDB scandal and the abuses of Najib Razak.
That was a major factor, but it was not the only one. We would not have won if we campaigned on it alone.
Malaysian voters gave us a parliamentary majority because PH won them over to the promises outlined in our Buku Harapan manifesto.
No manifesto is perfect—but I strongly believe that had we implemented in substantively—it would have laid the seeds for a pro-rakyat and globally competitive Malaysian economy.
This is because the rakyat is our greatest asset and no plan for the future will succeed if it doesn’t stand up for them.
For my part, I certainly never shied away from making it the centrepiece whenever and wherever I campaigned in 2018.
Second, we were united. The rapprochement between Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim was a watershed in Malaysian politics.
That too was one of the reasons why we won. 9 May 2018 couldn’t have happened if these two icons had not put aside their differences for the future of the country.
But we must also be honest about the mistakes that were made.
The PH Cabinet that was set up after the elections did not reflect the realities of the Parliamentary strength of the different component parties.
I will be the first to admit that there were many excellent Ministers in the ranks—but others frankly let the people down in terms of their performance and their actions during the “Sheraton Move.”
Only the man who was Prime Minister at the time can say for certain why his Cabinet was formed the way it was and why he picked the people he did.
BERSATU’s decision to welcome UMNO crossovers virtually lock, stock and barrel also did not help things.
There certainly was a failure to communicate, to really talk in an honest and heartfelt manner between ourselves and the rakyat.
Moving ahead, we will likely see attempts to attribute the failure of PH on how the Mahathir-Anwar transition was handled, or rather, bungled.
But again, it was a failure to communicate that led to the breakdown.
Anwar consistently said that Dr Mahathir should be given time to implement the reforms he felt the country needed.
Communication and compromise are a two-way street.
The Buku Harapan should not have been abandoned
This leads me to my next point. Another grave disappointment was the way the Buku Harapan was also seemingly consigned to the rubbish bin.
It was treated as something of a joke, even by certain leaders of the government that was elected on its planks to implement it.
Don’t they—and certainly we, the rakyat—after the “Sheraton Move”, now wish that they had taken it more seriously and worked more urgently to fulfil it?
Wouldn’t we have been better off, or at least a little bit better prepared to deal with the ‘new normal’ now facing us, had they done so?
If the “Shared Prosperity Vision” (SPV) that came later seemed hollow and unsubstantial, it was because it was missing the strengthened human capital and economic fundamentals implementing the manifesto would have brought.
People will say that the Buku Harapan is old news and that we should move on.
Still, how do we build for the future if our governments keep changing what they stand for?
There will ALWAYS be local, regional and global black swans that will throw administrations off guard.
Weak ones bend. Strong ones adapt but continue to pursue their goals.
What future will Malaysia have if all its governments can or want to do is react to events?
If we stand for everything, we stand for nothing.
There must be a plan for the country. The manifesto was it. But we failed to follow through.
What next for PH? For Malaysia?
Moving forward, PH cannot hope to win if all we are relying on is for Perikatan Nasional (PN) to implode.
Its disunity is a serious question that cannot be batted away. But that will not be enough for Malaysian voters to want to send PH back to Putrajaya.
Rather, we must regain and recommit to the reformist, rakyat-centric spirit that so animated us in 2018.
We must show Malaysians that we will protect and grow their livelihoods as well as rights.
And we must do so as one coalition with one voice.
We cannot be prisoners of history.
But again, if we fail to learn from the mistakes of the past, we will repeat them.
Let us be honest about the mistakes we made and avoid repeats as we regroup to face what lies ahead.
Malaysians desperately need hope. PH must be able to give it to them—but we must be honest to them and with ourselves.
NIK NAZMI NIK AHMAD
KEADILAN CHIEF ORGANISING SECRETARY
KEADILAN CENTRAL LEADERSHIP COUNCIL MEMBER
SETIAWANGSA MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT
Speaking on 27 March 2020 when he announced the Prihatin economic stimulus package, PM Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin noted that:
“…this Government may not be the Government that you voted for… I accepted the fact that I came in as your Prime Minister not at the best moment. I face political, economic and health crisis all at the same time…please bear with me and my friends in the Cabinet and the Government. We are not perfect but we are doing the best we can to pull through this crisis together, as one nation.”
By these words, the PM has acknowledged the controversial circumstances in which he came to power, i.e. the so-called ‘Sheraton Move.’
