First Annual Student Leaders Summit 2007 “Celebrating 50 Years Of Nationhood”

Challenges and Prospects for Nation-Building – A Lesson for the Young and Bright

I am delighted to be here this morning to deliver the keynote address at this Summit, dedicated as it is to Youth. All of you in this room are the crème de la crème of the young generation – those fortunate enough and intelligent enough to benefit from the best education. You are the future leaders of this nation.

  1. This morning, I want to talk to you about the challenges and prospects for nation- building. Nation-building refers to the structuring of a country, with the help of state power, to ensure a strong national identity that is viable in the long run. It is predicated on national unity and is a topic of utmost importance to all of us, not least the younger generation. Fifty years of the national relay race has been run. Soon the baton will be handed to those of you who will run the next lap.
  2. The Malaysia familiar to most, if not all, of you is the modern prosperous nation with its increasingly urban population and robust middle class; not the poor and predominantly agricultural society of fifty years ago. When Malaysia gained independence, we were on a par with countries like Sri Lanka, Philippines, Ghana, Morocco and Senegal in terms of per capita income. Today we have far surpassed these countries in economic growth and human development.
  3. However, it is important to be aware that this was a far-fetched vision fifty years ago. The first Merdeka generation, almost overnight, found themselves tasked with an onerous job when Malaysia gained independence. The country was born against the backdrop of a virulent communist insurgency. Poverty was widespread, particularly in the rural areas. There was very little sense of unity and national identity. The states that made up the federation were only loosely integrated. Many people regarded themselves primarily as natives of their state rather than as nationals of Malaya. The enlargement of Malaya into Malaysia in 1963 was vigorously opposed by our neighbours, leading to confrontation with Indonesia. After the traumatic events of 1969, many predicted the imminent disintegration of Malaysian society.
  4. That we have been able to forge a successful nation without resorting to the rule of the gun makes us something of an oddity in a region of coups, civil strife and people power. This has been due in large part to wise leadership, the innate good sense of the Malaysian people — and a bit of luck. Today, the nine Sultanates, two Straits Settlements and the two states in Borneo have united in a tangible way despite historical separation and physical distance. Development policies and communication channels have managed to fuse together the myriad religions and ethnic groups and forged a sense of belonging and shared destiny. Malaysia is one of the very few countries with a diverse mix of race and religion that have been able to do this. Our peace momentum is also demonstrated on the international arena. Malaysia played a seminal role in the creation ASEAN and its enlargement from 6 members to 10, then ASEAN plus 3. It still has a lead role in the first moves towards a regional architecture, particularly the East Asian Summit.
  5. Our group culture is very distinct from the individualism of the west. We participate actively in one another’s cultural and lifestyle choices. We celebrate festivities together, we learn and speak one another’s languages, we wear each other’s traditional costumes, we appreciate different arts and types of music. A chat over teh tarik is an example of a typically Malaysian pastime that all races and ages take delight in.
  6. However, every coin has two sides. Let us not be naïve in thinking it is all a rosy picture. There is still much room for improvement. Interaction between the ethnic groups, to the extent that it exists, remains more of an urban phenomenon. In recent years, ethnic identities appear to have become more explicit. In some instances, what divides us has become more emphasised than what unites us. When the New Economic Policy (NEP) was established, it was to address the problem of economic function being identified along the lines of ethnicity, and the problem of widespread poverty. All quarters of society came to an agreement that in order for nation-building to proceed, certain sacrifices had to be made to help the underperforming groups. But it was not a case where one party was to benefit at another’s expense. Distribution was to take place within the context of a growing economy. It was meant to be a situation of give-and-take that would result in economic growth shared by all segments of society. Today, the give-and-take attitude seems to have dissipated. Malaysians are exhibiting signs of polarisation along ethnic and religious lines. Some groups bear grudges against what is perceived as preferential treatment. Others regard preferential treatment as an indisputable entitlement.
  7. Moreover, the impasse at the global level between Islam and non-Islam affects even a moderate country like Malaysia. Matters of faith are topics of immense controversy. They provoke overzealousness and coercive action, and drive Malaysians further and further away from each other. Our diversity was meant to be our unique asset. The Federal Constitution and the Rukun Negara institutionalised living together in peaceful, harmonious co-existence. Yet fifty years after Merdeka, we are still grappling with concerns about unity.
  8. So what are the challenges to nation-building that we need to face head on? To me, the challenges are many, but the one that stands out is the need to balance change with continuity. The current phase of nation-building should be in tune with the temper of the times to reflect the new realities of the modern world. We are facing a globalised environment where excellence and meritocracy is the rule of the game. Opportunities in the global world reward those with ability, regardless of colour or creed. A multi-ethnic country like ours has to be especially watchful. In the absence of a strong national identity, we are prone to polarisation and competition along ethno-religious lines. Therefore, a most expert balancing act is required to maintain socio-political stability while not losing out on global competitiveness.
  9. As I have said elsewhere, to ensure sustained success at nation-building, Malaysians of all races, religions, and geographic locations need to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have a place under the Malaysian sun. Only when each citizen believes that he or she has a common home, is presented common opportunities, given due recognition and is working towards a common destiny, will he or she make the sacrifices needed for the long haul.
  10. Managing change is not easy and nation-building does not occur naturally in any society, let alone a pluralistic one. Allow me to suggest three essentials for effective and sustained nation-building.
  11. The first is the Rule of Law and the inviolability of the constitution. The constitution is the supreme law of the country which guarantees fundamental liberties to every citizen. A cleverly crafted document, it clearly provides for adequate checks and balances against excesses through the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches – with each protected from encroachment by the other. It has often been said that many a misunderstanding may be avoided if the principles embodied in the constitution are adhered to strictly. Upholding the Rule of Law is paramount. In this connection, I can do no better than to quote the words of Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, a leading jurist, when she delivered the Sultan Azlan Shah Law Lecture in Kuala Lumpur last month:

