MANAGING OUR NATIONAL SYMBOLS
Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim
Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh
A very good morning Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am very happy to be here this morning, and I would like to thank the organisers for the kind invitation to address you again. It always gives me immense pleasure to see dynamic Malaysian men, women and organisations recognised for their outstanding achievements, and for their contributions to the making of Malaysian brands. It makes me proud and gives me optimism and hope for the future of this country. We already have a number of instantly recognisable Malaysian brands and trademarks in the global marketplace, and I believe that it will not be too long before many more will join them.
2. Naturally, I would urge all of you not to take these awards as the pinnacle of your achievements and a reason to rest on your laurels, but as motivation to excel and achieve even more. Malaysian brands are already known in many parts of the world, and associated with quality and value-for-money. But we must do more. The race to be internationally competitive and world class is one that never ends. We have to use the strong foundations we have developed to launch out into the global marketplace.
3. Each product and service that we offer says something about us, not just individually and corporately, but also as a country. Apple, for example, is a hyper-successful US company, perhaps one of the most successful in the world. And much of this, of course, is owed to the dedicated men and women who lead, manage and work for it. But credit must also go to the country in which it was established and in which it found success. Likewise, each Malaysian product that gains acceptance in world markets tells a story as much about the country as the organization from which it originates.
4. In my talk this morning I would like to address another class of brand. The kind that belongs to all of us as Malaysians. I want to talk about those brands and symbols that distinguish Malaysia as a country, and make Malaysians unique. Mankind has long used symbols to convey messages such as identity, authority and status, and to engender esteem, respect and loyalty. Other kinds of symbols are more mundane, telling us, for example, what is and is not permitted, giving us directions, warning us of danger and so forth. My talk this morning focuses on the former, although both are important.
5. The most visible and instantly recognisable of all our national symbols is, without doubt, the country’s flag or the Jalur Gemilang. Intrinsically, it is a just printed piece of cloth or paper. But symbolically, it stands for 28 million Malaysians, a statement of who and what we are. It signifies belonging, citizenship and the basis for unity. The same goes for the flags of the 13 states and the three Federal Territories. The National Coat of Arms or Jata Negara likewise represents the country, and contains other symbols that are important to the country. All are important but I would particularly point out the banner at the bottom that states, “Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu” or officially translated as “Unity is Strength”. This is not merely a wise saying: It is the nation’s credo.
6. There are other equally important symbols in Malaysian public life. The royal institution of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and the nine Malay Rulers are, in and of themselves, national symbols. Apart from being the Supreme Head of the Federation, the Commander of the Armed Forces and the Protector of Islam, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong is also the focus of every citizen’s allegiance and loyalty. Thus, and as every good student should know, the Second Principle of the Rukun Negara is “Kesetiaan kepada Raja dan Negara” or loyalty to King and country.
7. The point I want to make is that national symbols are more than just cultural artifacts, reminders of historical traditions and nothing else. The national symbols we have constructed with such care, and invested with such great social meaning, play a much larger and critical function to this nation. That function is to serve as an anchor for us to hold on to, and a guidepost to give us direction, whenever we face challenges and crises as a nation. They therefore do not just belong to the past but are relevant – even essential – to our nation’s present and future. They are, if you like, the Template of the Nation.
8. This may sound a little abstract, so let me spend a few moments to elaborate. Countries and their component communities are more than just random collections of individuals. In order for countries to be real nations, they need to have laws. For us, the Federal Constitution is undoubtedly the most important. Countries also need governments to fairly and effectively impose these laws. And they need social institutions to ensure that the people have a common basis to unite around. Only then can a nation’s interests be defended and advanced.
9. This is especially important when nations, like Malaysia, are multi-cultural and multi-religious. To be diverse does not necessarily mean to be divided. Likewise, uniformity does not necessarily mean unity. For good outcomes to occur there has to be good nation building. Good nation building is all about political, economic and social inclusiveness. And the national symbols that have been devised are specifically designed to promote this inclusiveness. They must therefore be cherished, respected and protected, as their aim is to unify rather than keep apart, to integrate rather than to segregate.
