Idris Jala was interviewed on BFM 89.9 this morning. During the time of the interview I twitted that people who heard the interview should read an article by Kee Thuan Chye before they make up their minds about what Idris Jala said. But for some reason people who wanted to read it could not access the Facebook page. So here it is re-produced. If you missed the BFM interview you might be able to get it as a podcast eventually at www.bfm.com.my For some reason it wasn't there when I looked just now.
If It's a Problem, Don't Recognise It!
By Kee Thuan Chye
Idris Jala is a good speaker. If you listen to him and you don't watch it, he will sell you an idea.
He spoke of 1Malaysia and its aims, and how national unity can be achieved. One of the central aims of 1Malaysia is upgrading the diverse population's attitude towards one another from tolerance to acceptance and, eventually, the celebration of diversity. And one of the central strategies of achieving that is the recognition that, in Idris' own words, “in life, there are only two types of issues”.
Sounds rather pat, as if coming from a self-enrichment guru. But as I said, Idris Jala (left) is a seller of ideas.
What are these two types of issues?
Problems and polarities. A problem, expounded Idris, is something that can be solved. A polarity is something that cannot be solved but must be managed. The examples of polarities he gave are old and young, urban and rural, good and evil, rich and poor. Like the North and South Poles, they cannot be removed; therefore a balance must be struck between them.
To illustrate further, he gave the example of his wife and him. She is fastidious in wanting him to place his socks in a proper basket for washing, but he is used to leaving them all over the house. Despite her repeated attempts to get him to conform, he is incorrigible. She on her part takes an inordinate amount of time to get ready when they have a function to attend. It annoys him that because she can't decide on what to wear, they often turn up late.
“That's the situation,” said Idris, “but if we tried to solve it, we could end up in divorce.”
Extending the idea to a wider realm, Idris said race and religion are also polarities, which means they cannot be solved.
“If you try to solve them,” he said, “you could get something like Hitler's Final Solution and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.”On that UCSI occasion, Idris got away with not having to answer questions from the floor as there is usually no provision for such in a keynote address. But if there had been, the key question would be: Isn't this all just a game of semantics? How do you decide what is a problem and what is a polarity? Or is there really no difference between the two?
Let's look at the issue of race in the present context. Let's bring in Perkasa, which insists that the 30 percent equity for bumiputeras must be upheld in the New Economic Model (NEM). For want of an opposing camp, let's bring in the MCA, which recently called for the 30 percent to be gradually reduced.
Is this situation of two opposing viewpoints over a racial issue a problem or a polarity? What does it translate into when from this dispute, policy has to be made?
Policy is policy. It provides a guideline for operations to be performed and actions to be taken. It provides a clear-cut solution. It does not merely manage. So how will it solve this Perkasa-MCA dispute?
If Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak decides to listen to Perkasa and includes the 30 percent in his NEM, the MCA might have something to say. Not to mention other groups opposed to Perkasa as well. But since the MCA is a Barisan Nasional partner, Najib or his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, can ask its party leaders to shut up and toe the coalition line, and chances are they will obey. Is that managing the issue or solving it?
While we mull over this, let's consider another point - for an issue to be resolved, it calls for negotiation and sometimes arbitration. There was negotiation between the two differing groups over the ge tai issue in Penang last week and the outcome was satisfactory to both sides. Do we say they found a solution to the issue or that they merely managed it? Does it matter what we call it?
It's all semantics. And semantics are of no practical use. Sometimes, semantics create further problems. In any case, the fact that you enter into a negotiation shows that you want to find a solution. If after negotiating, you still can't find it, you may seek an arbiter.
For racial disputes, there is already an arbiter. And that, plain and simple, is the constitution. So how we solve or manage - whichever word you want to use - racial disputes should be guided by that arbiter.
Article 153 of the constitution is the bone of contention. But as lawyer Azzat Kamaluddin (left), who also spoke at the “We Are Malaysia” event, astutely pointed out, there is no mention in that article of special rights for the Malays.
Clause 1 of Article 153 states: “It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the states of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.”
Note that there is only mention of “special position”. And the second part says, significantly, that the Agong shall also be responsible for safeguarding “the legitimate interests of other communities”. It's not all one-sided.
Azzat pointed out that “everyone stops at Clause 1”. But if they were to look at Clause 2, they would see clearly that the special provisions for Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak pertain only to positions in the public service; scholarships, exhibitions and other similar educational or training privileges or special facilities; and permits and licences for the operation of any trade or business.
And in these areas, the provisions have to be “of such proportion as [the Agong] may deem reasonable”. In other words, it's not carte blanche.
Look also at Clause 5, which states that Article 153 “does not derogate from the provisions of Article 136”.
What does Article 136 say?
It says: “All persons of whatever race in the same grade in the service of the federation shall, subject to the terms and conditions of their employment, be treated impartially.” This is another limit to the scope of Article 153.
If the government follows the rule of law and interprets the constitution as it should be interpreted, we wouldn't have a racial problem. Yes, problem. Let's call a spade a spade. The racial problem we have now is mostly the result of what the government has done and not done.
It has not followed the rule of law. It has not told Perkasa to grasp the proper provisions of Article 153. Instead, it has been affirming that Perkasa's doing the right thing - only a few days ago, Deputy Education Minister Puad Zarkashi said Perkasa was championing the people's rights as spelt out in the constitution. Perhaps Puad hasn't read beyond Clause 1. Perhaps he doesn't understand it fully.
In terms of what the government has done, it has chosen to take sides to formulate policies that are contrary to the spirit of the constitution. For instance, is the discount for bumiputeras purchasing property constitutional? If so, where is it written in that sacred document?
The government favours one race and marginalises the other races. With regard to the civil service, it has not upheld Article 136 of the constitution, which calls for impartial treatment for civil servants of all races. Over the past four decades, the promotion of civil servants to the highest positions has been almost totally confined to those of one particular race. Is that impartial treatment?
As for religion, it is again the government that has created problems. Just to name two, one is its action to deny Christians the right to use the word “Allah”; the other, and more far-reaching, action is declaring Malaysia an Islamic state, as Najib did in 2007 when he was Deputy Prime Minister.
“Islam is the official religion and we are an Islamic state,” he said.
He must surely have read Article 3 of the constitution but chose to ignore what it says: “Islam is the religion of the federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the federation.”
Nowhere is it stated that Malaysia is an Islamic state.
But by his declaration, Najib caused fresh anxieties to surface and made the issue of religion more contentious. In extreme situations, the provisions of Article 3 have been disrespected. A recent example is Perkasa's lodging of a police report against a church in Shah Alam for planning to stage a Christian play during Ramadan on the grounds that it was seditious and insulting to the sultan.
That police report became a problem to the church. How would it be solved? In an ideal Malaysian setting, the government would have stepped in and told Perkasa to respect Article 3. But of course, it did not. For the church and other Christian groups, these problems will continue to crop up in future and there will be no solution in sight if the government stays silent.
Is the government silent because it now believes it can call such a problem a polarity? And with a polarity, which cannot be solved, the less said about it, the better? Similarly, in the case of the Johor school principal who allegedly made racist remarks, it is better to let the issue be until the public forgets about it?
If so, 1Malaysia is not about taking a radically honest approach towards national unity and the celebration of diversity. It seems to shy away from calling a problem a problem and solving it. Calling it a polarity merely adds a new twist to the propaganda.
So, if Idris Jala comes to your neighbourhood and tries to sell you that idea, be sure to ask him some difficult questions. He's a good speaker and can easily mesmerise his audience. His words may sound pretty until you probe them for substance. If you do, you might find that they amount to nothing more than public relations prattle.