But the new prime minister, Mr Najib, has his own concept. In a country where racial tension still simmers underneath the surface, he has come up with an idea designed to address them. On his blog – yes, he has a blog – he wrote a few days ago: “It is my intention to ensure that in moving our country forward, that all the interests and aspirations of all communities, including the Chinese community, are heard and taken into consideration.” Those are not small words and there is no reason to think that the new prime minister does not mean them. But in Malaysia the prime minister is only the head of the machinery – he is not the machinery himself. His predecessor also had good words, but they were not implemented – and the same risk exists for Mr Najib’s “One Malaysia” concept. On the face of it, the “One Malaysia” programme is something that should definitely be lauded – all societies, including those in the Muslim world, need to think about how to empower and recognise difference within a cohesive, unified whole. If “One Malaysia” brings Malaysians closer to doing that, then so much the better – but they should learn from its previous experiences.
Good intentions will not be enough – there must be a cohesive theoretical framework behind it and the prime minister will not be able to develop it alone – he will need to have experts in the fields of race relations and theories of multiculturalism to assist him. In this way, he could rescue himself from the accusation that he simply took an idea from Anwar Ibrahim, who has made multi-ethnic harmony a cornerstone of his opposition platform, and avoid a repeat of what happened with Mr Abdullah’s promotion of Islam Hadhari.
Ethnic relations are a complex issue and the worst thing the Malaysian government could do would be to accept “new” experts in ethnic relations that suddenly “appear” out of nowhere to fill in the intellectual gap. It would not be the first time unscrupulous people recast themselves in order to make their expertise appropriate for government consultation, and government money.
In addition, if “One Malaysia” is an intellectual idea, it needs a multidisciplinary intellectual elite in order to establish authoritative theories behind its application – otherwise, there will be all sorts of conflicting and competing visions.
Mr Abdullah was often unappreciated by his people, but he at least opened up the country in a way that Malaysians will appreciate in years to come. Time will tell what sort of legacy Mr Najib will leave – there is still much to be done in this young nation of Malaysia. He has the opportunity to make this “One Malaysia” concept the tool of judicious and pragmatic governance: or to leave it as his short-lived legacy. The choice is his.
Najib’s One Malaysia concept – an idea he took from Anwar Ibrahim