The past few weeks have not exactly been good for the nation. There has been much tension and angst over two major issues: the plan to introduce khat in vernacular schools and the political remarks of fugitive preacher Zakir Naik about Hindus and Chinese in Malaysia.
The khat issue has cooled with a compromise solution which leaves the decision whether or not to teach khat in the hands of the school parent-teachers associations. Khat, renamed Jawi, is no longer compulsory.
The Naik controversy, which I wrote about last week, has also cooled a little following action by the police to call him in for questioning. But it is not over yet. Whatever decision the government makes – to send him back to India or allow him to stay – some Malaysians will be unhappy.
PAS and staunch supporters of Naik will be more than upset if Naik is deported. Non-Muslims and some Muslims who see his speeches and presence as dividing Malaysians will be very unhappy if he is allowed to stay.
Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has, I believe, three choices: deport him, let him stay, or let him stay but bar him from speaking.
I can’t help thinking that both the khat and Naik issues could have been avoided if the government had delayed action on the first and acted speedily on the second. The red flag had been raised against Naik a couple of years ago but the government failed to keep him in check, probably fearing it might lose some Muslim votes.
And if it had delayed the implementation of khat to allow all ministers, opposition leaders, school boards and educationists to discuss the plan first, a solution could have been found without having to go through the pain.
But, Pakatan Harapan did act to cool things down. I believe the call for unity by the heads of PKR, DAP, PPBM and Amanah helped in calming the situation.
PKR president Anwar Ibrahim, DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, PPBM president Muhyiddin Yassin and Amanah president Mohamad Sabu said in a joint statement: “In recent days, Malaysians have talked about varying issues – from economic challenges, questions of race and religious perceptions, the teaching of khat, to development issues – as Malaysians today can voice their opinions easily on social and mainstream media.
“As we approach the 62nd Independence Day and 56th Malaysia Day, we should take the opportunity to think over the successes we have achieved together and the challenges which we will have to overcome in order to build a clean, just and successful country.”
And Umno leaders such as deputy president Mohamad Hasan and former vice-president Hishammuddin Hussein demonstrated maturity when they agreed that unity was crucial. Hishammuddin, among other things, said religious bigotry and racial extremism had no place in Malaysia, adding: “We must be more cautious of our actions and look at the bigger picture, realising that the politics of hate will only push our nation further backwards.
Yes, as we prepare to celebrate Merdeka, we should be thinking and talking about the commonalities that unite us, not the differences that separate us. And we should not let foreigners such as Naik drive a wedge between us.
Every nation has foolish people – its troglodytes and troublemakers and thick-headed – some of whom could be top politicians or clerics. As such, there will always be some tension and conflict, which, now and then, might flare up.
Not everyone can see the bigger picture that whether we are Malay, Chinese, Indian or Kadazandusun and whether we are Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Sikh or Taoist we are all citizens. It takes a little clear thinking to realise this. It also needs a little common sense to see that we are humans first and foremost.
Merdeka was won not by the Malays alone, not by the Chinese alone, not by the Indians alone. It was won by all the communities working in concert. In fact, the British indicated they would only give independence if the three major races came together. This nation was built by the blood, sweat and tears of the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazandusuns and others.
As long as we keep this in mind, we might not do so badly in the future.
And the government – as the main decider of the direction the nation takes – has to factor this in when planning and implementing policies and programmes. It must ensure that policies and programmes and their manner of implementation serve to unite all citizens, not further divide them along the lines of race and religion.
In the past, several major policies or their implementation served to divide Malaysians, but in the New Malaysia, all policies, all programmes must be geared towards forging unity.
It is not too difficult but it does require true leadership and a desire to put the nation first.
Whenever any plan or policy is designed or implemented, the first question that must be on the lips of the prime minister and his Cabinet and that of the chief secretary and the secretaries-general of ministries should be: will this help forge unity or will it divide our citizens?
If the Cabinet feels a certain policy would be good in the long term but could divide the people, it should hold town hall sessions to explain its reasons for wanting to implement that policy. No policy or programme should be rushed through, and the public must be given ample time to digest the implications and ramifications.
Certainly not everyone will agree with the government; and the government – because it has access to expert resources – may have to implement some not-so-popular policies which will be beneficial in the long run.
But at least there would be transparency and public participation – two pillars of democracy.
If this simple formula is followed, we may not have to go through too much pain in future. Then Merdeka will indeed have real meaning.
A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT
The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT