The Malaysia that could be — Kalimullah Hassan August 21, 2010
AUG 21 — It is a great honor for me to be here today and I want to start bycongratulating you and your families on your success.
Although I did not attend university — for a variety of reasons, chiefbeing that we were not rich and that I was not smart enough to be given ascholarship — I have, every moment in my life, acknowledged the value of acollege or university education. There’s always that tinge of regret in mewhen I hear my friends speak of the fun they had in campus, the pranks theyplayed, the girlfriends they met, the midnight oil they burnt during exams and the pride with which they took to the stage to receive their scrolls and enter the new phase in their lives.
Today, it is your turn to feel the pride of receiving your scrolls afterhaving worked so hard. Today is a great day for you. You are young; you are raring to go; you want to make your name; you have dreams; you have hopes;you have your whole life ahead of you.
Many of us here on stage are in our twilight years. We have lived our livesas best as we could and made our mistakes along the way. Some learn fromtheir mistakes; some don’t. It is those who learn from their mistakes whomake it in life. For those of us in this twilight stage of life, time is aluxury we don’t have. But you, graduating students of UTAR today, you areon the fringes of a new beginning with all the time ahead of you.
The only thing that remains is for you to set your goals; work hard;believe in yourself; persevere; and God willing, one day, in the future,you will be able to say — I am proud of what I have achieved and I am proudof what I am.
Graduating students, respected audience, and friends:
As you prepare to go out into the world, I would like you to share one thought with you. In my life, the one thing I have always been proud of is my belief that this is a great country which could be greater; and that Iam proud to be a Malaysian — first and last.
Today, the theme of my message to you is that only you can decide how youare going to live and that it is you who will decide what your Malaysia,your future generations, and your world will be long after we are gone. Ata time when Malaysia is seeing daily debates on race and religion, you havea heavy burden to bear; you, the young generation, will decide whichdirection Malaysia takes and I hope today, I can share a little of what ourgeneration went through so you can learn from our mistakes and build on theright things we did.
While we learn from our own mistakes, we should also learn from history.Unfortunately, human beings are prone to forgetting history. Allow me totalk about one personality who has shaped many lives and changed the courseof at least his country, the United States of America. I want to talk aboutthe American civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a great man, wholike us, had a dream. I want to talk about him because his thoughts havebearing on us as well.
Dr King died for his dreams but the whole world can continue to learn fromhim; especially us, a country that is multi-racial, multi-cultural andmulti-religious; a country our founding fathers had hoped would symbolizethe dream that they had; that was no different a dream from the dreamMartin Luther King Jr had. I quote Dr King in one of his most famousspeeches, where he spoke about his American dream. He said:
“I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living willbe one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians orany other distinctions.
“This will be the day when we bring into full realization the Americandream -- a dream yet unfulfilled;
“A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widelydistributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from themany to give luxuries to the few;
“A dream of a land where men will not argue that the colour of a man’s skindetermines the content of his character;
“A dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not forourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity;
“The dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worthof the human personality.”
Today, more than 40 years after that speech, a black man is the Presidentof the United States of America; a black man, it is proudly said, lives inthe White House. Today, to a large extent, Martin Luther King’s dreams havecome true in his country. Remember, even in the 1960s, after Malaysia hadbecome independent, after the United States had been independent for almost200 years, blacks and colored people were not allowed to eat at restaurantswhich were reserved only for white people; they could not drink from thesame tap as the white man; they could not ride on the same bus as the whiteman; and in many parts of rural America, the Ku Klux Klan regularly lynchedand killed blacks for sport. Therefore, America took major strides in civilliberties in the last four decades that countries throughout the world canlearn from.
As I say this, today, I stand here and ask you — have the dreams of ourfounding fathers been fulfilled?
Some people say that it took the United States more than 200 years beforethe true American dream could be realized. They say we are a young nation,only 53 years old, and we should be proud of what we have achieved. Yes, wehave achieved a lot. Yes, we never had the kind of discrimination and civilrights abuse as the United States had for more than 100 years. But thatdoesn’t mean we too should wait 200 years to realize the dream our foundingfathers or we have.
I believe that if our founding fathers were looking over us right now, theywould be proud to see the physical achievements of our country; but theirhearts would break to see the path we have taken in addressing each otheras fellow Malaysians. If they looked at the news; at what right-wingcharlatans and extremist groups are doing and saying; at the daily racialbaiting and taunting, they would weep.
