“THOSE WERE THE DAYS by YBM Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, at Perak Lectures,
organized by Perak Academy on Saturday 18
Main Hall, Taiping, Perak.
Malaysia’s post-colonial history began with optimism and a grand hope in 1957.
When Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, proclaimed our
Independence at the Merdeka Stadium in the unforgettable words that “Malaysia is a
parliamentary democracy with an independent judiciary,” he had a vision of a happy
people in spite of the formidable economic problems we needed to solve. After that
dawn of independence, there was a search of how we could achieve this happy society,
fulfilling the needs and aspirations of all Malaysians which was to continue for the
generations to come. He symbolized the concept and conviction of generational
responsibility in his vision.
2. Tunku Abdul Rahman and his generation were dedicated leaders, not for power
but a sense of duty to the present and the future. They were not in politics for the money
or for themselves. Indeed, even after they had assumed power, they never used their
position to benefit themselves or their families, nor did they build loyal cronies who
would act as their financiers or hold any wealth unlawfully earned at the expense of the
3. The guiding philosophy was responsibility of public office. Public office was seen
as a duty, not as an opportunity. The public office was also part of their sense of
political commitment to create a Malaysia that was fair, just, cohesive, and balanced.
This was combined by a deep conviction of generational responsibility for those who
would come after them.
4. One of the greatest losses in public life and in politics today in Malaysia is that loss
of generational responsibility. Everything seems to be surrounded by greed and the
desire to be billionaires. This had led to a pyramid of cronies within the incumbent
political parties and their associates in business. It is this combination of the hierarchy
of political cronies and business cronies that led to the centralization of power in the
incumbent political leadership and in the office of the Prime Minister.
5. This power in one individual allowed the manipulation of the political system; I
mean by this the institutions of power including the media. In exchange for the
centralization of power greed and self-interest was encouraged by example and in the
guise of racial loyalty deserving rewards. This is the case in all the parties within the
power structure. This state of affairs is one of the most dangerous and difficult to
dismantle because there has been three decades of centralized power.
6. The political style that has dominated in these lost three decades has been
“double-think” and “double-talk”. One of the features which is alarming in this plan to
maintain status quo is the encouragement covertly of racial and religious obscurantism.
The underlying theme was a policy of using a balance of racialism and religion on the
one hand and talks of unity on the other hand in order to make the people hostage to the
status quo of power. As a result, racialism and racial concerns seem to have a grip on all
aspects of our lives, in politics, economics, education and employment, irrespective of
the present reality which has got nothing to do with race or religion. We are deliberately
made to feel that we are hostage to these forces.
7. Freedom of speech and expression of our political concerns to change the
atmosphere are restrained by how it will be interpreted by those who want to deny us the
right to differ. Article 10 of the Constitution which guarantees this freedom is almost
non-existence or subject to fear of retaliation or defamation. Legal suits intended to
silence legitimate concerns of public responsibility are increasingly used. Unfortunately,
our judicial system has forgotten the fundamental importance of Article 10 to the
democratic life of Malaysia. Common sense seems to have been taken out of the law.
8. On the economic front, income inequality in Malaysia has widened. Some studies
suggest that Malaysia’s inequality is wider than Thailand’s or Indonesia’s. Historically,
the concern was about ownership and control of the economy. It was the view of some
that if ownership was de-racialized or balanced at the top, economic justice would
follow. It is no longer a valid premise for the future. Income inequality is no longer a
problem between races; it crosses the racial divide and it is a problem of the majority of
Malaysians who feel the pressure of inflation in almost every essential aspects of their
lives, challenging their well being of themselves, their families, and their future. Today
and the in the near future, this is the most serious challenge we face. It is not an easy
challenge to overcome. It is a time when Malaysia needs leadership of the highest quality
and of those who have the moral courage to change and re-think our economic policies.
9. It is in these circumstances that we face the serious problem of rising food prices,
inflation in price of houses compounded by shortage in housing for the vast majority of
young Malaysians. Lack of economic expansion to give all levels an opportunity to use
their talents to seek work that is commensurate with their contribution, their needs of
daily life, and to narrow the inequality gap, is the threat of the future. Therefore, we
should be concerned about the justification of the removal of subsidies that affects the
low income because that will further widen the inequality and open the society to social
disorder and disintegration, and increase social in cohesion. It is in this context that I
raise the issue about Independent Power Production Companies (IPP). The privatization
contracts are today protected by the Official Secrets Act, and therefore we are unable to
really know whether or not the public and Petronas, as trustees of the public, are directly
or indirectly subsidizing these companies and the tycoons who are benefitting at the
expense of the public.
10. Related to the question of the withdrawal of subsidies is the deficit that the
Government suffers from in managing the economy. This question cannot be separated
from the way that the Government has managed the nation’s finances. If the deficit is as
a result of wastage, corruption and extravagance in the use of public funds, then the
solution to the problem should not be passed on to the public. What is needed is a
reexamination of the management of the country’s finances before taking any drastic
steps that would affect the well being of the people. We need to know the reality behind
the apparent subsidies that are given to the public and its relationship in the totality of
the management of the public finance. Only after we know the truth – and the whole
truth – should any change in the policy of subsidies be implemented, as the
consequences would have life-changing impact on the livelihood of the people. In the
circumstances of rising inflation in food, stagnation of the economy and income, we
should not do anything that would widen the disparity of income which would cause
11. The challenge today is for the return to generational responsibility in politics and
public office. This can only be achieved if we have democracy and parliamentary power
which is responsible. Democracy was the basis of the founding of the state of Malaysia
by the Constitution in 1957. When it was briefly suspended in 1969, the leaders of that
generation were uneasy, and they restored democracy as soon as possible.
