Malaysian PM: 'Diversity is a Blessing'

Dato' Seri Mohd. Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak (gov.my)

Dato' Seri Mohd. Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak (gov.my)

23 Nov 2009

Remarks by YAB Dato' Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak at the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
November 20, 2009

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

Assalamu’alaikum and good evening

Thank you for inviting me to join you on this first evening of the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit. A warm welcome to those of you who have travelled from all over Asia and beyond to be here. I hope that in your visit to Malaysia you have the chance to experience a little of our country, its wide diversity, and warm hospitality.

This conference is particularly important because, as Asia continues to break new ground – and old stereotypes – in the global community, nowhere is there a greater need for the discussion of tomorrow’s leadership. This certainly means a new generation of leaders that look beyond traditional borders and expectations, but also new forms of leadership that allow collaboration on issues that increasingly transcend nationality, ethnicity, and local interest. Leadership for an era of falling barriers, instant communication and easy travel. Leadership that places the public interest – mankind’s interest – ahead of corporate or political expediency.

Ongoing and fundamental changes to our political, social, and economic environments will define the leadership needs of the next generation. And today, managing change is increasingly what leadership is all about. It is about identifying vulnerabilities in the status quo, educating stakeholders, preparing people and processes to accommodate change and, in some cases, carrying those less willing to embrace change to the goal. It is the idea that we are better served by today’s needs, rather than tomorrow’s, that is the fundamental leadership challenge of our time. Change will happen. It is our job as leaders to ensure that change arrives to the betterment of our communities and that our communities are prepared to accept it.

So I would like to focus today on the role of identifying and managing change amidst the extraordinary challenges of our time. As a case in point, allow me to tell you about Malaysia’s current challenge and how we – as a community – are working to address it. Our work is far from complete and, indeed, may never be. But as we move forward, we continue learning from one another and I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to share our story and solicit your perspectives.

Malaysia is a multi-racial, multi-religious society. Its people and its government face long standing social challenges and not always positive patterns of co-existence and accommodation. We face, as do all countries, increased pressure and scrutiny created by global trends beyond the control of any single nation.

As a nation, Malaysia is young in almost every way. We have been an independent country for just over fifty years. We are also young in the sense that 75% of our population is under forty years of age. While our economy continues to grow, we consider ourselves a developing country and have the drive and optimism to achieve our objectives and take a substantive place in the global community.

We are widely viewed as a multi-racial, multi-religious society that has managed its diversity with some success. We have some of the largest and most independent Indian and Chinese communities outside of China and India. We are a majority Muslim Malay country and a leading member of the Islamic world that has, within our national school system, the largest network of Chinese medium schools outside of Greater China. Our print, broadcast and online media are multilingual. We are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Orang Asli, Iban and Kadazan. We are Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu.

There are few places in the world in which you will find Asian communities so deeply commingled, yet distinct. This is because Malaysia is not just diverse in the sense of having people from many cultures and religions. Many countries are diverse in this sense. Malaysia is diverse also in the sense that our people have formed thriving communities each with its own language, culture, history and religion. Our communities have lived side by side for centuries and traded influences and ideas, but they remain distinct. The major groups have become Malaysian each in its own way. Remember that Asian cultures are more different from one another than European ones. Westerners are prone to underestimate the problem of unity in Asia if they assume that Indians differ from Chinese and Chinese from Malays the way Scandinavians differ from Spaniards. Despite shared cultural elements, Asian differences are more fundamental.

Malaysian diversity is not dissolvable in a melting pot, and the challenge of our living together will not yield to a single, once for all, solution. We have had to learn to deal with our problems in a concrete and pragmatic fashion. We make alliances, build bridges and share power on a community-by-community basis.

To those accustomed to tidier schemes this might seem an impossibly complex situation, especially for a country going through the growth pains of early nationhood. However we have resisted cultural assimilation in favour of pragmatic bridge-building and power sharing. Instead of grand social plans we favour rolling up our sleeves to form alliances, make friends and build links. We have relied on good sense to make compromises and come to accord on specifics. At our best we have preferred growing our unity organically, beginning from where we are, rather than forcing down schemes conceived at the top.

In recent decades, however, the forces unleashed by our ethnic mix have grown stronger. Our communities seem to have grown apart. Our schools have become less diverse and our communities more polarized. Religious practice has taken on less tolerant interpretations.

