Thursday, September 06, 2007

Perdana Leadership Foundation (PLF) Essay

Theme: Nurturing the minds of Future Leaders

Title: Five lessons we can learn from the history of Malaysia, from Merdeka to the present day.


Former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, when he was the 4th Prime Minister, has been stressing that our country has been colonised by foreign powers for more than 500 years during his yearly Merdeka eve speeches. There is an important significance in the fact of colonisation for such a long period. According to a prolific historian, George Santayana, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”. This statement holds true and history remains our best teacher at all times, the past, the present, the future. History is often being ridiculed as unimportant and a total waste of time based on a saying “forget the past, cherish the present and face the future.” According to Emeritus Professor Dato’ Dr Khoo Kay Kim in the NTV7 breakfast show interview to promote this essay competition, an economist once said that historians are people who drive cars forward but keep looking at the rear mirror. He reciprocated by saying that economists are people who drive cars forward with their dim light shining into the darkness of uncertainty. Indeed, history is as important as economy is, if not more. While we do not always look at the rear mirror all the time, we certainly do not travel in darkness all the time. However, before overtaking a vehicle in ‘front’ of us on a highway, we certainly need to look at the ‘rear’ mirror, don’t we?

Lesson number 1: National interest must be placed above self-interest

We must stress the importance of remembering our forefathers of independence and their invaluable, priceless contributions. Dato’ Onn Jaafar laid the foundations against Malayan Union by establishing UMNO. Subsequently, Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaimed independence for Malaya in 1957. Soon after, Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963. The Alliance Party (UMNO-MCA-MIC) managed to negotiate for independence from the British government. This is a classic example of putting nation first. UMNO could have continued championing Malay rights; MCA could have just continued to be business-based. But this did not happen. Instead, the three main races came together for one common goal – freedom and having our own democracy, our own rule of law as enshrined in the constitution today. Modern context refers to transparency and accountability. Leaders should not misuse or abuse the power and mandate given to them by the voters. Leaders must not be selfish and arrogant. Credit must be given where it is due. Greed is evil. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Simple as it sounds, yet there are so many greedy politicians in the world today. World history has taught us many valuable lessons. The ‘people power’ in the Philippines, ‘reformasi rakyat’ in Indonesia and recently the military coup in Thailand have shown us the fate of leaders who are not interested in serving the people’s interests. The moral of the story is that we require clean, honest, transparent and accountable leaders.

Lesson number 2: Nation-building’s essential ingredients – unity and tolerance

Unity is the key to Malaysia’s success in the developing world. Malaysia is unique in the sense that she is multicultural, multiethnic and multi religious. Differences in opinions and ways of life do not hinder Malaysians from mingling with one another. Tolerance emerged in the hearts and minds of the people. If every race starts to demand for this and that, the government would not be able to cater to the needs of a particular race. Unity and tolerance is no doubt very crucial to be maintained at all times. History has taught us an important lesson about racial riots. Riots and chaos are not only detrimental to our peace and security, but also disrupt the economy. One thing leads to another. When people fight, nobody works, productivity decreases causing economic sluggishness. Everything comes to a slowdown, if not standstill. Leaders should not campaign and propagate along racial lines which will conspicuously precipitate anger among their followers. Instead, they should regard themselves as working towards a ‘bangsa Malaysia’ or a Malaysian race. A good, tightly-knitted fabric protects the person who wears it. The same thing applies in the concept of unity. Thankfully, there is no prejudice or stereotype towards other Malaysians of different ethnicity. For instance, a Malaysian of Chinese ethnicity can be walking alone in a village occupied by Malaysians of Malay ethnicity without any sense of fear or insecurity. Likewise, a lonely banana fritters seller of Malay ethnicity can open a stall right in the heart of a village occupied by Malaysians of Chinese ethnicity. Notice that I refrain from using the terms ‘Chinese Malaysians’ and ‘Malay Malaysians’.

Lesson number 3: Co-operation and understanding vital to maintaining harmony

Co-operation and understanding lead to the formation of the National Front (Barisan Nasional, BN in short) – the party which has ruled Malaysia since independence. A strong coalition of multiracial parties was formed by Tun Abdul Razak to further promote unity and tolerance after the horrible 1969 riots. Discussion and fanning of ‘sensitive issues’ are prohibited. The concept of coercion-cum-persuasion is being applied after 1969 with the establishment of the National Consultative Council and the National Operation Council. Everything is placed in order and the rights of each race are discussed and agreed in consensus. Sometimes, the decision based on consensus seemed to be better than a decision derived through voting. Voting can cause a slim, simple majority which can lead to disharmony. Though some may argue that there is no absolute consensus due to differences in opinions and principles, this has been the way BN works and the citizens have been putting them in power ever since independence so we can conclude that this concept is what the people wanted. Reaching an agreement through consensus is vital. It highlights the fact that there is a significant level of co-operation and understanding among the parties in BN. Consistent with its impartial weighing scale symbol, BN aims to achieve social justice and economic imbalances. With reference to lesson number two, the Rukunegara was introduced to instill a sense of unity and nationhood among the various ethnic groups. This national ideology is perceived as a ‘carrot and stick’ strategy of the overall affirmative action policy which will be discussed in lesson number four.

