March 17, 2016
Building a Better Malaysia–The Adenan Satem Way
by Zainah Anwar
IS Tan Sri Adenan Satem for real? That’s a common question many in Peninsular Malaysia are asking.
For me, this question really reflects how far Malaysia has gone astray from the ideals of nationhood that our founding fathers had envisioned to enable this multiethnic country to survive and thrive.
That vision of sharing the nation equitably amongst all ethnic groups remains valid and more critical than ever today. And yet none of our national leaders are enunciating it with such clarity, consistency, and urgency as Adenan.
And no other political leader in office today calls a spade a spade like Adenan does and uses straight forward common sense logic and practicality to explain and justify contested policies.
It is that uncommon in the Malaysian political landscape today that when someone like Adenan comes along, we pinch ourselves and ask if he is for real.
He recently promised to reform all laws that discriminate against women, urging women to be assertive and to champion their rights.
“If we say we want freedom, it’s freedom for everybody, not just men,” he said plainly at a Barisan Nasional Wanita dinner last week.
He is clear and courageous in pushing for a progressive Islam, criticising bigots and extremists, “narrow-minded ustaz” who want to play God, fatwas that have been turned into law when they are just opinions, and the PAS push for hudud law – clearly seeing the party as extremist.
He has publicly supported the work of Sisters in Islam, in spite of the attacks against the group by some federal leaders, religious authorities, and Selangor fatwa calling the group deviant. He has no time for the likes of Ibrahim Ali and Ridhuan Tee, banning them from his state for promoting bigotry, racism, and extremism.
He announced English will be an official language in Sarawak together with Bahasa Malaysia, for the simple reason it is the dominant global language and if our citizens wanted to thrive, they needed English.
And to be sure, he reminded his critics, Sarawak, unlike Sabah, never gave up its right to use English as a national language when it signed the Federation of Malaysia agreement in 1963.
And to rub it in, he declared past education policies a failure for ignoring the importance of English, and producing thousands of unemployable graduates who could not string a proper sentence in English. He labelled the Federal government policy on English, well, stupid.
He upended federal policy of not recognising the Chinese school’s Unified Examinations Syndicate (UEC) standardised examination which is recognised by many universities worldwide, including in the West. He used the “stupid” word again as he felt it was senseless to allow for a brain drain of smart students who move to other countries that recognise the UEC.
In this age of fear and loathing in politics, he is a breath of fresh air. Someone who talks sense, says and, I hope more often than not, does the right thing. He makes, yes, liberal pronouncements! And upholds diversity and pluralism! He eschews the politics of race and religion rampant in the peninsula.
And he is popular. So why are our leaders over in the Peninsula so scared of doing the right thing? Adenan’s approval rating has soared to 85.5% in Sarawak as he prepares for the upcoming state elections. And even among the Chinese, it is at 64%. He should be the envy of other politicians.
If he can get it right, why can’t the peninsula leaders? Why can’t they show similar courage and principles?
He continues to this day, two years after taking office as Chief Minister of Sarawak, to make progressive pronouncements on a range of contentious issues that other federal and state Barisan Nasional leaders have been timid about, and worse still, supporting hardline views that divide the nation.
He seethes at federal policy of labelling the various Dayak ethnic groups under the category of lain-lain and he calls for a stop to calling the Chinese who have been in Malaysia for generations pendatang. Diversity is to be appreciated, he says as God created us differently for us to know each other. Diversity is wealth. And rightly, he says, we need to more than tolerate each other, but to respect each other for our different beliefs and cultures.
All these are music to the ears of much of the electorate in Sarawak and to many of us in Peninsular Malaysia. And yet, some peninsular politicians and right wing groups are castigating him. But in typical Adenan style, he declared he didn’t care as he was doing what was best for Sarawak.
He is in fact articulating the vision of Rukunegara, that neglected national ideology proclaimed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong at the launch of Merdeka Day celebrations in 1970. A rich set of principles, objectives and outcomes to rebuild the nation after the ethnic riots of May 13, now forgotten and betrayed.
The Rukunegara document is filled with language that civil society is fighting for today in Malaysia – maintaining a democratic way of life; creating a just society; ensuring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions; building a progressive society; justice founded upon the rule of law with every citizen equal before the law; fundamental liberties guaranteed to all citizens; individuals and groups to conduct their affairs in such a manner as not to violate any of the accepted canons of behaviour which is arrogant or offensive to the sensitivities of any other group; no citizen to question the loyalty of another citizen on the ground that he belongs to a particular community.
“These ends and these principles, acceptable to all and applicable to all, will serve as the nexus which will bind us together,” said the Malaysian Government document on the aspirations of the Rukunegara.
Alas, how far astray we have gone and how some leaders have sullied the very national ideology that they wanted the rakyat to live by to build this nation.
We miss those kinds of leaders who used to inspire us to build a better Malaysia. And today, we think some characters we have are the new norm. So Adenan Satem seems unreal. And yet, his words remind us of the urgent need to go back to our pangkal jalan, to the values and principles upon which we wanted to share this nation that remains big enough for all.
Just as it seems unreal that Tun Mahathir and other UMNO leaders are sitting with the likes of Lim Kit Siang and Ambiga Sreenevasan signing a joint declaration calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister and reform of the political system to end the rot in Malaysian politics.
But are we reaching a turning point in Malaysian political culture? Could this be the new norm? Where Adenan Satem who is expected to win handsomely at the state polls will set the tone for the kind of political leadership that is possible and proven successful with the electorate and will inspire others to change? Where former enemies across the political divide could come together and be true to their words of transformation in service of a common cause for the good of the nation?
Or am I being delusional in my desperate need to remain optimistic that change is possible in my beloved country?
The rakyat is watching closely. For another betrayal of promises made, hopes raised only to be dashed again will come with a heavy price at the national polls.
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.