With a demographic composition in which no single group is in a comfortable majority, this is not a problem we can ignore in the hope it will go away.

One way we are meeting this challenge is to give the theme of unity in diversity a name, and making an all out effort to have our people understand and accept diversity as the basis of our unity. Our diversity must be a blessing if it is not to be a curse. Therefore a key objective of my administration to make every Malaysian understand and accept our diversity as a blessing: a source not just of cultural vitality but also of economic advantage. Malaysia is the clarion call for Malaysians from all walks of life to rise to this singular challenge.

Indeed the benefits of embracing that diversity are clear to see: Malaysia is a coming together of peoples with origins in Southeast Asia, North and South Asia. The Malay peninsula has for millennia been the trading post of Malay, Arab, Indian and Chinese merchants. The Malay language originated as the lingua franca of trade in the region. Diversity is in the genes of this nation, and has always been linked with travel, trade and exchange rather than, say, conquest or conflict.

Before the colonial era that suspended it, that trade was what we would today call intra-regional, and it was one of the most prosperous in the world. Today, as China and India rise again to their historical levels of global economic prominence, and in the wake of a financial crisis that has reworked the pattern of trade flows focussed on the West, Malaysia, sitting astride the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, is poised to rediscover itself at the nexus of regional trade flows. We are a trading country with the DNA of the Islamic Middle East, China, India and the Malay Archipelago, sitting at the geographical nexus of these worlds.

The 1Malaysia message says that if we embrace the truth of our essential diversity at home, we find within us a historical and natural openness to the rest of the world, and a sense of being at home on its high seas and trade routes. We have the languages, attitudes and skills to be at the heart of the Asian Transformation.

Malaysia is not a readymade programme being pushed down by the government. It is a reminder of the single most important issue we face as a society, one that will make our break this beautiful country: our unity in diversity. If we are at least agreed on the problem, and on the priority of the problem, we are some way towards sitting down together to solve it.

Malaysia is not an answer but a question, repeated constantly and in different real-life circumstances: how do we build community, how do we forge unity out of diversity, how do we manage tensions that set community against community? How do we prevent or reduce such divides? It is an attitude of constant openness to solutions around a single key challenge.

Malaysia is a steady focus on mending alienation, preventing polarization, and bridging social divides because there cannot be unity without a basic equity and a deep rooted sense that we all belong here.

Is our story of any interest beyond our shores? I think so. Malaysia is not alone in facing the challenge of diversity. Two things are happening which make the challenge of diversity global.

One is that nations are becoming more diverse through emigration, and that this diversity is challenging communities that were once more cohesive and homogenous. Cheap air travel and communications means not only that more people are migrating but also that people remain in close contact with their countries of origin after they have settled in their new homes. As a result, they have assimilated less rapidly by remaining connected with their past.

A second trend is that all over the world, we have seen ideology recede and identity rise to replace it as the organizing principle of social conflict. In Malaysia we have from the start had to deal with being a multi-ethnic society. We have always had the challenge to be 1Malaysia, and so we have had some experience in facing this issue squarely and confronting its many dimensions, cultural, social and economic. We may not always have come up with the right answers, and some of our right answers now need updating, and shall be updated, but above all we have stayed with this question.

Today, however, when we look around the world we find that even societies founded more securely on the European model of the nation state, that is, as sovereign entities whose political boundaries coincide with ethnic and linguistic ones, are turning into multi-ethnic societies. Already this has caused serious social conflict. The nation-state model is increasingly unworkable but the alternative to it is not well developed. Creating a cohesive society out of diverse communities has always been Malaysia’s key challenge. It is a challenge we have lived with from our birth. But today it has become everyone’s challenge.

The Malaysia question is about the unfinished business of nation-building with a full appreciation and acceptance of our robust and complex diversity. To Malaysians it is an invitation to find the answers to the problem of unity within the specifics of Malaysian life: with neighbours, friends, in local community and in our workplaces, schools and universities. To the world it is an invitation to join us in thinking about, and finding solutions to one of the most central questions of our time. I hope you will enjoy your interactions and deliberations over the next few days as you ponder on this issue and others concerns that affect us collectively as humanity.

Thank you.