Diversity is a defining trait of the Malaysian nation. We stand to gain the most if we make diversity work in our favour, if our society is inclusive and collaborative across borders of identity.
Assalamualaikum wrbt. Thank you for allowing me the privilege of speaking at this important event. I must confess that when Saudara Faisal Aziz telephoned and asked me to be a part of this event, I was more than a little surprised; I knew little about ABIM beyond the reputation of some of its more famous past leaders. But when he said it was to celebrate ABIM’s new "Cosmopolitan Islam" narrative, I agreed instantly. I had read an earlier copy of Faisal’s paper, and it not only resonated with me but also conceptually aligns with my current research work entitled "Making a Better Malaysia".
I also see ABIM's agenda of a "Bangsa Malaysia" underpinned by Cosmopolitan Islam as a move to return to the origin of the path or "balik ke pangkal jalan". To the kind of Malaysia that our founders, the likes of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Dr. Ismail, Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun Sambanthan, imagined as they negotiated Merdeka and set out to build a new nation.
Before I shed light on these perspectives, allow me to introduce myself briefly, as some of you may not be familiar with my background. I had a 29-year career (1989-2018) at CIMB Group of which 15 years was as CEO and the final 4 years as Chairman. In 2019, I was a Visiting Fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, where I focused on Nationhood Recalibration, looking at preconditions for systemic reforms including those for Indonesia post Asian financial crisis and Malaysia post-May 13 1969. More recently, I have been collaborating with Datuk Dr. Anis Yusal Yusoff of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, on a research initiative to envision what a Better Malaysia could look like in its governance, policies, and social fabric. We expect to be able to share our findings publicly soon.
A former banker and part-time socio-political activist cannot claim to be even remotely scholarly on Islam even though in 2010, I spent a year as a visiting fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. What I can credibly say though is that I have always believed strongly that Islam is a religion of tolerance, justice and equality. That while we, as Muslims, are subservient to a higher power, we should not treat those who believe otherwise differently. Cosmopolitan Islam is a compelling narrative that is consistent with how I was taught Islam in my childhood, at home and at school.
Many of the thoughts among academicians highlighted by Saudara Faisal on Cosmopolitan Islam stood out for me. Prof Dr Syed Khairuddin Al-Junied wrote-
“Internalising Muslim cosmopolitanism enables a person to be at ease with his or her own Islamic cultural identities, promoting these identities as a means to enrich public understanding about Islam and Muslims while maintaining and embracing a tolerant attitude towards people of other background"
Diversity is a defining trait of the Malaysian nation. By definition then, we stand to gain the most if we make diversity work in our favour, if our society is inclusive and collaborative across borders of identity. I tried very hard to reflect that during my time in CIMB; to foster a diverse workforce, different races, age group, gender, and religion I often intervened to make diversity work: I would remind staff that integration means we must go against what comes naturally, to resist our most tribal instinct to just like the similar and familiar. We created an environment rich in ideas and talent – I believe it was the driving force behind CIMB's expansion within Malaysia and other ASEAN countries. CIMB was a mini Bangsa Malaysia, and I was proud of the joke that CIMB stood for "Chinese, Indian, Malay Bank".
Allahyarham Tunku Abdul Rahman famously said:
"We are all Malaysians. This is the bond that unites us. Let us always remember that unity is our fundamental strength as a people and a nation".
Our founding fathers saw Bangsa Malaysia as the future of the new nation. A future for us to march towards. It was never going to be easy and when we tripped up, like we did in 1969, they instituted reforms and new policies but they never deviated from that agenda. Many people today regard the affirmative action policies of the New Economic Policy as divisive, but that would be ignoring its two-prong approach and rationale: The first to eradicate poverty for all regardless of race, and the second, to correct the economic imbalance among races in order to create the foundations of national unity. The NEP was about trying to accelerate integration.
The NEP was introduced in response to the breakdown of the original post-colonial system, together with the Rukun Negara, amendments to the Sedition Act and the formation of the Grand Coalition for government or Barisan Nasional. The Rukun Negara was a further demonstration that multiculturalism was to remain the foundation of the nation; it is worth reminding ourselves of its preamble:
- Mencapai perpaduan yang lebih erat dalam kalangan seluruh masyarakatnya;
- Mencipta satu masyarakat yang adil di mana kemakmuran negara akan dapat dinikmati secara adil dan saksama;
- Menjamin satu cara liberal terhadap tradisi-tradisi kebudayaannya yang kaya dan berbagai corak;
- Kepercayaan kepada Tuhan – which respects an individual's freedom of religion.
The post-1969 system saw success in eradicating poverty and improving bumiputera ownership and participation in the economy. However, there were unintended side-effects to the policy which overwhelmed its benefits as the NEP was prolonged beyond its original 20-year time frame. One could say that the NEP is an oxymoron- it amplified a system of discrimination which it was designed to pre-emptively resolve.
The extensive state intervention in the economy under the guise of the NEP combined with intensification of intra Malay political competition in the mid-1980’s gave rise to what I have referred to as the 3-headed monster; identity politics, money politics, and power concentration. The beast chews up even the most innovative ideas and genuine reform initiatives. Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s incredibly farsighted Multimedia Super Corridor became not much more than a real estate project and Dato’ Sri Najib Razak’s New Economic Model gathers dust on the shelf.
Our “Making a Better Malaysia” Project is all about why we must slay this 3-headed monster and how. Our conclusion will be that the country needs to completely reset and that we should set up another deliberative platform like the national consultative council that deliberated and endorsed the post 1969 system reset. The scale of our problems today and the persistent failure by successive governments of different parties to recalibrate the system is testament to this imperative.
As history has shown inter-communal tensions get easily inflamed when religion is brought into the mix. In a country where being Malay is synonymous with being Muslim, religion inadvertently becomes a political tool too, to add to the sense of "othering" between the Malays and Non-Malays. It is thus incumbent on right-minded Malaysians to avoid religion being abused to divide us.
I am glad that ABIM has decided to overtly take on this challenge. This is definitely the harder road. It would be much easier to gain popularity by encouraging tribalism and exclusion, to pitch the case for leadership by squaring up against others.
Beyond this noble cause, I am hopeful that ABIM will be able to collaborate with “Making a Better Malaysia” and others that are striving in the same vein. Cosmopolitan Islam a powerful narrative that can underpin Bangsa Malaysia, and a Bangsa Malaysia, that our founders envisaged should be at the forefront of the mission of the new NCC that we desperately need. I fear that if we do not reset, we will continue to have subpar economic growth, dysfunctional politics and divided communities. The state of the nation demands that we strive for discontinuity and system reset.
I thank you all for your time listening to my humble sharing. I hope what I have outlined here today is helpful and moves the needle for a more tolerant Malaysia. I am confident that many more Muslims like me, see Islam for the peaceful religion that it is. If more of us come together and amplify that message, I believe it would be potent. We should not lose that narrative to those who use Islam for their selfish gain.
As I come to the end of my speech; with Bismillahi rahmanir Rahim, I hereby officiate the Sidang Kemuncak Bangsa Malaysia 2021 and pleased to launch the book titled "Kosmopolitan Islam & Pembinaan Bangsa Malaysia" by Faisal Aziz. My heartiest congratulations to ABIM and Faisal on your latest publication.
Thank you and Assalamualaikum wrbt.