The Infrastructure of Institutions – Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah

6 11 2009

By Ron CK Sim

Aging RazaleighYoung RazaleighBelow is the written transcript of a speech by YM Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah whose points strike a stunningly similar chord with what I have had in mind for years! I deeply share his feeling of “wasted promise, of having lost our way, or declined beyond the point of no return.”

Always a sentimentalist with British history and tradition, I have always imagined myself being here in London at the times of Gandhi, and the times of our first three PMs, imagining in those days London being the “Capital of Her Majesty’s Empire”. Having been here for more than three years now (and about to return home), I can still sense the (imagined) nostalgia of a former great empire of the world each time I look at the old, grand Westminster Houses of Parliament – the symbol of British politics and democracy – and the Royal Courts of Justice. 

I have always thought that we were ‘very lucky’ to have been colonialised by the British – well, instead of by the Dutch, the Spanish or the French. At least the British left us with good governmental and educational institutions, a just system of law and democracy, a recognised international language, and a useful historical link with the Commonwealth nations. In short, we inherited a solid foundation upon which to build a modern and successful nation. More than 52 years post-Independece, no one can honestly deny that we have failed, and failed big time, where our great neighbour down south succeeded.

While we should not glorify our past colonial masters, we need to acknowledge the role played by the British and their institutions in our country, as Tengku eloquently did. With this, I humbly set out in full his speech titled “The Infrastructure of Institutions”, but with the emphasis in bold being my own.

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The Infrastructure of Institutions 

There are some good things about our country which we do not acknowledge either because are too obvious or because it is politically incorrect to do so. One of these is the role played by British institutions in our country.

The Federation of Malaya and later Malaysia did not emerge from the colonial era through violent struggle. Our independence was negotiated, and the Constitution which grounds our existence was built out of consensus. We took an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary path.  This is not to deny or downplay the political struggle leading up to independence.

In the last three decades, however, as the political discourse in this country has taken a more ethno-nationalist and authoritarian tone, there has been an associated tendency to paint present-day Malaysia as a violent rupture with the past.  Nationalism glorifies the fight and undervalues the much harder, rarer accomplishment of coming to an understanding, forging a consensus, building a nation. This is a common and understandable tendency in the way postcolonial nations talk about their past, but it has obscured an aspect of our history which distinguishes us among the states and was an important source of our early success as a nation.

This aspect is that in coming to independence in an orderly and negotiated settlement, we retained intact the best of what we already had and did not have to start from some imagined Ground Zero or mythologized past.

The best of what we already had, come 1957 and 1963, were a set of viable modern institutions, practices and skills:  the Westminster model of Parliamentary democracy, civil law grounded in a Constitution,  a capable and independent civil service, including an excellent teaching service, armed forces and police, good schools, sophisticated trade practices and markets, financial markets, and modern methods of management such as those applied in our plantation sector. We were already a functioning country integrated into global markets. The challenges of development and nation-building were serious, but we faced them with an independent judiciary, a professional civil service and a well-defined set of relationships between a Federal Government and our individually sovereign states. Indeed we were able to face these challenges because these institutions functioned well.

Institutionally, we had a good start as a nation.  Why is it important to recall this?

For one it makes sense of the feeling among many Malaysians and  international friends who have observed Malaysia over a longer period that Malaysia has seen better days. There is a feeling of wasted promise, of having lost our way, or declined beyond the point of no return.

This feeling is too sharp, and too pervasive to be put down to the nostalgia of always finding “the good old days best.” The illusion of nostalgia doesn’t explain why we are losing our best and brightest. Those who can stay away and settle overseas do so, with the encouragement of their parents. Their parents tell them to remain where they are, there is nothing for them here. The illusion of nostalgia does not explain why parents fight to send their children to private and international schools rather than the national schools they themselves went to. The very same politicians who recite nationalist slogans about our national schools and turn the curriculum into an ideological hammer send their own children to international schools here or in Australia and Britain. They know better than anyone else the shape our schools are in. It is no illusion that people do not have the faith in our judiciary and police that they once had.