He has acknowledged that he lacks an electoral mandate and indeed that the Perikatan Nasional administration he heads does not reflect the will of people of Malaysia.
The latter arguably, is likely true not only for Pakatan Harapan supporters, but also for Malaysians who voted for Barisan Nasional or PAS in the last election.
Let me also be clear that fighting the Covid-19 pandemic is our utmost priority. We support the efforts of the authorities, especially the frontliners risking their lives. And all Malaysians should do so as well. This is a crisis that must transcend our political divide.
Let it not be forgotten (or ignored) that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has said that a no-confidence motion in Parliament is not a priority for KEADILAN and PH for the sake of ensuring the various stimulus packages as well as other moves to repair the economy are passed.
It is precisely on that point that the government’s latest actions—in removing certain GLC and statutory body leaders—will do very little to heal this chasm or strengthen public confidence.
The contracts of the Chair and seven board members of MARA were ended. The Chairs of KRI, SOCSO, MPOB, HRDF, PTPK and Bank Rakyat have also been removed.
I had spoken out on the removal of the respected Dr Nungsari Radhi Chair of Khazanah Research Institute, who was appointed as trustee in 2013 during the BN era, retained during the PH era but recently asked to resign by PN.
On 3 April 2020, Bank Rakyat announced that the tenure of its Chair, Datuk Noripah Kamso expired effective on that day. It was reported that her actual contract finishes at the end of this year.
The bank is under the purview of the GPS Minister of Entrepreneur Development and Co-operatives, Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar. As a Development Financial Institutions, Bank Negara does not have the same control as it has on commercial banks.
Noripah replaced Tan Sri Shukry Mohd Salleh, who was involved in the original 1MDB audit report. She also comes with a stellar experience in the financial sector: CEO of CIMB-Principal Islamic Asset Management Sdn Bhd and also CIMB-Principal Asset Management Sdn Bhd.
She was chairman of the Islamic Finance Industry Council, Malaysia-US Chamber Of Commerce and a former president of Malaysian Futures Brokers Association.
The previous Chair of SOCSO is Zakri Khir, the first Malaysian to be appointed as country manager for Allianz Malaysia Berhad. The media reported that he was asked to resign to be replaced by BERSATU Sabak Bernam MP Datuk Mohd Fasiah Mohd Fakeh.
Unfortunately, whoever orchestrated it did not realise that an elected representative is barred from being on SOCSO’s board.
Tan Sri Mohd Bakke Salleh was asked to resign as Chair for MPOB. An experienced plantation man who spent time in Felda, FGV and Sime Darby, he resigned from the 1MDB board in protest at improprieties taking place in the company. UMNO Machang MB, Ahmad Jazlan Yaakub takes his place.
The new PTPK Chair is PAS Pasir Mas MP, Ahmad Fadhli Shaari.
There have been media reports that other GLCs and agencies will see personnel changes with the new government.
What is disturbing about some of these changes is that the vacancies they create have or will be filled by MPs from PN.
Dato’ Takiyuddin Hassan, the PAS de-facto Law Minister revealed that all backbench MPs will be heading GLCs.
Now, it is true that every government has the right to fill public positions as they see fit, especially in the case of political appointees.
Yet it is an unhealthy trend if many MPs are appointed to replace professional technocrats as mentioned above.
Even more cynical, it seems that the PM is not confident of the loyalty of backbencher MPs after expanding the number of ministers and deputy ministers. The number of ministers has expanded from 27 during the PH era to 32 under PN; whilst deputy ministers increased from 26 to 38.
Now it seems that the PM has radically expanded the concept of the payroll vote to reward so many backbench MPs even at the expense of technocrats.
Lest I be accused of hypocrisy, when PH was still in power, I opposed the wholesale removal GLC heads who had been appointed by the government we had replaced.
I argued that, while those who had engaged in partisan actions or were implicated in mismanagement and wrongdoing like the 1MDB scandal had to go, other appointees who had shown merit and integrity should have been retained.
I certainly felt then—as I do now—that we need a new modus vivendi for dealing such matters in Malaysia.
If we don’t, each change of government—which, let’s face it, will likely be the norm rather than the exception moving forward—is likely to result in wholesale “purges” in public life.
Something will get lost in the mix: whether existing talent irretrievably lost or new blood being reluctant to serve precisely because of instability of tenure.