And, no, we cannot wait for 200 years like the United States of America toexpect change because today, the world moves at too fast a pace and we arealready lagging. If we don’t change, then we will forever be known as the“the Malaysia that could have been.”
Once sleeping giants like China and India can transform themselves from twoextreme ends of ideology — one the world’s largest communist country, theother, the world’s largest democracy — to seize the opportunities, and fromslumbering giants, catapult themselves into the forefront of the worldeconomy; countries once deemed backward like Indonesia and Vietnam arecharging ahead; all around us we see that those who dare to take the bravestep forward, move forward. So, no, we cannot afford to wait 200 years torealize our dreams of the “Malaysia that should be.”
As you go out into the world today, your Malaysia is different from theMalaysia I grew up in. My Malaysia was the Promised Land; it was a Malaysiawhere our differences mattered so much less than our similarities and ourshared dreams; it was a Malaysia where we ate at each other’s homes, wherewe played games together, where we grew up together and where we haveremained friends even in the winter years of our life.
Your Malaysia is a different Malaysia. It is a Malaysia which,unfortunately, is today again struggling to find an identity, more thanhalf a century after independence. It is a Malaysia where every day we findour differences accentuated. It is a Malaysia where it seems the spirit offamily, of togetherness, of oneness is a spirit which only the twilightgeneration reminisces about.
My Malaysia was a Malaysia where we dreamed of venturing out, seekingopportunities and building our homes and prospering our country. Today, myMalaysia is a small part of a global village where opportunities abound inthe world around us. In your new world, you are an international citizen,shackled only by the limits you set yourself.
In the year 2007 and 2008, almost half a million Malaysians left thiscountry to work abroad. That, respected audience, is almost 2 per cent ofour population — and probably accounts for more than five per cent ofworking professional and skilled Malaysians — a disturbingly large numberfor a developing country like ours.
A study by the Institute of Gerontology, University of Kuala Lumpur, showedthat we are an aging country. The number of older non-working persons inMalaysia doubled from 1980 to the year 2000 from 700,000 people to almost1.4 million; in 2020, it will be 3.4 million people. Against this backdrop,half a million skilled Malaysians of working age leaving the country isunsettling. Will we end up being a country of old people?
We can see the phenomena in many small towns and villages in rural Malaysiawhere the young have left for opportunities in the cities and abroad andtheir kampongs and home towns become dwellings of old folk. They build anew life and return perhaps for the annual festive holiday or balikkampong, and don’t look back again. Magnify that at the level of ourcountry — if our young and skilled continue to leave for opportunitiesabroad, is it possible that we, too, could one day become a country for oldmen?
There must be reasons why Malaysians want to leave such a wonderfulcountry. Could it just be diminishing opportunities here and betteropportunities elsewhere? Unhappiness? Politics? Marriage? Discrimination?Or what?
It cannot be an easy decision to leave your country because we are, I amsure, all familiar with the saying: Hujan batu di negeri sendiri lebih baikdaripada hujan emas di negeri orang.
How many times that I have been abroad on work or leisure for extendedperiods and I remember how lonely it feels after just a few weeks. Thatfeeling of emptiness is real. And there have been times when I have been tocertain countries ravaged by poverty or infighting and war; then, the onlything I want to do is literally kiss the ground the moment I land at KLIA.Why then are people leaving?
There was a time when people from other countries wanted to come toMalaysia because it was seen as a land of opportunity and a land ofpromise; a land of honey and sunshine; a land where dreams could come true.That, ladies and gentlemen, was my Malaysia, the Malaysia I grew up in.
It is still a great country, and we owe that to our founding fathers but itis a different Malaysia today; a sad Malaysia. In that respect, how couldanyone fault you if you say our generation is to be blamed for giving youthe Malaysia you inherit?
But please do not mistake what I am saying. I believe that Malaysia hasvery good people and God’s given treasures; we can still be a great country- but only if we work towards making it great.
Let me now talk about my Malaysia. I wonder how many of you are fans ofLat, the cartoonist?
Many of my generation grew up on Lat’s cartoons. He is an extraordinaryhuman being who epitomizes the true Malaysian spirit which, I believe, ourforefathers envisaged. In Lat’s cartoons we would always see the portrayalof Malaysian life where all Malaysians worked together, played together andlived together in harmony. But there was one cartoon by Lat two years agowhich showed all his multi-racial characters huddled under an umbrella madeout of the Malaysian flag; they were taking shelter from politicians,right-wing activists and chauvinists who spewed racial invective.
