Can the national unity council be sustained?

– Lim Teck Ghee
The Malaysian Insider
January 11, 2014

When news of the establishment of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) came out, many sceptics felt that this latest government effort to bring in a larger group of stakeholders – ostensibly to help resolve the rapidly growing divisions in society – was simply a hollow exploitation of public opinion. In fact I had written to a colleague who was named as one of its members to say “congrats, or is it condolences, if the NUCC proves as most expect it to be, another political wayang”.

Whether the area of concern has been in economics, the police, interfaith relations or education, all previous consultative councils, panels and task forces have failed to produce decisive action and genuine reforms to arrest the deterioration in governance – the main cause of the fault lines in the country’s social cohesion.

The recent statement by the chairman of the NUCC, Tan Sri Samsudin Osman on the latest religious controversy, however, does offer a glimmer of hope that the NUCC may be the exception among the various bodies appointed during the last decade – all of whom have been failures in pushing back regressive policies which are plunging the country into insolvency, political turmoil and social strife.

Stepping up to the plate in pointing fingers at guilty parties

In a rebuke to the government, the NUCC chair called on Putrajaya to “ensure” adherence to its own 10-point solution drafted in April 2011 on the ‘Allah’ row and to prevent a repeat of the “regrettable” raid by the Islamic authorities and seizure of bibles. Further he slammed the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) for its “blatant disregard” of the cabinet’s solution.

In view of the potential for a serious escalation in religious hostility arising from the bible seizure, even this – what many see as a minimalist stance in responding to the seizure outrage – is welcome. The reprimand of government and Jais is also an encouraging sign that the council is prepared to speak out in a timely manner. It will reassure the public that they will not have to wait for the release of a final report in the far future while the foundations of our national unity are being undermined before our eyes.

Hopefully this is the first of several urgently needed press statements and position papers to be issued by the NUCC. Hopefully too, it indicates a willingness to openly identify and implicate wrong or badly conceived policies – and the authorities responsible – that are dividing Malaysians rather than bringing them closer together.

Is a successful outcome for the NUCC achievable?

It has been said that transparency is the best disinfectant in exposing “misgovernance”. However, the BN government and its allies are experts par excellence in feigned transparency through foot-dragging; side-stepping; dodging responsibility; blame deflecting; and in implementing outcomes that are meaningless.

NUCC members must know that BN are the masters of power preservation. Hence they must be prepared for an array of tricks (including by BN cronies embedded in the council) aimed at ensuring that the final report downplays the government’s role in re-infecting the country with the present virulent strain of racist and religious bigotry.

There will be promises made at the highest level that the report’s recommendations will be implemented or taken seriously. These promises are likely to be forgotten once the report is in and the council disbanded. As example, towards the end of 1988, the prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad after announcing the formation of a council to draft a replacement policy to the NEP, stated that “the government promises that it will implement the policy approved by the council as the basis of the national economic policy after 1990”. This is now 2014 and there is still no sign that the NEP is dead and buried, or that a replacement policy is in effect.

NUCC members must ensure that their work does not suffer the same fate and that they are not made use of as tools, or fools, by a cynical and authoritarian regime, bent on ensuring the continuation of its power.

Checklist for NUCC Members

Having sat in the NECC in the 90s and having fought to overcome its impotency, I hope the advice below is of some use to members:

1. The NUCC members will be working through a secretariat whose role is crucial as it will be preparing the minutes and decisions arrived at; identifying background papers; assisting in drafting summaries; etc. Know that the secretariat is comprised of staff seconded from the civil service, is not neutral and will function as the handmaiden of the BN and especially its senior partner Umno; keep a lookout for possible dilution or exclusion of key issues/decisions; and keep out the bureaucratic content and verbiage that is used to obscure or conceal difficult truths.

2. Do not permit the Council’s work to be confined to the sub-committees which have been arbitrarily decided on by others. Members have the right to request for the inclusion of new sub-committees to focus on key issues excluded from examination. Issues such as the influence of a multi-ethnic civil service in fostering national unity; the impact of the national history curriculum (and textbooks) on fostering the right facts and values relating to national unity among the young; etc. are important to include as part of the final report’s recommendations.

3. The role of the religious-cultural apparatus (state and quasi-state) must be exposed. The effect of extremist forces and their media allies pushing hardline views has been stultifying and disastrous. The NUCC must find a way to name and shame these anti-national unity groups and ensure that they are not given continued opportunity to poison society with the warped interpretations of their power and authority.

4. The role of East Malaysian members is especially critical. Unlike their peninsular counterparts, East Malaysian communities have been less torched by racial and religious strife. Their success in building tolerant and diverse communities provides a practical model for the rest of the country to emulate.

5. The Chair and Deputy Chair also play crucial roles. They can act as catalysts or dampers to clear analysis and strong consensus. They can help mould inconsequential or substantive reports. Resist them if they appear to favour the government or are working towards a watered-down report. But do so from a position of substance arising from work and research. Many members will think that their contribution is confined to making speeches. They are wrong.

6. Members will be inundated with official papers and publications of the Government pertaining to national unity. Most of the papers are a waste of time as they propagate the failed policies of national unity which have brought the country to the brink. More useful are the papers and press releases from NGOs such as Comango, Suaram, Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia, Kempen Sejarah Sebenar, Islamic Renaissance Front and others. These should be distributed as background papers to everyone in the NUCC. Citations and proposals from them will add to the rigour and breadth of the NUCC report and ensure that the views of marginalized stakeholders can find a place in future policy making.

7. Insist that the final report be published in all languages and are widely disseminated. As the final report will be lengthy, make sure that the major recommendations and substantive summaries can reach the public through all possible avenues as well as are put up for quick implementation by the government.

Go for the truth

Malaysians from the professional and highly educated strata of society have in the past operated under self-imposed, repressed and overtly safe limits of dissent even when provided with the opportunity to critique the government. This has enabled the BN to get away with new wrongdoings, excesses and mistakes.

The public expects a frank, hard-hitting, no-holds-barred report. The NUCC has the opportunity to make an impact on the country’s national unity direction. For this to happen, it must push well beyond every member’s comfort zone and the outer limits of dissent. To do otherwise is to guarantee failure in their work. – January 11, 2014.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 11 January 2014 - 4:52 pm

    In short, NO.

    The fact that its called Unity council means it does not even recognize the depth of its challenge. At the very least it should be Re-unity council because this country is definitely broken, not completely but there are already pieces that is already no longer part of the original vision of what we all had agreed this nation was suppose to be.

    That fraction may not be the majority but it is the marginal most powerful in ruling UMNO/hardly BN that it determines fundamental issues for the rest of us. The hold UMNO hostage and consequently the rest of us are hostage to them. That fraction believes that if they so want something, they can impose it on the rest of us, deprive the rest of us of it. Facts and truth nor reasoning matters to them – they are entitled to speculate wildly, make false accusation and never accountable.

    So, in other words, its broken. Its fixable but its definitely already broken and never to be same ever again..

  2. #2 by sheriff singh on Saturday, 11 January 2014 - 10:12 pm

    What is the amount that has been allocated to be spent by the NUCC ? Will the millions be another write-off? What is the expected benefit or return, if any? Or will the final report be just another watered down, compromise mumbo-jumbo without any tangible action or results to be seen?

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