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Imagining a

Sustainability-Oriented Social Charter

For Malaysia*


M. Nadarajah
March 2011

* Published by Malaysiakini on 28th February 2011. (Edited.)
Imagining a Sustainability-oriented Social Charter for Malaysia

By M. Nadarajah

Social Charters have become necessary social instruments in today’s complex and highly
differentiated world to consolidate, strengthen and redefine the terms of local, national and
global social relationships, carefully crafted with a vision of a better future. These days, the
way forward does not seem clear without an issue-based or comprehensive social charter.

The widespread abuse of power by modern states and of position by politicians and corporate
leaders is patent today; blind and runway materialistic desires animate our uncontrolled
consumption behaviour globally; unbridled selfishness and insensitivity dominate society; and
ill-considered growth policies promote exclusive, not inclusive, growth. Given these realities,
we need to unambiguously and transparently re-state the terms of our relationships as a
society and the assumptions they are based on.

There have been some inspiring attempts to propose rights-based social charters for Malaysia.
My intention here is to contribute towards imagining a sustainability-oriented social charter
for our country.

First, a word of clarification.

The word ‘sustainability’ is used here in a wider context than its normal reference to
environmental or ecological (read nature) sustainability. I would include cultural, social,
economic, technological and environmental sustainability under its conceptual territory. This
provides for a comprehensive, conceptually integrated, all-round ecological understanding of
the notion and practice of ‘sustainability’, encompassing both society and nature. The
conception is important because if we do not “design” a fundamentally sustainable social
arrangement nationally and globally, there cannot be any environmental
sustainability. National sustainable formations need sustainability at the global level. It allows
us to part journey with “business-as-usual” notion and practice of sustainability.

Why do we need a sustainability-oriented social charter for Malaysia?

Multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Malaysia, seduced by neo-liberalist economic ideas, may

certainly be considered to have progressed over the last few decades, but the trend has largely
been down the glittering, blinding road to all-round unsustainability. For verification, we just
have to examine global indicators such as the corruption perceptions index, cumulative illicit
financial outflows estimates, press freedom index, etc. Malaysia today is in every sense
unsustainable as a long term national or human development project. All of us are implicated
in one way or another in the fate of Mother Malaysia.

Those we elected to manage our nation in the post-independence period have certainly grown
Malaysia. We have a Multimedia Super Corridor, the Twin Towers, Astro, many mega-
temples of consumption… but all these at what cost? Key institutions that would have
matured our fledgling democracy were pushed to a back burner, deformed or almost
destroyed. We were, and continue to be, handicapped by political disenfranchisement, subject
to casual public accountability, affected by wholesale and retail corruption, punished by gross
misuse of the judicial process (as reflected in writings and debates of the daughters and sons

of Malaysia), and paralysed by ISA-induced ‘systemic fear’. This is our legacy of
democracy…for the future generations to follow!

Political and economic practices that should have improved our quality of life, enriched our
everyday experience and spread happiness have largely led to the polarizing of society and
increasing hardship for the lower social strata and the indigenous communities. They have
increasingly “fine-tuned” ethnic sectarianism through material and spiritual corruption and
consistently presented immense institutional and cultural hindrances for taking on the
government for lapses in its promises and accountability, while a patriarchical system silently
weighs down on women and children.

Our main cultural debates and strategies and religious shortsightedness grossly limit
dialogue/multilogue and dialogical/multilogical spaces, continue to destroy a mindful, inter-
dependent living culture and contribute to worsening polarisation that stunts or destroys
feelings of belonging to a nation.

One feels sad (and angry) to read some of the messages that are now circulating in the web
space. How can this nation be sustainable as an idea and a practice with painful emotions
captured in such messages? Why should people build a home in such a mindless,
unsustainable Present that seems to have very little sustainable prospects for the Future?

Ask the movers and they will tell you that once only expatriates moved their belongings from
country to country but they see more Malaysians doing so now…”Flight” is in progress.
Besides calling these people unpatriotic, what have we done to make them feel at home?

