If it’s a problem, don’t recognise it

by Kee Thuan Chye
Sept 22, 2010


Idris Jala is a good speaker. If you listen to him and you don’t watch it, he will sell you an idea.

That’s what he did – or tried to do – when he gave the keynote address at the “We Are Malaysia” event hosted by UCSI University on Malaysia Day.

He spoke of 1Malaysia and its aims, and how national unity can be achieved. One of the central aims of 1Malaysia is upgrading the diverse population’s attitude towards one another from tolerance to acceptance and, eventually, the celebration of diversity. And one of the central strategies of achieving that is the recognition that, in Idris’ own words, “in life, there are only two types of issues”.

Sounds rather pat, as if coming from a self-enrichment guru. But as I said, Idris Jala (left) is a seller of ideas.

What are these two types of issues?

Problems and polarities. A problem, expounded Idris, is something that can be solved. A polarity is something that cannot be solved but must be managed. The examples of polarities he gave are old and young, urban and rural, good and evil, rich and poor. Like the North and South Poles, they cannot be removed; therefore a balance must be struck between them.

To illustrate further, he gave the example of his wife and him. She is fastidious in wanting him to place his socks in a proper basket for washing, but he is used to leaving them all over the house. Despite her repeated attempts to get him to conform, he is incorrigible. She on her part takes an inordinate amount of time to get ready when they have a function to attend. It annoys him that because she can’t decide on what to wear, they often turn up late.

“That’s the situation,” said Idris, “but if we tried to solve it, we could end up in divorce.”

Extending the idea to a wider realm, Idris said race and religion are also polarities, which means they cannot be solved.

“If you try to solve them,” he said, “you could get something like Hitler’s Final Solution and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.”

Just a game of semantics?

On that UCSI occasion, Idris got away with not having to answer questions from the floor as there is usually no provision for such in a keynote address. But if there had been, the key question would be: Isn’t this all just a game of semantics? How do you decide what is a problem and what is a polarity? Or is there really no difference between the two?

Let’s look at the issue of race in the present context. Let’s bring in Perkasa, which insists that the 30 percent equity for bumiputeras must be upheld in the New Economic Model (NEM). For want of an opposing camp, let’s bring in the MCA, which recently called for the 30 percent to be gradually reduced.

Is this situation of two opposing viewpoints over a racial issue a problem or a polarity? What does it translate into when from this dispute, policy has to be made?

Policy is policy. It provides a guideline for operations to be performed and actions to be taken. It provides a clear-cut solution. It does not merely manage. So how will it solve this Perkasa-MCA dispute?

If Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak decides to listen to Perkasa and includes the 30 percent in his NEM, the MCA might have something to say. Not to mention other groups opposed to Perkasa as well. But since the MCA is a Barisan Nasional partner, Najib or his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, can ask its party leaders to shut up and toe the coalition line, and chances are they will obey. Is that managing the issue or solving it?

While we mull over this, let’s consider another point – for an issue to be resolved, it calls for negotiation and sometimes arbitration. There was negotiation between the two differing groups over the ge tai issue in Penang last week and the outcome was satisfactory to both sides. Do we say they found a solution to the issue or that they merely managed it? Does it matter what we call it?

The constitution is the arbiter

It’s all semantics. And semantics are of no practical use. Sometimes, semantics create further problems. In any case, the fact that you enter into a negotiation shows that you want to find a solution. If after negotiating, you still can’t find it, you may seek an arbiter.

For racial disputes, there is already an arbiter. And that, plain and simple, is the constitution. So how we solve or manage – whichever word you want to use – racial disputes should be guided by that arbiter.

Article 153 of the constitution is the bone of contention. But as lawyer Azzat Kamaluddin (left), who also spoke at the “We Are Malaysia” event, astutely pointed out, there is no mention in that article of special rights for the Malays.

Clause 1 of Article 153 states: “It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the states of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.”

Note that there is only mention of “special position”. And the second part says, significantly, that the Agong shall also be responsible for safeguarding “the legitimate interests of other communities”. It’s not all one-sided.

Azzat pointed out that “everyone stops at Clause 1”. But if they were to look at Clause 2, they would see clearly that the special provisions for Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak pertain only to positions in the public service; scholarships, exhibitions and other similar educational or training privileges or special facilities; and permits and licences for the operation of any trade or business.

And in these areas, the provisions have to be “of such proportion as [the Agong] may deem reasonable”. In other words, it’s not carte blanche.

Look also at Clause 5, which states that Article 153 “does not derogate from the provisions of Article 136”.

What does Article 136 say?

It says: “All persons of whatever race in the same grade in the service of the federation shall, subject to the terms and conditions of their employment, be treated impartially.” This is another limit to the scope of Article 153.

If the government follows the rule of law and interprets the constitution as it should be interpreted, we wouldn’t have a racial problem. Yes, problem. Let’s call a spade a spade. The racial problem we have now is mostly the result of what the government has done and not done.

