Closing Dinner of Regional Eisenhower Fellowships Conference
Ladies and Gentlemen
Assalamu’alaikum and good evening
1. Thank you for inviting me (and my wife Rosmah) to join you on this final evening of your Regional Eisenhower Fellows Conference. A special welcome to those of you who have traveled from around the region and beyond. I understand over 20 nationalities are represented at this gathering of Eisenhower Fellows and I hope you have had time to experience all that is uniquely Malaysian during your visit here. The Eisenhower Fellowship Association in Malaysia is a strong one, and includes many distinguished personalities in government and civil service, academia, the judiciary, civil society, the arts and the private sector. Congratulations to all of you for successfully organizing this Conference, in particular to Tan Sri Ramli Kushairi, Tan Sri Siti Norma Yaakob and their team.
2. It has been my great pleasure to see many new and old friends and colleagues who share the bond of the Fellowships’ pursuit of greater understanding through dialogue and exchange. The sense of community, comradeship, and purpose you have re-established over the last couple of days is indicative of the Eisenhower Fellowships’ promise. I would like to recognise my good friend, the Honourable John Wolf, former United States Ambassador to Malaysia and current President of the Eisenhower Fellowships. Welcome back, Mr. Ambassador. Your tireless efforts have undoubtedly brought the world closer to the U.S.; and in turn the U.S. closer to the world. Malaysia too has been a beneficiary of your untiring efforts and strong support.
3. In a global social landscape increasingly tarnished by political and economic instability; extremism; and common, everyday incivility, the simple encouragement of understanding and collaboration is often lost in the grandstanding and rhetoric. As Eisenhower Fellows, you have committed yourselves, and, in many cases, your reputations and your communities, to the idea that you can curtail society’s tendency to take the easy path – toward exclusion and hostility – and achieve a more meaningful understanding of each other, our differences, and the strength such diversity provides.
4. As individuals, you can each offer your own story of the impact the Fellowship has had on your lives and your attempts to transform that impact into true and lasting change in yourselves and for your communities. Although I am not a Fellow, if you have been reading the local papers during your stay in Malaysia, you might have noticed that I also have a relevant story to tell.
5. Malaysia stands at a crossroads. We have been an independent country for just over 50 years. We are a multi-racial, multi-religious society that has a unique, and constitutionalised, method of accommodating the diverse economic and ethnic demographics of our country. We are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Orang Asli, Iban and Kadazan. We are Muslim, Christian, and Hindu. A youthful, middle income, developing nation that has been a model for many of our friends around the world. Individually, we pursue our beliefs, our passions, and the dream of a better tomorrow. Together, we share a decades long history of tolerance and mutual respect – the origin and ongoing strength of our freedom.
6. Of late, however, Malaysia has become increasingly torn by the very thing that provided our independence and sustains our strength: our diversity. Much like the global community, increasing political and economic pressures and occasional self interest have driven some of us away from the pursuit of mutual understanding and instead, towards exploiting our society’s differences for personal and political gain. In many instances this is rural gamesmanship and ignorance. In others, it is something more ominous.
7. The list of challenges we face can, in itself, be daunting. We have an Opposition, a critical voice to any productive democracy, still determined to claim majority in our national Parliament through the back door, by encouraging defections from the winning coalition, seven months after the General Elections. We have a traditional – perhaps overly so – media apparatus that the rakyat don’t find it credible on occasion. Our system of government, and any who serves in it, has come under suspicion and criticism, sometimes of the most offensive sort. We have a national security mechanism to protect the nation in times of extreme crisis, the Internal Security Act, but of late, some feel the law has been applied erratically and sometimes erroneously. We are long overdue for a comprehensive look at judicial and social reform and corruption enforcement. And, like all countries, Malaysia is preparing for the aftershocks of the global economic crisis that may have realigned capital markets forever.
8. Perhaps most importantly, there is an entire generation of Malaysians coming of age which knows nothing of productive discourse, compromise, or win-win solutions. The ironic tragedy is that those setting the negative example for young Malaysians, gained their skills and positions in a more accommodating and civilized era. Why they have chosen to take the lesser, easier path of hate and exclusion, is, if not a mystery, certainly a discussion for another time.
9. With all due respect to the Ambassador and other guests from abroad, exacerbating these challenges has been a vast array of international observers and commentators calling for sweeping change without any depth of understanding of what that change might bring or we would sacrifice in the process. I urge them to consider the lessons of colonialism and its demise: lasting and positive change comes from within the community, not outside of it.
