Saturday, June 1, 2013

National reconciliation or retaliation?

There was no cry of jubilation. Neither were there tears of joy.

If you had been in a coma during the past few weeks and were suddenly awakened to the image of the Barisan Nasional’s victory speech on television, you would have thought that someone important had died and the whole nation had gone into mourning mode. Why wouldn’t you when Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his sidekicks looked as if the apocalypse was upon them?

Before you could even make out the hazy details that had preceded such collective sombreness, you found yourself being hit by a train of confusion. “Chinese tsunami” quickly followed by “national reconciliation” — two terms coined together only mere minutes after the announcement of the election results were enough to make me want to crawl back into that coma. Ignorance is after all bliss during moments like this.

As I begin to hear comments pouring in from different public figures and the public, of what they thought of the proposed national reconciliation, I felt sheepishly stupid. Am I the only one who doesn’t understand what it means or what it’s for?

The coma must have impaired my intellectual capacity. Full stop.

A few days ago, someone asked me what I understood about Najib’s notion of national reconciliation. Instead of giving that person a straightforward answer, I went on a crooked tangent. If you were as confused as I was, you would probably understand why.

This was my answer: “You know what? It took me two years to learn how to reconcile my accounts. Why did it take me so long? Well, honestly, I had no clue how to do it! Accounting is like a useless foreign language to me. Neither do I understand it, nor do I have the desire to learn it. So it took me two years to finally nail it down. Anyway, to answer your question, I think national reconciliation is a bit like me trying to reconcile my accounts. The federal government has no clue what it’s about and most likely has no desire to learn what it really is about.”

Horrified at my analogy, the person finally said: “If what you said is true, let’s hope they’ll at least nail it down in the end.”

Of course, hope is a good thing and one can always hope.

Anyway, Najib had come out in public and said that national reconciliation is needed to heal racial and political divide. Never mind what he said because since then, I’ve had more opportunities to hear what other people thought about this notion in person and, unsurprisingly, different people seem to hold very different opinions of it. Although some agreed wholeheartedly that it’s all about reconciling racial divide, others said it’s more about the urban-rural divide. A few said that there’s really no racial divide and it was the politicians who have spun it to instil hate and fear because the real issue here is economic divide. A few vehemently claimed that it’s all about political party divide, much to the chagrin of those who quickly rebutted that political party division is a good thing and the pillar of a robust democracy. Listening to these opinions reminded me of the story of the elephant and the three blind men. (Scary or what? But anyway, Malaysia boleh!)

Without turning this article into something unnecessarily lengthy, I shall cut to the chase. Let’s just suppose that the prime minister is honest about his intention, how should he and his Cabinet go about developing the framework of this national reconciliation?

Here’s my take as a layperson. (I realise I’m running the risk of oversimplifying the issue but I think simplification is exactly what we need now.) I believe in order for a national reconciliation to be successful, it must first fulfil three criteria — it must 1) command the public’s confidence, 2) be a meaningful exercise, and 3) result in action. At the same time, it must be guided by these core principles — 1) truth, 2) repentance, and 3) justice.

In order to achieve the first criterion, the government owes it to the public to provide a clear and truthful explanation of what this national reconciliation is all about. As it is, the public’s confidence of the new government is already at an all-time low, it is now up to the latter to convince the public of the true purpose of this process. Without the public’s confidence and faith in this, it is likely going to suffer the same fate as the 1 Malaysia slogan, one that reeks of a political rather than human agenda. To curb this, the government must secure the public’s participation in developing its framework; not just their supporters but also dissenters. As such, it is imperative for the government to listen to both sides and this necessitates freeing up media space to allow opinions from both sides to be heard.

Secondly, for this exercise to be truly meaningful, the government must understand the true meaning of reconciliation. In order for reconciliation to work, all party must be willing to admit their wrongdoing, repent and agree to move forward together. The closing of one chapter so that a fresh one can begin, so to speak. As the initiator of this agenda, the government must first admit that it has played a role in allowing racism to manifest and, as such, resulted in this divide. By initiating this process, the government must be willing to admit that the 1 Malaysia campaign, the National Service Training and the National Economic Programme have in a way failed or contributed towards perpetuating racial-based politics because otherwise, why on earth do we need national reconciliation? By doing this, the government shows repentance and sincerity and this will help to restore the public’s confidence in the process.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, all this must in the end result in the government taking real action towards reconciliation. There has been far too many projects and agenda that ended up being nothing but mere politically rhetoric with no real benefit or meaning for the people. I’ve listened to various people giving recommendations of what should be done to achieve this goal — from establishing a parliamentary select committee to unifying our education curriculum. All noble solutions which will take a long time to implement and before you know it, the public loses interest and nobody remembers why the process was proposed in the first place. For a quick start just to get things rolling, in order for the government to prove its sincerity and will, why not get rid of those boxes that seek to verify our races in all government-related forms once and for all? Punish ministers who incite racial hatred and make an example out of them. Justice must be blind and not just for the powerful.

In conclusion, after all that is said and done, the secret ingredient that will eventually create a Malaysian culture that abhors racism is really quite simple. All it takes really is for the government to first set an exemplary role in eradicating racial sentiments and once that is accomplished, I am quite confident that the rest will follow. Not unlike reconciling your accounts, the two sides must be in tandem with each other. Otherwise, let’s not fool ourselves by calling it reconciliation but retaliation instead. If I were an avid conspiracy theorist, I would have concluded that “Chinese tsunami” and “national reconciliation” were part of a national retaliation strategy to divert the people’s attention from what’s really to come.

So Mr Prime Minister, which one is it going to be?

This article was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 27 May 2013.

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