2020 was a year like no other for Malaysia

A few years before the public intellectual Rustam Sani passed away in 2008, I met him in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

Dec 13, 2020

By Anil Netto
A few years before the public intellectual Rustam Sani passed away in 2008, I met him in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Though he was a towering figure, Rustam, the son of the famous independent era nationalist Ahmad Boestamam, was modest, goodhumoured and soft-spoken.

While chatting about politics over drinks, he mentioned that he was the one who had a hand in crafting much of the Vision 2020 speech by then-Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1991 – something few are aware of.

By 2020, we were supposed to be a psychologically liberated, secure and developed Malaysian society, a mature democratic society. It was to be a fully moral, ethical, liberal and progressive society – one that was caring and socially just with a fair distribution of the nation’s wealth. We would have a dynamic, robust and resilient economy too. These were part of the nine aspirations of Vision 2020.

But as we approach the end of 2020, the dream appears to have faded. Rustam himself, who went on to become a key figure in the Reformasi movement from 1998, would surely have been disappointed. An anniversary passed recently, largely unnoticed: Dec 6 was the 30th anniversary of the passing of independence leader Tunku Abdul Rahman.

At the proclamation of independence on the morning of August 31, 1957, Tunku’s voice pierced the hushed silence hanging over a packed Merdeka Stadium. Invoking the blessings of the Almighty, the country’s first prime mininster expressed the hope that this nation  “shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people and the maintenance of a just peace among all nations”. What would Tunku make of where we are now?

The year 2020 is also the 50th anniversary of the Rukun Negara, the national philosophy. The Rukun Negara has five goals that have not been publicised much:

–– Achieving a more perfect unity amongst the whole of society l Preserving a democratic way of life 
–– Creating a just society where the prosperity of the country can be enjoyed together in a fair and equitable manner 
–– Guaranteeing a liberal approach towards her rich and varied cultural traditions
–– Building a progressive society that will make use of science and modern technology

How far have we achieved all these goals and ambitions? Worryingly, we appear to have veered significantly off course, apparently taking a more ethno-religious turn. We have squandered our rich reserves of oil on futile mega-projects and massive corruption, rent-seeking and the illicit outflows of funds, culminating in the biggest global financial scandal the world has ever seen.

Today, the national debt exposure stands at RM1.3 trillion – 87.3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Malaysian politics, like Malaysian society itself, is fragmented, with many political parties and politicians jostling for power.

It seems we could have a new Murphy’s Law in our increasingly fragmented land: the more political parties, coalitions and defectors we have, the fewer principles in politics we can see. Or is it the other way around? That is, the fewer principles in politics, the more parties, coalitions, defectors and selfish politicians we see crawling out of the woodwork?

If this year was the year we saw a whole spate of political defectors betraying the voters’ mandate, next year could be a year of political party realignments.

But what do these parties really stand for? Whoever seizes control of Parliament and the state assemblies, what does it mean for the people? Will politicians protect vested political, corporate and special interests? 

Or will they really look into the needs of the low-income group, whose situation is now worse due to the pandemic? Many have lost their jobs and are in dire financial straits. A hint of this can be seen in the government now allowing people to withdraw more of their Employees’ Provident Fund retirement savings to tide them over these difficult times.

But it is not all doom and gloom. People are now more well informed than ever before. The youth are stirring and asserting their own voices.

At the ground level, friendships have been forged and mutual goodwill has prevailed, at least in the private arena. Though there will always be the shrill voices of the racist bigots and religious ultras, the real Malaysia we know is built on millions of ordinary people’s interactions at the ground level – at work, in our neighbourhoods and at social events.

We each have a role to play in nation-building; we cannot leave it to the politicians alone. The pandemic offers us a breathing space to ponder over what kind of nation we want and how we are going to get there. We trust that the Almighty’s blessings on the nation, which Tunku invoked at independence, will inspire us to move along the path of justice, freedom and solidarity.

And so, as we celebrated World Human Rights Day on 10 December, let us re-dedicate ourselves to building a mature democratic society that is fully moral, ethical, liberal and progressive – one that is caring and socially just with a fair distribution of the nation’s wealth. Minus all the corruption.

Rustam would have liked that.

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