10. One result of these ongoing challenges is a frustrated electorate that has perhaps matured at a faster pace than its government. Malaysia is fortunate that the electorate remain willing, within limits, to provide government the time to catch up.
11. So how does one address these challenges? Always a good student, I know that the correct answer for the evening and with this audience is “dialogue, understanding, and collaboration.” However, it is a frustrating fact that, as a candidate for political office in Malaysia’s unique system of consultation and accommodation, I cannot always be as direct as the Eisenhower Fellowship ideal requires.
12. So, again, how does one address these challenges? How does one enter a conversation with a roomful of strangers, some of them hostile? How do you establish a connection on a wide variety of issues, all of which are heatedly debated? I have chosen to follow the old maxim: When the going gets tough, the tough get blogging…I have started to blog!
13. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the electorate and the elected and to establish an ongoing, non-politicised discussion on the importance of unity in a culture rich in diversity, I began my personal website: 1Malaysia.com.my. Through this tool, we eventually hope to reinforce the roles of tolerance and understanding among our communities and to highlight the value and importance of diversity in our evolving national identity.
14. Beyond this strengthening dialogue, Malaysia will, of course, continue to address the challenges that face us in more traditional ways and pursue real-world solutions to improve our communication and our economic and political stability.
15. On the economic front, the global community is facing its worst nightmare since the Great Depression of the 1930s, where in the U.S. alone, 13 million lost their jobs and 5,000 banks went out of business between 1929 and 1932. Today, we stand on the brink of a global crisis of equal proportions. And with our financial markets inextricably linked, the effects have been transmitted with remarkable speed from the United States, to Europe to Asia and beyond. Malaysia is unlikely to be spared.
16. However, we will be better placed than many to weather the storm when it hits us. Our banking system remains resilient, well regulated and well capitalized, partially because we cleaned up and consolidated during the Asian financial crisis a decade ago. Our gradual liberalization approach has meant that our banks have been less exposed to the complex derivative products that have now turned into toxic waste peddled by Wall Street. As one of the world’s top 20 trading economies, with trade at some 200% of our GDP, our strong foreign exchange surpluses and large account surplus, allow us to continue doing business with the rest of the world, and to keep interest rates at levels that don’t hurt consumers and companies.
17. But because we know this global economic crisis will be long and deep, Malaysia is also preparing for harder times ahead. The recently announced budget focused particularly on assistance for the most vulnerable in our society – lower income groups, senior citizens, the disabled, single parent families. This coming Monday, we will announce an economic stabilization plan that will provide additional monetary and fiscal measures to strengthen key pillars of our economy. Our priorities are to maintain investor and consumer confidence, preserve jobs and create conditions for continued growth as we turn the corner.
18. In the words of John Rockefeller at the height of the Great Depression: “These are days when many are discouraged…Depressions have come and gone. Prosperity has always returned and will again.” Malaysia, like many of our friends, must take this opportunity in adversity to further integrate our economies with our most important trade and investment partners. We must avoid the temptation to resort to protectionist barriers – the world must remain open for business. And we must continue to build strength in our companies and in our people to face competition whether at home or abroad.
19. On the political front, the opposition should co-operate with the government in developing common ground in facing the global financial crisis. perhaps the one positive result of global economic crisis and a struggling economy. Traditional media continues to perform its usual function but the Rakyat are increasingly voting with their feet and moving towards valuable, vital, and robust online discourse (although at times, I am exasperated and shocked by the half truths and outright lies that masquerade as the gospel truth on the internet).
20. We are emerging from the aftermath of a hard-fought, free, and fair 12th General Election and government has pledged to embrace and enforce the people’s mandate. In the coming months, we will also continue our work on social and judicial reform and update Malaysia’s corruption enforcement mechanisms.
21. These steps, among others, will set Malaysia on the path to a future more reflective of our people: vibrant, independent, and engaged in the development of all our communities.
22. I am doing my best to promote what I believe to be at the heart of every Eisenhower Fellowship: the belief that a unified force is stronger than a divided one and that peaceful coexistence is more lasting – and more rewarding – than a noisy, free-for-all disharmony. It just requires more work. And this is among the most important and critical issues I intend to fully address as I prepare to lead Malaysia and Malaysians into a new beginning. I will not have all the answers, but I am confident we can collectively find the appropriate solutions and compromises, if we start working together, like we have done before.
23. This is not meant to be a long speech, so once again, thank you all for coming. I hope I have given you some food for thought, and I hope you will go away with a better sense of this wonderful country, our great history, our difficult present and our hopeful future. I look forward to the rest of the evening. Good night.
Deputy Prime Minister’s Office
17th October 2008.