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