As a former banker and part-time socio-political activist, I would never equate myself with any Islamic scholars or experts, although I did spend a year as a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies (OCIS) in 2010. What I can say credibly though, is that I have always believed that Islam is a religion of tolerance, fairness and justice. As Muslims, we are subservient to a higher power.
However, we must never treat other religions unfairly. “Cosmopolitan Islam” is an interesting narrative that is consistent with the way I was taught about Islam, during childhood, both at home and in school.
A lot of the intellectual thoughts by academics highlighted by Brother Faisal (Muhammad Faisal Abdul Aziz) in his book on Cosmopolitan Islam, Kosmopolitan Islam & Pembinaan Bangsa Malaysia, stood out to me. Among them was Prof Dr Syed Khairudin Al-Junied, who said: “Internalising Muslim cosmopolitanism enables a person to be at ease with his or her own Islamic cultural identities, promoting these identities as a means to enrich public understanding about Islam and Muslims while maintaining and embracing a tolerant attitude towards people of other background.”
Diversity is an exceptional edge for Malaysia. This means that we stand to enjoy a lot of benefits:
- First of all, if we can ensure that such diversity can work to our advantage;
- Second, if our society is more inclusive and can work together across boundaries of identity.
When I was leading CIMB Group, I worked really hard to adopt diversity [into the company] and nurture an inclusive workforce. Whether it was in terms of race, age group, gender or even religion, I often intervened to ensure that diversity worked well for us. I used to always remind our staff that integration means we have to go against what comes naturally to us and reject our tribal instincts to only love what is similar and familiar to us.
We have created an ecosystem that is rich with ideas and talent. I believe this was the driving force behind CIMB’s expansion, both in Malaysia and in other Asean countries. CIMB has become a mini version of Bangsa Malaysia, and I am proud of the joke that CIMB stands for “Chinese, Indian, Malay Bank”.
The late Tunku Abdul Rahman is famous for his quote: “We are all Malaysians. This is the bond that unites us. Let us always remember that unity is our fundamental strength as a people and as a nation.”
Our founding fathers saw Bangsa Malaysia as the future of our new nation — a direction to move forward. They were aware that it is not an easy feat [to achieve] and when we made a misstep, like in 1969, they introduced reforms and new policies, but they never deviated from the original agenda.
Many perceive that the affirmative action policy of the New Economic Policy (NEP) divides us, but that assumption ignores the two-pronged approach and rationale:
- First, to eradicate poverty for all, regardless of race; and
- Second, to address economic imbalances between the races in order to create the foundation of national unity.
The NEP was introduced in response to the breakdown of the original post-colonial system, together with the Rukun Negara, amendments to the Sedition Act and the formation of the Grand Coalition for government or Barisan Nasional. The Rukun Negara was a further demonstration that multiculturalism was to remain the foundation of the nation.
It is very helpful if we take lessons from its preamble:
- Achieving a more perfect unity among the whole of her society;
- 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; and
- Belief in God — a principle that respects the freedom of religion for every individual.
The post-1969 system saw success in eradicating poverty and improving bumiputera ownership and participation in the economy. However, there were unwanted side-effects as the NEP was extended beyond its original period of 20 years. In the end, the resulting negative impact outweighed the benefits of the policy.
One could say that the NEP is an oxymoron — it amplified a system of discrimination which it was designed to pre-emptively resolve. Extensive government intervention in the economy in the name of the NEP, coupled with the intensified intra-Malay political rivalry in the mid-1980s, led to what I call the three-headed monster: identity politics, money politics and the concentration of power.
The monster destroyed the most innovative ideas as well as genuine reform initiatives. For example, the Multimedia Super Corridor — a brainchild of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was very far-sighted — failed to exceed beyond the level of real estate projects. Other than that, the New Economic Model introduced by Datuk Seri Najib Razak was only able to collect dust on the shelves.
The Making a Better Malaysia project highlights how we could kill the three-headed monster and how crucial it is to do so. In conclusion, our country needs a complete restructuring. We should set up another deliberative platform similar to the National Consultative Council, which discussed and supported the restructuring of the post-1969 system. This imperative is very crucial when we look at:
- First, the scale of the problems we face today; and
- Second, the continued failure of government after government from various parties to reform the system.
History has taught us that communal tensions are easily inflamed when religion is mixed with other issues. For a country in which the identity of the Malays has been synonymous with the identity of a Muslim, religion has inadvertently become a political tool.
This has fuelled the resulting strained divide between the Malays and non-Malays. As such, the responsibility to prevent the abuse of religion to divide us now falls into the hands of right-minded Malaysians.
I am glad that ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia) has decided, without any hesitation, to rise to the challenge. This is indeed a more difficult path to take. It is indeed much easier to fish for popularity by encouraging tribalism and segregation, in order to gain support to be a leader, by exploiting the gap of differences between us.
Beyond this noble goal, I sincerely hope that ABIM will be able to collaborate with the Making a Better Malaysia project and other parties who are working towards the same objective. Cosmopolitan Islam is a strong narrative that can support Bangsa Malaysia.
No less significant, the Bangsa Malaysia envisioned by our founding fathers should also be at the forefront of the mission of the new “National Consultative Council” which we desperately need. I fear that if we do not reset, we will continue to be plagued with subpar economic growth, dysfunctional politics and divided communities. The state of the nation demands that we strive for discontinuity and system reset.
Again, I would like to express my gratitude for giving me the time and space to share my opinions. In all honesty, I sincerely hope that the points I have outlined today can somewhat help and move the efforts towards building a more tolerant Malaysia. I believe that more Muslims like me see Islam as a religion of peace.
If more of us come together and amplify that message, I believe it would be potent. Let us never forget or lose that narrative to those who abuse Islam for their own self-interest.
Datuk Seri Nazir Razak is a former chairman of CIMB. The above is a translated excerpt from his keynote address during the launch of the book, Kosmopolitan Islam & Pembinaan Bangsa Malaysia, at Sidang Kemuncak Bangsa Malaysia 2021 on March 27.