What was wrong with the individuals who had been removed? It’s hard to think of anything that could be said against them beyond the fact that they were appointed by PH and placing the survival of the PN government ahead of the national interest.
Muhyiddin should seriously reconsider such acts and indeed put a stop to them.
I am not trying to play politics during a national crisis.
On the contrary, unnecessarily changing senior officeholders of key bodies during a pandemic is playing politics and is never a good idea.
Perhaps the PM is being pressured by his political brokers to “reward” their cadres with these appointments?
What does it say about PN if they still want these changes to happen while the country is staring at a huge human toll and a severe economic downturn?
The PM should hold to his noble rhetoric and instead build a bipartisan consensus, not only on public appointments but on dealing with the outbreak and rebuilding our economy after the Movement Control Order is lifted.
Malaysians want their leaders to put aside politics and focus on saving the country.
PH is willing to do this.
Will Muhyiddin and his PN administration reciprocate?
NIK NAZMI NIK AHMAD is the KEADILAN Chief Organising Secretary, Chair of the Defence and Home Affairs Parliamentary Special Select Committee and MP for Setiawangsa. He has written a few books in English and Malay.
Most of the key issues in KL are all related to the economy and development. The level of development and per capita income in the city can be said to be almost, or on par with developed countries.
However, the issues stem from the fact that the B40 in KL are often overlooked because of their higher income than their counterparts from rural areas and even other towns, while the cost of living in KL is not taken into account.
With regards, to income disparity, there is indeed no easy short-term solution.
The increase in minimum wage is positive. In fact, KL should be the pioneer for a living wage that was proposed by Bank Negara. In addition, programs for interventions in welfare, education and health should be expanded.
There is a lot to be done to improve the environment in PPRs, and I believe it is important to focus on children.
That is why I have innovated on what I learned with the Mentari Project in PJ with the Tunas Mentari football project in PPR Air Panas and the Reading Bus Program in AU3.
In the long term, I believe we should have some form of local council elections. But we must acknowledge there still exists long-held fears of racial dominance, dating to the days of 1960s, which was borne through local council elections as well.
The government should conduct a study on how to implement a system that is inclusive and will dispel any fears. Even if we cannot implement in nationwide, the democratic deficit justifies KL to have an elected local government.
KL is a city with a lot of potential, and really the sky’s the limit. However, we need to move beyond the nitty-gritty issues.
We need to focus on public transport, as it is crucial for the city. There has been a lot of work done by Prasarana, FT Ministry and DBKL in improving this.
Previously the free GoKL bus service was only utilised by tourists and foreigners due to its routes which mainly serves the downtown area of the city.
Now, the expanded and new routes go through residential areas and connect with existing LRT/MRT lines. We should look at restarting MRT3, whether using the original route or an improved route.
Ultimately, the KL City Plan must be viewed holistically for a sustainable development of the city. We can allow development, but work harder in providing new PPR areas to ensure the city remains inclusive.
At the same time, the character of KL must be preserved whether it is about the city’s heritage or green areas.
2019 was a polarising year for Malaysia.
Our “culture war”: Malay against non-Malay, Muslim against non-Muslim – showed no sign of abating and indeed, quite frankly, was exacerbated.
One of the main bugbears has been the proposed introduction of the teaching of Jawi khat as part of the Malay-language curriculum.
This, unfortunately, has caused much controversy.
There have been passionate, even vehement, arguments for and against the move.
Certain irresponsible parties have sought and indeed, gained much political capital from it.
Jawi and our heritage
To be sure, Jawi is an important part of our national history—something that many Malaysians are not aware of.
The Pemasyhuran Kermerdekaan—our Declaration of Independence in 1957—was written exclusively in English and Jawi script for Malay with no romanised Malay version.
Ironically, many Malays today don’t understand it very well. While I can comprehend Jawi, I too do not write or read it fluently.
That’s a shame because major historical documents from our past are found in Jawi.
Most of us have heard about Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals) or Hikayat Hang Tuah – all manuscripts written in Jawi.
But there were other works, frequently overlooked by western orientalists as it did not fit the stereotype that all Malay literary works were purely of fantastical myths and legends.
For instance, the Taj-us Salatinmanuscript, which was composed by Bukhara al-Jauhari in 1603 Aceh. It was also known as Mahkota Segala Raja-Rajaand came out half a century before Englishman Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was published.
