Speaking up against extremism

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Those who exploit sensitive issues to incite anger and hatred should be taken to task by the authorities without fear or favour, says corporate captain Datuk Seri Nazir Razak.

Errol Oh, The Star

HE’S a top corporate leader and runs one of the biggest investment banks in the region. But CIMB Group Holdings Bhd chairman Datuk Seri Nazir Razak does not live in an ivory tower. Although he is also the brother of the Prime Minister, he knows what the ordinary folk want – a peaceful and thriving nation. For that, Nazir knows moderation is the answer. It’s a stance that he has held for many years.

He has always talked openly – and candidly – about matters such as the value of unity, Malaysia’s strength in diversity, and even the need to review the New Economic Policy.

His views have sometimes drawn criticism, but he feels compelled to speak up about what he believes in and what can make a difference. All he asks is that people hear him out as a corporate leader “with personal experience and a track record that I have earned for myself”, as opposed to being the brother of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Now, he has stepped up to support the moderation movement that started to gather momentum with the August 2014 launch of The Star’s Voices of Moderation campaign. In a special interview with Sunday Star, he shares his views on moderation, extremism and doing what is right for the country.

>To you, what is moderation, and why does it matter greatly to Malaysia?

Moderation is not something new. It was the very basis of how our founding fathers, representing the main communities, were able to work together to form and build this country. A country with such diversity has been a successful developing nation because of the politics of consensus, compromise and moderation.

Back in the 1950s, Malaysia was often compared with Sri Lanka in terms of ethnic diversity, but Sri Lanka was seen to have greater economic potential. Extremist ethnic politics derailed Sri Lanka’s progress while moderation enabled ours. But we cannot take our future for granted. We must be vigilant about staying moderate.

Being a moderate nation means that we do not allow extremists to take centre stage. There will always be extremists but race, religion and language are very dangerous political weapons. They can be discussed, of course, but always rationally and on the right platforms.

Those who exploit sensitive issues to incite anger and hatred should be taken to task by the authorities without fear or favour. Freedom of expression does not mean freedom to insult other religions, races, or languages for that matter, and when people cross the line, whoever they are, we must “throw the book” at them with consistency.

> What do you think businesses and business leaders can do to keep Malaysia firmly on the path of moderation?

Business cannot succeed if society fails. Malaysia needs to be peaceful and stable for businesses to flourish. There is so much more we can achieve if we unite as a nation, take full advantage of our diversity and simply create a better living environment for our people.

At some point, business leaders have to step forward for society. We are also citizens and, as I said, at some point it is also the right thing to do for business. We also need to lead by example by setting the right set of internal company rules that foster unity and moderation and by not tolerating racism and other forms of extremism.

> In an article you wrote about a year ago to mark your father’s passing in 1976, you talked about rising inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic tensions and hence the need to return to “pangkal jalan” (the beginning). What compelled you to come out with that article, and have you seen significant changes since then?

The article was first and foremost just a son wanting his father to be remembered in the right way, for the right things. But as I was writing it, I reflected on Malaysia in the 1970s, and I remembered a happier nation and one standing shoulder to shoulder economically with the likes of Singapore and South Korea. So in the article, I suggested that we should look to our past to find a better future.

This was also the thinking behind CIMB’s sponsorship of Supermokh the Musical about our great “1Malaysia” football team in an era before Malaysian football was ruined by corruption.

In the late 1960s, we learnt some very hard lessons about extremism in our multiracial, multireligious country. And our leaders came up with a new formula for how to preserve peace and stability which included limits on freedom of expression and the New Economic Policy. And it worked for many years but I think it is now time to look at refreshing the formula to be more relevant for today’s world and today’s Malaysians. And to do that we should look back to our better days as a nation and the principles and aspirations of our founding fathers. We should also discuss the role of Islam and Islamic law and how they coexist with our multiracial society, our constitution and civil laws. We must also ask if we need to recalibrate our education polices and system. The longer we leave these big issues unaddressed, the longer we will continue to drift socially, politically and economically.

I am not sure what impact my article had but I received a huge number of positive comments and support for it. Unfortunately, it also resulted in personal attacks on me in social media sites and blogs by those unhappy with my article and, worse, the personal attacks were not confined to me but targeted my wife and children too. The attacks were unfair and hurtful but they have only strengthened my resolve to do what is right for this country.

