Revisiting a few Asean moments

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
My View - The Sun Daily
December 1, 2015

MALAYSIA as the chair of Asean certainly deserves a pat on the back. Given the flurry of activity, there is no doubt that there will be an Asean Community by the year-end. The question is "which"? It all depends now on the arduous tasks and hard work of translating words and rhetoric into reality. It will be a test of our resolve, imagination and commitment to create a truly "one Asean" based on the much touted motto of "one vision, one identity, one community". In other words, much (re)thinking is needed to sustain a unified entity cemented by the single-mindedness of acculturating "unity in diversity" among the 600-odd million citizens as part of being Asean.

As a host country that is proudly diverse, Malaysia should have taken to this like a duck to water. Unfortunately, this is where I discern the shortcomings causing us to miss some very precious moments to demonstrate what we have and who we are to the entire world, not just Asean.

It dawned on me when I saw the prime minister of India making his official appearance in an elegant dark Nehru-collared suit. Some weeks ago I recalled that President Xi Jinping of China wore a mandarin-collared suit during the royal state banquet at Buckingham Palace. These are simple but highly symbolic gestures that speak volumes about the acculturation of diversity that Malaysia as chair of Asean should have taken advantage of. Imagine a cekak musang suit locally-designed by one of our best jaguh kampung and custom-made for the prime minister? It tells a very different story and level of confidence, adding greater depth to the tired clichés like "inclusiveness" and "diversity".

To top this, imagine too if all the opening speeches at the Asean gatherings were eloquently delivered in high Bahasa Kebangsaan with translations in all the Asean languages, and of course English (for the benefit of others and the global Malaysians who do not understand or speak high Bahasa Kebangsaan)! There are good reasons for this too. About half of the Asean population in at least seven of the member countries speak similar if not identical Nusantara languages. This goes a very long way to remind Asean and the world of the prevalence and vibrancy of the language in the region; at the same time mitigating our dismal performance to uplift it as an official Asean language. One reliable research-based source estimated a figure of more than 215 million speakers of the Malayo-Indonesian language, making it the sixth most frequently spoken language in the world; even more if second-language speakers and dialects are included. But again we failed to seize the golden opportunity. We are often reminded to use a different language to boost our confidence.

This seems to be the case during the official unveiling of the Torana Gate in Brickfields. Though very much welcome of course and Prime Minister Modi as well as his predecessor ought to be congratulated for visioning such a monumental "gift", there is a bitter after-taste. Namely, why is Malaysia unable to come up with something as monumental to highlight its cultural tradition and heritage as a "gift" to mark the historic coming to being of the Asean Community? Is it not opportune to make a similar "monumental statement" on behalf of Asean? Imagine if this was to happen in tune with the common centuries-old heritage of Nusantara representing a good majority of the people of Asean? Unfortunately, we are too busy being "global" that there is little time for anything "local". So the Indians (of India) have left a meaningful centrepiece locally, cast in a 1st century BC gateway design, while Malaysians lag behind in conceptualising the same in their own backyard, let alone in India. Sad!

As though this is not enough, going by almost all of the primary media photo shoots, there was hardly any representative of the other ethnic Malaysians during the Torana Gate event. In particular, political leaders who are quick to jump on "diversity" and "inclusiveness" to score political points. The hypocritical stance contrasted starkly with the George Town walkabout by the late APJ Kalam, the former president of India, while touring the Unesco heritage sites not so long ago.

Yet it is in their hands that the fate of Asean as a community will be determined and shaped. Since it is always easier said than done; paying mere lip service will invariably put the nascent Asean Community in jeopardy. Failure is not an option!