Opening Ceremony of the 6th General Assembly of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties
1. First of all allow me to express my gratitude to the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) for inviting me to their 6th General Assembly. This is indeed a significant event for me and I am delighted to be here and to be able to visit the beautiful City of Phnom Penh and the Kingdom of Cambodia for the second time this year. I would also like to thank His Excellency Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Government of Cambodia for their gracious hospitality.
2. Let me also join the earlier speaker to express how sad we are over the recent loss of so many innocent civilians due to a stampede on the bridge of Phnom Penh during the Water festival celebration. On behalf of the people and government of Malaysia, I would like to convey my condolences to the government and people of Cambodia over the unfortunate incident.
3. My heartiest congratulations also, to the Hon. Jose de Venecia, Founding Chairman and Co-Chairman of the ICAPP Standing Committee, for establishing this very successful forum which brings together political parties of Asian countries, with the aim of promoting exchanges and cooperation between them, in the interest of greater regional understanding and cohesion. Today I am especially honoured to be here at the 10th Anniversary of ICAPP, the inaugural meeting of which was held a decade ago in September 2000 in Manila. And I am delighted to be here representing Malaysia, not only as Head of Government but also as the President of the leading component party of the ruling coalition in my country. It is heartening to note that 317 Asian political parties from 51 countries and one territory are able to participate in ICAPP this year. Certainly, the wealth of ideas and experiences coming from the widely varying political parties here represented, will make for an interesting meeting of minds.
Ladies and gentlemen,
4. The theme of this General Assembly of ICAPP is “Asia’s Quest for a Better Tomorrow” which is timely, and reflective of Asia’s ongoing transformation into the fastest growing region in the world. The forces of globalization and the emergence of China and India as Economic juggernauts have changed the way the world views Asia, and indeed how Asia views itself. Social attitudes and mindsets have been altered along with shifting world views and political perspectives, exacerbated by the feverish pace with which technology has engulfed the world. Suddenly every man on the street has an opportunity to broadcast their views and assessment on matters which were previously the exclusive realm of governments and authorities. Suddenly the space for social commentary is wide open and is used and even abused, beyond the limits of common decency and the boundaries of the law. I often say that in politics today, it is no longer as the saying goes business as usual, but in fact it is business unusual.
5. That being the case, no political party worth its salt can afford to ignore these changes, changes that are affecting the very people whom they exist to serve. Whether a political party stands for traditional views or for unfettered modernism; whether they exist to fight for a specific ideology or to struggle for a cause, the changes affecting society are obviously too important to ignore, the political landscape has altered so radically and whether we like it or not, we have to take cognisance so that acts of political party remains relevant.
6. A cursory glance at not-too-distant history will show us that many political parties taking into the context of a vibrant political democracy which at the height of their dominance seemed unassailable, but had their fortunes reversed leading to eventual demise, simply because they failed to be attuned with the changing times. It has been quite often said, that power is a heady drug. It can cause among others three things, it can cause inertia, amnesia and even induce delusions. A political party long in power often suffers from these ailments: inertia in the sense that it does not move forward, remaining static rather complacent and resistant to change and has become too comfortable with its own achievements; Amnesia in that it forgets the original purpose for which it was formed, and the struggle or cause it is supposed to embody; and it suffers delusions in thinking that it’s political support base is permanent and unchanging, and in doing so falsely believing that it will forever remain in power. And just because a party that was responsible to achieve freedom for the nation does not mean it will forever in power unless the party itself changes with the time.
7. Many ‘Legacy’ political parties are plagued with these illnesses which lead to additional complications of internal bickering and power struggles within the party hierarchy, which more often than not irrevocably damage the party. The end result is the loss of faith of the electorates and party grassroots which cause them to shift their support to alternative political forces that better serve their needs. In the end, the once seemingly unassailable political party suddenly finds itself collapsing under the weight of its own internal issues and maladies, and by then, nothing short of a miracle can reverse its downward spiral.
Ladies and gentlemen,
8. I raise this point today because I feel it is absolutely critical for any political party to understand the need to change. Not change just for the sake of changing, but change to better serve the need of the party’s stake holders; Transformation in the name of greater effectiveness and relevance; Re-invention to remain contemporary and dynamic. Consonant with the theme of this conference emphasizing Asia’s quest for a better tomorrow, political parties must begin now to understand that a better tomorrow is founded on an improved political environment in the region.
