Envisioning Malaysia: Receptive to debate and constructive criticism



31 Aug 2023 08:55am
Retired army Sidek Hussin, 63, or better known as Pok Zam put up the Jalur Gemilang in front of his house ahead of the 66th National Day on August 31. (BERNAMA PHOTO)
Retired army Sidek Hussin, 63, or better known as Pok Zam put up the Jalur Gemilang in front of his house ahead of the 66th National Day on August 31. (BERNAMA PHOTO)

Malaysia is 66 years old. During that brief period, we encountered difficulties and prevailed against adversities. We persevered.

And for the sake of a more prosperous Malaysia, our people have engaged in ongoing negotiations, which have allowed us to chart our own course. We will continue the conversation on the fundamental components that make up the Malaysian nation for as long as Malaysia exists.

In a democratic government, this is expected.

However, Malaysia is not merely a democracy in which citizens are free to pick and vote for anybody or whatever their hearts desire at the expense of others. As is mentioned in the Rukun Negara, Malaysia's long-term goal is to evolve into a more liberal, tolerant and open-minded nation, particularly regarding the preservation of the rich cultural traditions of the diverse population that calls this stunning land home.

An individual who values development, openness, inclusivity, and freedom is said to have a liberal political attitude. To put it another way, liberals acknowledge and respect the rights of all members of Malaysian society to take part in the nation's culture, provided they do it in accordance with the law.

As I've mentioned in earlier pieces of this column, the word "liberal" in Malaysia has sadly acquired a negative connotation as a result of a misconception held by the general public and perpetuated by certain groups with vested interests.

There are primarily two misunderstandings regarding the meaning of the word "liberal" in Malaysia. The first misconception is that liberalism is synonymous with atheism or a lack of religious belief.

People should not be surprised that there are non-practicing Muslims who do believe in a conservative social order of traditional hierarchies, and vice versa. A person who is religious or devout can be either liberal or conservative depending on their attitude towards other people. It is not a given one way or another.

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Contrary to popular belief, a religious individual ought to embody the mindset of liberalism that relates to respect for others. According to Muslims, this is in accordance with verse 256 in surah Al-Baqarah as well as verse 6 in surah Al-Kafirun. In fact, our Muslim brothers and sisters who are being persecuted in other parts of the world are the strongest proponents of liberalism to free them from the grasp of tyrannical governments.

Along the same lines, the word "liberal" is frequently interchanged with the word "immorality." The course of history has indicated that immoral people can be found in a wide range of physical manifestations, as well as dressed and spoken in a variety of ways.

Liberalism and immorality are not two sides of the same coin.

The idea that people who subscribe to the "liberal" ideology do not respect the law is the second common misunderstanding regarding this term. Given that liberals are typically thought of as those who believe in the concept of the rule of law, this is a significant error.

It is necessary to operate within the confines of the law when attempting to navigate different cultures. Anarchists, not liberals, is the term used in political theory to describe people who do not believe there is a requirement for a hierarchical government.

Because I teach political science at university, I have discussions on political attitudes and ideologies with my students nearly every semester. We can agree to disagree on many points. But I am a firm believer that the people of Malaysia need proper political education in order to be able to make good decisions and not be easily misled by what they read or watch on social media that is posted by anonymous keyboard warriors.

At the end of the day, I recognise that Malaysian society, in general and across all ethnic groups, is conservative, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Conservatives are members of society who uphold traditional values and advocate for the institutionalisation of social norms. When people in Malaysia talk about the interaction between and among the country's various ethnicities and religions, they are often referring to this dynamic.

But after the dark hour in the history of Malaysia, which had taken place on May 13, 1969, our leaders envisioned a more liberal Malaysia in which we have the right to cling to our own beliefs and culture without having to coerce others into giving up theirs. This is according to the Rukun Negara which states, "Menjamin satu cara liberal terhadap tradisi-tradisi kebudayaannya yang kaya dan berbagai-bagai corak (Guaranteeing a liberal approach towards her various cultural traditions that are rich and varied).”

Right after this preamble to the Rukun Negara, we Malaysians are given a list of things to repeat and declare our belief in. These include God, the rule of law, civility, and morality, among other things. None of these principles goes against the liberal ideals.

In conjunction with Merdeka Day, it is essential for the people of Malaysia to research our nation's past in order to gain knowledge and ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of previous generations. We simply cannot afford one wrong move that could put in jeopardy all that gives Malaysia its identity as a nation.

We want to see education play a role in creating a society in Malaysia that is receptive to debate and constructive criticism. It is imperative that we stand tall and united in order to put up a strong struggle against elements operating among our people who wish to see the disintegration of the sixty years of harmony that has existed.

Malaysia is deserving of much more. The very best is owed to Malaysia and her people.

Syaza Shukri, PhD, is an associate professor and the current Head at the Department of Political Science, IIUM.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.