At last, the Sun shines through!

In a watermark article today that is sure to test the limits of the freedom of Malaysian press, The Sun daily published an extensive interview with DAP Secretary General Lim Kit Siang on his thoughts of Malaysia’s nation building efforts for the first 50 years.

I think this seminal piece of article that will undoubtedly raise some eye brows in the Government and hopefully also some civil discourse on the realities of Malaysian society today. It is very rare to find a mainstream Malaysian daily that dares to report any truth that is critical of the Government without fear of retribution in one way or another.

The Sun is fast proving itself to be a daily that has guts to tell the ugly truth.

First, they exposed the Port Klang Free Trade Zone financial and management scandal, which to my knowledge, has not been covered by any other dailies in Malaysia. And today, they published an interview with Lim Kit Siang.

It is such a refreshing and important piece that I’m reproducing the article here in full in case their website gets shutdown by frothing Government agencies:-

Looking back to look ahead
Zainon Ahmad and Maria J. Dass

Parliamentary Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang likes to believe his contribution to nation-building has been his efforts to keep alive the aspirations of Malaysians for democracy, justice, freedom and integrity. The man who has been in parliament since 1969, except for an absence for one term following his defeat in 1999, tells ZAINON AHMAD and MARIA DASS that many people are sad because many institutions that had been established 50 years ago have lost their effectiveness.

theSun: We are coming up to 50 years soon, so what do you think we have achieved in that time?

LKS: I think it’s a very mixed result. I think when we achieved independence 50 years ago and then with Sabah and Sarawak we formed the Malaysian federation, we all had one aspiration – that we would become more Malaysian over the years.

Which means we would become less Malay, less Chinese, less Indian, less Kadazan and less Iban and so on, but on the 50th year looking around, especially with the events in the last two months, we seem to have become less Malaysian and more Malay, more Chinese, more Indian, more Kadazan and more Iban than anything else.

What has happened? Of course, after 50 years that seems the most important question to ask.

Of course. But in terms of development if you compare to Ghana which also achieved independence in the same year, I think we are 10 times ahead.

But we should not compare ourselves with the not-so-well-off nations. We should compare ourselves with those countries that are at the same level as us. Maybe even with Japan.

And if you look back on that perspective when we achieved independence, we were second in Asia after Japan in terms of development. But since then we have fallen behind. Other countries have moved ahead to become first world and developed countries – Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, not to mention Hongkong.

Whereas for us it is still a distant vision. Why?

It’s not that we lack potential, capabilities, resources and brain power. The problem is with our nation-building policies. These policies, over the decades, have not been able to fully develop our human capital. Instead we see the grave problem of brain drain among our best and brightest. All because of nation-building policies and problem with our education system. And these problems are still going on.

So that’s what you mean by very mixed results.

Yes. But what concerns me most is the people, “us” – that we are not able to identify ourselves more as being Malaysians. Instead we are identifying ourselves more as Malay, Chinese, Kadazan and so on.

That should be more alarming, don’t you think?

Yes, very alarming. In particular the issues that came to the fore during the last one or two months has brought us to the very core. In fact many people are wondering what is the meaning of this 50th Merdeka anniversary if they are feeling more alienated, more divided and more polarised.

That should in fact be the focus of attention.

In fact, the MCA general assembly is the best illustration – that it is not to celebrate the 50 years of greater nationhood but to highlight a greater division.

Sometimes a small case become the obsession of an entire cabinet while there are more important issues about integrity, development, corruption and how Malaysia can compete with the rest of the world.

We should move away from this Malays vs non-Malays or bumis vs non-bumis situation. More and more we should think about Malaysians vs the rest of the world. But we seem to be losing more of that focus.

Don’t you think that we have reached a stage of intolerance that at the slightest provocation we shout “withdraw his citizenship.” Seems like the queen in Alice in Wonderland forever shouting “off with his head.” A bit extreme isn’t it?

More than that, it is seditious. When Parliament was reconvened following the May 13 incident the Constitution was amended to address four sensitive issues that cannot be questioned. These are those relating to the special privileges of the Malays, language, the Rulers and a person’s citizenship.

If you remember back in the 1960s Umno leaders were very fond of shouting “strip him of his citizenship” at those they thought were being disloyal. For a while the amendment stopped that. But it is still a sensitive issue to demand for the removal of your citizenship.