So again, how do we imagine a sustainability-based social charter in Malaysia?

First things first…the Principle orientation.

Fundamental to the concept of citizenship today is the notion of equality based on the modern
secular Faith that all of us -- regardless of sex, religion, race, social origin, language, property
ownership or any other social status -- are born free and equal. (We must believe these are not
given to us by governments though they like to make us think so). As equal citizens, we are
entitled to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights within an institutionalized,
sustainable context. Because we live in a finite world, a society that espouses these features
should ideally stop blindly growing materially but focus on the development of a deep
cultural ethos built on “Being rather than Having”.

Sustainability in this context should be articulated in our pursuit of ‘development’. This

should be seen as a comprehensive economic, technological, political, social and cultural
process that aims at continuous but sustainable improvement in the well-being and “gross
national happiness” of the society, nurturing both individuals as well as socially and
ethnically diverse groups. Well-being and happiness in a finite world need our involvement
and aspiration to “de-materialise”, moving away from having to being. Such a development
process needs to be based on the free and meaningful participation of citizens. It must also
have a just distribution of national and global material benefits, keeping in mind a ‘culture of
limits’ to consumption of natural resources and a culture of social balance based on equality
and equity.

To make an all-round New Sustainable Malaysia possible as a long-term humane project, we
certainly need a lot of re-thinking, re-orientation, closure and rebuilding of institutions to do.
All systems, processes, social groupings, indeed everything, need to be re-examined and re-
framed within a sustainability framework. We need nothing less than a dynamic renaissance, a
creative regeneration, guided by principles of sustainability.

We have to get material (and spiritual) corruption out of the way. We have to fight our way
out of all kinds of sectarianism and exclusivism. We have to consciously move away from
political and religious shortsightedness – the legacies of the old regime.

We have to rebuild our relationships and expectations, between ourselves and between nature
and us. We have to strengthen our interconnectedness and mindfulness. We need to re-orient
business to be governed by corporate social responsibility and to be compliant to the triple
bottomline framework (and other such social, ecological and ethical framework/codes with
global scope). We need a political culture that is totally transparent and accountable and one
that encourages mature political succession planning that is good for the nation and nature and
not any one political party (with its limited agenda). We need to re-build citizens’ trust and
faith. We need citizens with a high sense of belonging and attachment to Mother Malaysia,
not a convenient arrangement.

Maturity in our local and national dealings is crucial. ‘Letting go’ of past orientations and
mistakes to make room for the new and the novel to re-build a New Malaysia is wanting and
urgently needed. We show great levels of immaturity and in the process victimise our
common Future. Spent forces of the old regime are always an obstacle and a nuisance but they
will have to eventually go, making way for the young and the novel, i.e. those who
passionately believe that a New Sustainable Malaysia, based-on all-round sustainability
principles, can be imagined and built.

It also means that the new forces that are growing on our national political horizon have a lot
of changing to do themselves. In the immediate term, they have the task of presenting
themselves with one unfaltering voice as the rightful owners of a Malaysia-in-transition.
Then, there is the mammoth task of creatively re-inventing and/or steadfastly implementing
socially and environmentally sustainable national institutions that can help, significantly and
symbolically, change the everyday experience of young Malaysians. This is a difficult
responsibility but until it is put in process, we will inherit and continue to be influenced by the
institutional ethos of the old and unsustainable Malaysia.

As much as the new forces are trying to shape a New Malaysia, they must also, in a concerted
and creative manner, change the institutions of the status quo that have contributed to the
sustained destruction of a Malaysia for all Malaysians…a governance logos and ethos based
on sustainability is the need of the hour. A minimum sustainability-oriented social charter
acceptable by all the diverse new forces – possibly, even reluctantly acceptable by the old --
would certainly help.

Dr. M. Nadarajah is a sociologist by training. He belongs to the Asian Public Intellectuals (API)
Community, comprising filmmakers, social researchers, theatre people, songwriters, poets, activists
and academics working for a sustainable global society and Asia. His work focuses on cultural and
sustainability issues. The article reflects his personal views.