Why does a debate on patriotism, deriving from the Greek word, 'patriarch' meaning 'fatherland' can easily shake, rattle and roll human reactions?
Naturally, August brings about the seasonal topic of “patriotism” like the seasonal Malaysian fruit king, durian, making its odour and thorny presence felt at the right time. Nobody is immune.
But time has also given “patriotism” many meanings to different people even as unscrupulous politicians use the definition in their rhetoric to gain favourable political mileage.
The concept of “loyalty and patriotism” to the nation has always been a touchy issue particularly in the formative years of the nation, before and after independence.
It reared its ugly head occasionally when rank and file Umno leaders at the party’s annual general assemblies belittled and questioned the loyalty and patriotism of non-Bumiputera communities, labelling them as “pendatang” or migrants despite generations being born here.
Why does a debate on patriotism, deriving from the Greek word, “patriarch” meaning “fatherland” can easily shake, rattle and roll human reactions?
Is it just a feeling of being Malaysian in a manner that either you love it or leave it type of sentiment? Does it apply to those Malaysians who are often critical of their government but yet love this country not necessarily in a blind or unquestionable way?
Or does it mean that if you see something wrong with your country or your government but not do anything about it – makes you qualified as a patriot?
A country is as good as its government.
“I am a concerned Malaysian who loves this country very much and I cannot bear to see this country turn into another anguish May 13 incident.
“That is why I am taking this opportunity to contribute a bit of my views on the New Economic Policy,” read the nine-page letter penned in 1989 by Malaysian Tan Lai Soon to Ghazali Shafie who was appointed to head the National Consultation Council under the Mahathir administration.
Ghazali, who passed away on Jan 20, 2010, previously served in the Alliance-Barisan Nasional Cabinet including the Home and Foreign Affairs portfolios from the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman to Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The letter dated March 16, 1989 from Tan who hailed from Johor expressed the writer’s deep disappointment with the socio-economic developments at a time when the Mahathir regime was tackling the polemic challenges of the Bumiputera policy fuelling a deepening racial polarisation and deviations in the NEP’s implementation.
Tan wrote: “I remember during my younger days, there was no such thing as Bumi and non-Bumi and all Malaysians irrespective of their race and religion lived happily and went about freely without the slightest feelings of polarisation.”
“When I was in Standard Three to Five, most of my school friends were Malays and Indians and during the interval [school recess], we went out in groups to coffeeshops or to stalls to have our food.”
Fondly recalling his nostalgic school days, Tan added, “We sat at the same table with different types of food and there were no comments such as halal or non-halal. We did not have strange feelings among ourselves.”
Indeed, vividly in the memories of many older generations which patriotic Malaysians unashamedly acknowledged were happy moments for being true Malaysians during the time of Tunku.
Where did it go wrong?
Did something go wrong? Was there a turning point which changed the course of this nation’s destiny? Did someone or any event hijack the appointment of our nation’s destiny inspired by our Founding Father Tunku’s dreams of a truly united nation?
Is his dream still in sight? Or have our younger generation of leaders forgotten the spirit and momentous moment this nation has ever known – our independence from British colonial rule of divide and rule?
The strong firm voice of our first prime minister reverberated across Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 31, 1957.
Was the following parts of Tunku’s speech deemed prophetic today as we ponder upon his words:
“Whereas, in the course of human history, no nation, in order to salvage itself, will ever remain static for a long time. It will be compelled to decide on one of two directions, to go forward or backwards. This depends on the ability and adaptability of that nation in facing changes and developments.
“When the people are in a state of complete complacency with the present status they tend to fear anything that may produce changes.
“They will suspect any move or anybody who comes out with new ideas or inventions. But since human history is a history of changes and developments of making things better and more perfect, this type of self-satisfied nation will be left further and further behind and eventually disappear and remain only to be revealed by future historians.
“For us we are lucky that our nation is endowed by the grace of God with fortitude, courage and dignity. We were once a nation with great national heritage.
“…and with God’s blessing shall be for ever a sovereign, democratic and independent state founded upon the principles of liberty and justice, and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of the people and the maintenance of a just peace among all nations…”
Should we relate the definition of “patriotism” to those words spoken by our founding father on the day of independence?
Even to astute-thinking Malaysians, these were hard questions as truthful answers could be discomforting and hurting.
Who would be brave enough to point out whether our nation was heading towards a spectacular failure or a raging success?
Are we polarised by divide-and-rule policies? Have we achieved or fully fulfilled the principles and spirit of liberty and justice?
Is this nation governed with the peoples’ interest at heart by a government seeking the welfare and happiness for its people for its own power preservation or just before every general election?
Or was Tunku’s appointment with the nation’s destiny inevitably hijacked and diverted to a different course?
Answers in the next GE?
A defunct news magazine, Asiaweek, narrated on June 16, 2000, an important event which occurred in June 1981, which many considered the major turning point of our nation’s destiny.
“Tears flowed at the United Malays National Organisation general assembly as delegates said farewell to their president and Malaysia’s third prime minister, mild mannered former army captain Hussein Onn.”
A great patriot, Hussein had many advices on leadership. “Power is given to us, not to lord over others, not to improve our standing nor to enrich ourselves.”
After his stepping down, his party was heading contrary to his advice, “Without integrity, a leader will use his position as a commodity to peddle influence and to achieve status, name and riches.”
A onetime dropout from the party his father founded in 1946, Hussein became premier in 1976 upon the death of his brother-in-law, Tun Abdul Razak. But after the surgery at the start of the year, Hussein signalled he would step down.
“The victory hug at the Umno meet went to a 55-year-old physician, whose rise had been both controversial and spectacular. Mahathir Mohamad had been expelled from Umno after the 1969 riots when he lost his seat in the general election and spearheaded an attempt to depose the country’s founding patriarch, Tunku Abdul Rahman.
“Wrote Mahathir at that time – ‘Glorying in its massive strength’ the government has become contemptuous of criticisms and is no longer able to feel the pulse of the people.’”
Was this the turning point of the nation’s destiny which saw Tunku’s vision crumbling as the nation become more polarised and materialistically corrupted?
Samuel Johnson, a British author and major contributor to English Literature published a critique of his view of “false patriotism” titled “The Patriot in 1774”.
Known for his famous statement, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrels,” Johnson was critical of false patriots.
Malaysians today should ask themselves this question: Can patriotism become a primary measure of a politician’s character and loyalty in today’s landscape? Should Malaysians be loyal to the nation in contrast to a ruling regime?
And should Malaysians continue to be patriotic to the nation or to a government adulterated by a system of patronage and accused of lacking accountability and transparency?
Will these answers be reflected in the outcome of the next general election? Only you, as patriotic Malaysians, as a collective conscience to the nation can truthfully respond to these questions.
Stanley Koh is a former head of MCA’s research unit. He is a FMT columnist.