BY GURDIAL SINGH NIJAR
(Deputy President, HAKAM)
MODERATION – the most recent buzz-word. It is really a response to a position seen as extreme. In the Malaysian context it arises with regard to issues of race and religion. Moderation aims for the middle ground between two polarising positions.
The prime minister sponsored the Group of Moderate Movement Foundation and more recently the Langkawi Declaration on the Global Movement of Moderates at the Asean Summit; the Moderate 25 and their off-shoots spoke up – an unprecedented initiative by eminent leaders of society. Newspapers cry out full-page appeals to moderation.
We all privately lament that after 53 years of independence these issues have reached an acrimonious divisive pitch. After all did not our 1957 Federal Constitution meld the seemingly competing interests into a harmonious balance, with fundamental rights guaranteed to all? And was this not further reinforced with the Rukun Negara and its directive principles?
You see, the legal basis and architecture for moderation was always there from the beginning – sewn into the soul of the nation. It was all-inclusive – bringing into its fold the rich tapestry of diverse races and religions.
To the present problem, we are reviving “inclusiveness” as a “solution”. But now inclusiveness means different things to different people:
a. To some, if the pre-eminent position of one race is adequately protected, then the rest can be included (or accommodated) in a broader grouping as one entity;
b. To others, if a particular interest (say language) is safeguarded then that reflects inclusiveness – and therefore “moderation”;
c. Yet some others prefer the term “pluralism” – let the races and religions flourish along their chosen pathways.
Where do we go from here?
What remains paramount as our goal is to reassert/resurrect the fundamental ethos of a functioning constitutional democracy where everybody feels secure in leading a happy and harmonious life with a deep sense of belonging to the nation and its values. And where differences are acknowledged; and not characterised as antagonistic contradictions threatening to tear society apart.
For this we need to go beyond the present initiatives. The fact that “conflict-talk” is so rampant suggests that perhaps we have not built, or thought sufficiently about building, common ground rules that can spawn firm measures (legal, administrative or policy) and resilient institutional structures to oversee these; and attending to the root causes that allows for groups to marshal some sectors of society to take up their ethnic-religious divisive cause. One of the structures to be considered would be a final filter to vet acts/activities/projects for their adverse impact on issues of race and religion.
To achieve these there must first be initiated the widest stake-holder participatory consultations – involving all sectors of society. And an agreement thrashed out on the “basic structure” informing all decision-making. A genuine “social contract” developed from the perspective of social groups (and not elites) – directed to a vision of society that eliminates ethnicity and religion as contentious issues; and addresses the inequity of society by the eradication of poverty and a decent standard of living for all. Thereafter the adherence to these ground rules must be left to those with unquestionable integrity.
In this context it is crucial to examine what is giving rise to these open outpourings of extremities. And consider how to provide against their future escalation.
Is, for example, the situation compounded by a feeling of insecurity felt by:
» A group which sees its eminent position being threatened?
» A group (regardless of class and education) which feels besieged by the “other”?
» A group which sees that, de facto, it is being pauperised amid the rapid development around them?
» Members of the lower strata of society that sees itself marginalised and unable to cope with their daily life?
The insecure in the marginalised group cuts across ethnic and religious lines.
Quite clearly they constitute the largest part of our society: the proverbial 99%.
These feelings, with their roots in economic inequality, are fertile ground for others to exploit – for genuine reasons or to serve an extraneous agenda.
Compounding this mix is the race-based politics entrenched in our body politic.
An appeal to race and religion at every election adds fuel to the ethnic-religious fire.
The open condemnation of an entire race by leaders after disappointing election results keeps the embers of racial-religious conflict burning.
So in the long term these fertile grounds must be eliminated. And rid of the “fear-up” strategy – “others will take over”, “you will be dispossessed” and such like.
Ultimately, and most importantly, there must be the political will to carry out these reforms. Political leaders must do just that – lead. And not succumb to pressure groups. Backsliding is not an option.
The record in this regard has been dismal. The draft bills carefully produced by the PM’s Group of Moderates have been aborted; laws promised to be repealed remain on our books – the Sedition Act made even more draconian. New laws allowing for detention without trial speedily promulgated.
At this critical juncture we must realise this: In the long run the only way forward is to reassert and give flesh to the fundamental uniting precepts of our founding Constitution. And thus replace any feeling of “hopelessness” with a firm reality that we all – the diverse races and classes – be guaranteed a dignified place under the Malaysian sun.
Gurdial is Professor at the Law Faculty, University of Malaya, and HAKAM Deputy President.