9. A pre-requisite towards that end, must be the strengthening of the political process. There has to be greater engagement with the public, to understand their needs and wants in order for political parties to best serve their constituents. Ultimately, contemporary trends indicate that there is an overwhelming demand from the masses for inclusion and participation in the political process and in nation building. A political party that understands these are the new “rules of political engagement” is the party of the future.
10. In Malaysia, the ruling political coalition understands this need to change the way we engage our stakeholders, primarily the public at large. We have good times we also have some bumps along the way, not the least of which were the electoral setbacks of the General Elections of March 2008. It was certainly a sobering wake-up call, but in two years since then, in particular the last 18 months, the ruling coalition as a whole has undergone significant transformation and the 13 political parties that make up the Coalition have made great strides in changing and winning back the affections of the people.
11. Today the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (National Front) –of which I am Chairman –continues to re-invent itself to suit the changing times. Most recently, we passed amendments that allowed for direct admission into the coalition, so as to broaden our support base and allow the inclusion of any body or organization not necessarily interested in formally joining any of the 13 political parties in the Coalition. Instantly NGOs and non-profit organizations expressed their keen interest to work with us on the path towards greater progress and development for the country
12. Within my own political party, UMNO, of which I am the president, we passed historic amendments to the party Constitution last year to allow for greater participation of party members on all levels in voting the ruling party’s leadership. Of course it exposes us to greater scrutiny in terms of our work and it certainly puts party leaders including myself at substantial political risk, but it is our belief that our political support must be –and should be- conditional on our ability to perform well, and our ability to convince the people’s support now, and by this mechanism, we will be judged by our own party members who can see for themselves whether we have earned our place as their leaders.
Ladies and gentlemen,
13. Aside from these internal adjustments to accommodate the changing times, the most important thing a political party must remember, as I said earlier, is the constant and continuous engagement with the people. It is this singular element which will be foremost in the minds of the public when they decide whether or not a political party is relevant to them. Real issues about their next pay-check where is it coming from, how will they put food on the table and how will they pay for their kids’ education? Such issues are extremely important concerns of the Average Joe. They care far less about the jockeying for positions in the political circles than they do about the pothole on the street outside their home that could damage their cars, or about the broken bridge over a nearby river that would cause problems for them to commute to school and work.
14. I have always maintained that political parties must be attuned with the pulse of the people. They must be ready to meet the expectations of a society far better informed and able to make comparisons with other societies near and far. It is for this reason that when I took office as Prime Minister in April of 2009, my first order of business was to put in place the People First, Performance Now commitment under the overarching 1Malaysia banner. It became not only our national tag line but it became our national philosophy. We needed to ensure that we deliver, and are seen to deliver what is important to our people. Since then, we have launched many initiatives such as 1Malaysia clinics to provide free medical assistance and services to rural areas, 1Malaysia scholarships for excellent students regardless of race or religion and we aggressively launched various schemes and programmes to improve living conditions of the lower-income groups and eliminate poverty around the country.
15. On the Economic front, the National Front government is relentlessly working to transform Malaysia into a high income economy. In January this year we unveiled the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) and identified six National Key Results Areas (NKRAs) namely to reduce crime, fight corruption, raise living standards of low-income households, improve rural basic infrastructure and enhance urban public transport. All of these were important areas that have immediate effect on the lives of the public people. Soon after, the Economic Transformation Programme was unveiled to establish a high income, sustainable and inclusive nation, and 12 National Key Economic Areas were identified to be given special focus to further accelerate Malaysia’s move forward. The important thing to note here is that at practically every stage of preparing these economic initiatives which will have impact on their daily lives, members of the public were engaged in public labs and forums that we are able to gauge their expectations and deliver on their aspirations.
16. Needless to say, the final judgement of whether or not we have met the expectations of the people will only be known from the results of the next General Elections, but early indications are that people have responded positively, and have begun to restore their faith in the National Front. As we begin to deliver on electoral promises and on stated commitments, our credibility is strengthened in the eyes of the public. In addition the people of Malaysia see Malaysia’s ruling political coalition as a time-tested, genuine partnership of different political parties striving towards a common goal, as opposed to a hastily cobbled tie-up of ideologically irreconcilable entities solely for political expediency.