Now it is suddenly fashionable again to call for the stripping of someone’s citizenship. Is that what you want to say?

Yes. Now, you even have ministers, mentris besar and chief ministers shouting “withdraw his citizenship”. Aren’t they going to be charged for sedition? They can be charged for sedition per se – just based on that. Because on that constitutional amendment there is no need for proof of malice or no malice.

There have been many incidents where the government acted hastily. No to this, no to that. No more discussion on this, no more discussion on that. Also there was this allegation of mass conversions of Muslims to Christianity, for instance. And it involved mariner Datuk Azhar Mansor.

Some double standard in their reaction here. You want to talk about seditious, it is seditious because it incited the feelings of some 500 Muslims who surrounded a church near Ipoh because they believed that Azhar had become a Christian and he was going to baptise other Malay-Muslims who had been converted to Christianity. As it turned out it was not true whatsoever.

If we want to talk about seriousness, that is very serious. It was capable of creating a riot, but no action was taken against the person who made the allegations.

Do you think all that has happened is an over-reaction? For instance the prohibition to set up an Interfaith Commission and the cancellation of the Article 11 debates. There are recent developments.

The impact is that these have entered into party politics – this element of religious sensitivity or polarisation. There is now a greater discomfort among the various religious groups which we did not have before. But they are raising their ugly heads after more than four decades of nation-building.

Is it because the Muslims have increased in number? Around 1957, Muslims formed about 48 or 49 percent of the population but now they are around 60 percent. Do you think this has caused the problem?

I don’t think that should be a problem. I think the problem is the lack of direction being given by the government to show very clearly that what we agreed upon just before Merdeka must continue. After all our social contract involves a multi-religious, multi-racial society, diversity and pluralism. This must be celebrated and not just talked about in speeches and not just be used for tourist promotion.

You mean like we flaunt them as mere slogans. Like they are meaningless slogans, no feelings in them. Is that it?

Yes. We say all these things but they have not been internalised. No commitment to them. No real belief in them. And not just that but more and more they have been regarded as peripheral issues.

It wasn’t always like this. I am sure you know that.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early years of independence our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, initiated those inter-religious discussions. He set up what was know then as inter-religious organisations or IRO, which is what the Article 11 is all about. Basically the Tunku believed all religions can come together to promote greater religious understanding, goodwill and dialogue.

But now such a concept seems to be unthinkable and unacceptable even. And the promotion of religious dialogue is just for international forums, but not for internal purposes.

I think something has gone very wrong and I think unless we are prepared to address this issue, we seem to be heading for stormy waters.

Everywhere we go we proclaim that we are a multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysia with the various races living peacefully together. But this, as you said just now, is not internalised, not spoken from the heart. But what can we do?

I think the leadership should set an example with all institutes and organisation in society following them from behind. To internalise the diversity in this country you must be sincere and faithful to these fundamental principals.

Actually when we started we never established clear directions on what nation-building entails. There was no road map on how we are going to build up this nation. Do you think we need something like that, to have an actual road map on what we are going to do.

The general principles have always been there. There is the social contract which says we are a democratic, multi-religious, multi-racial, progressive country where Islam is the official religion of the Federation but not an Islamic state.

We have the formula. Not true to say we do not have a formula. But it so happen that those in authority are seemingly moving further and further away from this basic formula.

Even those at the top are seemingly reluctant to admit that Malaysia is now a secular state even though the courts have declared so.

You know for 44 years we can see that there is no questioning that Malaysia is a secular state. Islam is the official religion, it is not an Islamic state. There were instances of course when there were marginal peripheral voices asking that we move towards an Islamic state. They were not in the mainstream. But now the whole thing seems to have been reversed.

Those who call for the the secular state have been marginalised and regarded as a periphery and those who feel that Malaysia is an Islamic state has now occupied the mainstream.

How did this change take place? This is a whole question of a tectonic shift in nation-building. And now these things cannot be talked about, cannot be discussed even. I don’t think this will solve any problem.

Many things seem to be so sensitive now that they have been taken out of public discussion. Is this healthy?

No. But why is it happening? If we can have public discussion on a social contract in 1956 and 1957, why can’t we have a public discussion as to why this social contract must be maintained, and should be reaffirmed? Everybody talks about social contract, today, but behind closed doors.

