Today, thanks to social media, just about anyone can now share an opinion in an instant. But Malaysians are in need of clever and intelligent discourse.
IT is a mark of our maturing society that we are now beginning to be able to engage in discourse, even on the most sensitive of issues, without causing offence to one another.
The ability to disagree without being disagreeable is to be lauded. Too often, we have seen how individuals or groups prefer to engage in name-calling and verbal abuse, rather than talk rationally about an issue.
I have been a journalist for over 30 years and have also covered the Dewan Rakyat in my earlier years. While there was a fair share of those who spoke just to make sure they got themselves in the news, there were also many outstanding politicians with the gift of the gab who could debate rationally, their arguments punctuated with much wit, and they had the uncanny ability to cool things down when temperatures went up a few notches.
Older Malaysian journalists have told me of their experiences following the great debating skills of our founding fathers like Tunku Abdul Rahman and the earlier Opposition figures like the Seenivasagam brothers, S.P. and D.R., and Tan Sri Tan Chee Khoon.
They were legends who did not have to raise their voices or resort to using racial remarks to make themselves heard. They had class and have deservingly been accorded their place in our history.
Today, we are more exposed to how people engage in civil discourse for a wide variety of issues through different platforms. Democracy has never been so noisy.
Thanks to social media, just about anyone can now share an opinion in an instant. The more savvy politicians too have embraced social media but they are aware that they will never escape scrutiny and, of course, criticism for whatever they say.
But Malaysians are in need of clever and intelligent discourse. They want to read beyond generalised statements found in blogs and on Facebook. Instant responses, often clouded by emotional prejudices, cannot take the place of rational debate.
If anyone, especially a public figure, stands up for something, he must be prepared to square off with someone with a directly opposite view. It’s the same for academics who have to face peer review and cannot simply rattle off their views without being willing to listen, or offer space, to contrarian views.
For Malaysia, we have of late seen an active engagement of views over issues like race and religion. We have seen the emergence of the voice of moderation, as more people, many of them prominent members of society, speak their minds.
I am proud that this media group, which I helm as its chief executive officer, has given fair and equal opportunity to all sides to articulate their views. This is how it should be. So, if we give space to the so-called Group of 25, we have likewise given space to the Group of 32. So long as the debate remains civil, we should allow this to carry on. More importantly, both sides have called for a meeting of the minds on the issues affecting the nation.
It does not matter if even The Star’s Voice of Moderation campaign has been criticised by the Group of 32. We are ready to be criticised by anyone, as long as they back it up with sound and rational viewpoints. We may be on direct opposites but most of us, whatever our beliefs, surely do not subscribe to any form of name-calling and threats.
When 32 men and women with considerable knowledge and accomplishments come together to take a stand, we ought to hear them out. Surely they are no different than any of us in wanting the country and its people to continue to do well. Never mind if we may not subscribe to some of their views, but differing views is a basic of democracy.
Let me put on record that I also share some of the views expressed by the Group of 32, such as those about economic disparity and corruption.
Be that as it may, it is unfortunate that there are some who are only able to see the world, or Malaysia, via a racial or religious prism.
The minority groups of different faiths make up a substantial number of this country’s population. They need not be reminded, over and over again, that they have to be grateful and that as a minority, they must be submissive and not speak up.
The Star has been criticised for purportedly using Malay personalities to voice their moderate views against the other Malay groups who do not share their liberal views.
Nothing could be further from these warped arguments. When we first initiated this campaign, ahead of National Day and Malaysia Day, we wanted to emphasise the importance of moderation. It needed to be pointed out that moderation was a key criterion for Malaysia to secure a seat in the United Nations Security Council.
There is also a government-funded Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), initiated by the Prime Minister, of which I am a trustee. Surely, if we talk about moderation on the world stage, we also need to practise it at home. Former MP Datuk Saiffudin Abdullah, another moderation advocate, heads the GMM.
It is also important to note that most of the writers and contributors featured in the campaign have been long-term columnists with The Star. They include Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, Zainah Anwar, Azmi Shahrom, Zaid Ibrahim, Wan Saiful Wan Jan and Karim Raslan. They were not plucked from the air with no basis. Many of them have long been associated with The Star.
Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jala also writes for us and former diplomat Tan Sri Razali Ismail, who is also the chairman of GMM, is someone I have known for some time. Zainah has been a good friend since 1990 when I first met her as a journalist. And I am privileged to know her other family members as well. I hold her in high regard.
These are the people, who happen to be Malays, who have always been the moderates in our country. They have always been given the space to articulate on issues that they care about, including moderation. What the campaign has succeeded in doing is to make more people aware of the need to speak out if they do not want the forces of extremism to gain ground.
It is an insult to suggest that the Group of 25 and other moderates who support them are being used as pawns in a racial plot. These people have long-established credentials with sterling service records to the country.
Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin, who is the coordinator of the group, is not only a former ambassador but also one of the top legal brains in this country, having served more than 25 years in the judicial and legal service including stints as a magistrate and Sessions Court judge. At Wisma Putra, she handled territorial and maritime issues before her posting as Malaysia’s ambassador to the Netherlands, where she also served as Malaysia’s co-agent to the International Court of Justice on the Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan case.
Then there is Liyana Khairuddin, who initiated the #iam26 social movement in support of the eminent Group of 25. Unknown to many, Liyana, who humbly prefers to be known as just a scientist, is a virologist who specialises in HIV research.
I agree wholeheartedly that the Malays have been generous and it was the community’s willingness to share and build consensus that chiefly helped us get our independence and build Malaysia to what we are today. But we must not forget that without the support of the other communities, there would be no independence and without the Sabahans and Sarawakians, there would be no Malaysia either. Our founding fathers, who travelled to London for the talks, did so as a multi-racial team, lest we forget.
Every community has its share of extremists. This writer has criticised groups like Dong Zong and Hindraf, with its racist overtones, long before even Perkasa was born.
There have also been personal attacks, almost all the result of racial prejudices, from people who do not know me. But it is worth repeating here that my love for the Malay language and culture was the main reason why I sat for the Malay Literature paper in my Sixth Form examination, when it was called Higher School Certificate. I had to memorise Sejarah Melayu and Tuhfat Al-Nafis. I studied Islamic History as well.
When I entered Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, I chose the Malay Letters Department in my first year as an extension of my love for Malay literature. Pantun, Indonesian and Malay literature enriched my life greatly, and I have spoken out many times that there is no basis to the fear of learning about Islamic Civilization in our public universities.
It was a compulsory course in UKM and remains so, and I had the privilege of listening to the lectures of the late Fadzil Noor, who went on to be become a PAS president, and former lecturer Dr Haron Din, who is now a PAS elder.
I find it odd that there are politicians who still attempt to use the teaching of Islamic Civilization as a political issue. I learnt it 30 years ago, and I can’t think of any non-Muslim in my batch who converted as a result!
I have continued to be engaged with the works at the Al-Bukhary Islamic Museum, where I continue to collect some of the best books on the religion by the museum.
In fact, there are family members who have embraced Islam and my favourite aunt is a tudung-clad Muslim who naturally shares my moderation stand.
Many of my Malay friends find the views of certain extreme Malay groups embarrassing but they are caught in a situation where they know they will be criticised if they openly declare themselves as liberals.
All these recent discussions, passionate in many aspects, have helped me to forge a wider world view and have a greater appreciation of our communities in Malaysia. In the process, they have also strengthened my moderation views.
From the start of the campaign, we have emphasised that we wanted to speak about common values of all races and religions such as compassion, tolerance, patience, understanding and mutual respect.
We cannot pretend that religious extremism does not exist in this country. In fact, extremism in all forms can be found everywhere; such is the nature of men.
Religious extremism is not widespread in Malaysia but it is a threat nevertheless because the words and actions grab a lot of attention. They intimidate and agitate and, in certain circumstances, they can quickly spiral out of control.
We cannot afford to be dismissive about something that can potentially wreck our way of life.
God, by whatever name we call Him, has made Malaysia a plural society. He has put colour into our lives. He must have a reason for doing so, and surely if we believe in God, He would want us to live in harmony and to showcase our plurality in our daily lives – not just for show to the tourists!