Diversity, Democracy and Dialogue Address by YAB Mr Lim Guan Eng at the PI-G25 Forum
on 31 October 2015, 12.45PM, at Olive Tree Hotel
We are living in a trying time. Both globally and nationally, people often experience bigotry, injustice and violence not because of what they do, but simply because of who they are. Simply because they belong to the wrong groups, they are persecuted, vilified and discriminated against.
Often it seems that diversity is a curse to humanity. Logically, a simplest solution then is to eliminate the differences of all 6 billion people on earth. For some, if we speak the same language, then we will not misunderstand each other. For some others, if we all practice inter-marriage such that we will all be relatives in a few generations’ time, then we won’t fight each other.
The unfortunate fact is division and enmity persists even when there is no diversity but many similarities. In Northern Ireland, the Catholics and the Protestants are not the best neighbours even though they are all English-speaking Christians. In ex-Yugoslavia, where inter-marriages were common, ruthless ethnic cleansing still happened when the authoritarian regime collapsed.
After diversity, democracy is often blamed for conflicts. For some, if people do not have political freedom, or if there is a strong government, then there will be order and peace. In other words, count on government leaders to be inclusive and fair-minded. Unfortunately, in reality, authoritarian leaders are often more inclined to play up ethnic-religious sentiments to stay afloat.
The other problem of counting on a benevolent despot is of course corruption. As Lord Acton warns us, “power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In the 50s and 60s, the Philippines was once the leading economy in Asia but after 21 years of corrupt rule under President Ferdinand Marcos, exporting labour especially maids becomes one of the country’s key sources of income and of course our Prime Minister has now exceeded Marcos's record with the reported discovery by Wall Street Journal of the largest sum of USD 700 million in any country’s leader bank account – a world record.
How do we find peace when we are diverse and free? This is the question confronting Malaysia after 2008.
Since the political tsunami, we have seen more rigorous competition between political parties not only in elections, but also in governance. On the side of Pakatan Harapan and previously Pakatan Rakyat, we work hard to curb corruption and improve efficiency and effectiveness in governance to advance the well-being of the people. Meanwhile, citizens’ participation in public affairs – from expressing their views on social media, joining peaceful protests to taking part in policy consultation – has also significantly increased. The day that governments can pretend they know best and act as if they are the people’s boss is over. Now, politicians are constantly reminded: People are the boss! If you do not perform, you will have to pack and go.
However, we have also seen more incidents of rising ethno-religious tensions since 2008. I, for example, have lost count myself how many times demonstrations were held in front of Komtar because I and my government are apparently anti-Malay or anti-Muslim. Never mind we have given more funds to our mosques and suraus. Never mind we have worked very hard to help the poor – majority of them are Malays – from creating more job opportunities to giving cash handouts.
About four months ago, a theft in a mobile phone shop escalated into a small ethnic riot in Low Yat Plaza, Kuala Lumpur. Two months after that, we had the red shirt rally threatening violence on Chinese Malaysians for joining the Bersih rally. And the police even had to fire water cannon to disperse a group of UMNO supporters. The latest development is that a former chief minister of state vowing to lead his martial art group to war if necessary.
How do we deal with these incidences? Should we close down Chinese and Tamil schools as some suggested to “promote national unity”? Should we revive the draconian Internal Security Act so that the Government can put people behind bar indefinitely as they wish? Or should we blame religions, as a former minister said, racism is religiously permitted?
I think not. I think we must affirm and celebrate diversity and democracy.
Just as restrictions or intolerance of diversity adversely impact the minorities, even the majority Malays are not affected. Let me share two views by 2 brave Malay ladies :- Firstly, Tunku Munawirah Putra who had defended Farah Ann and another by stating “How can someone who has done the country proud by achieving the best sports honours in the region be judged on her sports attire or a scholar who has achieved academic excellence be frowned upon for not donning the hijab? What's worse, a daughter's plea for help to recover her cancer-striken father's medical records stolen from their car was criticised because she wrote on her Facebook wall in English.”
