June 8, 2010

One Songket

by Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz
LAST year, I touched on our pre-Merdeka history: about how so many of our institutions – our Rulers, our rule of law, our penchant for trade, the concept of federation – have ancient and native origins. Yet Aug 31, 1957 remains such a powerful image of the genesis of the country and all its institutions, while the rest of our history is smudged into a haze, obscuring the view not only of what is behind us, but what lies beyond the horizon as well. It might have been a tad romanticist, but the point was to get some dates out there, to serve as beacons, if you will, to illuminate surrounding events among the pollution. So I thought this year, I’ll try a different approach, and wonder about some dates in the future.

If, for example, a century ago, the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 transferred Perlis, Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu from the Siamese to the British sphere of influence, what treaties affecting our foreign relations might be signed in 2109? If, two centuries ago, Raja Lenggang had just begun his reign in Negri Sembilan assuming that this tradition of cross-strait invitation would continue forever, what might the movement of people between Sumatra and the peninsula look like in 2209? We can be even more drastic: six centuries ago Parameswara purportedly married a Pasai princess amidst great fanfare, but will there still be celebrity weddings in 2609? A millennium ago Sri Maravijayottungavarman had spent a year on the throne of Srivijaya, but who will be reigning in 3009?

At first glance these numbers might seem so unimaginably distant, but if we really reflect on them, they do reveal how short-term we are in our thinking. Indeed, it’s difficult enough to act upon the degradation of our physical environment for the sake of the next generation, let alone
for the next thirty. Clearly, we’re no better at planning for the distant future as we are remembering the distant past.

I want to revisit something I wrote about at length earlier this year – the massive row over the issue of Chin Peng’s request to return – because recently a couple of events have occurred which highlight how curious our little banter was. The first was the prosecution of one Josef Scheungraber, a 90-year-old German who on (rather flimsy) evidence was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of 10 Italians in World War II. The second was the death of Harry Patch, the last British survivor of the World War I trenches, whose death was marked in all the newspapers and generated genuine public discussion. Although the two events were opposite to each other in the emotions assigned towards the individuals, the point is that there was in their respective countries a public consciousness of what they represented.

It’s envious, isn’t it, when a country can enjoy such consensus over a shared narrative: it enables shared responses. And when new immigrants reach their shores, they are taught to embrace this shared history: that’s what citizenship building and inculcating patriotism is about (but it’s not, I hasten to add, something that necessarily must be taught by the agents of government, because the private sector is perfectly capable of being patriotic too).

But, as I have belaboured numerous times on these pages, we aren’t at that stage. That is why, instead of talking in terms of centuries, we have to talk in terms of months, and why, instead of talking about long-term policy issues, many of our politicians continue to be mired in myopia, whether by waiting to seize the next opportunity to kindle division along racial or religious lines, or by preparing condemnations of the party opposite based on the feeblest of allegations, or by threatening to swap sides at the prospect of easy rewards rather than after agonising internal contemplation of personal ideology. In other words, short-sightedness is contributing directly to the vicious volatility of Malaysian politics.

When I first started my column in this newspaper I expressed hope that a clear majority of politicians would reject dogged party political conflicts and instead debate on the policy issues, borne out of a realisation that that is what the Malaysian people wanted. Not only has that been a little optimistic, but I now see that it’s non-observance is not contained to the professional political class. There is evidently a widespread desire to pigeonhole commentators into certain camps, and just as there are still Malaysians who insist on knowing one’s race before further communication with them, there are also those who insist on knowing whether someone is "pro-government" or "pro-opposition" so that further contact with the individual in question can be tailored accordingly. Sometimes the most infinitesimal criticism of a badly thought out idea emanating from either side will result in the most vicious of condemnations springing from the assumption that you must, therefore, be rooting for the other side; the possibility of constructive criticism is automatically jettisoned in such circumstances.

But in my very post-Merdeka eyes, the necessity of Aug 31, 1957 was based on issues: the need for independence, for reform, for constitutional monarchy, for freedom, for democracy, coming together on a single day: one in a string of glorious dates spun from a bewildering array of yarns, coming together and weaving into a songket that we can all wear with equal pride, one that will only get richer with the passage of the centuries. That’s the living fabric with which I want to celebrate this Merdeka.

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is Founder President of the Malaysia Think Tank.