It has not followed the rule of law. It has not told Perkasa to grasp the proper provisions of Article 153. Instead, it has been affirming that Perkasa’s doing the right thing – only a few days ago, Deputy Education Minister Puad Zarkashi said Perkasa was championing the people’s rights as spelt out in the constitution. Perhaps Puad hasn’t read beyond Clause 1. Perhaps he doesn’t understand it fully.

Gov’t has chosen to take sides

In terms of what the government has done, it has chosen to take sides to formulate policies that are contrary to the spirit of the constitution. For instance, is the discount for bumiputeras purchasing property constitutional? If so, where is it written in that sacred document?

The government favours one race and marginalises the other races. With regard to the civil service, it has not upheld Article 136 of the constitution, which calls for impartial treatment for civil servants of all races. Over the past four decades, the promotion of civil servants to the highest positions has been almost totally confined to those of one particular race. Is that impartial treatment?

As for religion, it is again the government that has created problems. Just to name two, one is its action to deny Christians the right to use the word “Allah”; the other, and more far-reaching, action is declaring Malaysia an Islamic state, as Najib did in 2007 when he was Deputy Prime Minister.

“Islam is the official religion and we are an Islamic state,” he said.

He must surely have read Article 3 of the constitution but chose to ignore what it says: “Islam is the religion of the federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the federation.”

Nowhere is it stated that Malaysia is an Islamic state.

Declaration caused fresh anxieties

But by his declaration, Najib caused fresh anxieties to surface and made the issue of religion more contentious. In extreme situations, the provisions of Article 3 have been disrespected. A recent example is Perkasa’s lodging of a police report against a church in Shah Alam for planning to stage a Christian play during Ramadan on the grounds that it was seditious and insulting to the sultan.

That police report became a problem to the church. How would it be solved? In an ideal Malaysian setting, the government would have stepped in and told Perkasa to respect Article 3. But of course, it did not. For the church and other Christian groups, these problems will continue to crop up in future and there will be no solution in sight if the government stays silent.

Is the government silent because it now believes it can call such a problem a polarity? And with a polarity, which cannot be solved, the less said about it, the better? Similarly, in the case of the Johor school principal who allegedly made racist remarks, it is better to let the issue be until the public forgets about it?

If so, 1Malaysia is not about taking a radically honest approach towards national unity and the celebration of diversity. It seems to shy away from calling a problem a problem and solving it. Calling it a polarity merely adds a new twist to the propaganda.

So, if Idris Jala comes to your neighbourhood and tries to sell you that idea, be sure to ask him some difficult questions. He’s a good speaker and can easily mesmerise his audience. His words may sound pretty until you probe them for substance. If you do, you might find that they amount to nothing more than public relations prattle.

KEE THUAN CHYE is the author of March 8: The Day Malaysia Woke Up, which won 3rd prize in the Popular Readers’ Choice Awards. It has also been translated into Chinese

  1. #1 by negarawan on Wednesday, 22 September 2010 - 7:29 pm

    “The Council of Churches Malaysia Youth have slammed the stop-work order on an Orang Asli church by the federal government, calling it an act of bullying”

    This is exactly why Najib’s 1Malaysia is purely a lie and propaganda to garner votes. There is no sincerity and honesty in UMNO/BN, just selfish interest. Malaysia is a failed state under UMNO, and will continue to be a failed state as long as UMNO is in power.

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 22 September 2010 - 7:30 pm

    Citing for example the gripe between Perkasa, which insists that the 30% must be upheld or even increased based on population ratio and MCA, which recently called for the gradual reduction of 30% reduced, Mr kee Thuan Chye asked, “Is this situation of two opposing viewpoints over a racial issue a problem or a polarity?”.

    I put in another way assuming Perkasa were a mouthpiece of its patron Tun Dr Mahathir (TDM)’s views, do you think, Mr Kee, think TDM a problem or a polarity???

  3. #3 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 22 September 2010 - 9:16 pm

    Please lah. Have regards for Datuk Idris Jala. He has a good track record otherwise God would not put him in a position of influence. Divorce over socks ? That would be strange. Problems and polarities exist in this gomen and gomen service. It is one thing to talk about it but it is another to solve it. Till today it has been problems and confusions made more by don’t know what quality standards. The more quality is talked and something is done, the more problems there are which means that this quality thingy is not working at all. There is no quality in whatever quality activity we are doing.What cost effectiveness which is not effective at all. What recycling business which use more material instead. We are just like cats and mice chasing after each other. Tom and Jerry non stop fight. Open mindedness ? Free the mind ? Looks like untrustworthiness, insecurity.

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 23 September 2010 - 6:57 am

    Give Idris Jala the credit for trying to highlight conceptual difference between problem solving and polarity management – a management tool when managing organization, be it Shell, MAS and applying it to politics or a government!

    In a face of conflict, having regard to its nature one has to determine whether to treat it as problem or a polarity, the main difference being, by its very nature and how one looks at it, the problem is one where one treats it “either/or” and in the case of polarity one treats it the opposites in conflict as inevitable and require management to reduce the conflict.

    In his matrimonial/domestic illustration if he commits adultery then the spouse may have it to determine it a problem to solve – either condone his conduct or divorce him. However if its just leaving his socks everywhere, and he cannot change his habit as opposed the wife’s habit of keeping everything spick and span and their respective places, then for so long as that difference does not warrant or justify an either/or solution – whether to kick him out – then it’s a polarity to be managed.

