Interview with Raja Muda of Perak Raja Dr Nazrin Shah: Malaysian democracy, a work in progress




Sunday, 23 December 2007, 09:17am

Raja Nazri Shah©New Snday Times (Used by permission)
by Syed Nadzri and Kennifer Gomez

With an impressive intellectual background, Raja Muda of Perak Raja Dr Nazrin Shah always draws attention when he speaks on issues, particularly those affecting ordinary Malaysians. Here, in a frank interview with Syed Nadzri and Kennifer Gomez, the Oxford and Harvard-trained prince gives his take on contemporary concerns.

Q: You have been addressing some issues that are obviously close to your heart in the last few months. Would you like to expand on what you have been saying lately?

A: Yes. I have tried to address in a non-partisan way issues I believe are of central importance.

These include the need to maintain social cohesion in our multi-ethnic society, improving our human and social capital, good governance and the importance of having an independent judiciary.

These issues are not new. I merely wanted to add my voice to the many who have spoken on them over the years.

Q: You have also spoken a lot about corruption. Why is this so?

A: Corruption, if not contained, can become a cancer eating its way into our society. It is morally wrong. It undermines the rule of law and can retard economic growth.

It disproportionately penalises the poor. The rich can afford to pay their way in a corrupt society, but ultimately it is the poor who suffer most.

Q: Don't you think that given the fact that issues are being discussed more openly now, there is hope that things will further improve in future by people speaking up?

A: Discussing issues openly can only be good for society.

It is even better if discussions take place in a rational, informed and constructive manner.

This way, more people will be able to contribute to discussions on matters that affect them.

This is particularly so with the youth, whom I believe must be encouraged to take ownership of the country's future.

It also helps that the present leadership is more open and tolerant, and willing to listen.

Q: But, at the same time, some people tend to take advantage of the openness and transparency by coming up with sensitive issues and, in the process, create more problems. What are your views on this?

A: Such people are irresponsible and, fortunately, there are not many of them. But at the same time, we don't want a situation where we don't have any discussion at all.

Sweeping things under the carpet cannot be the answer. It will only postpone the day when we have to deal with them, when the situation may be worse.

Q: What do you think about voicing grouses through street demonstrations?

A: Freedom of expression through peaceful demonstrations is a right people can reasonably expect to enjoy in a democratic society. This right is enshrined in our Constitution.

So people are acting within their constitutional rights in wanting to voice their grievances by holding peaceful demonstrations.

The right to live in peace and harmony in a safe environment is also a right people can reasonably expect to enjoy in any well-run society. The government is responsible for public order.

The right to demonstrate must always be balanced by the need to maintain public order. Striking the right balance between public freedom and public order is never an easy thing to do.

It is a judgment the authorities have to make on the available information. If the authorities are privy to information that there is a possibility of violence during a demonstration or that the demonstration, although peaceful, may invite retaliation, any responsible leader will want to err on the side of caution by placing restrictions on the demonstration or even disallowing it.

Q: Which is exactly what the prime minister said the other day.

A: And I believe he is right. If things go wrong, if lives are destroyed and property is damaged, people will not hesitate to blame the government for not taking prior action to prevent it. The responsible thing to do is to ensure that public order always comes first.

No doubt some quarters will accuse the authorities of being heavy-handed. But unless there are strong reasons to believe otherwise, we should give the authorities the benefit of the doubt.

Take the Bar Council's decision to call off the (Human Rights Day) walk. I believe they took this decision not because members had jettisoned their principles, but because to do so under prevailing circumstances would have worsened an already tense situation.

The wise course of action was to exercise self-restraint.

Allow me to make one other point. The desire to maintain public order should not be used as an excuse for never allowing peaceful assemblies.

There should be avenues for people to express their views in an orderly manner. The right to peaceful assembly should not be unreasonably curtailed.

Absolute freedom may cause chaos. Absolute prohibition will cause frustration and anger to fester.

Tun Musa Hitam (in a recent interview with New Sunday Times) made some useful suggestions on how peaceful assemblies could be conducted. These suggestions from a former deputy prime minister should be given serious consideration.

Q: It has been said that while the organisers of these assemblies may claim that their intentions are peaceful, the essence of their grouses may stir up sentiments in our multiracial society. What are your thoughts on this?

A: This is a very real danger. Unfortunately, some Malaysians still tend to see issues in narrowly communal or religious terms even when these issues have nothing or very little to do with either. I wish this were not so, but that is the reality of it.

This unhealthy situation will continue until we as a society learn to think of ourselves as Malaysians and act as Malaysians, and begin to address the problems we face as Malaysian problems. Poverty is poverty, whether Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban or Kadazan.

Q: The Internal Security Act (ISA), where a person could be detained if he is seen as a threat to public order and national security, has been seen as one of the measures the government could resort to. Your comment?

A: I hope it is used very sparingly, if at all, and only when there is a genuine threat to national security. It should never be used to stifle dissent.

Q: But what about the fact that some of these people who have recently been detained had gone abroad and run down the country?

A: I am totally against anyone going overseas and running down the country.

Q: There seems to be a tinge of displeasure regarding certain politicians who harp on racial issues in some of the calls you made over the last few months. Why is this?

A: It is not limited to politicians, but to anybody who plays the racial card for personal advancement.

I come from the generation that lived through the 1969 riots. We were living in Petaling Jaya at the time. There was a curfew in place.

There was very little food and we had a little rice to eat with some ghee. I remember watching smoke from burning houses from the balcony of our house. And we were the fortunate ones.

Imagine how bad conditions must have been in the directly-affected areas, places like Kampong Baru and the New Villages.

That experience has made me acutely conscious that things can go very wrong very quickly if we are not careful. Years of painstaking nation-building can be undone in a moment of madness.

Some will say this happened a long time ago and things are different today. Well, when we look at the world around us today we still see communal and religious intolerance.

If you believe as I do that communal and religious polarisation is cause for concern in our country today, all the more reason for us to be careful with what we say or do.

An insensitive remark, a careless gesture, a mishandled situation can sometimes provide the spark that can easily turn into a conflagration.

Q: You have lived abroad. Do you think that what we are going through now is part and parcel of the process of development?

A: Malaysia is undergoing the growing pains that all developing countries go through. Malaysian democracy to my mind is very much a work in progress.

Obviously, it is not perfect, and along the way there will be setbacks and crises to overcome.

But the long-term trajectory should be, and I believe will be, towards a society that is open, tolerant and just.

Q: You mentioned that there are certain things in this country that make it very peculiar. What is it about Malaysia that you like most?

A: The ethnic mix. We find our uniqueness in this very diversity. This is reflected in our food, our costumes, the way we jumble words from different languages when we speak, the manner in which we celebrate festivities. The concept of the open house is truly unique.

Q: Do you get this kind of feedback from friends?

A: Most definitely. Especially foreigners who find Malaysian culture friendly, open and responsive.

Q: How do you see the future of the country?

A: I am very optimistic. Malaysia's diverse social fabric has been and can continue to be a source of great strength.

Our inherited social capital contains a rich mix of Malay adat, Chinese work and business practices, Indian traditions and British law.

Much of this can be adapted and marginally refashioned to suit modern conditions, and can be turned into a strong competitive advantage in our globalised world.

Q: Who among Malaysians, dead or living, inspire you most?

A: People I come across almost every day. Law-abiding men and women who go about their jobs quietly and effectively without asking for or expecting recognition or rewards.

I meet such individuals when I come across social workers in welfare homes, nurses and ambulance drivers in hospitals, teachers in schools and universities.