In my interactions with the rakyat these past few weeks leading up to Merdeka Day, I was asked a number of questions on the state of our nation 52 years after achieving independence. In conjunction with this great occasion, I have summarised these questions, along with some passed along through my senior officers, and answered them below.
After 52 years of nationhood, how would you rate the state of our country in terms of race relations, development, economic competitiveness, and political maturity?
Fifty-two years is not a long time. When you look at what we have achieved in that space of time, it is remarkable. We have shifted from an agricultural-based economy to a manufacturing and services economy that exports products worldwide. We have invested heavily in raising health, education and living standards. In 1957, over half of our population lived below the poverty line. Today, it is less than 4%. We have come a long way. Yet, we still have to remain focused on the journey ahead.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Malaysia, and one that sets us apart, is our diverse society. This diversity strengthens the country. That is demonstrated in the way we have developed and in our economic competitiveness. To prepare ourselves for future growth, we have to be realistic about our challenges. Finding new sectors to drive economic growth and educating our young people as entrepreneurs are needed to drive these sectors forward. They will determine how competitive Malaysia will be in the future.
To make these changes and answer future challenges will require greater political maturity. Too often we turn to hasty rhetoric and harsh words instead of reasoned debate. We face a world of immense differences and challenges. To overcome them, we should seek out the strength of our forefathers and the spirit that drove them towards independence. Theirs was a spirit that sought a better future for their children and the generations to follow. The way they achieved this was by working together in unison.
In the context of Malaysian constitutional democracy, what should Merdeka mean to citizens?
Since the very beginnings of our nation, we have always emphasised working together to build a brighter future. We knew that much of what we valued had to be shared. We also knew that there were those who would use our differences to try to push us apart. When we are at our best, we have resisted those who would tempt us towards those divisive ways. At other junctures, we have not always lived up to that ideal. Merdeka reflects the ideal. It’s about unity and standing as one, united and independent nation. Let us remind ourselves how fortunate we are to have other Malaysians, from all walks of life and cultures, at our side to work toward a better tomorrow.
This year the theme for the Merdeka celebrations is ‘1Malaysia, People First, Performance Now’. This catchphrase is now roughly 5 months old and has resulted in a mixed bag of reactions from numerous quarters as well as the general public. What are the challenges in getting the message of 1Malaysia across effectively to various groups and communities in Malaysia and eliminating the confusion and misconceptions it seems to have propagated?
One of the goals of 1Malaysia is to stimulate open and honest discussion. The public reaction we have seen since its inception demonstrates how long overdue national dialogue on this topic has been. These are issues that people feel strongly about. But if you look at what 1Malaysia seeks to achieve, you will see that it does not differ from what our founding fathers were striving for. This dialogue will continue and this is why we have NGOs such as the 1Malaysia Foundation in place. There is no quick way to reach mutual understanding. There is no fast fix for those issues that still try to divide us. The key is to keep talking to one another and work together to resolve them. That is what 1Malaysia stands for and what the foundation will encourage.
What is your own Merdeka memory that is most meaningful to you?
As the son of one Prime Minister and the nephew of another, patriotism and service to country have always been powerful influences. I remember well the guests who would file in to visit my father in the days leading up to Hari Merdeka. The sense of importance and of men and women building something much larger than themselves still resonates. You must remember that I was born just four years before Independence. Our country was still young and growing as I reached my most formative years. The spirit of patriotism was strong, the country was new. I remember that sense of promise. I still feel it now. Just as my father looked to the future and the promise that is Malaysia, so do I.
What are the differences between Merdeka celebrations and appreciation in recent times compared to those 30 years ago? What has remained constant?
Since attaining Independence 52 years ago, Malaysia had managed to thrive as a nation precisely because of our ability to build on our diversity. The sense of national pride and a profound respect for what has gone before make this country stronger. Obviously we are going through challenging times. With growing prosperity comes more choices but also a greater skepticism. This is not altogether unhealthy, but it marks a societal change. Also, as the older generations pass, the memory of what was sacrificed to achieve independence fades. But within each Malaysian there remains a sense that we are 1Malaysia, one people, who can only progress as one. This is what I hope all Malaysians will think of as they celebrate Hari Merdeka.