Malaysians are losing faith in their future despite the evidence of material progress around us, despite being a relatively successful country. We have lots of infrastructure. Lots of malls and highways. Especially toll highways. It is not for want of physical infrastructure, dubious as some of it is, that we feel we languish. It is a sense that we are losing the institutional infrastructure of civilized society.

That infrastructure, whether indigenous or acquired, was already in place at independence. Having secured our political independence through a consultative and deliberative process, we were well placed to build upon this foundation. We had a complex system of laws, conventions and practices but crucially we had the people capable of understanding and administering such a system. We had a civil service and a political class trained and socialized into the practices of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. Core principles of accountability, check and balance and independence were lodged in the habits, thought patterns and behaviour of our civil servants and judges.

If Malaysians feel a sense of loss, tell their children not to come home from overseas, or are making plans to emigrate, it is not because they do not love this country or are ungrateful for tarred roads and bridges. It is because they feel the erosion of the institutional infrastructure of our society. Institutional intangibles such as the rule of law, accountability and transparency are the basis of a people’s confidence in their society.

We have gone through a period of forgetting about the importance of our core institutions. It is time to remember again. Many of these are British institutions. Cultural progress is a story of borrowing, adaptation and learning. The vitality of this part of the world, that for all recorded history has been the maritime crossroads of East and South Asia and the Middle East, is based on material and cultural exchange, borrowing and adaptation. It would be cultural and economic suicide for us to pretend otherwise.

It is time we shed the crude nationalism which refuses to acknowledge things “not invented here”.  This country had a great start in life because we had inherited a system of laws, rights and conventions that had been refined over more than seven hundred years. We inherited a civil service that for all its woes continues to keep the ship of state afloat despite the sometimes irresponsible actions of politicians. We inherited the English language, and with that a strong set of links to the English speaking world.  The eminence of tonight’s assembly testifies to the great value of our educational ties to Britain.

We acknowledge and celebrate our ties to British education and British institutions not out of sentimentality but out of an understanding that these are foundational influences that have had much to do with stability and competitiveness as a nation. British educational, administrative, legal and cultural institutions continue to be of vital importance to us as Malaysians. We need to affirm these links without political blinkers, understand their cultural, political and economic importance to us, and build on them. One result of such a change of attitude should be a rethinking of our attitude to the English language. By now it is also a Malaysian language. It would be sheer hypocrisy to deny its value and centrality to us as Malaysians. Do we continue to deny in political rhetoric what we practice in reality, or do we grasp the situation and come up with better policies for the teaching and adoption of the language?

Rather than indulge in grand schemes of cultural “import substitution” we should appreciate the extent of these influences and links and explore ways to develop them further.

We should acknowledge that by the time of Independence we already had a string of excellent schools in major towns across the country. These include Penang Free School, The Royal Military College, The Malay College, St John’s Institution, Victoria Institution, Muar High School and my alma mater Anderson High School. These schools nurtured a generation of multiracial leaders who were completely at home with each other despite coming from different backgroundsThis comfort with each other was the basis of their ability to work with one another. We have let these schools become mediocre, at great cost to the quality of our leadership and in a way that imperils our unity. It is time to restore them to their former eminence.

The world has not stayed still. We should look at matters such as Parliamentary reform and the reform of the civil service with an eye to what is going on in Britain as it faces the challenges of European integration and its transformation into an increasingly multicultural society. At both the institutional and people to people level, we should connect with Britain as it is today, a fast changing society facing many of the same problems we do, rather than recycle stale colonial era stereotypes.

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah @ razaleigh.com

*Speech delivered at British Graduates Association 22nd Anniversary Dinner – Nov 1, 2009, Berjaya Times Square Hotel, Kuala Lumpur

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Quote of the Day: “We have gone through a period of forgetting about the importance of our core institutions. It is time to remember again.” ~ YM Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, former Finance Minister of Malaysia (1976-1984)


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