Lesson number 4: Social and economic mobility – the way forward

The fourth lesson is actually a continuation of the third lesson but I feel it requires in-depth discourse thus the partition. In order to focus on socioeconomic progress, the government formulated policies which help the marginalised, especially the poor Malays in order to achieve a better balance of income disparity among the Malays and Chinese. The New Economic Policy (NEP) and ‘Rancangan Buku Merah’ plan were launched to assist villages in rural areas to gain social mobility and economic dynamicity. In the pipeline was the mobilisation of natural resources such as palm oil, rubber, natural oil and gas. Exports are increased and the country experienced a strong economic growth. Without such policies to help the marginalised, there is no way Malaysia can move forward. One of the criteria of a developed nation is having a reasonably high per capita income for each working citizen. Thus, without the implementation of the NEP, Vision 2020 which is going to be discussed in the fifth lesson is far from reality. The wealth of the national economy should be enjoyed by all races in Malaysia. In short, if we expand the economic cake, everybody gets a bigger share, rather than ‘robbing’ from the rich to give the poor (Robin Hood concept). The Second Malaysia Plan, 1971-1975 categorically stated: “The NEP is based upon a rapidly expanding economy which offers increasing opportunities for all Malaysians, and the government will ensure that no particular group will experience any loss or feel any sense of deprivation.”

Lesson number 5: The leadership factor – innovation, imagination, insight toward Vision 2020

Intelligent and charismatic leaders are required to develop Malaysia. The 1st and 2nd Prime Ministers were lawyers who speak well. Although not much is documented about Tun Hussein Onn, who was also a lawyer himself, the title of Bapa Perpaduan Malaysia which was given to him speaks much of his charisma in maintaining unity among Malaysians. Later, the 4th Prime Minister, a medical doctor by profession, introduced many policies which revolutionized Malaysia for the past 20 years. Dr Mahathir introduced the Look East Policy which is clearly beneficial to our work ethics. In 1991, he introduced Vision 2020. For the past few months, intensive criticisms of current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi seemed to raise some doubts about whether or not Vision 2020 can be achieved. A good leader should be innovative and imaginative. In order words, creative and critical thinking is required. A weak leader who allows oneself to be manipulated by unscrupulous advisers and cronies will only lead to the downfall of the government. What happened in Indonesia and the Philippines are good examples which should be studied seriously. Therefore, we need to inculcate a strong sense of patriotism among the young and future generations because they are the ones who will be taking over the helm of the country one day. With regards to the theme of the essay, future leaders of our beloved Malaysia who show intellectual charisma should be nurtured and moulded into true leaders who will bring Malaysia to greater heights. All in all, Malaysia needs leaders with ‘first world mentality’ to achieve the nine challenges of Vision 2020.


Malaysia is a country blessed with its abundance of natural resources and lovely people. Yet today we are witnessing the possibility of racial tensions after nearly 40 years since the dark episode. If every Malaysian citizen never forgets the five aforementioned lessons, Malaysia is indeed a haven of ‘excellence, glory and distinction’ on earth, as ideal as she can be, while still maintaining the Asian and traditional culture in the face of globalisation and internationalisation. In the end of the day, it is still the interest for history that matters. People should be encouraged to study not only Malaysian, but global history, which includes civilisations, cultures and religions. Only then can we truly understand and appreciate one another. The root cause of this problem has always been the education system in Malaysia. School text books tend to be written in a politicised manner. Elaboration of cultures and religions should be highlighted instead of ‘politics’. When one studies the true meaning of history, one can then enlighten one’s mind. I end this essay with a quotation by Herodotus, the father of history, who reasoned out why he wrote ‘The Histories’: Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his enquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.

(1841 words)

Written by Melvin Chin for the PLF Public Outreach Programme Essay Compeition. This essay won the fourth prize. Prize giving ceremony to be held on 19 Sept 2007. The writer would like to congratulate the other winners and thank PLF for the prize.


Maverick SM said...

It was a great essay, Melvin.

I do agree with the contents. However, contextually we are not disecting the social-political bases and unwilling to draw the flak of corruption and kleptorism as the main contributors of social disintegration.

Much as you are right in the main points, the root stems from wealth acquisition and the Zero-sum Game.

H J Angus said...

Good write-up and keep sharing your thoughts.

Wealth acquisition is all right provided those who seek the wealth are honest and create wealth from their hard work and not through skewed and corrupt policies.