To me, it was a sad cartoon. It was a tragedy of the new Malaysia that welive in today. Two years after that cartoon, not much has changed. In fact,if anything, it has become worse.
Yes, it is true that it was not all glorious sunshine and camaraderie inour country since 1957; and yes, it’s true that we did live through themadness of May 13, 1969. But save for that stint of insanity in ourhistory, we have largely had good years.
I want to remember the good things we had, the good friends we had and mystory is not different from the story of most of us who grew up before andimmediately after Independence. The childhood I had in my hometown Kroh(Pengkalan Hulu now) on the border with Thailand, and later in Penang, wassimilar to that of Lat in Perak.
Today, most of our childhood friends still keep in touch and though we donot meet regularly, we are still friends. You see that in Lat’s cartoonsover the last three decades as he rolls out his own life story.
Where did we take that wrong turn in nationhood that we ended seekingrefuge under the flag? When did racial baiting and taunting become analmost everyday affair?
My Dear and Respected Audience
I don’t think anyone of us can say when we started taking the wrong fork inthe road to come to where we are today. Perhaps, the undue obsession withpolitics over the last decade, perhaps greater awareness of a generationunscarred by the hardships of a post-independence era, perhaps greater andmore open access to information, and perhaps more awareness of civil rightsand liberties has contributed to accentuating differences. The question is- can we do anything about it? I believe we can.
As in everything, character is normally shaped in our formative years — athome, in our neighborhoods and in schools.
In the book Character-Building Thought Power the question is asked whetherwe have the power to determine at all times what types of habits shall takeform in our lives. In other words, is habit-forming, character-building, amatter of mere chance, or do we have it within our own control? The answeris yes, we have, entirely and absolutely. Look at the case of the UnitedStates and Martin Luther King Junior. Would anyone in America have thoughtin 1960 that one day, a black man would be President of that great countryand those minorities — blacks, Indians, Hispanics, Chinese and Jews — wouldoccupy senior positions in Government? If there were any, it would havebeen the most optimistic of `human beings who would have envisioned that.
The book states that there is a simple, natural, and thoroughly scientificmethod to build character - a method whereby old, undesirable,earth-binding habits can be broken, and new, desirable, heaven-liftinghabits can be acquired — a method whereby life can be changed, in part orin its totality, provided one has sufficiently will.
The key to it is thought. Everything you do, every conscious act, ispreceded by a thought. Your dominating thoughts determine your dominatingactions. Repeated actions crystallize into habit; and the aggregate of yourhabits is your character. In simpler language, practice makes perfect. Ifyou practice negative acts, for example lying, stealing, cheating, itbecomes natural to lie, cheat and steal. But if in your mind, you believethat lying, cheating and stealing are bad, are wrong, and you tend to dothe opposite as much as you can, you will become a truthful, honest,do-good person.
It is a simple psychological law that any type of thought, if entertainedfor a sufficient length of time, will, by and by, reach the motor tracks ofthe brain, and finally burst forth into action. Murder can be and manytimes is committed in this way, the same as all undesirable things aredone. On the other hand, the greatest powers are grown, the most God-likecharacteristics are engendered, and the most heroic acts are performed inthe same way.
The thing clearly to understand is this: That the thought is always parentto the act. In other words, you are what you think.
Here let us refer to that law of the mind which says that whenever one doesa certain thing in a certain way it is easier to do the same thing in thesame way the next time, and still easier the next, and the next, and thenext, until in time it comes to pass that no effort is required, or noeffort worth speaking of; but on the contrary, to do the opposite wouldrequire the effort. It’s like playing tennis or badminton or football. Ifyou learn to smash correctly, to lob properly, and do it again and again,you will never lose that skill. But if you don’t set your mind to it, anddon’t practice, you will never get it right and always leave it to chance,or to a fluke shot.
Thus a simple effort to control one’s thoughts, even if at first failure isthe result, and even if for a time failure seems to be about the onlyresult, will in time, sooner or later, bring one to the point of easy,full, and complete control.
From the individual to the society; every earnest effort adds an incrementof power that will eventually accomplish society’s objective.
Now, allow me to go back to that path we took in our road to nationhoodthat has led us to where we are today.
If we subscribe to the belief that thought leads to character building,then how we live with each other in a multi-racial, multi-religious societybegins with us, at home, with our children, in the neighborhood we live andin the schools our children go to.
