It is time to nurture a common destiny.
THE ongoing Black Lives Matter protests around the world have continued to fuel debate and introspection in politics, economics, and culture. As a graduate of comparative politics and sociology, the phenomenon is making me revisit the many theories of government, institutional legitimacy, and political philosophy that I read at the London School of Economics. I’ve been asked to expand on the topic. Interestingly, readers have prefixed several presumed qualifiers, identifying me as a co-founder of a think tank championing our first prime minister and promoting market-based solutions, as a member of Malaysia’s ethnic majority who lived overseas as a minority, and as someone from a privileged background and educational experience. It is important at the outset to acknowledge this privilege. I will never know what it is like to grow up as a poor Malaysian Indian in an estate or in an Orang Asli community whose traditional land is under assault, or as a Malay fisherman struggling to catch fish in polluted waters. Nevertheless, my belief in the Federal Constitution and Rukunegara requires me to acknowledge that each of these examples is citizens just as I am, possessing the same fundamental liberties, and I would expect other Malaysians to accept this position at a minimum. However, some people argue – both to their own perceived benefit or detriment – that the Federal Constitution itself undermines that position. This discrepancy in interpretation is precisely why, over and above that minimum, Malaysians must nurture a common destiny: one based on the ideals of our nation’s birth. No one should have a monopoly in this process: stakeholders including government, schools, religious authorities, businesses, and civil society all play a role. This in turn requires a democratic space and sufficient trust between institutions. When these weaken, the risk of irreversible polarisation increases. But when these strengthen, understanding increases, creating more space for policies that people can agree on – as well as changing individual behavior. I now realize that certain terms I heard as a kid had origins as racial slurs, so I don’t use them. As previously stated, it is counterproductive to import foreign narratives and apply them when seeking reform here. Although we should acknowledge the existence of slavery in our history, the descendants of those slaves do not claim a collective memory that correlates with the understandings of the race today. The experience of slavery in the United States (and of European colonialism) is different, and related events like the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars and the civil rights movements – have no easy equivalents here. Put another way, we certainly have our own problems, but we should seek solutions that are appropriate given our historical situation. Having said that, we should draw inspiration from initiatives executed elsewhere, particularly where data (typically distilled in the form of comparative indices) show that certain reforms can lead to superior outcomes.
One of the most important areas of reform targeted by protesters in the United States is in policing. Specific practices such as chokeholds and no-knock warrants are being banned (or at least under debate) in many jurisdictions (as US police forces are decentralized) and wider reforms are encapsulated by calls to “Defund the Police”. This slogan can be widely interpreted – from the abolition of police forces entirely, to funding other public services instead, or to tying funding to reforms – but its call is expanding the realms of possibility.
Here, Malaysians can have vastly different experiences with the police. I am grateful for the officers who protect my father officially as Ruler, and many hearts have been warmed by policemen recently rescuing cats from cars and dogs from drains, and yet there have been too many deaths in police custody (in which statistics on race cannot be ignored) and an enduring perception that political pressure plays a part in investigations.
That is why one key test of this government is whether it will present the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission Bill to Parliament. In the meantime, while Parliament is not sitting, MPs should be free to field their questions elsewhere and not themselves be questioned by the police for doing so.