10. In this regard, I am more than a little concerned about the tendency among some quarters to discredit and undermine the symbols that play such an important role in our national life. I am also concerned about the extent to which some are pushing against the institutional pillars that are holding up this nation. I think that there are at least two reasons why this may be the case. The first is a fundamental misunderstanding of how individual rights and freedoms are to be exercised within the context of a nation. The second is the impact of generational change in eroding the significance, meanings and value of nation building and its symbols.
11. On the first point, human beings have always craved for freedom – freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from oppression. Without the basic human desire for freedom, Malaysians would not have fought for their Independence from colonial rule. Having achieved it, we would not have gone on to progress as rapidly as we did. As the noted philosopher, economist and nobel laureate Amartya Sen has put it: development is about escaping from the ‘unfreedom’ of poverty to enjoy the freedoms of political, economic and social liberty.
12. But as Professor Shad Saleem Faruqi has observed: “Freedom per se has no value. … It is the use to which it is put. It is the sense of responsibility and restraint with which it is exercised.” 
13. I could not agree more. There is nothing in the quest for human rights and freedom that requires the exclusion of duty or of responsibility — whether to family, community, country or to the larger cosmos. Every right comes with responsibility, and the pursuit of individual rights can be taken too far. For example, it would be irresponsible for an artist or filmmaker to defend an offensive artistic creation based on his individual rights, if the action subverts harmonious relations between communities. Most moral philosophies emphasize the need for moral limits and boundaries, for balance and moderation. When boundaries are transgressed, the social fabric can be undermined.
14. We must never lose sight of the ‘bigger picture’. That bigger picture is that of creating a nation that is at peace with itself, of shared progress and prosperity, of peace and harmony. If boundaries are disregarded in the exercise of individual freedoms, we will end up weakening rather than strengthening the bonds that bind us as a nation. We need to instill in our young a sense of responsibility and community.
15. The second reason is generational change. With each passing generation, people become less familiar with the circumstances around which this country was formed and built. That is why I cannot over-emphasise enough the need for both well thought and well taught history in our schools. In this way, our students can better appreciate and respect the national institutions and symbols around us.
16. This appreciation and respect are clearly missing when national symbols are deliberately desecrated. Let me use the example of a nation’s flag. The act of desecrating a flag is more than one individual’s statement of disrespect and criticism. In many senses, it is an attack on a nation’s sovereignty. The act is deliberately designed to insult what many others treasure and consider a source of pride and joy. Whatever one may think of the rights of individuals to express themselves, the larger consequences of their actions cannot and should not be ignored.
17. Because of the crucial role they fulfill, some countries have enacted specific laws to protect their national symbols. The United States, for example, enacted the Flag Protection Act in 1968 and later amended it in 1989. The Act, however, was struck down the following year by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it violated the US’s First Amendment. Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland are some of the countries that impose specific penalties for the desecration of their national flags. Other countries protect their national symbols under existing general laws aimed at ensuring law and order, preventing subversion and hate crimes.
18. Whatever our political or ideological differences, our national symbols belong to all citizens. By allowing these symbols to be trashed, we are opening ourselves up to a host of consequences, including the possibility of inflaming passions, inviting tit-for-tat retaliation and so forth. Hate and anger are some of the most powerful human emotions. When they take hold of society, they are difficult, and oftentimes impossible, to control. Our national symbols should therefore be placed above the political fray.
Ladies and gentlemen:
19. We as Malaysians have every right to be proud of our national symbols. Our achievements have been considerable. It is with this in mind that I invite all of you here – indeed all Malaysians – to invest in and advance Brand Malaysia. Nurture this brand and its symbols with all the reverence and respect that it deserves, for it reflects the country and ultimately ourselves.
20. I wish you all a very pleasant and productive forum.