My wife and I grew up at a time when most parents strived to send theirchildren to English medium schools. Although I come from a small rural townmy late parents sent my two elder brothers to an English medium school inBaling, Kedah, more than 10 miles away. Today, that distance does not seemvery much. But think back 1960 in communist infested jungles around Kroh,narrow winding roads, irregular bus service, not enough trained teachersand you will see what sacrifices our parents made to ensure we received agood and balanced education.
The character of schools was then different. The students were from allraces and denominations; and let’s face it; children are the most innocentand least prejudiced beings in the world. They grow up accepting eachother, no matter what their color, no matter what their religion. Thoseformative years formed our thoughts and our character and thankfully, mostof us carried that on into our adulthood.
Our elders, too, were not as prejudiced, living with each other in mixedneighborhoods, accepting each other’s differences, each other’s culturesand each other’s different beliefs. Sure, it was not all hunky dory butthey were, although poorer, a happier society.
But despite that, May 13 happened and it shattered the myth of one happycountry and we tried to rebuild ourselves. We had campaigns in earnest suchas the “muhibbah” campaign in schools; we had the Rukun Negara; we hadRukun Tetangga; our leaders strived to salvage our shattered dreams and wedid recover, largely because it was a societal effort. But there wasterrible cost to pay and many people migrated during that period, most,never to come back again.
Today, again, we seem to be taking the wrong path again – churches beingburned, mosques and temples desecrated; right wing groups touting race overnationality, threatening those who don’t think like them, discriminatingand differentiating…..
Today, as a parent of four grown-up and growing children, I want to statethat despite trying to put all our prejudices aside, my wife and I foundthat there were occasions when we were shocked at the things that ourchildren picked up in school. They would utter things in innocence whichdisplayed prejudices we did not impart upon them. It was after a lot ofsoul searching that we concluded that in our schools today, children wereseparated because Chinese parents preferred to send their children toChinese schools, where they felt the education system was better, and,generally, Malay and Indian kids went to national-type schools. That hasresulted in unintended consequences where bumiputras are the vast majorityin national type schools and the Chinese, the majority in Chinese-typeschools. In each environment, those outnumbered felt more comfortablewithin their own race group, their own silos, and some, across thespectrum, displayed the prejudices that their own parents had. There issomething seriously lacking in our education system today; butunfortunately, change has not come despite all the negative fallouts wherefrom young, our children are deprived of growing up in a true Malaysianenvironment.
Since my wife and I knew that we could not change the system, we asked whatcould we do?
I can tell you that it was not easy. We exposed the children to ourfriends, so much so that many of our old friends and their children, ofdifferent racial and religious backgrounds, are also today their friends.We encouraged them to learn about other cultures and other religions asmuch as we encouraged them to learn about their own religion. We havevisited temples and churches in places we have gone to and we did notdiscourage them from sleeping over at the houses of their friends andvice-versa, no matter what religion, culture or race.
At times, we felt we were fighting a losing battle because growing up inthe impersonal city is so different from the kampong or small towns wherecamaraderie is easier, where prejudices are less. But today, that the kidsare adults or near adulthood, we are grateful that we persevered becausethey have grown up shedding prejudices and accepting people as people,rather than as Eurasians, Chinese, Malays or Indians.
It has also helped that there are many inter-racial marriages within ourimmediate and extended families and weddings and family get-togethers bringtogether our Chinese, Kadazan, Indian, Pathan, Iban and Malay relatives.But it has certainly not been a smooth ride because societal pressures haveoften threatened to derail our own dream of a one Malaysia.
When the kids were overseas — the two elder ones are back after graduating— my wife and I used to take them and their friends out for dinner. Weenjoyed taking them out as well as listening to them talk, and marveled attheir innocence, at their inability to grasp why people should look at eachother and evaluate each other by race, religion or colour. They areidealistic but I wish that more of us shared this idealism.
Listening to the children and their friends, I often felt a great sadnessbecause I knew that one day soon enough, they would finish their education,come home to Malaysia, and if things did not change, they, too, wouldeventually get a little influenced, become a little prejudiced and lose alittle of their innocence.
They would find it a little disconcerting to be referred to by their racebecause overseas, they just find comfort in hanging out together; becausein their mind, they are just Malaysians in a foreign land. They are notblack. They are not white, yellow or brown. They are just Malaysians.
