An Empowered Youth for Uncertain Times
26 September 2015
Le Quadri Ballroom, UCSI University (North Wing)
Thank you Dato’ Khalid for that introduction. It’s good to be back here at UCSI. In 2009 I was here for the 5th National Congress on Integrity and in 2011 I was here for the the Malaysia Public Policy Competition. I’m glad that the university has prospered since then.
So thank you U-Schos for the invitation and for presenting me with the Top 10 Most Impactful Young Leaders Award 2015. I feel a bit under pressure now: if I don’t make a sufficient impact today maybe you will take the award back – so I will put it here. What impacted me about today’s session is the tagline: “rise and think”, which made me think.
The word “rise” can have revolutionary connotations, especially when used with the word “against”: and throughout history we have seen how violent political change has been encouraged by those who would say “rise up against the bourgeoisie”, “rise up against the imperialists”, or indeed “the capitalists” or “the Jews”. Unfortunately in our country today we have people who do want to “rise against” certain things, certain concepts, certain races.
The challenge for us in civil society who believe differently is understanding why people like this. What made them so insecure, so hostile, and from a public policy standpoint, so willing to use the power of the state to propagate this thinking? At its base is of course the educational system – what we are taught about the history of the country and alleged contributions of certain “groups” defined in racial terms, can affect how we think about people of those races. As we grow up, we see how the state and the society treat people of those races, and it might confirm the prejudices already held. Asking for more and more protection and favouritism from the state, therefore, becomes something natural.
Often, however, this protection and favouritism benefits some people far more than others. This narrative of insecurity and hostility becomes, for a select few, not just a racialist worldview, but a very convenient way to get rich and to get powerful. So they will do all they can to foment the idea that their people have to “rise up against” others. To put it simply, they will play the race card.
However, on the flip-side you can also “rise against” bad things, like corruption and waste.
The word “rise” and can also be followed by the word “for”. You can “rise up for” certain ideas or certain people. Indeed, at the beginning you [were told to literally rise/rose] on the arrival of the guest of honour. I think rising for people you admire and respect, or at least for people who represent institutions you admire and respect, is a good practice. It is a public showing that you value that person’s or that institution’s role in society, and I thank you for giving me that respect. But I do not think you should ever be told to do so. People should do so voluntarily, even if inevitably there will be peer pressure if everyone else is standing up and you are not. But I think there is a fundamental difference in the attitude of authority if you are told or if it is left up to you. It’s the same with our national anthem. I do not like it when people are told to stand for the anthem. Rather, it seems much more genuine that people stand when they hear the drum roll signalling the beginning of the anthem.
Now you can also rise “for” certain ideas, entities or religions. You can rise for Merdeka, or you can rise for Sarawak, or you can rise for Islam. The effect of these risings depends very much on how these things are defined, and so we come back to the importance of the educational system which I mentioned earlier.
But today you are being asked not to rise “against” others, or rise “for” something, but to rise “with” someone. And I think this has completely different connotations, for it implies cooperation and collaboration. Certainly it has always been my goal to convince young Malaysians that you have a stake, a voice and a right to express yourselves and play an active part in the life of the nation.
Furthermore, you are being asked not just to “rise”, but to “rise and think”. This assumes discussion and discourse, a process of agreement and disagreement, the using of your mental faculties to come to conclusions on your own.
This strikes at the heart of what I believe it is to be a leader: not telling people what to believe, but by trusting people to use their God-given faculties to decide things for themselves. The role of the leader is to share their beliefs and to explain why they hold those beliefs. If they inspire others in doing so then I think that is the best form of leadership.
Similarly we can ask similar questions about power and empowerment. When we talk of empowerment, what is it for? Who do we want to use power against, or for, or with? Should power be used to bulldoze your views over everyone else’s? Or should it be used to convince others of the merits of one’s own beliefs? If you disagree with someone, should you use your power to silence them, or does being empowered mean having the confidence never to resort to violence and always using peaceful means of persuasion? Or when we talk about empowerment, is it more about individuals being self-assured about their beliefs and being confident to live their lives feeling secure without being condemned for them?
