Time to dream big: Intergenerational deep-change projects for new Malaysia

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Many of us will not be around but it is certainly wonderful to imagine such a new Malaysia for future generations. Malaysians today can only plant the seeds and show the direction, writes M Nadarajah.

The general election outcome has positively energised Malaysia and Malaysians while it has threatened neighbouring Singapore and raised caustic remarks from detractors.

Social media are, on a daily basis, filled with statements of living hope, suggestions, cautionary remarks and criticisms – all directed at imagining or building a ‘new Malaysia’. Everyone wants a say in the way the new government is run or in the way the new society will be conceived and created.

The euphoria is understandable. The articulated concerns are heart-warming. Malaysians needed a breadth of fresh air in what was an increasingly suffocating socio-political environment, an open prison of sorts.

Malaysians have taken the first step in the process of regeneration. They have replaced arrogant political leadership and are in the process of removing the oppressive and mindless socio-political mess.

Now, they have to take that long and difficult journey to patiently build a new Malaysia. With so many experienced, capable and wise Malaysians and the organisations and movements they represent providing sound input, there is really no need for another comment. But I am unable to hold back; I want to share my feelings and thoughts too.

‘Newness’ seeking a voice of expression

The ‘newness’ in Malaysia is trying to find its voice. Today, it is a flourishing, colourful medley and here is one more adding to the lively chorus.

The voice of the new Malaysia is trying to develop and articulate a language and a future that offers a nurturing home to all Malaysians. But the reality today is that there are many voices, many languages, and many futures. That, of course, is not necessarily bad in itself.

However, as one explores these voices and their active articulation, one can sense the multi-dimensional crises we are faced with, the long-term projects needed to address them and a new citizenry oriented to execute them.

The legitimation crisis

The single most critical issue we face as a society and a nation is the corruption of our institutions and our spirit: the corruption is both deeply internal and external, both structural and everyday. It is the banality of the evil of corruption that has affected this nation thoroughly and deeply. We have lost our way.

The culture of corruption has taken many forms, hard and soft, directly and indirectly – a culture of irresponsible and unethical power, a culture of silence, a culture of fear, a culture that says “we need to be (mindlessly) realistic and practical”, a culture that is afraid of off-track creativity that deeply questions our cherished beliefs, practices and institutions, a culture of ‘what’s in it for me?’

This then is the first thing that needs to be addressed. The anti-corruption project of the new Malaysia has two components.

We have a deep need to recover our genuine creative and compassionate spirit. That spirit should guide our present and our future endeavours – compassionate co-creation of a nation.

We need to revisit Malaysia as a caring society, governed by our home-grown ‘salam sejahtera’ philosophy. It calls us to re-examine our own individual roles, aspirations and hopes, and their impact on the Malaysia we want.

Don’t we need to change our ways: let go, reduce, share, stay in constant vigilance of our own individual and community irrational egos, be more tolerant but even more ready to celebrate our rich diversity, and be benevolent and humane? We need to recover our caring humanity beyond our religious and ethnic selves.

The other is the need for the regeneration of authentic, reconciliation-based, healing and nurturing democratic institutions and processes.

We have to set right urgently the institutions and processes that people in power and those with wealth could abuse and that could leave an ordinary citizen without any recourse to the abuse of power or any way to stand up to overt or covert lawlessness. We need an order governed by the spirit of the law. An ordinary citizen cannot defend herself otherwise.

Eventually, we must have a system where we do not have to be a Mahathir or Anwar to challenge the abuse of power. People need to exercise democratic control at the everyday governance level and take ownership of the nation and not just leave it to the politicians through the drama of elections and voting every five years.

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Genuine democracy needs eternal vigilance. The New Malaysia certainly needs a new citizenry and a culture of continual vigilance. The citizenry of course needs a New Media. The New Malaysia needs to be a lively movement not an end state, and its voice must be heard.

Trust needs to be firmly re-established. Today with the extensive culture of corruption, there is a national deficit in honesty and trust. These delicate political territories need to be regenerated and structurally sustained from within for all-round legitimacy.

In a sense, it is the gross misreading of a growing legitimation crisis that brought down the earlier regime. Many in the earlier team seemed to not get it and are still wondering what happened.

Going beyond the ethnicity-based ordering of society

There is another unfinished national project – the non-ethnicity-based ordering of Malaysian society.

From the 2008 general election, the ethnicity-based (in a sense, racist) ordering of Malaysia has been challenged on the streets. The real challenge to the ethnicity-based ordering of our polity started in 2008. It has taken about 10 years for the wave to reach the threshold of its realisation.

But we need to keep in mind that the tendency for a non-ethnicity ordering of society really has a much longer history in the creation of Malaya. That history has been marginalised or sidelined. There is however a space today for its active recovery and regeneration.