Ladies and gentlemen,
17. I would be remiss not to touch on the external political environment when speaking about a better tomorrow for Asia. Asia, is a burgeoning economic zone that is a lynchpin of global trade cannot afford any disruptions or destruction caused by extremism or terror, and in that context Asian political parties have an important role to play.
18. When I spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in September, I called for a global movement of the moderates to re-claim the center and the moral high-ground that had been usurped from us. I called for moderates to marginalize the extremists and terrorists who have held the world hostage with their bigotry and bias. Nowhere is this more important than in Asia, where in some places cells of extremist groups continue to exist to spread their message of hate.
19. As members of the Asia family, all of us have a vested interest in ensuring that this region remains free and safe from ideologies espousing conflict, destruction, disunity and hostility in the name of their unholy cause. The proponents of extremism will always attempt to draw lines in the sand, dividing one side against the other, creating the spectre of a nemesis when in fact there is none. I have said repeatedly that the real issue is not between Muslims and non Muslims, but rather between extremists and moderates of all faiths be it Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or any other faith.
20. We cannot allow extremists and terrorists to hijack societal discourse and determine the direction of our respective national conversations. Reason and common sense must prevail. The moderates must always be the only dominant voice, whereas cooperation and negotiation must always be the preferred path over that of enmity and confrontation.
21. It is in this regard that political parties become pivotal. Political parties, by their very nature represent specific ideals, struggles or causes, for which their members would go to great lengths to defend, propagate and uphold. It is unfortunate that at times, for political expediency, political parties or factions within them would take the path of extremism to strengthen their position. In so doing they would stoke hatred and ignite passionate anger in order to gain short-term political dividends. This is when the center-stage is hijacked and non-confrontational voices are drowned out by angry and dangerous rhetoric. At the same time extreme voices from the opposite end of the political divide would appear, to counter the rhetoric of their opponent, and from that point, in a very short time the country will descent into complete and utter anarchy.
22. Whatever their causes may be, political parties must refrain from taking the extreme path. There are always peaceful means of conflict resolution, and no short-term political gains are worth sacrificing national and indeed regional peace and harmony. Ultimately what is important is the well being of our people and the preservation of our values, our culture and our way of life. I urge political parties across Asia, to join our call for a global movement of the moderates and reject the politics of hate and any form of extremism.
23. Indeed, political parties need not resort to extremist posturing to remain relevant and popular. On the contrary, in this enlightened age of information and technology, the most popular political parties would be the ones most visibly responding to changing times and adapting to the wants and needs of the people they serve, as I spoke of earlier. Extremists prey on the fearful and the seemingly threatened. If we make it clear that there is no cause for fear and no looming threat, then extremists become irrelevant.
24. In calling for a global movement of the moderates, I must emphasize the importance of linkages and networks in furthering the ideals of moderation. Apart from bilateral and multi-lateral government ties, informal networks such as the ones established at fora such as this would be essential in conveying the right message to specific audiences. I strongly encourage all the Asian political parties here to build and strengthen their relationship with each other, exchanging knowledge and experiences, subsequently transmitting this common message, the message of hope and better future back for your people. All of you here are leaders in your community, you are therefore uniquely positioned to spread the word that the key message is one of moderation. If we are able to drive this message home, this message to our people and our communities and it becomes a creed by which they live, then extremism will have truly been debilitated, and a true global movement of the moderates will have taken effect, not just at the leadership level, but right down to the grassroots.
Ladies and gentlemen
25. I have shared with you some of my thoughts on what I believe should be the way forward for Asian political parties, domestically and in the context of the external political environment. I have also shared with you some of Malaysia’s experiences which by no means perfect, but I hope that the examples that I have highlighted can serve as food for thought.
26. Every time I visit Cambodia, I recall my first visit here as Minister of Defence in the early 90’s during the day of Junta. It was the time where the future of Cambodia was so uncertain and we couldn’t imagine the Cambodia of today as we see, this is another success story from where Cambodia came 30 years ago. And that transformation is a credit to the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has taken Cambodia from the dearth of desperation to a country that is very stable and progressive. Many people have asked me what is the difference? What makes a coutry successful and others not so? What is the key difference? It all boils down the one word—“leadership”. Leadership that is bold, Leadership that is courages, Leadership that is visionary and effective. That is the key and Hun Sen has this leadership.
27. If this is the case for every Asian country then the 21st century will be truly an Asian Century.