How close are we to realising the vision of a people united by a common destiny and shared values? Not close, says TUNKU ABDUL AZIZ, as he suggests some ways of getting there.
School children in high spirits at a Merdeka Day rehearsal.
ONE Saturday evening, 49 years ago, I stood as a young man fresh from college on what is now Dataran Merdeka, together with thousands upon thousands of my fellow citizens, waiting for the enchanted midnight hour that would herald a new dawn for us.
Looking at the rapidly swelling crowd around me, I was struck particularly by the inexplicably sombre mood. I had not expected a carnival atmosphere, but nothing had prepared me for the almost funereal air. If my own emotions were even remotely representative, then we shared concerns and anxieties about the future of our country. After all, were we not about to be cast adrift in an uncertain world after years of a benign, dependent existence?
People of my generation and background had grown up knowing little else but British rule, history and institutions.
As a self-confessed Anglophile, fed on a romantic diet of Boys’ Own, Rudyard Kipling, the Battle of Trafalgar, and the greatness, glory and mystique of the Empire on which the sun never sets, the very idea of life without British paternalism was, I am now ashamed to admit in the cold light of day, quite unthinkable. My pessimism, though, was not entirely without hope — that we would use the freedom that was about to be granted to us wisely to make amends for, and rectify, those aspects of British colonial rule that we had considered repugnant to our sense of justice, pride and dignity.
Looking back now, we have achieved a great deal in material terms, far more than even the most bullish among us would have dared to contemplate. If material progress were the only measure of success in the building of a nation, then we could reasonably claim to have arrived. But have we? Or are we just postponing the evil day by ignoring the legitimate demands, concerns and issues of our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious people for inclusiveness?
Sometimes these demands are, no doubt, politically tiresome, complex or even constitutionally sensitive.
Sadly, however, we cannot resort to the simple expedient of sweeping them under the carpet in the unrealistic expectation that they would simply go away. They must be addressed in a just and timely manner because, unfortunately, they have a propensity to spin out of control. In this, as in all other cases having to do with the issues of race, prevention is the better option.
Close to half a century of Merdeka, we are nowhere near to realising our vision of a people united by a common destiny and shared values. National unity, which is so vitally important to our survival as a peaceful and prosperous nation, will continue to elude us unless we are all prepared to put it above all other considerations.
We must, for a start, accept the absolute importance of embracing cultural diversity as an article of faith. Merely tolerating the cultural traditions of the other races is simply not good enough any more. We need to go beyond the charade of bonhomie and back-slapping of the "open house". Please do not get me wrong. I enjoy open houses; they help in the process. Our aim is to achieve smooth and seamless integration that will stand the test of time and adversity, an essential prelude to achieving the essence of Malaysianness, that state of being that eludes definition or description, but captures our imagination as nothing else can.
It is worth reminding ourselves of former US president John F. Kennedy’s immortal plea from the heart to the American nation years ago, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." We owe it to our country and ourselves to place national unity in our consciousness, and, thereby, give substance to the spirit of Merdeka.
Above all, we must recognise that national unity is not a product that we can pick off a supermarket shelf. It is a process. The process involves a complete change of behaviour, a mental overhaul that can only be achieved through a dynamic and sustainable system of education based on the needs of a new nationalism, with emphasis on national unity and equal opportunity.
I place great store by equal opportunity in education, especially because it is immoral and ethically unacceptable to discriminate against innocent and vulnerable youngsters by depriving them of their rights to higher education. How, in heaven’s name, can we expect them not to feel that they are from another planet? You cannot expect loyalty from impressionable young people when they feel marginalised. Equality of opportunity must be the cornerstone of national unity.
By our past policy that denied equal educational opportunity, we triggered an exodus of countless numbers of our extremely bright Chinese boys and girls who succumbed, quite naturally, to the attractions of the Singapore government-sponsored Asean Scholarships. The "cream of the crop" were streamed into special junior colleges and the creamiest among them were provided scholarships to Oxbridge and Ivy League colleges. They were required, upon completion, to work for the Government of Singapore for ten years. Many became citizens of the republic. Our loss was Singapore’s gain.
That policy must be counted as among the most shameful chapters in the annals of our nation. Happily, positive steps are being set in motion by the present government under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Abdullah Badawi to remedy the situation.
While I understood fully the social, political and economic imperatives of the New Economic Policy, I was greatly upset by the discrimination against non-Bumiputera children in our system of education. My abiding faith in the "excellency of man" and in common humanity rebelled against it.
I am not a product of the New Economic Policy; I was too proud to be a supplicant. I went even so far as to reject offers of scholarship for my two daughters as I believed that scholarships should go to equally bright children who would not otherwise be able, because of financial circumstances, to benefit from higher education. In the event, both survived in a fiercely competitive foreign environment without the protection of the NEP, and are all the better for it.
I have always subscribed to the view that you could only justify a policy of positive discrimination if it was implemented in strict observance of the aim of that policy which was, in this case, principally to alleviate the poverty that afflicted many millions of people of all races in our community.
When it became evident that the spirit of this great social experiment was being violated blatantly to serve the interests of the few politically connected breed of self-proclaimed Mel- ayu Baru, instead of improving the lot of the disadvantaged, the NEP tragically lost its legitimacy.
Today, sadly, we are left to pick up the pieces of a policy that could have become an important instrument for transforming the lives of Malaysians of all races.
National unity must be predicated on equality of opportunity, justice and equity as enunciated so admirably by the Father of the Nation, Tunku Abdul Rahman and his principal Merdeka architects, Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Tun V. T. Sambanthan, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, among others. The source..... The New Straits Times.