Monday, August 31, 2009

After 52 years of independence, we need a declaration of INTERdependence

After 52 years of independence, it is no exaggeration to say that inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in Malaysia are in a bad state. Recent events such as the cow head incident in Shah Alam only serve to underscore what Malaysians know to be true.

However, Malaysian inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations have never been very good, and have been dragging us down for some time. I believe that this is due to our system of government; although we claim to be a democracy, the reality is that all this while we have been run as a consociationalism. Under this form of government, it is accepted belief that the people from various groups cannot work together in a normal democratic process, and the elites of each group are ones who need to bargain with each other behind closed doors to decide on how to run the country, and who gets what.

The consequences of this system in Malaysia has been that, freed from having to be accountable to the rakyat, the elites (i.e. Umno, MCA, MIC etc.) have been able to indulge in corruption, cronyism and nepotism with impunity, thereby concentrating power and wealth in their hands.

Another consequence is that there has been no real public discourse on matters of national interest. Indeed, discussion of key topics is deemed "sensitive" and clamped down upon. The threat of violence, either official or unofficial, has been used to prevent this discourse. The rakyat have kept divided by the elites in order to protect their grip on power; playing the politics of communalism has succeded to an extent in getting each group to identify with the elites who "represent" them.

We can see why while neighbours and colleagues from different groups may form friendships and close relations, there is no real understanding between groups. Acceptance of each other has not become part of the collective consciousness; the "muhibbah" planned and organised by elites remains superficial, and barely limited to tolerance.

In this way, inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations have been held hostage to the political interests of the various elite parties in Malaysia. It is no coincidence that inter-ethnic conflict has flared whenever the elites find their monopoly on power threatened: in 1969, 1987 and 2001. In the sensational Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian articles, chauvinistic posturing by BN leaders, and most recently, the cow's head procession, I believe that we are seeing BN trying to repeat its so far very successful use of communal politics, this time to gain an advantage in the post GE-12 scenario.

Is there something that we Malaysians can do to once and for all remove this knife that BN is holding to our throat? 64 years ago, the philosophers Will and Ariel Durant (the husband and wife authors of the magnum opus, The Story of Civilization), along with some like-minded people, pondered the same problem. The world had just survived a world war in which racial intolerance and hatred played a large part, with millions dead. How could civilisation be protected from once again suffering the brutality and violence of dictatorship and demagoguery?

They decided that the best way was to form a movement to promote human tolerance and fellowship through mutual consideration and respect. In the words of Will Durant, "no democracy can long endure without recognizing and encouraging the interdependence of the racial and religious groups composing it." They came up with a Declaration of INTERdependence, which represented their core beliefs. This is the entire text of the declaration at present:
Declaration of INTERdependence

Human progress having reached a high level through respect for the liberty and dignity of men, it has become desirable to re-affirm these evident truths:
  • That differences of race, color, and creed are natural, and that diverse groups, institutions, and ideas are stimulating factors in the development of man;
  • That to promote harmony in diversity is a responsible task of religion and statesmanship;
  • That since no individual can express the whole truth, it is essential to treat with understanding and good will those whose views differ from our own;
  • That by the testimony of history intolerance is the door to violence, brutality and dictatorship; and
  • That the realization of human interdependence and solidarity is the best guard of civilization.
Therefore, we solemnly resolve, and invite everyone to join in united action.
  • To uphold and promote human fellowship through mutual consideration and respect;
  • To champion human dignity and decency, and to safeguard these without distinction of race, or color, or creed;
  • To strive in concert with others to discourage all animosities arising from these differences, and to unite all groups in the fair play of civilized life.
ROOTED in freedom, bonded in the fellowship of danger, sharing everywhere a common human blood, we declare again that all men are brothers, and that mutual tolerance is the price of liberty.


I believe that if Malaysians realize that all of us are interdependent, and if we practice the principles of this declaration, we will achieve the following:
  • Build real understanding and trust between ethnic and religious groups in Malaysia
  • Build the foundations for real dialogue and discourse on matters of national interest, including "sensitive" ones
  • Prevent attempts by political parties to use communal politics to divide and rule over Malaysians
  • Be able to tackle corruption, cronyism and nepotism and promote good governance without being accused of ethnic and religious bias
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY, free ourselves from the constant implied threat of politically sanctioned violence and chaos when we attempt to build a Malaysia that is truly free, just and democratic.
If you feel that this declaration is something that can help us Malaysians, would you consider helping to spread its message? We could blog about it or share it with our family, friends and colleagues. Perhaps the best thing we could do is to practice it in our daily lives. In the words of Will Durant:
"Our main task is to reduce the causes of racial animosity. First by recognizing that we are all guilty. Which of us has never uttered a word of racial hositility? Let us resolve never to do it again. Let us watch our own conduct, and by our moderation, our modesty, our good will, give no handle or excuse to racial division. Let us burn the second half of this Declaration into our hearts, and make a sacred vow, here and now."
Are we up to it?

Malaysian Heart

P.S. Thanks to Fisha of Dream a Little More Dream, for first making me aware of the life and work of Will and Ariel Durant. To participate in the international signature campaign, please visit this webpage.

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