For me, in a mature democratic society, in good times but especially in uncertain times, it is essential that those with power show the right kind of leadership. Leadership that respects the limits of authority established by the constitution or relevant laws. Leadership that understands that different institutions have specified roles. And also leadership that shows courage in the face of threats to those legitimate roles.
Leadership goes hand in hand with empowerment. There is no point empowering people merely to be powerful. Power without responsibility, without limits, without respect for rules – in particular the rule of law – is sure to be irresponsible and destructive. In such a society, might will always be right, regardless of any moral and ethical considerations.
So what kind of youth empowerment do need in uncertain times? It is empowerment that enables young citizens to act on the courage of their convictions: to stand up for what you believe in – sometimes in the face of disapproval, to be able to engage and argue for what you believe, to be able to accept consensus when possible or compromise when it is in the greater interest.
While I believe that such values are of value wherever you are in the world, Malaysia needs citizens who understand this now more than ever. In my lecture series on Healing the Nation, I stress the importance of recreating a shared narrative of the nation: that we all share this land, and the institutions exist to serve all of us. Certainly this was what the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the first Prime Minister thought and indeed, said over and over. But that institutional memory is being lost.
Restoring confidence in our public institutions therefore requires not just a good knowledge of history and rediscovering that shared narrative, but it requires empowered citizens who rise and think with each other in a national project of rehabilitation. It requires people in all sorts of professions – lawyers and politicians, bureaucrats and activists, but also doctors and engineers, accountants and teachers, farmers and fishermen. And it even needs those who will interpret and exhibit the soul of the nation: philosophers and musicians, artists and poets, actors and dancers. And from all these professions will be people from every ethnicity, every religious affiliation, male and female, young and old, from rural and urban areas from all the states of the federation.
Sometimes it may not be easy to convince people of this logic. Tragically too many young Malaysians I meet are growing up towns or going to schools where they only meet other young Malaysians who are of the same race and religion. If diversity is not accepted at an early age then it may be more difficult to inculcate its virtues later on.
That’s why I’m so heartened by the expansion of civil society in the past ten-or-so years: it has enabled citizens to engage with other on ever more platforms. Civil society might take a knock every once in a while but on the whole it is thriving. If you care about democracy, or human rights, or orphaned, stateless or refugee children, or the environment, or if you are passionate about volunteerism, history, or promoting sports or culture, there will be a group out there that you can join. Some of these have a national focus, others have a very local focus. Some of these enjoy large corporate funding and others are purely small scale efforts. But whatever your preference, these provide platforms for collaboration. And it is these platforms that will speak for the nation when the political process fails to do so.
It would of course be too idealistic to think that interactions between patriotic citizens will always lead to happy collaboration. Undoubtedly people can disagree on things even if they have the same overall objective. People can disagree on how to achieve objectives, and there will be personality clashes. In short, there will be competition and competition can sometimes get ugly.
That is why it is so important that everybody subscribes to a set of rules to govern how disagreements are handled. Indeed, in theory that is how our political system is supposed to work: people with different ideas are competing for your vote according to a set of rules defined in the constitution. Unfortunately the current state of the political process is uncertain, leaving the economy and our future also in an uncertain place.
Although we live in uncertain times, remember that the first generation of Malayans and Malaysians lived in perhaps ever greater uncertainty. But enough of them had the courage to break new ground. To rise up against oppression. To rise up for Merdeka. To rise up with each other. They were optimistic and created institutions that were once worthy of international admiration.
Instead of overthrowing the old order and replacing it with something completely alien as so many countries tried to do inspired by communism, in Malaysia we fused traditional and modern concepts to create a liberal constitutional democracy with a parliament and elections, an independent judiciary and a rotational constitutional monarchy all within the context of a federation. This is a uniquely Malaysian setup and we used to be admired around the world for it.
And yet I know that some of you might be thinking of leaving Malaysia for good. Why do so many young Malaysians leave Malaysia? It is because they do not feel empowered, even over the own lives. Of course I went on my merantau and worked in the UK and US which benefitted me immensely. I would recommend everybody do that if they can. But it is the challenge of this generation is to rise with each other to lift up our country into a good home for all of us.