Wednesday May 5, 2004
The Star Online

WONG SULONG is delighted that two of his friends have come out with books on the challenges of nation-building in Malaysia.

Living together in Malaysia

GOOD READING: The covers of The Chinese Dilemm by Ye Lin-Sheng and 5 Ideas by H'ng Hung Yong.

The Chinese Dilemma
By Ye Lin-Sheng
East West Publishing Pty Ltd
ISBN 0-9751646-1-9.
Price: RM28 

5 Men and 5 Ideas
By H’ng Hung Yong
Pelanduk Publications
ISBN 967-978-887-3
Price: RM39.90 

IT'S a delight to note that two of my good friends have recently come out with books on what I would call “Living Together: The Malaysian Dilemma.”
Ye Lin-Sheng is an engineer-turned-businessman. He has been on the board of some of Malaysia’s biggest companies, and apart from Malaysia, has worked for many years in Hong Kong and Australia. When he presented me his book, The Chinese Dilemma, over breakfast, I did not realise he was the author as the name was in pinyin.
H’ng Hung Yong was a head prefect in our school, St Xavier’s Institution in Penang. He was a highly regarded newspaper executive (he once headed The Star and later The Sun) and is currently Principal at Transformation Research Associates.
His book, 5 Men and 5 Ideas – Building National Unity, is his second. The first, CEO Malaysia – Strategy in Nation-Building was published in 1998.
Ye and H’ng approached the Malaysian dilemma from different perspectives, but their conclusion is the same: Malaysia has come a long way from the time of British rule. A country with diverse racial groups, with different languages, cultures and religions, have over time and through protracted and robust negotiations – even bloodshed – arrived at the conclusion they have no choice but to live together in the spirit of give-and-take.
The alternative is just too frightening to contemplate: such scenarios have been played out in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Israel/Palestine and Sri Lanka, to name just a few countries that racial and religious wars have laid to waste.
Through give-and-take, the people of Malaysia have built for themselves a peaceful, prosperous country.
Not that Malaysia has no problems – indeed as the authors point out, its problems are as numerous, complex and potentially explosive as one can find in any country with diverse races, religions and cultures.
Malaysia has had its share of challenges: the threat from the predominantly Chinese Communist Party of Malaya between 1948 and 1960; the racial riots of 1969 and the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.
There were other occasions when Malaysia appeared to be falling off the cliff, only to claw back and resume its long and tortuous march towards national unity.
H’ng approaches this march by singling out five Malaysian leaders – Datuk Onn Ja’afar (1946-1951), Tunku Abdul Rahman (1951-1970), Tun Abdul Razak (1970-1976), Tun Hussein Onn (1976-1981) and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (1981-2003) – and the five ideas they embodied.
“Each leader responded differently to the challenges of his time. Collectively, their representations constitute a corpus of assertions that help answer questions like ‘Who is a Malaysian?’ or ‘What is a Malaysia?’”
According to H’ng, Onn, first president of Umno, Malaysia’s predominant political party, established the principle that the essential character of the new Malaysian (then Malayan) nation must be Malay in recognition of the history of the land and the presence of its original people. Onn led the Malays to oppose the British proposal for a Malayan Union, and in the process enabled the Malays to recover their identity and dominance.
The Tunku, Malaysia’s first prime minister, succeeded in persuading the various races to accept the plural nature of Malaysian society.
“He convinced the Malays that their identity would not be diminished by the acceptance of a multiracial society. The Merdeka Compact the Tunku helped to negotiate continues today to provide the guiding principles for the management of race relations in the country.”
Razak, the second prime minister, added a third proposition to the task of nation-building: the need for economic equity. “He submitted that no nation could be sustained in the long run if there is wide economic disparity among its people, particularly when they are divided along racial and religious lines.”
Razak was the father of the Felda schemes, one of the world’s most successful rural poverty eradication projects. After the 1969 racial riots, he launched the controversial New Economic Policy (NEP) designed to create a competitive Malay community, and dismantle the identification of race with economic function.
According to H’ng, Razak’s successor, Hussein, is best remembered as the leader who focussed on building and protecting the moral basis of civil society. Hussein, son of Onn, was uncompromising and immovable, despite the huge political risks, in ensuring that the former Mentri Besar of Selangor, Datuk Harun Idris, was tried and convicted in court for corruption. (Harun later got a royal pardon).
Mahathir, Malaysia’s fourth and longest serving prime minister, was a man of vision and action.
“Mahathir argued that a nation is defined not only by its representations at home, but also by the positions it adopted abroad. Towards this end, Mahathir sought to project an international identity for Malaysia that reflected its Islamic heritage, its solidarity with oppressed and disadvantaged people all over the world, and its commitment to achieving modernity and resilience,” said H’ng. In other words, under Mahathir, Malaysia was able to punch above its weight.
H’ng’s prognosis is that each of the five national leaders played a substantial role in forging a successful nation from disparate communities kept apart by the colonial masters.
Yet, H’ng argues, the rapid growth of the Malaysian economy has blinded us to the growing racial polarisation that has taken place, especially among the young. Nearly half a century of Independence, yet the problem of race continues to dominate national life.
The unifying force for Malaysians, says H’ng, is not race or religion, but nationalism.
“The challenge today is not how to unite the Malays, but how to unite the Malays with non-Malays.”
Ye minces no words in The Chinese Dilemma. It’s an answer to Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma and views the NEP from the Chinese perspective.
Mahathir wrote his book in the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots; Ye’s book was written 35 years later. In that time, a lot has flowed under the bridge, but the issues of distribution of wealth and nation-building are as relevant today as they were in 1969.
Although he is the son of a Chinese immigrant, Ye shows a much better understanding of the Malay perspective and their dilemma than many Chinese whose families have lived in this country for generations. This could be due to his early days as a government engineer serving in rural areas.
Ye empathises with many Chinese who have been hurt by the NEP – the student who could not get into university even though he/she has better grades, the Chinese civil servant who has been bypassed for promotion or the Chinese businessman who lost out on a contract.
Many Chinese are unhappy about the erosion of Chinese influence in the Cabinet and Government, and the steady decline of the Chinese percentage of the Malaysian population (now 26% compared with more than 35% at Independence).
But how would you feel, Ye asks his non-Malay readers, if you are in the position of the Malays, to find your country populated 50% by other races which are economically superior with the gap growing wider?
Ye argues that the Malays are among the most tolerant people in the world, and are prepared to share the wealth of their land with immigrants. All they asked from the immigrant races is acknowledgement of their political rights and fair distribution of the economic wealth, something which Ye feels is eminently reasonable.
Ye also feels that the Chinese have not given sufficient credit to a great Malay contribution to nation-building – their skill in government administration, in part inherited from the British.
But the core argument of Ye’s book is this: The NEP has been as beneficial to the Chinese as it has been to the Malays. Just look at the stability the NEP has engendered and the subsequent economic prosperity that has filtered down to all communities.
The flip side of the coin: are there any better alternatives to the NEP?
H’ng suggests that the NEP should be “re-calibrated” to strengthen the programme. These actions should seek to reclaim the moral legitimacy of the programme, to improve professionalism and transparency in its administration and re-position it as a “national” as opposed to a “Malay” programme.
Ye’s book was written before Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over as Malaysia’s fifth prime minister, and H’ng started his a month into Abdullah’s administration and completed it before Abdullah's landslide win in the 2004 general election.
I have always maintained that Malaysia is lucky to have four prime ministers who were the right men to lead the country at the right time.
The same can be said of Pak Lah who sees his role as managing and building on the success of his predecessors.
He has pushed back the tide of Islamic fundamentalism. That’s a great victory for national unity.
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