Whether there was a Malay tsunami or not, there was a tsunami to break down the ethnic- ordering of society. The universal democratisation of the socio-polical space that defines Malaysia is now on our national agenda. Thanks to the Bersih movement for growing a platform that brought us together as Malaysians. Hopefully the movement to pay our national debt will open another platform to bring us together again – something like how Nelson Mandela used football to bring all South Africans together, emotionally.

Changes are visible. In the 2013 general election, the opposition registered a higher popular vote against the seats. That was already a victory but power was stolen from the people. It took another five years for Malaysians to wake up to the possible abuse of power and to the continued imposition of the ethnic-ordering of society.

A new leadership and greater alertness have dislodged those powers that want to further the agenda of ethnicity-based ordering and sectarian politics. For the old regime, that is where power and privilege come from. And, power and privilege are really addictive. This world is not going to go away very easily. But Malaysians have decided to give it a ‘real’ fight.

Now, we are at the threshold of a polity beyond ethnicity-based ordering and beyond the uneven development promoted by such an ordering (even in the name of affirmative action). It has been a long struggle.

Now, we need to constitute a language that dissolves the earlier language of social ordering.  So for those struggling to find justice for their own ethnic communities, there is a need to be cautious of the language that is used so that we do not reproduce a society that sustains the earlier order and its uneven, and often unjust development projects – projects that sustain ethnic patron-client relationships and corruption.

Of course, easier said than done. The forces of the old order will always fight back – with a vengeance – tooth and nail. Quarrels, scaremongering and instigation will surface. So too false arguments and false alarms. Dialogue and reconstitution will be last thing on their mind and actions.

Letting go, sacrifice, reimagining Malaysia and reconciliation are not going to be easy. But many approaches to de- and re-institutionalise Malaysia can be put found. This agenda of institutional innovation for a New Malaysia should proceed with courage and commitment. And it should be actively sustained over a couple of generations.

A new enlightened citizenry needs to slowly take formal and informal leadership of the process and not just leave it to the politicians. Perhaps this should be one critical and urgent focus of the ministries of human resources and education, as they are conceived today.

To reorder our society at a deeper level, we need to re-examine some critical ethnic institutions that have the potential to be obstacles and to institgate conflicts among the rakyat. These institutions lie deep in the emotional lives and the psyche of Malaysians.

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Without losing sight of the importance of an ethnic group’s way of life and identity, without losing our attention to healthy diversity, without losing our effort at robust syncretism, we need the courage and wisdom to question ourselves and our cultural institutions. We need to discern how to proceed to build a space beyond ethnic structures: a universal space governed by equality (and equity) of all Malaysians.

This also means enforcing, as well as reworking, some aspects of our Constitution. Are we ready for a new Malaysia?  Will entrenched structures, and people and forces behind them, allow us to complete this critical aspect of the project – the creation of a universal, non-ethnicity-based ordering of society and social life?

We need to understand that sacrifices need to be made by some for the benefit of the whole. Will wisdom nurture these orientations as we move away from indifference to tolerance to reconciliation to healing and to celebrating differences and diversity?

We really need a caring, compassionate society built upon active democratic institutions and processes where power is exercised responsibly, governed by strong democratic institutional safeguards. We also need a universal space that recognises all Malaysians as equals. All disaggregated categories that need special attention are seen as historical, contextual and time-bound.

Special privileges must be allocated for children, the physically/mentally challenged, and the elderly. Such a space must also sensitively consider vulnerable groups such as indigenous people, women, informal labour, migrants and refugees but progressively transform the social space of the New Malaysia to remove vulnerability as a long-term social condition.

Now, one more thing to be shared.

Sustainability orientation

We need one more project – the sustainability project. This is more of an orientation project than a development one. It is really a cutural project of deep change directed at our outlook and lifestyle supported by an innovative network of institutions.

We need to urgently redesign systems, structures and processes that nurture the space for a culture of sustainability to grow. Strengthening the soul of Malaysia will lie in establishing a culture of sustainability.

This also cannot be just a national project; it must essentially be a glocal project – our role as a global citizen at a local level. That makes us automatically responsible for our global ecological footprint.

And, it is important that we understand that we cannot have a sustainable ecological footprint without also addressing our social, political, technological and cultural relationships at the local, national, regional and global levels.

We are all directly or indirectly responsible for forests destruction and species annihilation and even for regional wars, in our drive for raw materials to feed our hungy industries in order to support our senseless consumption habits.

We need to recognise that we are shamelessly and carelessly using the resources of our children and theirs. The new Malaysia needs to urgently address this. We are all implicated in the Earth Overshoot Day.

