BY NETUSHA NAIDU
Last week, a few Malaysians and I came to the United States of America for a five-week programme under the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. We will be academic fellows on religious pluralism at Temple University’s interfaith initiative known as the Dialogue Institute based in its Department of Religion.
Students from Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines as well have been brought together to learn about American history, values and cultures to have an idea of how religious pluralism is not necessarily an impossible challenge in our own countries. What makes this appropriate is that the United States has a long history of diversity.
In fact, Philadelphia is home to the first proponent of religious pluralism in the US. Its founder, William Penn belonged to an unorthodox Christian sect called the Quakers that was deemed radical during the late 1600s.
The oppression of British colonial masters became a compelling force that drove the formulation of Pennsylvania’s 1701 Charter of Privileges that served as a guarantee for not having their religious liberty “molested” or “prejudiced”.
It is not easy to talk about religion, or specifically, religious liberty these days. More often than not, we find ourselves threading on thin ice when expressing what we feel. Eventually we sometimes even fall out of love, because we often unintentionally make assaults on one another.
While we value the importance of clinging onto our own system of beliefs, it seems to be difficult to find common ground when separatists and exclusivists become more dominant in the discourse.
A lot of the discussion that takes place ends up being redundant. It hits a brick wall especially since we always seem to let our ego breed into the exercise of our self-righteousness onto others.
At the end of the day, we need to acknowledge that the foundation of all human rights, including religious freedom is the principle of liberty. Hence, why the alternative meaning to human rights is fundamental liberties.
Even in translating the word “liberty” to the Malay language, it would be “kebebasan”, which actually implies that liberty will always inevitably return to personal freedom.
Liberty is a question of philosophy that has been long pondered upon. As society evolves, individuals find themselves discovering more about our need to protect our identities from the shackles of power. It can be said that the recognition of liberty provides a fundamental understanding of the human spirit, which cannot be oppressed forever.
It is frequently puzzling – a continuous challenge to comprehend and respect liberty.
Could there ever be a point where there is “too much” liberty? While I think there is too little in this world at the moment, some governments think otherwise.
Concept of liberty
The theme for the first week of our fellowship was America’s political history and constitution. Some of the activities included classroom sessions with historians and popular site visits in the city of Philadelphia.
I found myself deeply contemplating about how the concept of liberty became central in the nation’s pursuit of freedom, in particular. I also learnt about how we can learn to make the education of liberty more accessible to the public which can strengthen civil society movements as a check and balance to our national institutions.
It first began with seeing the Liberty Bell. While its initial purpose was to signal for lawmakers to meet for readings of the news in the Independence Hall, it was only about the 1830s that it began to take on a bigger image in championing human rights.
The bell is well known for its inscription from Leviticus 25:10 of the Old Testament, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”, which is said to have inspired the spirit of activism for the Women’s Suffrage and abolitionists of slavery.
Even freedom fighters like Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela have visited it, signifying a shared sentiment for preserving our fundamental liberties through the reclamation of people’s power.
Evidently, the Liberty Bell is not just a monument that has touched Americans only, but also international leaders. We are left to wonder about what makes this relic so rich in the comprehension of liberty. Intriguingly, it is because the bell itself serves as a marvellous metaphor in its totality.
Up to this day, the bell continues to be preserved and withstand the vagaries of time, as it had once suffered a large crack on its body. It requires a tremendous amount of effort to ensure that it remains in a good condition, even though it is not near perfect.
Similarly, our knowledge about liberty is subjected to constant revision based on evolving social conditions which is often dictated by the actions of individuals. This is because of the multitude of differences in our values that are defined by our culture and religion as contained in our society.
Unfortunately, we sometimes find ourselves erring in our nature as the flaws of our ideals become clearly oppressing to some others that do not abide to our narrative. Nevertheless, I would like to think that there is some achievable way for us to prioritise the need to uphold individual liberty as a governing principle of our own nation.
Especially in the light of M. Indira Gandhi’s case, I cannot help but to feel that collectively, Malaysians might lack the undisputable passion needed for upholding a true sense of our freedoms.
This can be witnessed by the cherry-picking of the issues that we choose to fight for in defence of our lifestyle choices, be it LGBT, indigenous or dissenting rights. We obviously cannot expect everyone to be an activist for everything, but we really do need a climate that is grounded with a sense of supportiveness, compassion and being non-judgmental for the flourishing of liberties.
However, in order for this to occur, there ought to be something that allows us to embrace permanence in the preservation of these ideals. From what I have learnt from the Liberty Bell, we often give meanings to our values through symbolic relics and anecdotes in the course of history. Hence, it is up to us to seek for these signals that will make the necessary representations.
For me, it is to recall our first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman ibni Al-Marhum Tuanku Muhammad’s opening address at Malaysia’s first Parliamentary session on September 12, 1959 in which his Majesty once said: “The Prime Minister, the members of the Cabinet, the Senators and the Members of the House of Representatives have all sworn that they will preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.
“Therefore, We wish all Our subjects on this historic day to know and understand that the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya, our charter rights, and liberties, is now, finally and completely, in operation and with the establishment of this Parliament under the Constitution, a new era begins for our nation.
“It is Our earnest hope that as many as possible of Our subjects will take early opportunity to make themselves familiar with our Constitution, and with the powers and procedure of our Parliament.”
Not only can this serve as a reminder for all of us about the supremacy of our Federal Constitution, but also highlighting a crucial attitude that has to be inculcated to retain it – informed knowledge of the freedoms that are granted to us.
If we do not take the initiative to have constitutional literacy, how do we expect the principles that facilitate social justice to be preserved and prevail? It is the best solution in these trying times that we can shape the reality of our aspirations to be shared as a nation.
By learning the same letters and alphabets that codify our rights as citizens, only then we can understand and speak of these beliefs the same way – as embedded in our existing language of liberty. – January 23, 2016.