This was one of the earliest documents in the world that touched on the idea of constitutional law and a social contract that was the focus of Leviathan, talking about the spiritual covenant between God and human beings, as well as relations between a ruler and his or her subjects.
Taj-us Salatin was prized in the Johor and Kedah courts as a reference to the Sultan and nobility.
Another famous work written in Jawi is Bustan-us Salatin by Nuruddin ar-Raniri, focusing on statecraft but also a pioneering book on universal history.
The Jawi issue, like it or not, is just a symptom of how badly skewered our thinking on race and religion has become—especially when one views education and language through these lenses.
The importance of Malay language
There are not a few Malaysians, both Malay and non-Malay, who feel that the national language is unimportant.
But this is a short-sighted view. Malay is not only a national but regional lingua franca.
It plugs us into the Nusantara (ie the wider maritime Southeast Asia) and is relatively easy to learn.
Singaporean government officials and politicians have spoken to me of their regret at how Malay, which is their national language, has become almost totally abandoned in their public life.
Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs: “At home, I spoke English to my parents, Baba Malay – a pidgin Malay adulterated with Chinese words – to my grandparents, and Malay with a smattering of Hokkien to my friends, the fishermen’s children.”
Lee too recalled how in the 1950s, pasarMalay was the best medium to speak in political campaigns as it was the most widely understood language in Singapore.
But today, while their national anthem and military commands are in Malay, the majority of Singaporeans can barely speak it.
This has and is robbing them of a deeper engagement with Malaysia and Indonesia, the latter being Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
The same thing mustn’t happen to us.
But that won’t happen if the market for Malay content doesn’t increase.
And there is no way for that to occur, or for Malay to become richer and less exclusively tied to one race or religion if the non-Malays themselves won’t embrace it.
Moreover, it robs them of insight into the minds of the Malay community, making the task of national integration more difficult.
Let us not forget, the Bumiputeras of Sabah and Sarawak too, while having their own languages and a huge Christian population, Malay in their interactions as well as worship.
I have made it a point to send my son to a national school, where the medium of instruction is mostly in Malay, which is his heritage.
And he still speaks to his friends in English.
Embracing mother tongue languages
Still, mother tongue education is also important. This applies to not only Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, but also the languages of the other ethnic groups.
Recent studies in southern Thailand have shown that the children there benefitted when they learnt their mother tongue from a young age, in this case, the Pattani Malay dialect.
They not only master academic subjects better, but they even become more fluent with Thai compared to children who were forced to learn everything in the Thai medium from the beginning.
The issue of minority languages weakening the status of Malay does not arise.
The vast majority of our population has at least a basic command of the Malay language, whether in the form of bahasa pasar, or regional dialects.
My point is that it is important that everyone should be able to speak Malay, and indeed, we are getting there, however haphazard the process.
But I find it rather ironic that some of the most virulent voices on this issue, including those taking a racist stance on the Jawi and Malay issues, have children who can’t speak Malay simply because of their elite status.
Upholding the national language – as well as nation-building in general – does not require and indeed, cannot happen, at the price of the humiliation or subjugation of minorities.
Knowing one another
What is needed is trust and goodwill on both sides. We need leaders who have the political will and credibility to bring it about.
My primary education was at the La Salle School of Petaling Jaya. Back then, there was (and still is) a huge cross on one of its buildings – and beneath it, the school’s name was written in Jawi.
In fact, there were crosses in each of our classrooms and no one made a fuss about it.
My father, who comes from a family of Islamic scholars, wanted his children to be able to converse in English fluently, and to mix with different races – so he ended up sending us all to mission schools.
The Islamic injunction of lita’arafu, or getting to know one another is crucial, especially in a multicultural society.
And it doesn’t mean compromising your faith, but simply that you understand the beliefs of others.
In my constituency, Setiawangsa, a surau hosted a Chinese New Year celebration last year.
This year, I hope to hold a multi-faith buka puasa with leaders from all religious communities.
It is important that all schools host more cultural programmes to foster mutual understanding.
The government should work hard to make national schools the school of choice in the medium and long run, but in the meantime encourage cross-cultural exchanges between national, vernacular, religious and even private and international schools.
The government, schools, NGOs and other bodies can play a hand in cultivating it.
If we carry on living in silos, we will end up always living in fear of one another.