We also need to specially pay attention to Earth limits, which we are breaking mindlessly at our level everyday in the name of national economic development. Malaysia has both national and global roles and responsibilities that it needs to pay attention to. To what extent and depth are we ready to transform our present to the new Malaysia project?

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are good starting points but certainly not enough. We need to look beyond and deep into our cultural history including the histories and philosophies of our indigenous people and their holistic eco-wisdom. Our new Malaysia must grow sustainably in all its aspects largely from endogenous cultural resources. We need to be far more creative. We must be crazy, almost.

To begin with, are we ready to rethink the nomenclature of our ministries to serve the present and future realities and concerns in a sustainable way? We seem to be so stuck with an old catalogue, prepared for another era and purpose.

As a wise man once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” The change era also means a change of thinking, change in the way we think-feel about our ‘old’ problems and the way we approach the solution(s) to the problems.

We really need to rename our ministries to capture new territories of emerging realities and concerns and to address our future(s) with a fully-grown culture of sustainability. Our ministries have to be first creatively redesigned.

Sustainability orientation is about focusing on the basics. Being, not having; mobility, not transportation industry; health, healing and wellbeing, not medical and/or pharmaceutical industry; enligtened localism, not mindless globalism; learning, not education industry; sustainable livelihood, not career; happiness and wellbeing, not GDP… there are many areas that need some basic refocussing.

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How deep do we want to go to build our new Malaysia? Are we ready to accord legal rights to aspects of Nature – our rivers, mountains, forests, endangered species? Will we save our forests from careless economic imperatives? Will we examine the delicate eco-psycholgical needs of the people?

Will we stop our blind ever-expanding concrete urban jungles and the so-called ‘smart cities’ and rethink a people-heritage-culture-nature -riented humane habitat? Can we create urban forests?

Are we ready to protect our natural and cultural heritages as part of what defines us as a people? Are we ready not to turn all of these into commodities and dump them into the market to be privatised and/or destroyed in the name of growth? Are we ready for a ‘de-growth’ and/or ‘dematerialisation’ development policy?

Building a more caring, compassionate Malaysia also means changing our high retail and wholesale consumption lifestyles and an economy that demands that – even if it is presented to us as ‘green development’ with sustainable technologies. The agenda really is to have and/or to consume more and more using green technologies. So GDP is positive and protected.

We really need to reduce the territory of ‘having’ and expand to the territory of ‘being’. Are we willing to reduce our consumption and share our more-than-needed-wealth? Are we ready as a society to ensure that the income differential of the bottom and the top do not exceed defined limits so that we can in a way control inequality and the skewed distribution of wealth?

Are we ready to further our initiatives to achieve a deeply more socially just society? We need to protect the real creators of value and wealth, labour, don’t we? And should we not interrogate wealth as much as poverty?

We need to ensure that we do not directly or indirectly contribute to the global arms industry or take part in its hypocritical relationship with peace processes. No point talking peace but selling war and weapons. No real benefit in weaponising our future. We have to learn to stand up together in international fora with those who have been victims of the arms industry.

We also need to take steps to ensure that we are not part of that empire of pain, suffering and human trafficking – the global slave society. Our New Malaysia must also be a global leader in promoting a culture of sustainability, not limited by the SDGs.

Looking back, sideways, underground, outside…

In the present national social, political and cultural euphoria, it would be great if we also looked back, sideways, at underground pathways and at subterranean channels … anywhere we can draw some creative and practical ideas. We need to explore the ways of our ancestors and the deliberations of our more recent history.

We have a rich cultural history from which we could creatively extract the philosophies and orientations that we need today. We have many sustainable orientations and practices from our indigenous peoples. We also have had an active oppositional social and political tradition right from the Merdeka days.

We need to examine those histories closely and draw lessons from them so that we do not repeat our mistakes in building a Malaysia for all Malaysians. We can also learn from sustainable initiatives in other regions and nations. It will be a long, difficult journey but it will probably be worth it if we want to really build a Malaysia with a deep sustainability orientation.

Anti-corruption and non-ethnicity social ordering efforts have been thrown about here and there. But sustainability has not got enough attention. The new Malaysia, mindfully embracing a package comprising legitimacy, non-ethnicity social ordering and sustainability projects, will give all of us enough work and challenges over the next five years. And beyond.

Many of us will not be around but it is certainly wonderful to imagine such a new Malaysia for future generations. Building a new Malaysia is an inter-generational project. Malaysians today can only plant the seeds and show the direction.

Dr M Nadarajah, a sociologist by training, is an Asian Public Intellectuals (API) fellow whose work focuses on cultural and sustainability issues. An associate director with Sejahtera Leadership Initiative based in USIM, he also heads the Xavier Centre for Humanities and Compassion Studies at Xavier University in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India.

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Astilbe Merisioux

YES!!!