Monday, August 3, 2009

Politics of Empathy


"POLITICS OF EMPATHY"


SPEECH BY SAUDARA KHAIRY JAMALUDDIN
MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT, REMBAU AND UMNO YOUTH LEADER
AT THE BANKERS’ CLUB BUSINESS FORUM
22TH FLOOR, PENTHOUSE, AMODA, JLN IMBI, KUALA LUMPUR
ON 16 JUNE 2009, AT 12.30 PM


YBhg. Dato’ Abdul Rahim Rahman
Board of Governor (BOG) of the Bankers Club – Introducer
YBhg. Dato’ Nik Mohamed Din (BOG)
Board of Governor (BOG) of the Bankers Club
YBhg. Dato’ S. Kulasegaran (BOG)
Board of Governor (BOG) of the Bankers Club
Mr. Michael Dearman
General Manager of the Bankers Club
Excellencies and Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am honoured to be speaking at The Bankers Club, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur; with some of the best of Corporate Malaysia as my audience. For over 20 years, this Club has served as an important venue for social leaders to congregate, for the purposes of business or leisure. To be a member of this Club is to be a successful and privileged member of society – a marker that one has arrived. Most importantly, it also signifies one’s position to be able to inspire others; and the Malaysian story is at a juncture where inspirational ideas and inspirational figures may decide if it takes a path towards fulfilling the promise so apparent during different points in our journey.
And in a nutshell, inspiration is what 1Malaysia hopes to achieve. I won’t stand here today to offer a lengthy and descriptive take on what 1Malaysia means conceptually, lest I fuel the debate about the supposedly elusive definition of the term, except to say this: Perhaps some level of personalisation of the concept isn’t all that bad – 1Malaysia, as a state of mind, can mean slightly different things to different people, without us having to fear that it wouldn’t work, or that social foundations will crumble. I am much more interested to speak about the context under which, and the reason why, 1Malaysia is gaining traction, even if its precise trajectory is yet uncertain, and for us to take hold of.

And the context, ladies and gentlemen, is that of change and more importantly, the struggle to dominate the space of change. As an avid student of history I have always understood Malaysia as a land of contestations – a land where different visions of the country were, and continue to be, played out in the battleground of ideas, charting the course of history. Malaysia’s diversity lends itself to these different narratives. Malaysia’s diversity has encouraged the charting of different paths with different signposts. We have been serenaded by ideologies and thoughts that appeal to our ethnicity, our religion, our income, and all the different things that make us different.

But beneath grand political visions made glorious by the soundbite culture of our time, lies the true battle that needs resolving – the question of identity. The question of who we are is at the core of our national conversation. It defines and dictates our politics. It forces us to confront gray areas where there sometimes isn’t a right answer. Why does one young Malaysian get a scholarship to go to university and another with the same grades doesn’t? How do we bury the remains of one of our citizens who has converted to another religion without telling his family? These are some of the tough calls at the centre of our crisis of identity.

And to resolve this requires nothing less than a new political language, a new political approach, a new politics within the overarching and loose framework of 1Malaysia. I call this new politics the politics of empathy, which has immense potential to inspire and rally all Malaysians through a new narrative of mutual understanding, appreciation and respect. This is the change I am promoting.

As a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, we have for far too long, failed to properly address this identity impasse. Specifically, the reconciliation of ethno-religious identities with the national character that all Malaysians share hasn’t been pursued with adequate vigour. In articulating our ideas for Malaysia’s future, many ascribe ourselves either an ethno-centric perspective, or relegate ethnicity to the sphere of irrelevance, often for political expediency. We either pursue a narrative that divides us by our faiths and culture or appeal to a notion that our respective heritage is not important and we must create something confusing like a Malaysians Malaysia.
The trouble with such tendencies is this: not only does either extreme result in an inaccurate picture of our society at its present; it surely cannot be the way forward if we are to find the equipoise that has eluded us thus far.

For non-Bumiputra citizens, this country is the only one they know, and the only one they wish to call home. The politics of empathy means that Malays and Bumiputras must understand the gravity of perceived second-class treatment amongst the non-Bumiputra community. Having to go against a public system that one believes, rightly or otherwise, is quasi-exclusively pro-Malay/Muslim can only yield hurt and exasperation – if this feeling is left ignored, or worse, ridiculed, then at some point members of some communities will ask the painful question, do I really fit in this country that I love?

