Time to discard 70s-style big government

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By Wan Saiful Wan Jan

The philosophy guiding how a government relates with the people is something that not many Malaysians talk about. But if we go back to the early days of this country, ideology used to matter.

In a speech delivered at the IDEAS annual dinner on Feb 20, Tun Musa Hitam, Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister who started his political career under Tunku Abdul Rahman, said, “In those early days of our history, politics was more ideological than material. There were indeed, yes, indeed, two camps in Umno: the Tunku camp and the Razak camp.

“The Tunku camp was clearly and unapologetically right wing, pro-west and pro-business. The Razak camp was allegedly socialist-communist inclined, a brand enough to scare and scuttle people away all the way in those days when communist terrorists were the biggest threat to our independence.”

This was a telling statement, because Musa was suggesting that the liberal administration of the Tunku was eventually replaced by a socialist-communist inclined administration of Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister.

If we analyse history carefully, indeed we could see how Razak was leaning in a leftist direction. Among the most significant foreign relations built by Razak was with communist China, when he visited the country in May 1974. Razak was also the one who introduced huge government intervention into Malaysia’s socio-economic system when he introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971.

Government domination of the economy is an important feature of a leftist ideology, and this naturally led to the government imposed ethnic-based affirmative action, and all its related policies, that plague our country until today.

Razak’s ideology was almost completely opposite to the market economy envisioned by the Tunku when he said that Malaysia is a country that believes “in the system of free enterprise”.

We must acknowledge that government intervention has existed since the time of the Tunku. Several times, the Tunku, too, used government powers to stifle dissent. But government interventionism grew much bigger and was formalised under Razak’s administration.

It was Razak’s desired effort to create an ill-defined “social justice” that gave birth to the New Economic Policy. As a result of their wrong definition of social justice, the NEP was implemented in such a way that nudged us to live our lives along communal lines until today.

Even worse, today we can’t even discuss this supposed temporary policy in a rational way any more. Today we live in a country where if you speak honestly on difficult and sensitive issues, you risk being accused of disloyalty to the country, or worse, being seditious.

Thus we see today how everyone, from activists to the media, thinks twice before commenting on the so-called sensitive topics. That is the legacy that was left to us by Razak’s imposition of big government on Malaysia. That is what we get when we fail to understand the real philosophy, and the potential dangers of the philosophy, behind a particular policy.

It will take a lot more time to change this situation. But it is important for those of us who dream of a more liberal future for the country to persist. We cannot allow the country to continue on the trajectory of big government paved by, as Musa Hitam puts it, Razak’s “socialist-communist inclined” thinking.

Instead of a big government philosophy, I propose that we should return to the philosophy of a liberal, small and limited government as originally envisioned by the Tunku for this country.

The liberal belief stems from a commitment to the principle of liberty, which is commonly described as the right to live our lives in any way we want to so long as we do not do any harm to others.

It is important to stress the second part of the description: “as long as we do no harm to others”.

A liberal way of life is a highly responsible one. We take it as our responsibility to do no harm to others and we acknowledge that we will have to account for any harm that we do. Yes we want to live our lives how we wish. But we also undertake not to harm others.

Tunku Abdul Rahman puts it nicely when he said that “Life in this world is short. Let us make use of our lives in the pursuit of happiness and not trouble.”

In fact, the Tunku even put in the Proclamation of Independence that one of the roles of government is “ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people”. It is not the role of government to stop us from enjoying our happiness in the way we want. Instead the role of government is to help and to allow us to seek our own happiness in our own ways.

As I said above, it will take time before we can truly enjoy the fruits of the Tunku’s vision for liberty for this country. The liberal journey of this country was disrupted in 1970 and that disruption continues until today. We need to realign the country back to the right trajectory.

And the realignment process needs to start with us appreciating the importance of having a philosophy based on freedom and liberty to guide all our policies.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

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