    Just like race and religion he talks about. If it’s just a conflict, the solution (in the case of race) is either to divide the country into two territories (like SARs HK and China) with bumi in one territory or non Bumi in another or to kick the latter out then it’s a problem of either one does it or fails to do it. There’s nothing to manage just like the conflict between one religious ideology against others : one either convert or force convert the rest to solve the problem or one fails to do it.

    Polarity is where you recognize the opposite poles of differences – race and religion amongst your people, can’t solve them by either/or way, have to accept the differences as on-going, which requires these differences to be continuously managed to get the best results – which is what we’ve been doing for last 50 years albeit its more a mismanagement of polarities than management!

    Kee asked “Is the government silent because it now believes it can call such a problem a polarity?”

    When the government is silent (for eg acquiesce with Perkasa’s challenge to 1 Malaysia), then the government is avoiding the prerequisite, nay abdicating the responsibility of managing a polarity due to weakness. It does not mean the ideological difference between what Perkasa/TDM stand for (Ketuanan) and those supporting 1 Malaysia (Pluralism or Equality) is not, at least for the time being, a polarity of ideology / thought to be managed (as Idris meant) by process of education and change of mindset but an outright problem to be solved by of either/or putting both under ISA (though some people maybe even Mr Kee may tend to think it should be defined as a problem for that kind of solution). If one were a CEO with a deputy not toeing the line, then sacking him or failing to do so, let him take over one’s position is a either/or problem but if that cannot be done, then it becomes a polarity to be managed tilting towards changing the deputy’s attitude instead…

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 23 September 2010 - 7:05 am

    Polarity from word “poles” – like North and South Poles – means the divide/difference is a given fact that is not alterable and cannot be treated as a problem to be solved by just suceeding or failing to eliminate one so that the other is the sole one left without problems.

    Polarity acknowledges both in co- existence though in state of conflict, and hence their opposite tendencies and conflict have to be balanced/managed to mitigate the worst effects and try to get the best optimal results.

  6. #6 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 23 September 2010 - 7:17 am

    Or in context of a business organisation your supplier is not suppying goods timely as ordered or pricing too high. If you can just change supplier due to available substitute suppliers then its a problem of either you change it or fail to do so. But if it is the only supplier in town or you’re a GLC ordered by your political boss to take supplies only from one supplier – his crony- and your organisation depends on the politician’s licence, then its a polarity to be managed (eg by trying to negotiate or may be influence the change of the CEO in the supplier company hoping to get a better deal).

  7. #7 by cemerlang on Thursday, 23 September 2010 - 7:33 am

    Probably if he had married a lass from the Kelabit highlands, then she would not have minded if all the socks are lying everywhere in the village house instead of a Chinese amoy who is not from that side of the world and will behave like the best housewife in keeping the house in order. Afterall, they have a high social status and social standing which is expected to be maintained by the outside world. What if management can be improved but refused to be improved on self vested personal ground from the highest authority ? Do you like to see your own people having an attitude like they are only babies with no minds on their own ? Then there is no need to talk about change or transformation. Just behave like robots and ikut arahan sahaja. And all will be fine. Amin.

  8. #8 by undertaker888 on Thursday, 23 September 2010 - 7:55 am

    Idris won’t confuse us if we think this way.
    Bangsat Negara is a polarity and PR is a problem. For a problem there’s a solution. But for polarity the only solution is divorce. That’s idris’s own words not mine. So come GE13, let’s divorce this polarized bn.

  9. #9 by undertaker888 on Thursday, 23 September 2010 - 8:03 am

    Oh. One more thing. If Idris can’t take care of his own household by strewing his socks like a brat and expecting his spouse to clean it up like it is his ketuanan rights enshrined in the constitution, do you think he is fit to even sell us an idea?

    no wonder this country is so screwed up. We need to pick up their socks. Now that’s a polarity.

  10. #10 by k1980 on Thursday, 23 September 2010 - 8:14 am

    Would the pm care to answer the questions raised below?


  11. #11 by dagen on Thursday, 23 September 2010 - 8:34 am

    Problems can be solved but polarity must be managed for it defies solution. Idris said.

    Waaa E kong seemelanchiow?

  12. #12 by cemerlang on Thursday, 23 September 2010 - 12:51 pm

    A problem can be solved which I agree with Datuk Idris Jala. That is if you and I want to solve it. Many times, you and I do not want to solve it. So it remains a bloody problem staring at your face till today and the future.
    A polarity is like north and south pole; both at opposite ends and both providing balance to this planet called Earth. If north and south pole divorces, this planet will explode, then bye bye you all and off we go to see God or Satan. Kesatuan dalam kepelbagaian. Union in diversity.

  13. #13 by k1980 on Thursday, 23 September 2010 - 1:31 pm

    //The Council of Churches Malaysia Youth have slammed the stop-work order on an Orang Asli church //

    Just compare the above to Obama’s support for building a mosque at New York’s Ground Zero

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