But if the politics of empathy is to work for all, those same groups who may harbour discontent must also appreciate the collective consciousness of the Malay community in which exists a sense of heritage and identification with the origins of this country’s civilisation and the pivotal role that the Malay culture and system of governance played in it. This feeling towards and appreciation of the origins of this nation, the sense that while this nation is for all Malaysians but has its roots firmly within the Malay community, the sense of sacrifice that this community still feels for agreeing to create a nation where everyone could belong and call this land our home, is not something that exists only in the imagination of UMNO leaders and Utusan Malaysia readers. It is a collective Malay feeling that may never dissipate, not even with the passage of time.

There is no disputing that these facts are pertinently clear in the public sphere. The problem however, is that they are clear only within enclosed communal conversations and perspectives – almost as though there is one reality for a group and one for another. The ethnic Chinese in Bangsar who demands absolute meritocracy in admissions into public universities seldom properly appreciates that there is an ethnic Iban in the interiory of Sarawak who may justifiably require some form of hand-up to enter university, leaving behind the longhouse and proud parents who never had a taste of formal education. The ethnic Malay who prescribes sacrosanct status to the 30-percent rule does not always do so with constant awareness that there are many ethnic Indians living in poverty, Malaysian-Indians who feel they haven’t been given a fair go at the pie. In the absence of empathy and a national dialogue encompassing a broad perspective for all Malaysians, it is little wonder each group seems to know only of its own grievances.

As one, I must admit that politicians and political commentators are sometimes not helpful in bringing about this new politics of empathy. Politicians from both sides of the aisle have spent entire careers mastering the art of selective fact-presentation, tragically designed to win only a section of the people and leave out the rest. The same day one may fall back on the race card to boost popularity within his own party, another laments why we have so few non-Malay
Headmasters whilst conveniently disregarding the perceived exclusion of ethnic Malays in the private sector. Needless to say, this goes against the agenda of promoting an empathetic society: to see things not as they are according to you, but as they are according to others.

I therefore cannot overstate how strongly I feel about the need to change how we conduct politics, to do away with poisonous and unhealthy segmentation and replacing it with a philosophy of inclusion, a starting point from which a national conversation grounded on compassion can ensue over important policy matters that shape our collective future. Out of this honest conversation, may develop a new national consciousness; a thumping reaffirmation of what we already know in our better moments; that Malaysia will never achieve its potential without all elements working in tandem; that we cannot be all we can be without all of us. That this country is not for any one group to monopolise and dominate – in whatever field – but for all to prosper; Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan, Eurasians, Sikhs, Dayak, Murut and all the proud different people that make up Malaysia. Let us not forget, the quintessential Malaysian experience is derived from the contributions of all the different communities in this country. And let us not ignore that the only future that we can have, the only future that will ensure that this ideal that is Malaysia survives, is one in which we value each and every one of us. It’s a Malaysia where no group is left behind, where meritocracy is as important as social justice and compassion, where the poor and the rich are not identified by certain ethnic groups. It is a Malaysia where we if one of us falls, all of us picks him up. This is the only way we’re going to make this ideal work.

Our task is daunting; for it to work, the politics of empathy must permeate all spheres of our institutions and breathe in the cultural psyche of ordinary Malaysians. As with any such new way of thought, dynamic leaders are important as vehicles for the message to take hold. I speak of a moderate leader as someone who can confront the many forces that pull our country in sometimes differing directions and hold them all together to produce Malaysia’s ‘Third Way’, instead of one who stubbornly ignores realities that may contradict his ideology, singing away to his choir. I am reminded of the words of Shakespeare, “They are sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing”.

I believe moderates understand the complexities of the younger generation today. By and large this generation want a more progressive Malaysia, but it is still not completely disengaged from cultural and communal backgrounds or sensitivities, either. These ironies are visible in simple, everyday observations. The same voices who call for an end to racial profiling in the name of national unity aren’t ready to let go of vernacular schools that teach students in their mother tongues instead of the national language. It is not moderate to exploit these paradoxes to create instability by engaging in an old exclusivist politics to gain mileage on the cheap. Instead, moderates need to argue that progress must happen within the hardened realities of today, and not through a juggernaut of change shoved down Malaysians’ throats, workable or not. True and positive change cannot just serve the interests of some, it must work for all.

Again I must say, resisting the temptation of pandering to any one extreme is a monumental test; it is much simpler to score political points operating from a clear side. And contrary to popular belief, standing up against the establishment and shouting revolution or “Reformasi” isn’t the most difficult position to take in Malaysian politics. Instead, it is the moderates that have it the toughest, partly because if you don’t play it right, you may end up pleasing nobody. But our country demands for leaders to make that sacrifice; it is hungry for those who can step up to the plate and advocate change, whilst firmly placing it on a continuum of past Malaysian struggles – appreciating and internalising the contributions of our past leaders; from the fight for Independence by Tunku Abdul Rahman to Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s bold steps towards greater democratic space. Granted, these men, and the decisions they made weren’t perfect, but today calls for leaders who understand that whilst change is necessary, it does not entail a rupture from the past – ripping away at the social fabric, sensitivities, institutions and the recipe that has served us relatively well for 50-odd years.

The scale of this task requires moderate leaders to be steadfast in holding their ground. Moderation does not mean we water down our positions or settle for the easy compromise – too many potentially great leaders have fallen short this way. In facing our great challenges of the day, the catchy old saying, “Everything in moderation, including moderation” rings true. Oxymoronic as it may sound, to ensure that moderate politics contests and dominate our political and social consciousnesses, leaders must be hardline and dynamic moderates, able to tread the thin line between the deceptive comforts of conservatism and the dangerous lure of unbridled transformation, and do so with dogged conviction.

Nothing less than our long term political stability rests on the radical centre – the unifying paradigm – gaining a strong foothold in the system. Radicalism needn’t be reserved for extreme ideas confined to the fringes of society, but can be applied in crafting the middle-ground to make it a viable alternative to the politics of either/or. Our stability depends on the radical centre because if and when the old cleavages threaten to implode, a strong centre will hold. If and when things fall apart, or are being torn apart at the edges, the centre must hold and pick up the pieces.

From a strictly party-political perspective too, this battle for the centre stands out as the one that will decide who gains the trust of the electorate in the foreseeable future. Securing the centre ground is the name of the game. A year ago, many would have thought that the Opposition bloc had this contest in the bag – ushering a new era of hope, latching on the bandwagon of a rhetoric-laced brand of change to stunning electoral effect. Many wrote off Barisan Nasional – they continue to do – saying it is now rendered irrelevant with Pakatan’s imposing arrival on the scene. But seeing the tone set by Pakatan Rakyat and the internal bickering about where exactly the unofficial coalition of convenience stands, I’m not convinced there isn’t a space there still to be won using the BN formula. Quite the opposite, I believe that with discipline and guidance of the new leadership under Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Mohd. Najib Tun Razak, Barisan Nasional can rebrand and populate the centre of Malaysian politics where it rightfully belongs.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This new politics of empathy located in the centre of the Malaysian political spectrum can help in solving the identity impasse that has been a stumbling block towards greater progress. To resolve the question of identity is to finally embrace the idea that one can be ethnic Malay and Malaysian, ethnic Chinese and Malaysian, or ethnic Indian and Malaysian– it is never a matter of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Once we start trying to see things as they are from the perspective of others, and operationalise realistic change mindful of context, Malaysians will see that our differences and interests, even those along communal lines, criss-cross one another – it is not a zero sum game. Let us not forget the promise of this nation’s unwritten foundation: unity in diversity; out of many histories, one future.

Ultimately, a return to a more stable political equilibrium will spell good news for Malaysia’s economy in a time of great crises. The new narrative that 1Malaysia allows for carries the hope that we can halt the constant politicking and harping on discontent, not by pretending they do not exist, but by mutual engagement and empathy as a pre-requisite to genuine harmony. This will grant us the opportunity to collectively work on the things that really matter to our country’s long-term survival and competitiveness.

We can take heart however, in the fact that glimpses of that empathy and genuine concern for one another are found throughout this land. In my political travels over the past decade, I have witnessed incredible stories of kindness between races. In one such instance, I know of a Malay man in a northern state, confined to a wheelchair by illness, receiving weekly visits from his Indian friend who comes just to spend moments together and assist with basic necessities. And in the eyes of our children we can see the hope of a more harmonious tomorrow – where joyful experiences in times of youthful innocence are shared with friends from different backgrounds, without sacrificing one’s own unique cultural heritage. There is a foundation for us to work on. In these stories of hope and compassion, the promise of Malaysia is well and truly alive.

Ladies and gentlemen,

his country has had its failings in the past, but in just over half a decade of Independence it has offered us ample opportunities to succeed and build lives within a peaceful backdrop of stability. With old mores and traditions now challenged by internal and exogenous factors, we must remain calm and reflective of the kind of future we want. In our intense and sometimes surprising journey to the present crossroads, let us not lose sight of the fact that when it’s all said and done, this is about building a better tomorrow for our children. How we choose to navigate our way from this juncture – in terms of politics and how we view each other in society – will determine if we do right by both our past and our future.

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