Pakatan Harapan and the challenge of national integration

WHILE issues related to human rights, governance and integrity have been very much in the news since May 9, Pakatan Harapan's view of national integration has hardly been discussed. In the coalition's election manifesto there is a proposal to establish a Majlis Perundingan Keharmonian Rakyat (Consultative Council for People's Harmony). The MPKR will among other things "research and suggest policies and programmes that will enhance unity and integration and eliminate discrimination from our culture."

It should be observed at this point that a forerunner of Pakatan Harapan, a four-party opposition coalition called the Barisan Alternatif had proposed a similar entity on April 2, 2001. The Majlis Perundingan Perpaduan Nasional (MPPN) which would also formulate ideas on unity was envisaged as an independent body that would be directly answerable to Parliament. The MPPN was still-born.

Two of the four parties that endorsed the MPPN are part of the present PH. Three out of the four parties in PH appeal to ethnic constituencies but in their election campaign they downplayed ethnic issues and instead highlighted the alleged kleptocracy of the then prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak, especially in relation to the 1MDB scandal. Exposing elite corruption and espousing integrity are political postures which have a huge impact upon the electorate, regardless of ethnicity and religion. Indeed, the question of governance as a whole brings people of different ethnic and religious back grounds together which is why it is a potent glue for forging national unity.

But good governance alone is not enough to create a harmonious society. Issues of identity are at the core of most multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. "Malaysian identity" for instance can be a divisive issue. While most Malaysians would agree that we are a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, many Malays would argue that since Malay is the language of the nation and Islam is the religion of the Federation, these features should be emphasised in defining our national identity. For the vast majority of non-Malays on the other hand there is no need to accord significance to these characteristics and instead we should highlight our multi-ethnic and multi-religious texture.

On this question, the Federal Constitution adopts a balanced position. It acknowledges the position of Malay as the language and Islam as the religion of the nation respectively but at the same time recognises the right to use and study other languages and to practise other religions. Indirectly, the Constitution lends legitimacy to a Malay plus and an Islam plus identity which is inclusive rather than exclusive. It is a notion of identity that balances historical truths with present-day realities. It takes into account the evolution of the nation.

"Balance" and "evolution" are two vital dimensions of the Federal Constitution that should be understood in depth by all Malaysians. The balance written into the Constitution is of tremendous significance to ethnic relations. It is not only reflected in the language and religion Articles of the Constitution but also in Article 153 on the "Special Position of the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak". Special position is balanced with a commitment to the "legitimate interests of the other communities". At the same time, the Federal Constitution balances federal rights with state rights — an important principle which has acquired fresh significance in view of current developments.

The PH government it is hoped will continue to emphasise the principle of balance in the life of the nation. There is no need to reiterate that both ethnic harmony and territorial integration depend upon the faithful adherence to this principle. The government should in fact expand upon this principle. Citizenship rights should be balanced with the responsibilities of citizenship. Though the Constitution does not enumerate upon the responsibilities of citizenship, society should be made aware that every right carries with it a responsibility. What this means is that the exercise of the freedom of expression is a huge responsibility that should not be misused or abused. If it becomes a conduit for spewing communal venom or religious bigotry, it would be a shameful betrayal of the responsibility we bear towards our fellow human beings.

Towards this end, it is those of who possess more authority, more power, more wealth and more knowledge who have the greatest responsibility to ensure that amiable and harmonious relations prevail within our multi-ethnic society.

Just as balancing rights with responsibilities should become a national norm, so should we appreciate the evolution of fundamental institutions and principles in our Constitution. The evolution of the monarchical system would be an example. From feudal monarchs with subjects with whom they shared a cultural-cum-religious bond they have evolved into constitutional rulers whose citizens are culturally and religiously diverse. This in itself is a contribution to inter-ethnic amity.

If our rulers aspire to higher standards of rectitude, their exemplary conduct would serve to further strengthen inter-ethnic ties. In the last three or four decades, the Malay language has become a more pervasive medium of communication at least at the lower and middle echelons of society. The PH leadership should encourage its more widespread usage in the upper echelons and in various spheres of society so that it becomes a language that all Malaysians regardless of cultural affiliation would be proud to identify with as their first language.

A more formidable challenge facing PH is developing a perception of Islam among Muslims and non-Muslims that it is an inclusive, universal religion capable of fulfilling its role as the ultimate reference for guiding values and principles in a multi-religious society where it is constitutionally recognised as the religion of the federation. This is a role it will not be able to play as long as Islam is projected as an exclusive faith over-emphasising form over substance and preoccupied with a "punish and prohibit" (2P) approach towards the practice of the religion.

In tandem with further evolution in the understanding of Islam, the role of the Malay language and the position of the monarchical system, the new government should also strengthen the needs based approach in the economy which many of us have advocated for decades. It is important to emphasise that such an approach is already in vogue in significant segments of the nation's economic and social life.

However, since ethnic based considerations are also still in play and have become a camouflage of sorts for self-serving interests in certain instances, justice demands that a more egalitarian system be put in place. Besides, a needs oriented system would be in consonance with Islamic principles of justice.

Needless to say, values such as justice and equality would figure prominently in shaping policies in both the public and private sectors that serve multi-ethnic harmony. But the understanding of justice has to be holistic and balanced, not partial and biased as it often is in Malaysia as in many other multi-ethnic societies.

Likewise, one cannot comprehend equality without giving due emphasis to socio-historical and socio-economic factors. There are other values and virtues that are crucial in fostering better relations between different religious and cultural communities in a society like ours. Respect for the religious or cultural other would be foremost among them. So is reciprocity — the idea that something good done by an individual or group within one community deserves to be reciprocated in equal measure. Empathy is a great virtue in a multi-ethnic society. It is the ability to put your heart in the other person's heart, the person who is not of your kind.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com