From Deference to Disrespect

By G. Sivapragasam

During his recent visit to Malaysia President Barack Obama predicted that societies that respect civil rights will be more successful in the 21st Century. It was a message to Malaysia and the statement could not be truer, nor could it have come at a more opportune time.

Malaysia today is at the crossroads on its path towards achieving developed nation status. The direction it takes at this juncture will determine if it will succeed in this mission.

The process of nation building began with the declaration of independence and has been going on for more than half a century. During this period there have been significant changes in demographics, literacy, knowledge, political awareness, living standards, communication and most significantly, attitude. All these have transformed Malaysia into a different world from what it was at the time of its independence.

The changes have also created a new generation of citizens. It is in the hands of this generation that lies the fate of future Malaysia. If we are to be a truly developed nation capable of competing in today’s borderless world, this generation needs to be bold, ambitious, confident, informed, educated and articulate. For this to happen, space needs to be allowed for them to grow.

The relationship between authority and its citizens has changed. No longer is Authority allowed absolute freedom to do what they feel is right. Actions are challenged and criticised. Decisions perceived as irresponsible are quickly shared and censured in the public domain. In essence the nation has moved from an age of deference to one of disrespect.

How authority responds to this new phenomenon will determine the nation’s future. Authority could react by structuring and applying restraints limiting civil liberties. Undoubtedly, it will be effective and serves its purpose for a period of time. But the consequence will be the curbing of people’s development and widening the divide between the elite and the masses, a situation not beneficial for society in the long term. More notably, Malaysians will be ill equipped to deal with their peers in the international forum.

Inevitably, this will affect progress and, in time, open conflict may emerge between authority and the masses. Leaving aside the damage that will result from such a conflict the consequence may be chaos or the arrival of despotic rule.

An alternative response, which may be more prudent, would be to build a strong civil society. This process would require recognising and respecting civil rights and marshalling citizens to take an active role in the affairs of the nation. In developed countries it is the strength of civil societies that have been largely responsible for not only ensuring that authority does not abuse its power but defending the nation’s integrity. This has translated into progress.

Similarly in this nation, only a strong and enlightened civil society would have the ability to help it to progress, defend its sovereignty and bring it pride, dignity and respect from the international community.

A kind of two-party system has emerged in the last few years. A two-party system, however, is not an automatic formula for the function of true democracy if both parties share the same philosophy grounded on ignoring the rights of civil society and intolerant of criticism from them.

Attempts to empower civil society by the creation of a third force etc. have not found too much success. This failure may lie in the fact that the attempts have been focused solely on the political platform.

True civil society empowerment can only emerge from economic, social and political power evolving in tandem. Political force without social and economic strength will not only fail to create a resilient civil society but may very well spell disaster.

Of the three limbs, economic empowerment is primary. In this regard every citizen should have the right to work, earn a decent income, opportunity to progress and live a life of dignity. In the social sphere values of justice, empathy, tolerance, disagreeing without being disagreeable and recognising criticism objectively should be defined as the only acceptable culture. In the political domain steps need to be taken to inculcate in citizens political awareness, granted freedom to express their views and thoughts without fear and to assume responsibility for a fair and just society.

This nation has the resources to achieve all this. All that is needed is the political will to actualise it.

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