It is important to remember that this social contract is not the property of the ruling parties. It is a heritage and legacy of all Malaysians and all Malaysians today have a right to give input on the status of a social contract today.

It is going to be totally lacking in credibility if discussions on this social contract are held behind closed doors.

Every Malaysian should be involved. It cannot be something that you can go to a corner and discuss it in the closet. Where is participatory democracy? You are now shutting down avenues of expression.

How should we go about doing it then?

I think there should be a national consultative council to openly discuss and address this issue. You continue to sweep these problems under the carpet and they become bigger and bigger and finally the whole country is going to suffer.

What you are saying is that we should come together – representatives of all groups – to assess all that we have done in the last 50 years, where we have been successful and where we have failed and to plan for the future. And the best way to do it is through something like a national consultative council. Is that it?

Yes. In fact that should be the way to celebrate the 50th anniversary. We should have planned for it. A year or two ago we should have said that we are planning for a review when we reach 50. All then would be prepared for it – a big review to see where have we failed, where have we succeeded. And representatives of all sectors of the population must be involved. We don’t want just a small group of people around the prime minister to do it. It would be lacking in credibility. It should involve the national process.

You have been an MP since 1969, what have you contributed towards this process of nation-building?

I would like to believe that I have kept alive the aspirations of Malaysians for democracy, justice, freedom and integrity. As an opposition in a Malaysian political system without a majority, nobody thinks you can change the government at the moment and introduce laws and policies on your own. But as an opposition MP I think I have contributed enough to keep alive those aspirations and building up enough pressure for the government of the day to take the necessary actions to be accepted. Some have been accepted and others remain as benchmarks.

Elsewhere education plays a significant role in helping young people to think as members of a nation instead of members of a race, tribe or ethnic group. Has our education system helped in our process of nation-building?

I think our education system has not produced young citizens who are critical and mature in their thinking. It is a disappointment. Education is one of those things we should take a closer look at in our review on the occasion of our 50th year. And the government should take brave and bold steps to dismantle all factors which impede freedom in universities, in civil society and in the country.

You think there is no indication yet that we are moving that way? Isn’t there some openness already?

No indication. After 50 years we still have four emergency proclamations which has not been annulled. We seem to be more comfortable with this state of repression rather than a brave free new world and that’s why they are still there. The emergency declared as a result of the Indonesian confrontation in 1965 is still there, so is the emergency declared as a result of a political problem in Sarawak in 1967. Then there is the state of emergency declared following the racial clashes in May 1969, and also the emergency declared in Kelantan in 1977 following some disturbances.

Shouldn’t they have been annulled a long time ago? The reasons for their declarations have long gone? What is the government waiting for?

You see, under these four proclamations, various ordinances have been passed. And these ordinances the authorities can still use. But they are lazy and they do not want to do anything. You see, once you annul the four proclamations – and they should have been annulled – the ordinances also lapse.

So if they still want to use those ordinances then they have to be brought to Parliament to be enacted into laws.

One of them is the ordinance on Rukun Tetangga. If they want Rukun Tetangga to continue legally then they will have to bring it to Parliament so that it becomes a law legislated by Parliament. But then it is sheer laziness or just tidak-apa, lack of accountability, lack of that culture of responsibility.

Are those institutions that we put in place when we became independent in 1957 still intact?

I think that is another major woe of the country. After 50 years the institutions, the integrity, the independence and public confidence have suffered grave setbacks. Parliament, judiciary, executive, and the major institutions like the police, Anti-Corruption Agency, Elections Commission, civil service mentality have suffered. I think we are going backwards, we are not going forward.

We should be more first world than many other countries which have already achieved first world status. The media for instance. Freedom of the press, that is very important. The media is an important institution.

Many are saying we don’t have to compare with 50 years, we only need to compare with 45 months from Mahathir’s time. Are we moving forward or are we going backwards?

How do you foresee the future, isn’t there any optimism as far as the nation is concerned?

Well I think this 50th anniversary, following all that has happened in the last two or three months, can make people think. Of course, they should have started thinking one or two years earlier. The recent events are now forcing people to think of these fundamental issues. If that happens then there is some saving grace!

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