Though I’ve been a trustee of the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation for just nearly a year, I’ve been privileged to have witnessed some of its significant milestones in that time. A few months ago a donation of over six million US dollars from JCF to create two Jeffrey Cheah Professorships at Harvard University was signed, and this week saw the launch of the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia (JCI) and its inaugural conference.
The launch was officiated by the Deputy Prime Minister in the presence of the Menteris Besar of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, and I was very glad that in his speech Tan Sri Muhyiddin praised the work of think tanks in contributing analysis and public policy proposals. I had not heard such strong government approval of the existence of independent think tanks before.
The President of JCI is Professor Dato’ Woo Wing Thye, who is normally based at the University of California, Davis. He had asked me to give a presentation during the session on managing domestic and international fault lines in the region, using Malaysia as a case study. Here’s a summary of what I said.
The Malaysian demographic has fault lines in terms of politics, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, socio-economic status and educational background. Divisions can arise from different expectations of the role of the state and different worldviews on any matter of public policy, or even what it means to be a good citizen. There’s also the generation gap.
But the political fault lines are the most serious, criss-crossed by other fault lines. Every area of public policy is politicised not just because of usual party politics, but also because the presence of fault lines triggers stakeholders to act in certain ways.
Looking at education for example, it’s clear that government policy is heavily influenced by the legacy of ethnically-defined party politics on the one hand, but also by calls for reform using the vocabulary of school-based assessments, PISA rankings and decentralisation on the other. Pushing and pulling against this are the choices of parents, in turn determined by socio-economic position and cultural background. When we in IDEAS call for more parental choice, one criticism is that it might deepen fault lines even more.
But for us, diversity does not necessarily need to result in fault lines, especially if a society possesses a strong shared sense of history, of opportunity and of destiny. This is the biggest challenge of Malaysia today: people in power are fully aware of the existence of fault lines but don’t respond to them cohesively. You get formulations like 1Malaysia that call on citizens to rise above fault lines, but they co-exist alongside policies that depend and expand fault lines. Inevitably, there is derision.
The role of civil society is thus crucial: it is here that communication across fault lines can occur; the first step to building bridges across them. If there is no communication, fault lines could eventually lead to earthquakes. For example, calls for greater autonomy, if ignored, may one day grow into calls for secession.
Sometimes, domestic fault lines spill over into the international arena, which we sometimes see from aggressive nationalists. When two neighbouring countries claim ownership of islands or art forms, vocal minorities on both sides will call for sanctions or even war against the other country: thus the fault lines of domestic politics can become a major determinant of foreign policy.
That is why it is in the interests of regionalism that national leaders take greater steps to manage domestic fault lines. If they don’t, ASEAN’s projects are unlikely to reach beyond elites. It will be difficult to engender affinity towards ASEAN while there continue to be so many sources of division and tension within countries.
So for our and the region’s sake, the fault lines that are cracking our country apart must be addressed. There are those in government who realise this, as the recent formation of the National Unity Consultative Council suggests. Still, too many people have too much to gain by ensuring that fault lines persist. The emergence of civil society has helped to moderate the debate; but whether or not they succeed can only truly be tested in the political arena at general elections. Indeed, if politics provides the biggest fault line in this country, it will be through the political process that fault lines can begin to close.
It is vital that we recapture that optimistic, purposeful Merdeka spirit while recasting our differences as opportunities to know each other, mutually benefit and strengthen each other. This would not only enable us to manage our fault lines, but provide immunity from future ones as well.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS and Trustee of the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation