The proposed Better Malaysia Assembly is the first step in a much-needed comprehensive national reset
[On 29 October 2021, I sent a letter to HRH the YDPA on behalf of 55 illustrious Malaysians of diverse backgrounds to propose the formation of a Better Malaysia Assembly (BMA). The letter is reproduced here, in full.]
Duli Yang Maha Mulia Seri Paduka Baginda Yang di-Pertuan Agong XVI,
Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah Ibni
Almarhum Sultan Ahmad Shah Al–Musta’in Billah.
Yang Di-Pertuan Agong
Adapun warkah al-ikhlas ini dipersembahkan dengan penuh hormat dan takzimnya serta iringan doa kehadrat Allah Subhanahu Wataala mudah-mudahan KDYMM Seri Paduka Baginda Tuanku dan Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Seri Paduka Baginda Raja Permaisuri Agong Tunku Hajah Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah binti Almarhum Al-Mutawakkil Alallah Sultan Iskandar Al-Haj serta seluruh kerabat Duli Tuanku berada dalam selamat dan sejahteranya.
DYMM Yang Di-Pertuan Agong,
May it please Your Majesty, we, the undersigned, write to propose the formation of a deliberative platform under the auspices of the Conference of Rulers to deliberate and recommend systemic reforms towards a better Malaysia: one that is politically more democratic and stable; economically more dynamic and conditioned to face pressing challenges such the 4th Industrial Revolution and climate change; and socially more just and aligned with our original aspirations of becoming a nation of Malaysians. We propose that such a platform be named the “Better Malaysia Assembly”.
The NCC of 1970: time for a new reset
Our prevailing system remains essentially the one designed in the early 1970’s, following deliberations by the National Consultative Council (NCC). Reforms such as amendments to the Sedition Act and affirmative action were innovative ways to cater to the needs of the nation at that time. But these reforms were not designed to last indefinitely, and, in the case of the New Economic Policy (NEP), a 20-year term limit was set. This national reset took place over 50 years ago, and even though so much has changed for Malaysia and Malaysians, the system remains substantially in place.
In its early years, the new system was largely successful, bringing much needed political stability, accelerating economic growth, reducing poverty and rebalancing wealth between communities. But the system also had negative side effects, namely heightened corruption, the hardening of identity politics and concentration of power, which grew in prominence as the system was prolonged. These negative side effects feed on to each other and are at the heart of Malaysia’s systemic dysfunctions today. Furthermore, the system grew resistant to reforms: the Abdullah Badawi, Najib and second Mahathir administrations all began with promises of substantial reforms, but failed to achieve material change. In many instances, piecemeal reform proposals were quickly given racial or religious overtones by vested interests and effectively resisted.
Deliberative platforms: the way forward
The evolution of democracy is particularly challenging in plural societies in which identity, more than anything else, determines political allegiances. Progressive reforms are often hampered by debates over which community benefits and which one loses. We also witness increasing frustration with representative democracy for failing to address major structural issues, mainly because parliamentarians tend to prioritize the short-term interests of political parties and their own re-election. There has concomitantly been a global trend of establishing deliberative platforms to deal with complex structural issues. In a recent survey, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found 289 such platforms across the world working in tandem with established institutions and existing democratic processes. These platforms are typically dominated by intellectuals and randomly selected citizens, and thus are generally devoid of political grandstanding, and focused on the nation’s long-term best interest. Research has shown that these settings enhance consensus building: people with opposing views are more inclined to look for common ground, and those with conflicting interests look for compromise solutions. In the Malaysian context, we are more likely to find solutions to contentious issues such as the future of affirmative action and vernacular schools, when these issues are discussed outside the arena of partisan politics, and are considered together rather than in isolation. Indeed, this approach enabled us to successfully rebuild this nation after the May 1969 crisis.
The Covid-19 crisis
Malaysia entered the 2020 pandemic crisis with pre-existing conditions and symptoms: endemic corruption, political instability, slow economic growth, high talent outflow and persistent inter-communal tensions. According to official national data, Malaysians suffered more from Covid-19 in both healthcare and economic terms than did their counterparts in most nations. The NCC was set up in 1970 in response to the crisis of May 13th; yet the Covid-19 crisis of 2020-21 has resulted in substantially more damage to the lives and livelihoods of the rakyat. Was this largely the result of a failure of leadership or the system? Since the 1990s, many administrations have tried but failed to reform the system, and more recently we have had 4 different Prime Ministers in just 4 years: it is difficult not to conclude that our current system is no longer fit for purpose.
A national reset
We have the utmost respect for the efforts of Your Majesty and the Conference of Rulers to encourage our politicians to prioritize the pandemic and recovery efforts. We also wholeheartedly welcome the recent initiative, the “Memorandum of Understanding on Political Stability and Transformation” (MOU), to bring near term political certainty and democratic reform. Nevertheless, the scale of our systemic problems requires far more wide-reaching reforms that are unlikely to come from our existing political processes. Indeed, the reforms listed in the MOU will not address the major root causes of our systemic problems. For instance, endemic corruption is derived from political funding and the nexus between business, politicians, political parties and an economically active state. In order to stem corruption, we would need a reconfiguration of all those parts of the system, their linkages, and develop truly independent institutional oversight.
The Better Malaysia Assembly
The proposed Better Malaysia Assembly is the first step in a much-needed comprehensive national reset. It would focus on:
- a reaffirmation of the principles of Malaysian nationhood and our implicit social contracts
- deliberations and recommendations on how our democracy, institutions and economy should function, including but not limited to issues of electoral system, political funding, federal-state relations, role of institutions, affirmative action and education
- identifying the specific policy and legislative changes required
The recommended reforms will be arrived at after closed-door deliberations and through consensus by the assembly members, who would comprise non-partisan thought leaders and representatives of various social segments and stakeholders. We estimate the deliberations to take between 18-24 months. The recommendations of the Better Malaysia Assembly would be submitted to Parliament for consideration and debate and a Parliamentary vote, and Parliament’s decision would then be subject to the endorsement of Your Majesty. This process will not undermine but instead, enhance our democracy.
Malaysia has in the past seen a number of councils to deliberate various issues, including the NEP, vernacular schools, institutional reforms and national unity. However, members were selected by and reported to the Executive Branch, and there was no compulsion for the recommendations to be followed through. For the Better Malaysia Assembly, aside from tabling recommendations directly to Parliament, we propose that its composition be decided based on a pre-agreed balanced representation of groups via a process involving the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the most respected civil society leaders. Any deadlock over the selection of members will be presented to the Conference of Rulers for its final decision. The Better Malaysia Assembly should also seek to leverage on technology to engage the public in unprecedented ways, in order to enhance the quality of its deliberations and sense of national inclusivity.
Malaysia is at a crossroads and time is of the essence. Technological and industrial transformations are creating conditions in which countries either leapfrog more advanced ones or fall by the wayside. Success belongs to those who seize the initiative, first and foremost by ensuring domestic socio-political strength and economic dynamism. Malaysia cannot hope to compete without a comprehensive national reset.
We respectfully submit to Your Majesty and the Conference of Rulers to endorse the formation of the Better Malaysia Assembly. We would then seek to work with the government, the opposition and key NGOs on the details and processes.
We remain your most humble and dedicated citizens and our representatives would be honored to have the opportunity to present this proposal in person to Your Majesty and the Conference of Rulers.
DYMM Yang Di-Pertuan Agong,
Demikianlah warkah yang tidak sepertinya ini yang teriring dengan maksud dan tujuannya serta iringan doa ke hadrat Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala mudah-mudahan KDYMM Seri Paduka Baginda Tuanku berdua, Putera- putera, Puteri-puteri dan seluruh kerabat sentiasa berada dalam lindungan dan rahmat Allah S.W.T., dilanjutkan usia zaman dan sentiasa berada dalam sihat walafiat selama-lamanya.
Patik dengan segala hormat dan takzimnya.
Nazir Razak (on behalf of the following signatories, in alphabetical order)
1. Tan Sri Abdul Ghani Othman, former Menteri Besar of Johor
2. Emeritus Professor Dato’ Dr. Abdul Rahman Embong, Former Principal Fellow IKMAS, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)
3. Tan Sri Abu Zahar Ujang, Chairman, Advisory Board, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC)
4. Professor Dato’ Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman, Professor of Medicine, University Malaya (UM)
5. Afzal Abdul Rahim, CEO, Time Dotcom
6. Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, former Chairperson, Bersih 2.0
7. Tan Sri Andrew Sheng, Chairman, George Town Institute of Open and Advanced Studies
8. Datuk Dr. Anis Yusal Yusoff, former President & CEO, Malaysian Institute of Integrity (INTEGRITI)
9. Tun Arshad Ayub, former Director, Institut Teknologi Mara (now UiTM)
10. Brigedier Jeneral Dato’ Mohd Arshad bin Mohd Raji (retired), Presiden, Persatuan Patriot Kebangsaan (PATRIOT)
11. Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, former Managing Director, Khazanah Nasional
12. Badlishah Sham Bahrin, Timbalan Presiden, Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia
13. Ng Choo Seong, General Secretary, Association of Bank Officers
14. Christopher Leong, Managing Partner, Chooi & Company + Cheang & Ariff
15. Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, former Managing Director of The Star
16. Tan Sri Effendi Norwawi, former Minister in Prime Minister’s Department
17. Muhammad Faisal Abdul Aziz, Presiden Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia
18. Tan Sri Hamid Bugo, former Sarawak State Secretary
19. Tun Mohammed Hanif Omar, former Inspector-General of Police
20. Harith Iskander, Actor/ Founder, The Hope Branch
21. Datuk Dr. Hartini Zainuddin, Co-Founder, Yayasan Chow Kit
22. Datuk Seri Panglima Haji Hashim Bin Paijan, former Sabah State Secretary
23. Dato’ Husamuddin Yaacub, Managing Director, Karangkraf
24. Ibrahim Suffian, Co-Founder, Merdeka Centre
25. Dato’ Sri Idris Jala, former Minister in Prime Minister’s Department
26. Joseph Solomon, General Secretary National Union of Bank Employees
27. Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Executive Director, Sunway Centre for Planetary Health
28. Tan Sri Johan Jaafar, former Group Chief Editor, Utusan Melayu
29. Tan Sri Dr. Kamal Salih, former Chairman, MIER
30. Tan Sri Kamaluddin Abdullah Badawi, Executive Deputy Chairman, ENRA Group
31. Dr. Kamilin Jamilin, Ahli Majlis Fatwa Wilayah Persekutuan & Perlis
32. Datuk Tong Kooi Ong, Chairman, The Edge Media Group
33. Lilianne Fan, Co-founder, Geutanyoe Foundation
34. Dr Munirah Syed Hussein Alatas, Senior Lecturer, UKM
35. Tun Musa Hitam, former Deputy Prime Minister
36. Nadhir Ashafiq, Co-Founder, TheLorry.com
37. Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak, Chairman, Ikhlas Capital
38. Dr Nungsari Ahmad Radhi, Economist
39. Nur Qyira Yusri, Co-Founder, UNDI 18
40. Datuk Ruben Gnanalingam, CEO, Westports
41. Tan Sri Sheikh Ghazali Abdul Rahman, former Ketua Pengarah/ Ketua Hakim Syarie, Jabatan Kehakiman Syariah Malaysia (JKSM)
42. Tan Sri Sheriff Kassim, former Secretary General Ministry of Finance
43. Chow Sing Yau, Chairman, Chinese Research Centre
44. Tan Sri Sufri Mohd Zin, President, Master Builders Association
45. Tan Sri Dr. Sulaiman Mahbob, Chairman, MIER
46. Dr Khor Swee Kheng, Associate Fellow, Chatham House
47. Tawfik Tun Dr Ismail, Founder, Malaysia First
48. Tan Tai Kim, Chairman, United Chinese School Committees’ Association of Malaysia (Dong Zong)
49. Datuk Tan Yew Sing, President, Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce
50. Tharma Pillai, Co-Founder, UNDI 18
51. Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, CEO, Air Asia
52. Tricia Yeoh Su-Wern, CEO, IDEAS
53. Vinesh Sinha, CEO, FatHopes Energy
54. Datuk Amar Wilson Baya Dandot, former Sarawak State Secretary
55. Tan Sri Yong Poh Kon, Managing Director Royal Selangor