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Media Room

Finding Common Ground

21 September, 2015 by Idris Jala

I recently met a young chap, Amierul, the co-founder of the Greater Malaysia portal. We talked about how, as a multicultural and diverse nation, we keep finding ourselves battling racial and religious tensions. Festering political noises have become the tinder that threatens to engulf the headway we make as a growing, advancing economy.

His final question to me was perfectly timed as I close the book on my role as Cabinet Minister when he asked my views on rising negative and divisive sentiments.

The question hit an emotional chord. I had just returned from a Christian pilgrimage where I spent ten days in Jordan, Palestine and Jerusalem. You can see the problems unfold in that region and every day on television, we are bombarded with images of Syrian refugees fleeing their country carrying only what they can on their backs.

Over the past four years, more than four million refugees have fled Syria to countries like Turkey and Jordan, with thousands trying to get into Europe. The brutal truth staring humanity in its face are the corpses of people who were attempting to flee their own country towards safety in foreign lands. That for me is a very tragic irony.

Here in Malaysia, we have beautiful country where things are going well for us. We have not been tarred and scarred by mass upheavals. Sometimes we forget it is a cruel world out there where humans behave worse than animals for the sake of control and in the name of religion.

In Syria, it all sparked off very simply because a small group started an anti-government rebellion. Disparate clashes led to rallies and finally escalated into civil war. In that conflict-ridden space, ISIS flourished to fill a vacuum, eventually occupying a large chunk of Syria and Iraq to create a new caliphate. Today, millions leave Syria purely out of concerns for survival.

Malaysia today is facing an unfolding scenario challenging the administration – trust deficit. People take to the streets and call for change, with as many needling at worn-out racial sores and long-held suspicions. We enter the arena fighting for what we want without fully understanding the eventualities, and in our anger we become even more small-minded and vindictive, pushing our country to the precipice by widening fault lines in society. I am very concerned about this.

Let us step back for a moment. There are not many countries in the world where since independence, for more than 50 years, we have had the same ruling party. Naturally in such an environment, the grass appears greener on the other side.

Countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and even Thailand, which all experience change in government fairly consistently, can attest to the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect state.

Of course there is tremendous room for improvement in Malaysia and it is for that reason that the Government embarked on its national transformation ambition.

Unsatisfied with the status quo, we aspire towards a new reality. PEMANDU is essentially, the brainchild of the Prime Minister. He believed in the cause and the need to transform, and by that, gave us tremendous latitude to do what is brave and bold. Working alongside the civil service in transforming the government, we addressed key areas such as corruption, crime, low income households, rural development, urban public transport and cost of living.

Despite real progress being made in these areas, discontent persists. We improved public transportation and today, the MRT construction is changing our urban landscape. In the past five years, we built roads with the distance of Johore to Bangladesh, benefitting 2.5 million rural folks. Over 6 million are alleviated with the cash injection from BR1M.

People are discontented because there is trust deficit.

I believe long periods of incumbency breeds two things:
  1. Curiosity amongst the urban and the young about the grass being greener on the other side
  2. People want radical changes overnight and they want to feel it immediately
Our difficulty in the Government today is that we work on capturing the middle ground amidst a world of polarities. This makes policy-making is as complex as it is intricate.

If the Government chose to pander to extreme views, whose interests do we fulfil? Majority? Minority? Where will this put the group whose views don’t get represented? What might it lead to? 
The Government has to find solutions to these substantive emotive issues – whether imagined or real.

Personally, I believe public appetite is for needs-based policies that will help each strata of society find its footing. We need good investments, good jobs. We need a world-class education system so we can compete with the rest of the world. We need to have access to good public infrastructure. These are the areas the Government is working on transforming; no matter how noisy the politics get, our job is to keep our eye on the ball.

I have received encouraging feedback but there are equally as many who are so mired in the storm of trust deficit, it clouds their perception and stops them from seeing facts. To this group I say, be fair and put on your rational thinking hat to accept evidence of progress for what it is.

We must avoid doing things that will fracture the economy. Tarring every good with negativity will drag us all down, instead, we should seek to engage in meaningful conversations and find common ground in the spirit of unity. There is a lot of cause to rejoice and we can count ourselves fortunate to be Malaysians.

Happy Malaysia Day.

(Datuk Seri Idris Jala is CEO of Pemandu, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit. Fair and reasonable comments are most welcome at idrisjala@pemandu.gov.my)
2015/09/29
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