Profound Perspectives From A Promising Politician

Where Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma is shrill and emotional, Nik’s Moving Forward is cerebral and rational.  While Mahathir irritates, Nik Azmi persuades; while Mahathir excoriates, Nik conciliates.  Nik beckons us to share his dream of Malaysia.

By M. Bakri Musa


Book Review:  Nik Nazmi Ahmad:  Moving Forward.  Malays for the 21st Century.
Marshall Cavendish, Rawang, Selangor, paper back, 136 pages. 
ISBN:  9789833845408  2010.  RM 24.90

One of the least heralded consequences to the 2008 political ‘tsunami’ was the elections of many new faces.  They are mostly young, highly educated, and driven by the old idealism of public service.  They also have something else in common; they are all Pakatan candidates.  That says something of the coalition, its leadership and mission.
One of them is Nik Nazmi Ahmad, a King’s College honors law graduate who readily won Selangor’s Seri Setia state constituency.  He has now penned this book, his first, Moving Forward. Malays for the 21st Century.  It is a slim volume but he covers the major issues confronting Malays specifically and Malaysians generally, the title notwithstanding.
The subtitle may be a yawner to some, tempting them to pass over the book.  Yes, the perennial “Malay problem!”  A hundred years hence they would still be discussing it, and with the same list of usual culprits to blame:  colonialists, immigrants, our culture, and yes, our genes too!
In the 19th Century there was Munshi Abdullah who blamed our culture, specifically our kerajaan (governance) and by implication, our sultans.  For daring to suggest that we emulate some of the ways of the English, he was dismissed as a brown Mat Salleh (Englishman).  Later there was the scholar Zaaba, pursuing the same theme.  They have not “deconstructed” him, probably because they have yet to read his voluminous commentaries.
More recently there was the poet Usman Awang waxing lyrical of our noble ways and values.  He lamented that if only we were a wee bit kurang ajar (crude)!  Many heeded him and ended more than just a bit kurang ajar; but they remained backward nonetheless.  It was a poor bargain.
Nik Nazmi is a refreshing departure.  He has some profound observations and perspectives that belie his chronological and political youth.  “[T]he future of the Malays,” he writes, “cannot be separated from Malaysians in general.”  That seems obvious, but it is equally obvious that this evident truth escapes our leaders; hence their obsession with such extraneous issues as Ketuanan Melayu.  Nik also challenges the prevailing zero-sum mentality of our leaders, and implicit with our race-based political parties.
Many rate politicians by their soaring rhetoric and oratorical flourishes; I base mine on their ideas and powers of persuasion.  Nik Nazmi is a promising politician.
At the risk of discomfiting him, I am tempted to compare Nik’s book to one written nearly 40 years ago by another not-so-young politician.  It is not so much a comparison as a contrast.  Where Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma is shrill and emotional, Nik’s Moving Forward is cerebral and rational.  While Mahathir irritates, Nik Azmi persuades; while Mahathir excoriates, Nik conciliates.  Nik beckons us to share his dream of Malaysia.
Apart from the expected territories like NEP and race-based politics, Nik Nazmi covers education, Islam, and family life, and their impact on Malays and non-Malays.
On NEP, Nik Nazmi hews closely to his party’s position, and that held by many Malaysians, especially young Malay professionals who are rightly fed up with the gross leakages and obscene abuses that have had such a corrosive effect on our character.  These young Malays are disgusted that their genuine achievements are constantly being questioned and tarred by the stigma of special privileges.  I am Malay too, but I am neither young nor live in Malaysia, so I am sparred of that terrible burden.
Nik (and Pakatan) would replace NEP with a race-blind, need-based policy.  I appreciate this sense of social justice but we must remind ourselves that good intentions alone do not make for effective policies.  There are realities to consider.
If it were a choice between eliminating NEP and rioting on the streets, most would make a rational choice:  Keep the damn thing!  The increasing shrill debates on the issue are a hint of things to come.  I am especially nervous when calls for eliminating NEP come from non-Malays, and wrapped in barely concealed sense of racial or cultural superiority.  The political reality is that the constitutional provisions for NEP can only be amended with the consent of the super-majority, and that means with most Malays agreeing to it.
The good news, as demonstrated by Nik Nazmi, is that more and more Malays are calling for exactly that.
More problematic is that a need-based policy would necessarily entail a massive bureaucracy, with resources diverted to administration.  I see this in America.  As Nik noted, the Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen also voiced similar reservations.
A major and valid criticism of the NEP is that, among others, it creates a class of favored Malays, the UMNO Putras.  We would be naïve to think that if we were to extend the policy to other races that we would not end up with an even bloated class of economic parasites, with MCA Putras and MIC Putras joining in.  Avarice and corruption are not vices peculiar only to Malays.
