Seri Pemikiran Kritis II: New Voices and New Visions for Malaysia

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I attended the fourth and final session of Siri Pemikiran Kritis II (Critical Thinking Series II) last night at the Bar Council Auditorium. It involved a youth roundtable discussion on the topic New Voices and New Visions for Malaysia, with the panel of speakers generally issuing a clarion call to all Malaysians to actively participate in bringing about a change in this country.Siri Pemikiran Kritis II is a joint project between the National Young Lawyers Committee and Youth4Change after the highly successful first edition last year. The theme of this year’s series is “Rethinking Malaysia in Commemoration of 50 Years of Independence.”

The session was moderated by Fahri Azzat, and he introduced our panel of speakers:

1. Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, prominent blogger and special aide to Anwar Ibrahim;

2. Richard Wee, representing the National Young Lawyers Committee of the Bar Council;

3. Marzuki Mohamad, Head of Research Bureau for the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM); and

4. Tricia Yeoh, a Senior Analyst of Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS).

(i) Nik Nazmi

Nik started off the session by stating as a matter of fact that after 50 years of independence, little has changed. We started off as a society consisting of different races and with little interaction, and at Merdeka, we came to a consensus; we made a choice to instead have a multi-racial and multi-religious society. However, after the euphoria of Merdeka, the tension erupted into May the 13th.

“… the NEP became a mere perpetuation of power by the same ruling elite.”

The implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) became a mere perpetuation of power by the same ruling elite. A positive effect of the NEP was the creation of a Malay middle-class. However, the NEP had done little to assist the poor, and merely benefited the politically connected Malays. Nik came out strongly to state that the political elite in this country had hijacked the NEP and wielded the NEP to enrich themselves whilst marginalising the poorer Malays.

Ultimately, Nik explained that we had a choice. We should choose to be politically aware. We should exercise our right to register and vote. The key is for all of us to participate as Malaysians and to see the problems within this country as a problem for all Malaysians, not just a problem for a particular race to deal with.

(ii) Richard Wee

Richard took a legal perspective to the topic at hand. He embarked on a time-travelling expedition, where he planned to take the audience 50 years into the past, to examine legal issues gripping the country then, then fast forward to the present with the changes in the legal landscape, and finally his hopes 50 years from now, when Malaysia celebrates 100 years of Independence.

We were brought back to pre-1957, where Richard presented four interesting cases decided in the 1950s. Just to highlight two of them, the first was Re Lai Teng Fong Deceased [1950] 1 MLJ 34, which involved the deceased’s 5 widows finding out that the deceased had 5 widows, and the Court had to determine whether one of the widows was a wife previously, or a concubine. The case of Re Maria Huberdina Hertogh [1951]1 MLJ 64 involved a Dutchman leaving his female baby with a Malay lady as he had to go off to war, and when he returned, they were involved in a custody battle for the now 13 year-old girl. The 13 year-old girl had also been married off in the midst of the litigation proceedings, and at the Court of Appeal, all 3 judges did allow the Dutchman to have custody of his child, but all 3 judges gave different reasons for their judgment.

“..it boiled down to a group of people bullying another group of people.”

We then leaped forward a few decades where Richard then explained how the former regime, led by one man, created the 1988 Constitutional Crisis. The case of Adorna Properties decided in 2000 left people in fear of their properties being transferred out under their noses. Richard then commented that the Lina Joy case now reflects what is happening to Malaysia. Richard’s view was that it boiled down to a group of people bullying another group of people. This is despite the clear wording of Article 11 of our Federal Constitution.

Richard’s hope for the future was for three things: first that our Constitution will still be there 50 years from now, that political parties based on racial lines will all get dissolved, and that finally, there will be a greater level of transparency in this country.

(iii) Marzuki Mohamed

Marzuki’s speech centered on the contestation between communalism and individualism, and how this struggle has always been present over the last 50 years.

In recent years, Marzuki explained, we have seen the proliferation of a brand of New Politics, which is a shift away from the more communal and authoritarian, to an emphasis on the non-communal and democratic system. Political parties such as UMNO still heavily emphasise on communalism, which places the interest of the community above the interests of the individual, while Non-Governmental Organisations promote a more non-communalism view, which stresses on the importance of individual self-reliance and liberty.

“…the ideological contestation between communalism and individualism…”

Marzuki also observed that there has also been a shift from views based on ethnicity to one which is based more on religion. Communal views are no longer so much based on the same ethnicity, but more of from the same religion. Religion would continue to become the main marker for the future.

He was of the view that our country has become more democratic with a greater sense of distributive justice. Another example of the progress was that in the 1980s, there were no Public Services Department’s (PSD) scholarships available for non-Malays, however that has changed with PSD scholarships being given out to non-Malays as well. Both sides of the political spectrum do have a certain degree of agreement on issues such as constitutionalism and the rule of law.

(iv) Tricia Yeoh

Tricia’s topic centred on the fact that despite Malaysia being 50 years old, Malaysia acts more like a confused 20 year old adolescent.

She started off with idiosyncratic examples in our country, which a mature society should not have. The first type of inconsistency, she dubbed the historical type, was the common position taken in Article 8 of our Constitution, our Vision 2020 and our Rukunegara; the idea of equality for all and the advancement of national unity. In contrast however, our various Malaysia Plans continue to focus on an increase in Bumiputra participation and the maintenance of race-based quotas. Treasury policies continue to favour Bumiputra Government Link Companies (GLC).

A second type of inconsistency is through the idiosyncratic implementation of national policies. For instance, Malaysia aims to liberalise international trade, however, there is no level playing field for foreign companies to invest their capital in Malaysia. Further, the inability to compromise on issues had severely dampened the US-Malaysia FTA talks.

As stated by Tricia, these inconsistencies cannot now be dismissed as ‘teething problems’ and that things have to change after 50 years of independence. We must discard archaic policies and implement new ones based on today’s needs. Tricia then called out for the Government to exorcise the ghosts of our past, for instance the events of 1969 need to be discussed and closure was needed. Old wounds must be opened up in order for them to heal completely, and we can then get rid of our historical baggage.

“…discard archaic policies and implement new ones based on today’s needs.”

Next, we need to get rid of false suspicions. We cannot allow issues on race and religion be used as convenient tools by politicians. Finally, we must get rid of categories and not place people into checkboxes.

(v) Discussion

This ended the talks by the speakers and what followed was a brief discussion among the speakers on the issues raised that evening. In reply to Richard’s query regarding whether Malaysia had truly progressed and how the NEP is abused by the elite to advance their interests, Marzuki replied that perhaps it was a case of viewing whether the glass was half empty or half full. Marzuki explained that there has been progress in that the Government had become more liberal and laws being changed to cater for the different ethnicities. Undoubtedly however, there have been stricter laws enacted for instance the amendments to the Penal Code to deal with terrorism.

Questions were opened up to the floor, and a potentially controversial question was then posed to the speakers: whether Islamic law should become the supreme law to other laws. Nik answered that one ought to go beyond labels. In 1957, the country had come to a consensus to guarantee freedom and liberties and therefore, there was no conflict in the status quo. Marzuki was more explicit in stating that Islamic law derives its power and authority from the Constitution and therefore there was no issue.

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With that, the session and this year’s SPK II drew to a close. The packed audience in the Bar Council Auditorium was a testament to how the present generation wishes to participate in the development of Malaysia for the next 50 years and beyond.

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