My Say: The voice of the majority

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I’M in a reflective mood, seeing how unfortunately 2014 ended, with many affected by the worst flooding in the East Coast in years, and wondering what’s in store for Malaysia in what is looking to be a challenging year.

One thing I’m glad about last year was the way more Malaysians, including prominent Malay professionals and ex-civil servants, made their views known on what is so wrong with race and religious issues in the country. I believe their views, which many of us share, are what middle Malaysia is all about.  

Call them moderates, liberals, Group of 25 or whatnot — they are the voices of reason. We need to listen to them and make their views heard as the voices of reason are what will see us through as a nation — one that aspires to be developed, progressive and fair to all stakeholders. Disruptive voices of disunity using the race and religious cards should never be allowed to dominate national discussions. And while they should be allowed to have their say in a democracy, they should never be left unchallenged.

The voices of reason, in fact, dominate these pages that I edit. In Malaysia, socio-economic-political issues can easily swing to the extreme right or left. Commentators in these pages, including those from Umno, Pas, PKR or DAP, are reminded that the Forum section in The Edge will fight for views that are critical but are deemed fair and reasonable. Argue your case and argue it well but leave partisan politics and uncompromising race and religious bigotry out.

Listen to voices of reason was the headline of my column on May 9, 2011, in the Forum pages. The article was partly about the late Datuk Zainal Aznam Yusof, a prominent economist who contributed a lot to the nation’s socio-economic development programmes. His opinions on the economy and the bumiputera agenda were seen by some Malay pressure groups as unfriendly and unjustifiable.

He was branded a traitor simply because he dared to speak out and criticise the government on things that he felt were wrong and how they should have been managed.

As a member of the National Economic Advisory Council (NEAC) then, which was mandated by the prime minister to formulate an economic transformation model that would turn Malaysia into a high-income nation by 2020, Zainal was of the view that some earlier proposals were watered down because of pressure from Malay rights groups like Perkasa.

A performance-based system and an Equal Opportunity Commission, for example, were omitted while the 30% bumiputera equity target — which was earlier left out — was retained. Zainal argued that there was political will to change, but it was not enough to push through some of the recommendations that would have strengthened the economy. For articulating these views, the Malays in the NEAC were said to lack the Malay-ness in them and the necessary spirit needed to improve the economic fate of the community.

I wrote then: “The expletives of Perkasa were not worth mentioning but one thing for sure was that Zainal had contributed more to the development of this nation and the progress of the Malay community than the likes of Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali ever can.

“Sometimes, we as a nation have a problem accepting alternative views with an open mind. Contrarian views, especially if they are not in sync with Umno-led Barisan Nasional, the bumiputera or national interest, even though they are objective, are often slammed as being anti-Malay or anti-national and those who utter them accused of having a hidden political or foreign agenda.

“If a Chinese or an Indian promulgates such views, he will probably be described as a racist. If a Malay does it, he might be labelled a traitor to the bangsa or a ‘compromised bumiputera’. It does not matter if one is sincere in wanting to improve the well-being of the nation. Sometimes, we need someone who does not agree with us to show us the right way. That is why we should be receptive to ideas.”

Today, more people, notably among the Malays, want their views to be heard as they are basically fed up with the likes of Perkasa and Isma dominating the race and religion discussion as if theirs are the majority view of the Malays and Muslims of this country.

Many are equally fed up with Umno’s seeming silence on these matters, which gives the impression that the party is endorsing the views of Perkasa and Isma. Many have asked where is the leadership in guiding national issues, which should be a national agenda and not one that is race or religion-centric. They feel that in this matter, sitting still and letting one side monopolise the debate is no longer the right thing to do.

That is why you have the likes of G-25 — retired civil servants seldom show their disagreement with the government of the day — and I am #26 petition campaigns mushrooming and more NGOs and civil society coming forward to push what they really feel are the majority’s view and the heartbeat of the nation.

Yes, there will be opinions and counter views but at least, it will be made known that the concerns of the Malays are the concerns of many in the community, and of non-bumiputeras as well, and not just of Perkasa, Isma and the right-wing Malay NGOs.

More will back the likes of Isma and Perkasa too — already former Chief Justice Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamad and ex-Election Commission chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman  (positions where impartiality matters the most) are declaring their support for these groups — but let it be. After all, this is what democracy is all about.

Let their views be heard. There will be clashes of opinions but I am confident the voices of reason will gather momentum and emerge the winners. The big floods, and how Malaysians from all walks of life put aside race and religion, with various groups starting their own initiatives to help the needy, is a clear indication that “the voices of reason” are in the majority.

It’s time to make it known.

Azam Aris is senior managing editor at The Edge.

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January  12 - 18, 2015.