Law is the bedrock of a nation; it tells us who we are, what we value. It regulates our human relationships one to the other and our relationships as citizens with the state. Law is cultural. It comes out of the deep wellsprings of history and experience within a country …

The rule of law is one of the tools we use in our stumbling progress towards civilising the human condition: a structure of law, with proper methods and independent judges, before whom even a government must be answerable. It is the only restraint upon the tendency of power to debase its holders. As we know, power is delightful and absolute power is absolutely delightful.

We must be the protectors of those who are vulnerable to abuse. We have to stand up and be counted. We have to protect the things that make our nations great…

  1. The second element necessary in nation-building is economic and social justice for all. All groups in society, regardless of ethnic group, religion or gender, must participate in making decisions that affect their lives and livelihood. They must have a voice and a place in all sectors. They must carry equal responsibilities in making society work. The people we work and play with, the friendships we make, must never be constrained by ethnicity. Preconceptions, parochialism and chauvinism can be eradicated if we interact actively with others of a different ethnic group or religion – even if it is just one teacher, one policeman or one schoolmate. In many areas, this is absent and it must change.
  2. The third requisite to nation-building is good governance and a thriving civil society. Institutions of governance must demonstrate and generate norms and behaviour that are fundamentally efficient, productive and just. Only those who are capable, responsible and scrupulously honest should be allowed to serve in positions of leadership. Those who are inefficient, incompetent and, most importantly, corrupt should be held in absolute contempt. There must also be concrete anti-corruption measures and management practices based on efficiency, transparency and accountability. It is also very important that we have leaders who are earnest in maintaining unity, never resorting to religious or ethnic posturing to further their political careers at the expense of peace and security. Should they fail in this respect, they must be held accountable and answerable before the law.
  3. What can you do to help promote national unity? I’m going to assume you are still at an age when you are still idealistic – that you wish to improve the human condition. That you are patriotic. That you believe in friendship and peace. That you would rather build than destroy. You are in the best position to tenaciously forge this nation. Let me suggest a few ways how you can contribute towards Malaysia’s continued success at nation-building.
  4. First, get a copy of the Federal Constitution and familiarise yourselves with it. The constitution is the supreme law of the land. It guarantees the rights of every Malaysian. As such, the integrity of that document must be protected.
  5. Second, study the nation’s history, particularly the lives and works of past leaders who have sacrificed so much for this country. One such leader is Tun Dr Ismail. He was an examplary Malaysian. He envisaged a Malaysia for all without color lines, without ethnic borders and without any one group feeling a sense of inferiority. He recognised the importance of open mindedness in addressing day-to-day issues and problems; the importance of listening and learning from others, particularly from those who are more advanced. He strongly believed in the principle of life-long learning, visiting other lands and adopting best practices without losing our core values and our identity as a nation. He had the interest of the nation at heart and went beyond the call of duty in the service of his nation. He put his country above himself and served till the very last day of his life. The leadership, sincerity, sacrifices and integrity of Tun Dr. Ismail and other leaders of his generation should serve to inspire the next generation of leaders.
  6. Third, you must take personal ownership over the wellbeing of the country. Do not succumb to indifference and apathy. Hold on to your ideals. Do not give way to cynicism and opportunism. Believe that you can make a difference. Channel your energies in a constructive manner to bring about positive changes around you.
  7. Fourth, participate actively in community service that is geared towards promoting interaction between communities. Volunteer your spare time and energy to work with Malaysians from other walks of life and ethnic groups.
  8. Fifth, be prepared to serve your country to the best of your ability. All of you represent the valuable future human capital this country needs. The outside world knows the value of our best brains, which is why they set out to attract our people, creating a brain drain for us. Do not exacerbate the problem of the brain drain. Also, do not be averse to building a career in public service. I believe all of us have some innate desire to serve. Always think nation first.
  9. More than anything, Malaysia needs a future generation of leaders with unquestionable integrity. In countries where specialised expertise and technical know-how are lacking, they can be imported from elsewhere. But integrity, by definition, is something that cannot be bought or hired. You and the quality of leadership you provide are the key to continued peace and harmony in Malaysia. At a time when new powers like China and India are rising, we cannot afford to lose our harmony dividend. It is the anchor of this nation.
  10. The Merdeka generation after a tough climb managed to make it to base camp. The summit lies ahead and I can guarantee you that it will be an arduous climb. But it can also be exhilarating. It will need climbers who are skilled, courageous, confident and above all, steadfast. To face the challenges ahead, you need a bedrock faith in what you and our country stand for. I wish all of you the very best in your future.
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