On Saturday the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) partnered with the Malay Mail and the Imperial College Alumni Association Malaysia to host Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan at a very respectable venue in Bandar Utama. Compared to five years ago, when a private members’ club expressed concern about an event I was hosting with the Centre for Public Policy Studies, it is now increasingly common to find possibly controversial events being held openly in reputable places: an illustration of the healthy interplay between free markets and free speech.
Dato’ Ambiga’s talk was sensible (rather than stirring) in content and delivery and she won over some sceptics. I was grateful to her for reminding me of my first foray into Malaysian civil society. Before the ascendancy of many of the nation’s think tanks during the premiership of Tun Abdullah Badawi, there were already a few visible groups, notably the Abolish ISA Movement. I was there in the classroom at the London School of Economics and Political Science (I emphasised to the Imperial College Alumni) in 2001 when its UK chapter was established, and I was one of the first signatories. I wonder if the Malaysian Students Department still has a record of my presence there: delightfully for me, the threat of withdrawing a scholarship for attending such events was not available to them. Some of my friends were not so lucky.
I also thanked Dato’ Ambiga for agreeing that IDEAS should accept the invitation from the Election Commission to be an observer in the upcoming election, on the logic that despite any flaws, it is better that we are in there than not.
The next speaker in this State of the Nation Dialogues series will be Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, scheduled for 2 March, which in the current political timeline is an eternity away. Millions of new voters might already have cast their votes in the 13th General Election by then.
Later that evening, Malaysia’s architects came together to celebrate the conferment of the Malaysian Institute of Architects’ (PAM) highly prestigious Gold Medal to Dato’ Haji Hajeedar Abdul Majid, only the seventh recipient since the award’s institution in 1988. One of Dato’ Hajeedar’s most famous buildings must be the Bangsar Mosque (which he did before designing the Grand Friday Mosque in the Maldives), but he was also pivotal in the conservation of Carcosa Seri Negara and the Industrial Court in KL, amongst others.
Although I felt quite foreign in a room full of architects (I was there because he is a family friend), Dato’ Hajeedar’s speech was entirely accessible, sometimes touching upon the very same issues of governance, transparency and policy implementation that cropped up during the session with Dato’ Ambiga earlier. Apparently, not everyone in the architecture sector is playing by the rules. I wonder if there is any sector in Malaysia where these issues are not of prime concern today.
Not being very familiar with the rules of sepak takraw, I received a brilliant briefing from the Director of Negeri Sembilan’s Fire and Rescue Department, which organised a tournament on Sunday in conjunction with the Yamtuan’s birthday. 40 teams took part, and the final, which I was witnessing before presenting the prizes, was between a team from Royal Armoured Corps soldiers based in Port Dickson and one from a sepak takraw club in Kuala Pilah. Apparently there is a vibrant sepak takraw community in these parts. The sport definitely deserves more visibility – each of the players is at least as dextrous as any footballer, and yet the court set-up brings the same fast-paced excitement as you would expect in a badminton match.
As the Father of Independence repeated many times to the millions of new citizens of independent Malaya, participating in competitive sport is one path to becoming a good Malayan, because everyone plays by the same rules regardless of their ethnic background or religious affiliation. It teaches rule of law and respect for others.
Another extra-curricular activity that teaches many similar lessons is music, and speaking to Angel Lee of the eponymous Angel’s Class String Orchestra (of which the Seremban Quartet famous amongst foreign diplomats in KL is a subset) after an intimate concert on Tuesday, I was most pleasantly surprised learning how quickly the musical community in Negeri Sembilan is expanding. Competing music schools are growing in number – and the majority of students attend government schools. Perhaps there is potential for partnerships between the private arts sector and government schools. Time to explore!
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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS, 5th best new think tank in the world according to the University of Pennsylvania’s 2012 Global Go To Think Tanks Report and Policy Advice