I have a special birthday next week. This year, there is something grand to celebrate: a brand new beginning, the promise of hope and a sincere intention to make right so many wrongs. A grand game plan indeed, but it’s actually not mine but that of Malaysia Baru. See, I share the same birthday with the country, and this year is special because it’s a special Merdeka – we’re celebrating Malaysia 2.0!
No matter how you rate the country now or what you think of the current Government, there is no denying that Malaysia has taken an enormous leap forward in its political evolution in the last few months. It’s no small feat to remove the oldest ruling coalition in the world in a peaceful, bloodless transition. People went to great lengths to make that a reality. We could teach other countries a thing or two about political engagement.
And so now, we are in the process of remaking the country. It’s not an easy process, and to guide us, I think we should hold fast to certain principles, just as the French stood by “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” after their revolution in the 18th century.
In my view, there are three words that sum up the issues: plurality, equality and legality. Here’s why:
Plurality – We live in a plural society: multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious. We should consider this a gift, not a problem, and learn not just to tolerate but embrace our plurality. There is strength in diversity; a lack of it is just boring!
The Pakatan Harapan (PH) Government has promised to be fair and inclusive. Unfortunately, the recent spate of gay-bashing, which snowballed after the appointment of a gay activist as a ministerial aide, shows that inclusivity is limited. Can we not just live and let live? We could offer the world a model this way. And remember, greater plurality is the future in our globalised world.
Equality – Our country is deeply unequal, with a growing gap between the rich and poor. A survey of residents of low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur found a shocking one in five of children were physically stunted – a sign of how bad poverty is.
The inequality gap, once a driver of bumiputra policies, is now more intraethnic than interethnic – ie, wider within a race than between races. This breeds crime, social problems and instability. PH is looking at increasing the minimum wage, but much more needs to be done. Everyone deserves a fair shot in life.
Equality is also a rights issue and there are many pressing rights issues. The recent child marriage case reflects the lack of gender equality and child rights. The orang asli in Kelantan have been battling a hardline PAS-led State Government over logging on their land. This is a perennial issue, as they lack rights to their own ancestral land.
The right to nationality is another huge issue, affecting hundreds of thousands. A lack of documents – which may be missing for a myriad reasons – ruins lives. It shuts out people from school, jobs, property, legal marriage and much more.
As for refugees, they have no rights and are at constant risk of detention, being considered illegal immigrants. We need a more compassionate refugee policy, one that allows them to attend school and work. Can we not offer a life for children born and bred here who know no other home but Malaysia?
Legality – By this, I’m referring to following the rule of law, which PH has set out to do. The flagrant flouting of the law in recent years has led to a host of problems, from a monumental international corruption scandal to major damage to core institutions, including the Election Commission, judiciary, police, and many regulatory and enforcement agencies such as the anti-corruption commission. Ordinary citizens are little better, breaking laws on the road habitually. And then they try to get out of it with a bribe! The whole nation needs to be more law-abiding. The alternative is a lawless cowboy country.
I have great faith that we will become a more plural and equal Malaysia, one that values diversity and respects rights and rule of law.
Two years ago, on my birthday, I stated a number of birthday wishes at an online news portal. I wanted “presents” to share with the nation, since I already have everything I want. My wishes included the resignation of the then Prime Minister, the country to take the “strongest stand against corruption” ever, and for people in the country to wake up and care about what was happening. Now look where we stand. I got my wishes, albeit two years later.
And so, you see why this is a special birthday, a special Merdeka? It’s worth celebrating, isn’t it?