What makes Malaysia tick

Instead of creating a melting pot, Malaysia painstakingly weaved a rich cultural mosaic, the various people like the colours of a rainbow – separate but not apart.

By Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi (The Star)

A HIGH-POWERED delegation from Afghanistan is visiting the UM’s International Institute of Public Policy and Management to study our parliamentary system and to get a background on what makes our country tick.

And tick it does! Even US President Barack Obama gave us a pat on the back for being an exemplar among Muslim nations.

I had the privilege of addressing the audience. This was no time for me to count our failings, which are many, but to single out those “best practices” and those unique features that have helped us to survive and thrive.

Some of these could provide pointers to countries like Fiji, Afghanistan and Iraq – which have similarly diverse and divided societies.

For example, the way Malaysian federalism concedes the special aspirations of Sabah and Sarawak could provide a paradigm for accommodation for the restive regions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

To the Afghani audience, I counted 10 sterling achievements of our socio-legal system.

First, is our peace and social harmony. We are not at war with any nation or with ourselves. There was one war with Indonesia in 1964; one major racial riot in 1969; and a communist insurgency up to the 80s. Today, no religious, racial or regional grouping is at arms against the Government.

Second is the wondrous durability of political cooperation among the country’s racial, religious and regional groups.

The political alliance, painstakingly forged by the forefathers in 1954, was built on an overwhelming spirit of accommodation, a moderateness of spirit, an absence of the kind of passions, zeal and ideological convictions that in other plural societies have left a heritage of bitterness and violence.

The Alliance/Barisan Nasional is perhaps the world’s longest surviving political alliance. It is a unique and unparalleled example of long-term power sharing among the multi-ethnic, majority-minority communities and between West Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak.

In a country of dazzlingly diverse, rich and autonomous cultural worlds, each in its own orbit, the 14-party Barisan is the sun that keeps the various planets from colliding with each other.

The third sterling achievement is the country’s enduring and endearing inter-ethnic harmony that has few parallels in the world. The frequent sniping at each other notwithstanding, in general, Malaysians tolerate as well as celebrate each others’ religious and cultural festivals.

Instead of creating a melting pot, Malaysia painstakingly weaved a rich cultural mosaic. The plurality of lifestyles this engenders has given rise to an extraordinarily multi-faceted society. The various people of Malaysia are like the colours of a rainbow – separate but not apart.

For 52 years, Malaysia has provided the world with a rare example of how a fragmented multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity can be welded together in a common nationality.

Our fourth significant achievement is the eradication of hard core poverty and suffering.

Louis Armstrong in his immortal song reminded us how universal the desire is for a human being to want a place in the sun and to have a chance to give his kids a better life. The Government has vigorously facilitated this quest.

Through socio-economic measures such as free primary and secondary education, there has been tremendous upward social mobility among the masses.

Fifth, Malaysia has used its economy to preserve social peace. We adopted pragmatic, globalised economic policies long before globalisation. There is wide scope for economic initiative and enterprise.

A strong economy has acted as a glue to bind our people, first, by forging inter-ethnic economic partnerships and, second, by giving to every community a share and a stake in a delectable economic cake

There is a vibrant private sector, dominated by a dynamic and commercial-savvy Chinese community that has contributed immensely to Malaysia’s economic prosperity.

By utilising the economic genius of its enterprising minority communities, Malaysia has enjoyed a sustained economic prosperity that is matched by very few Asian and African societies.

An activist public sector helps the politically dominant but economically depressed Malay community to participate in more and more economic enterprises.

The sixth outstanding feature of Malaysia is the peaceful and cooperative manner in which social engineering is being accomplished.

Unlike some other societies with a similar problem of identification of race with economic function, the government in Malaysia did not, like in Uganda or Zimbabwe, expropriate the wealth of one community to bestow it on another.

Instead it embarked on a pragmatic expansion of opportunities to give to every community its share in the pie. The country’s efforts have reduced the tensions that flared in 1969 due to the economic gaps between the majority-minority communities.

A seventh characteristic feature of the Malaysian polity is the development of a culture that avoids open confrontation; that emphasises behind the scenes negotiations and compromises on a whole range of religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, economic and human rights issues.

Unlike other societies where social conflict is almost always played out in the streets, Malaysia imposes severe controls on mass protests. This has adverse human rights implications but has avoided the continuous cycle of political and religious violence that bedevils many democratic societies.

The eighth remarkable feature is that Malaysia as a Muslim country is an exemplar of a moderate, multi-cultural and tolerant society. Secularism and Islam co-exist in harmony and symbiosis.

The last two decades have seen the rise of political Islam and the increasingly divisive argument of adopting an Islamic state, but the Government has handled religious ideologues fairly successfully by adopting many Islamic measures but maintaining the broad secular, capitalistic, democratic and globalised features of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

A ninth admirable feature is the emancipation of women. In the work place, in schools and in universities, women are easily outnumbering men.

Tenth, Malaysia has successfully kept the armed forces under civilian control. There has been no attempted coup d’etat and no “stern warnings” from military generals to the political executive.

Malaysia has kept the armed forces out of politics by creating a subtle check and balance between the armed force and the police force.

Another achievement is that the extra-constitutional military-industrial complex that, behind the scenes, dictates policy in many democratic countries, the US included, has not been able to displace civilian control over military and industrial decisions in Malaysia.

To the participants of the UM course I had to say that there is much in Malaysia’s struggles and successes that is worthy of emulation by friends and foes alike.

I hope that some lessons from Malaysia’s trials, tribulations and triumphs may allow the long-suffering but great people of Afghanistan to achieve peace and prosperity.

> Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor at UiTM and Visiting Professor at USM.