12. That is because they realized that democracy has an intrinsic value in creating a
citizenship that is not made up of sheep but of responsible citizens. Only responsible
citizenship that understands democracy can bring about stability, cohesion and
economic prosperity. During those days, it was ingrained in that generation of leaders
that democracy was not only a form but a value system that respected the essential
institutions of democracy like the independence of judiciary, the supremacy of
parliament subject to the Constitution, the respect for fundamental rights, and free
speech. They also understood the meaning and primacy of the rule of law and not of
men. They also knew that democracy is the common heritage of humanity that we
inherited and have a duty to continue. The law that they understood was also from the
common heritage of all civilized nations.
13. And one of our inheritances is the common law system of the rule of law which is
enshrined in our constitution. They knew that the phrase “common law” meant the
wisdom that is passed to us in the progress of law and the values that are encapsulated
in the law governing public office and responsibility to society. That laws are meant to
enhance democracy and freedom but not to maintain and continue political power that is
inconsistent with the rule of law and the constitution.
14. Independence did not come with peace but with very difficult problems,
particularly the management of the economy and transforming it to bring about a
balance between all the racial groups. They realize that some of their problems had
roots in the history of Malaysia. There was a serious imbalance between the countryside
and the urban sector with racial dimensions which were too sharp. Indeed, poverty was
also quite prevalent. There were open discussions and experiments.
15. Some of you may remember that one of the highlights of public debate was
organized at the University of Malaya under the title, “The Great Economic Debate” every
year. That disappeared with the changes in the University & Colleges Act and the decline
of Universities’ autonomy. The search was to eradicate a sense of inequality between the
various peoples of Malaysia, whether because of one’s identity and social origins, or for
16. It was as part of this search that during Tun Abdul Razak’s time, the Second
Malaysia Plan was launched in 1971. We need to be reminded of the objective of that
“National unity is the over-riding objective of the country. A stage has been
“National unity is the over-riding objective of the country. A stage has been
reached in the nation’s economic and social development where greater emphasis
must be placed on social integration and more equitable distribution of income and
opportunities for national unity.”
17. That dream was slowly eroded from the mid-1980. The hope that we had at that
time is now challenged in the most serious way.
18. Recently, Petronas announced that it had made a 90.5 billion pre-tax profit. If we
accumulate the profit of Petronas over the years, it would come to a mind-boggling figure
of billions and billions. Yet, the greatest poverty is found in the petroleum producing
states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Sarawak, and Sabah. This moral inconsistency in a way
exemplifies how the nation’s economy is mismanaged and how the institutions set up in
the 1970’s have lost their objective and commitment to solving the immediate and
pressing problems of the nation.
19. Petronas was set up with the objective of serving the nation’s interest as a priority.
It was never intended to give Petronas a life of its own as an incorporated company for
selected individuals to profit at the expense of the national interest, nor was it the
objective to allow Petronas a cooperate existence independent of national interest.
20. What is needed is for institutions like Petronas is to have a national focus rather
than maintain a multinational status. The aim of making Petronas a multinational
cooperation at the expense of national interest is contrary to the Petroleum Development
Act. Petronas should have a Petroleum Advisory Council to advise the Prime Minister on
the operation of the law as well as the managemend and utilization of its resources as
spelt out in the Petroleum Development Act.
21. Another example of the abuse of power is the privatization of certain government
institutions which were set up as a public service to serve the people. Bernas is one
example of a privatization of an essential commodity as a monopoly for a group of
people and owned partially by two companies in Hong Kong. An essential commodity
such as rice should not have been privatized for business purposes. We are the only rice
producing country that has privatized and given as a monopoly to one company the
importation and distribution of all rice products.
22. The reality today is Thailand and Indonesia are self sufficient in rice and we are
dependant on 30% of imported rice. But because it is a monopoly, imported rice is
cheaper in Singapore than Malaysia. Privatization for the benefit of private individuals to
profit from such an essential commodity is a clear abuse of power. It would not have
happened in those days. But with the centralization of power in the office of the prime
Minister who had the party under his absolute control, anything was possible!
23. I will suggest to you that there was a deliberate plan to centralize power in the
leadership in a surreptitious manner. Unfortunately the nature of racial politics blinded
us of the reality behind certain policies and conduct of leaders at that time. The decline
of democracy, the abuse of power, and the mismanagement of our economy and the
nation’s finances, the economic waste, the lack of national cohesion in our economic
policies led to the flight of capital in the region of RM880 billion over the years from the
1980s. That was the beginning the lost decades and the full impact of the consequences
of the economic policies which has continued since then, is yet to have its full impact on
our national lives. And when it does the consequences are unpredictable.
24. The centralization of power in the office of the Prime Minister and the Attorney
general had a major role in this state of affairs. The challenge today is to reverse the
centralization of power and restore the check and balance of a genuine democracy.
25. We need to reclaim as citizens of Malaysia our rights in a democracy; that power
and authority are positions of trust and responsibility, not to serve personal interest or
as an opportunity for personal enrichment. We need to reassert as politically active and
responsible citizens the concept of social obligation and public service in those who seek
political office. Power is duty, NOT a prize.
26. We need to rethink our economic policies. Particularly in the focusing on the
national objectives that are urgent; economic policies is not only about wealth creation
but needs to have a moral dimension which takes into account the well being of all
citizens as the ultimate priority over profits.
27. I have given you a broad sweep of the past and a bird’s eye view of the looming
problems of managing our economy as it is today. I hope this will open a dialogue which
benefits all of us.