Those reasons notwithstanding, my reservation has more to do with modern economic insight.  While we are aware of the dangers of inequities within a society (vertical inequities), often in a plural society the greater threat is what Oxford economist Frances Stewart refers to as inter-group or horizontal inequities.
Tun Razak grasped this intuitively with his NEP, and at a time long before the concept was even on the consciousness of academic economists.  Give him credit for that.  Stewart’s observation is being validated all too frequently, the latest and most brutal being Sri Lanka.  It is also too close geographically and in many other ways to Malaysia.
A more fruitful approach would be first to plug NEP’s egregious leakages and flagrant abuses.  This is easily achievable and salable as well.  In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited I enumerated the many ways this could be done, one being the “one bite at the apple” rule.  Anyone who has benefited from special privileges would be banned subsequently from enjoying any of its other provisions.  That prohibition would extend to his immediate family.
Then we could exclude those demonstrably affluent groups, beginning with our sultans and members of the royalty, followed by ministers and top civil servants.  There is no need for income verification or any administrative structure for we are eliminating a whole class of people, not individuals.
The objective is not to corral as many Malays as possible but to have a critical mass of Malays not dependent on the NEP.  Over time, their sense of pride would percolate down such that becoming dependent on special privileges would be viewed disdainfully.
On schools, Nik Nazmi favors a “Unified Stream” with vernacular languages included with the mandatory Malay and English.  That is definitely an improvement.  To achieve that, he suggests giving incentives to these schools.  I agree.  Those incentives must be sufficiently generous and be contingent upon demonstrated results, as for example, those schools having an integrated student body.
Even with a unified stream a large swath of Malays would be left out as they have already opted out of national schools for religious ones.  It is here where Malay minds are being wasted.  What goes on in these schools are nothing more than indoctrination masquerading as education.  Any education reform must address this glaring issue.  One immediate improvement would be to make Islamic Studies only one subject and not the consuming curriculum.  These schools must produce their share of future Malay scientists and entrepreneurs.
The prevailing paranoia and Stewart’s thesis notwithstanding, the greater threat facing Malaysia today is not inter-communal rather intra-communal – specifically intra-Malay – conflict.  The many cleavages are fast coalescing into a major fault line.  We are hopelessly divided on the interpretations of Islam, along political lines and socio-economic class, and by geographic zones.  Even on the simple matter of learning English, we are irreconcilably divided between those who consider that as an invaluable asset versus those who deem it an act of national betrayal.  These divisions are aggravated as there is no moderate center to act as a buffer.
Schisms among Malays are what Donald Horowitz refers to as “indivisible conflicts.”  They are over core values, in contrast to the more readily solvable “divisible conflicts” between Malays and non-Malays, which are essentially over the distribution of government bounties.  You could negotiate the second, but not the first.
It is a truism that once we are aware of a danger, we reduce its risks.  Malaysians are only too aware of inter-racial riots; this awareness reduces the risk.  In contrast, intra-Malay conflict is made that much more probable precisely because we are not even aware of its possibility.  Malay leaders, young and old, novice and veteran, wise and not so wise egg on their followers towards even more dangerous and acrimonious confrontations, blissfully unaware of the mortal dangers.
History reminds us that civil wars are often the most vicious of conflicts.  They are also the most difficult to end, the animosities persisting long after.  Both bear reminding.
Nik Nazmi’s otherwise thoughtful book skips one major issue:  the sultans.  This is surprising as they play such a central role in our lives and culture.  How could we urge ordinary Malays to forsake their special privilege-crutches when our sultans squat at the apex of this huge heap, supported by their golden crutches?  To Malays specifically, the sultans –as individuals and as an institution –remind us that we are still steep in our feudal ways.  And feudalism is the antithesis of modernism.
Perhaps this omission is prudent seeing how easily opposition parties’ politicians get entangled with the sultans these days!
I am glad that Nik Nazmi has found time to reflect, write and share with us his thoughts on these major issues.  Writing differs from other forms of communications, especially the one most favored by politicians:  speeches.  When you write you are alone, there are no adoring crowds egging you on.  Thus what you write reflects more accurately your inner feelings and convictions.  I wish other politicians would emulate Nik’s fine example.  That is the best way for us to size up our leaders, and for them to communicate with us.