Secondly, Zainah Anwar, who has expressed her concern over the course of direction the country is heading to by questioning, “Why after decades of rigorous development planning, 40% of Malaysian households earn only about RM1,847 a month? Why after more than four decades of the NEP, 75.5% of those at the bottom are Bumiputeras? Why in spite of the billions poured into education and boarding schools, 64.3% of the Bumiputera workforce have only SPM qualifications? Why some 90% of the unemployable university graduates are Bumiputeras? Why of the $54 billion worth of shares pumped to Bumiputera individuals and institutions between 1984 and 2005, only $2 billion remained in Bumiputera hands today?”
To know each other, may I propose then the third “D” after diversity and democracy: dialogue. Dialogue is not monologues by two parties. More than just expressing ourselves, dialogue is about listening to the other party. The key of dialogue is then mutual respect and understanding. Understand how we are made different so that we can know each other better and celebrate our common goodness and universal values.
We are very blessed to have in this morning accomplished lawyers and scholars, Mr Nizam Bashir, Mr Lim Heng Seng, Mr Aston Paiva, Dr Nawab Osman, Dr Maznah Mohamed and Dr Syed Farid Alatas to enlighten us on the Federal Constitution and Syariah Law and more generally, the implications of Political Islam and Islamisation in a plural society. I am sure they have left us a lot to reflect and have more dialogues.
Must there be conflict between Syariah or Islamic tenets and a plural society in a constitutional democracy?
Just last weekend, an influential and well-respected Islamist organisation Ikram organised two events discussing maqasid (the higher objectives) of Syariah, which advocates for inclusive and good governance. The speakers featured include Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia (on video), Ustaz Muhammad Anis of Indonesia and our very own Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad and Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa. Our forum today is a good follow-up to the discussion last week.
I understand that after lunch, the three accomplished scholars from International Islamic University of Malaysia, Dr Mazlee Malik, Dr Mohd Iqbal Abdul Wahab and Mr Naser Tun Abdul Rahman will enlighten us on maqasid Syariah, which should be a blessing to the human race by advancing well-being, justice and freedom for all. And we will have Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad as discussant to connect us back on the larger conversation that is happening nationwide.
As our nation is daily bombarded with ethno-religious bigotry, let us uphold diversity, democracy and dialogue.
Historically, Penang was and is a meeting place of ideas from different civilisations, which bless us Penang people with a cosmopolitan and progressive outlook. Penang Institute should be commended for helping to co-organise the forum with G25 in this glorious tradition of Penang.
I must now express my utmost gratitude to G25 for not only bringing the forum to Penang – they will have another one in Kuala Lumpur on December 5 – but very much for standing up and speaking up at this trying time of our nation. Representing the Malay elites who have served the nation in administration, judiciary, businesses and academia, G25 is contributing immensely in the national dialogue on how to move our country forward.
Besides organising this forum on this challenging topic, G25 is also working on a detailed proposal to reform political finances. Let me state that my party has no problem disclosing our political finances. We do that at every fund-raising dinner and give a full financial report during our party conventions.
Why do we have anything to hide when as Chief Minister and elected representatives in Penang we make public declaration of assets periodically and ban family members from doing business with the state government and also from applying for government land.
What is happening to our values of right and wrong when those who are questioning unexplained wealth is wrong whereas those who have USD 700 million is considered above the law without any need to account where the money comes from and why and how was the money spent?
We are not afraid to disclose our party's and our own personal finances. Will the Prime Minister, UMNO and BN leaders dare to do so?
Let us give G25’s patriotism a big hand. On organising this programme, I would like to thank Datuk Latifah, Datuk Farida and Datuk Nazir for their dedicated effort. Special thank to Datuk Nazir for his company Aspen Group’s generous support of this forum. Similarly, I thank Penang Institute staff for their good work.
Once again, I wish everyone a fruitful dialogue on Maqasid Syariah in a Constitutional Democracy.