I was born in 1973, when Malaysia was just 10.
Despite the ups and downs in our journey towards mature nationhood, my faith in Malaysia has never dimmed all these years.
After all, nation-building is a work that spans across generations and is always a work in progress.
I have faith that it will emerge not only as a home for all its sons and daughters, but also as a force for good in this world.
This Malaysia Day, I want to share five pieces of ‘food for thought’ with my fellow Malaysians as we negotiate the challenges ahead.
Diversity is a strength
First, apart from our strategic position and our natural resources, our people and their multiracial, multi-faith character also contribute to our strength as a nation.
Dozens of ethnic groups and religions have lived together on our shores for centuries.
This should be something we cherish—but we could lose it all very quickly if we don’t nip the growing polarization in the bud.
Indeed, we still have a long way to go to make our country a home for all its people.
But here’s the hard truth: the world today is locked in a fierce competition for talent.
That, more than mineral or financial or military heft, is what will ultimately determine whether nations—including our own—will rise or fall.
But if we give in to our primordial fears, or the temptation to pander to one group, we will deprive ourselves of the combined strength, wisdom and drive of all our people. That would be a disservice to our current and future generations, regardless of race.
Rather, Malaysia must be governed together by all its people. Everyone must feel like they have a stake in its destiny and contribute to it.
Walking the talk on inclusiveness
Second, our multiracial feature must be celebrated.
Our country’s plans and policies must become more inclusive. Aid programs must shift gradually to needs-based regimes.
All Malaysians who are in need, whether they are in Teluk Intan or Tenom, deserve to be helped. And all Malaysians deserve equality of opportunities.
If we refuse to accept this, it will be like fielding a football team where four of the 11 players have their legs broken—a recipe for disaster!
Moderation must be defended
This does not mean that we are giving up on the Bumiputra empowerment agenda. But rather, we must recognize that intra-ethnic equality is now a challenge just as much as inter-ethnic.
Ultimately, ensuring Bumiputras can succeed on their own should be the goal; rather than the defense of affirmative action at all costs; ignoring how much the world and its economy have changed.
And we must preserve diversity within our own ethnic group.
Besides what is provided for in the Federal Constitution, no one has a monopoly on defining what it is to be a Malay.
We are made up of a wide variety of backgrounds and worldviews. This has been possible because, despite our diverse origins, Malays are generally moderates at heart.
Moderation is the core of the sociocultural psyche and indeed, the Muslim faith.
I believe moderation is what most Malaysians share, and this must not be lost due to politics or fanaticism. Because what is really at stake is not the careers of certain politicians but our people’s very survival.
Unity matters to the economy
Third: unity matters to the economy.
Investors, in this era of geopolitical fragmentation, treasure stability.
Investments, both foreign and domestic, will only flow to countries that are peaceful and politically stable.
Trying to turn Malaysia into a mono-cultural nation may scare investors.
We must realize that our multi-racialism contributes to, rather than exists independently of our economic success.
Greater understanding needed
Fourth: we need more understanding between both parts of our country: the Peninsula, as well as Sabah and Sarawak.
Sixty years is a long time to be together, but we could get to know each other better, especially those in the Peninsula regarding East Malaysia.
It is ironic how we sometimes feel more “Malaysian” when we are abroad but automatically revert to our racial groups back home.
The Unity Government is working to also address this issue. For instance, in the New Industrial Master Plan (NIMP) 2030, one of the Action Plans of the Mission 4 (which is to safeguard economic security and inclusivity) calls for a better distribution of industrial development between all states, regardless of the state government’s political affiliation.
This includes strengthening downstreaming and renewable energy (RE) in Sabah, as well as helping to position Sarawak as a hydrogen economy leader and coordinating with Perlis to develop agriculture (food processing), biotechnology RE and mining.
Just as we must recognize the challenge of intra-ethnic inequality, so too, must we be cognizant of economic inequality between states.
Let’s be constructive
Finally, Malaysians must become more constructive. The last couple of years have demoralized many Malaysians, no thanks to unedifying politics.
However, if we are to thrive, Malaysians must be more invested in regaining our sense of national self, and pride in our nationhood.
No government or its plans will succeed if great swathes of our public are locked in cynicism or fear of the other.
There have been times when needed reforms were sabotaged simply because there was an unwillingness to give-and-take, or to commit to short-term pain for long-term gain.
We must have faith in ourselves
There is a need to focus on the future and on Malaysia’s strengths.
We must not be bogged down by a sense of pessimism and nagging negativity.
We must believe that there is nothing wrong with Malaysia that cannot be cured with what is right about Malaysia.
Our destiny is as a multicultural nation, at peace with itself, proud of its identities but also open to the world.
We already have what it takes for a successful Malaysia, but what is needed now is faith—in ourselves.
Investments inflow for the first quarter of 2023 was up almost 60% year-on-year.
If investors, both foreign and domestic, have faith in our country, why can’t we?
I believe we can achieve our Madani Economy aspirations.
As I said, my faith in Malaysia remains undimmed and it ever will be.
I am optimistic that if we are willing to put in the hard work- we can shape a future that we can all be proud of.
So, my concluding message to all Malaysians: keep the faith in our motherland that offers so much potential.
Happy 60th Birthday Malaysia—and here’s to many more!
(Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz is the Minister of International Trade and Industry, Malaysia.)