> What are your thoughts on how moderate Malaysians shifted last year from being the silent majority to becoming a growing presence at centre stage?

I am glad that more and more ordinary Malaysians have come out to speak up. We need to. Malaysians are in this all together. We cannot allow the voice of extremists to be the loudest and dictate our social and political discourse.

I support the advocates of moderation, members of the majority who no longer want to remain silent. I am glad that they speak up even though they are threatened by insults and personal attacks.

I commend The Star for initiating the Voice of Moderation campaign, and I think the next step is to call for another National Consultative Committee in the mould of its 1970 predecessor to comprehensively look at our increasingly divided nation and recommend a new way forward.

We must not wait for things to fall apart (and that is the direction we are headed) before we act.

> You have spoken about Malaysia enforcing a zero-tolerance policy toward racism through legislation. Why do you think this is the best way to deal with the problem?

I manage a group of underprivileged kids’ football team, and not long ago I went to watch them play in a tournament.

I was aghast at the verbal insults the kids were throwing at each other on the field – racist language for which you can get arrested in some countries.

I think we need to define racism for the Malaysian context. What language or attitude should be considered racist?

There are many parents who perhaps don’t even know that they are encouraging racist behaviour.

We need to have guidance notes on and legislation against racism and, of course, rules need to be enforced to be effective. Look at how effective the “no racism” campaign in the English Premier League has been.

I remember the 1980s when bananas were freely thrown at black players. Today, even players are charged in court for using racist language. And this campaign has in turn had a positive impact on UK society at large.

We do not have to accept the way things have been, how ever deep-rooted they are. We can change society for the better; we must do so for our children.

> You have consistently been outspoken about thorny issues such as racism, corruption and affirmative action, and have taken flak for it. Why do you speak up when most CEOs are coy about airing their views on such matters?

I can’t speak for others but I think it is the responsibility of people in leadership positions to speak up to help make the country a better place. It is better to be apolitical, though, and speaking up against racism and corruption, for instance, is supporting basic values that we must have as a business community, as a nation.

> Many people still remember the frank talk you gave in August 2010 (at the MCA-organised Chinese Economic Congress) on the strength in our diversity. Do you still think not enough is being done to, in your words, nurture, celebrate and harness this diversity?

It is strange but we always seem to take two steps forward and three steps back. The EPU (Economic Planning Unit), TalentCorp and Pemandu have been doing a lot of good work to promote gender and ethnic diversity in our companies. But, at the same time, we allow more extremist rhetoric that fuels brain drain.

GLCs and private companies need to be genuine in how they embrace diversity, beyond numbers and quotas. CEOs need to intervene to ensure that departments and teams are multiracial and multigender. When 60% of the population is bumiputra and over 50% are women, something is wrong if we cannot apply a general expectation of at least 30% bumiputras and women at various levels over time.

I don’t like quotas but expectations should be set and owners and CEOs need to feel some pinch if they don’t meet them – by being excluded from government jobs, not included in the list of investable companies by asset managers, and so on. It is sad but there are large Chinese-controlled companies that hire senior bumiputras just to look nice at signing ceremonies, and GLCs that refuse to consider non-bumiputras for senior positions.

The most fundamental changes, though, must happen in our education system. National schools need to become multiracial again, just like they were when I was growing up. If our kids don’t go to school together, how can we dream of “One Malaysia”, harnessing diversity, etc?

> When you speak publicly about national issues and government policies, how mindful are you of the fact that your brother is the Prime Minister and your late father had been in that role as well?

I think the PM would say I am not mindful enough! But it is my nature to feel compelled to speak up when I think I can make a positive contribution, and people should hear me out as just the view of one corporate leader with the personal experience and track record that I have earned for myself.

> Most people find it hard to see your views as merely those of a corporate leader. They also see you as the brother of the Prime Minister. How do you respond to this?

“PM’s brother” is a distinctive feature of mine at the moment. That is a fact, but I was an outspoken CEO long before Najib became PM.

And people should know by now that I say what I believe, it may not be in line with the views of any of my brothers – people tend to forget I have four brothers – and it may not be politically correct either.