Maybe I have become too cynical but I often wonder what people would say ifI were to ask them “what race are you?”
Take my nephew, Johan, for example. My brother’s wife is Chinese. Johanlooks every bit a Chinese. What race is he? My wife is of Malay, Gujaratiand Sinhalese descent. What race are our children? You will be amazed toknow that because of this inability to determine what race we are, mychildren are deemed to come from different races, as stated on their MyKad.My eldest is listed as a Pakistani; my second and youngest as Malays; andmy third child as Indian. I refused to argue with the National RegistrationDepartment because as far as I am concerned, my kids are all Malaysians —first, second, third or last.
I can give you other examples. My friend Mervin is a Malayalee who grew upin Kuala Lumpur and Kuantan. He married a Kadazan from Tamparuli in Sabah.They are Catholics and they now live in Hong Kong, hoping to come back in afew years when he retires.
Their daughter, Natasha, married Reza, a Shia Muslim, originally from Iran,born in Pakistan and who moved to London. Both are working in Singaporenow. What race is Natasha and what race would their children be?
I could talk about Ayub, my Indian Muslim buddy, and Alya Chew, his Chinesewife, or about my friend Tan Sri Bashir Ahmad and his Australian wife;about my cousin Shakeel and his Canadian wife; or his brothers Atique andthe late Shamin and their Chinese wives; or my long-time friend Maniam @Wong Joon San s/o Alagan, a Bahai from Muar, who married his Chinesesweetheart Jenny Tan, and who are staying in Hong Kong now.
What race are they? What colour are they? Who is the Malaysian? THEY ALLARE.
One Malaysia, Bangsa Malaysia, Middle Malaysia – all these are slogans,designed, I believe, with ostensibly noble intentions. But as long as theseslogans and intentions remain on billboards lining the highway from KLIA toShah Alam; as long as they appear only in advertisements on television andin the newspapers; as long as they remain merely on our lips, we will notachieve anything.
Who among us does not want these dreams achieved? But if we want thesedreams to come true, one Malaysia must be in our hearts, not only on ourlips.
Graduating Students, respected audience
Barack Obama said people have a choice — they can either remain asbystanders and go on with their lives and let others talk about the worldthey want build or they can work towards building that world.
I have been inspired by many of Obama’s speeches. He said, of people whowant change, that:
Throughout your life, you will face many challenges in seeking change; andthere will be many periods when you will be at the crossroads, wonderingwhether it is worth your while; whether you should not just narrow yourinterests and get on with your own life than trying to be a crusader forthe larger good.
“But I hope you’ll remember, during those times of doubt and frustration,that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world. Becauseall it takes is one act of service - one blow against injustice - to sendforth what Robert Kennedy called that ‘tiny ripple of hope’. That’s whatchanges the world.”
So never give up. Never allow disappointment to stop you in your tracks.You have to pick yourself up and go on. And if you do that, you will dowell by yourself and by your country.
Graduating students of UTAR
My generation is fading into the twilight of our sunset years. It is now upto your generation, to transcend this challenge. And you will be doing soin a world that is as different from ours as night is from day.
The globalised, interdependent, interconnected era we live in today meansthat when you leave this hall and set forth on your journey of life, youwill do so not as Malays, Chinese, Indians, Punjabis, Ibans or Kadazans.Perhaps not even as Malaysians. You will undertake the journey as GLOBALcitizens, competing and collaborating across communities and acrossborders. The IT revolution has placed in your hands the tools and theopportunities to fashion this world in line with your own ideals and hopes.The future is in your hands.
And now, having imparted those words of “wisdom”, allow me to relate an oldIndian tale.
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes oninside people. He said: “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ insideus all.
“One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed,arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
“The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility,kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather:“Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee replied: “The one you feed.”
As you leave this evening, and go on to a new life and new future, just askyourself one question – which wolf will you feed?
Before I end my speech, let me come back to Martin Luther King’s dream.Something else that Dr King said perhaps bears context to our Malaysia today. He spoke about the lack of the spirit of human generosity in today’s world and I quote:
“When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact that modern mansuffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaringcontrast with a scientific and technological abundance.
“We’ve learned to fly the air as birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas asfish, yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters.”
So go out today and make the Malaysia that should be. It is in your handshow you want to shape our country.
God bless and thank you.
* Datuk Seri Kalimullah Hassan is a veteran journalist who delivered thisspeech at the UTAR Convocation
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