By AB Sulaiman
Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi stated recently that there have been too few non-Malays serving in the armed forces because “they lacked patriotism”. Malaysian politicians are not renowned for coining any worthwhile wisdom, and this one may prove hard to beat.
Sure enough this statement angered the public. But it’s so very odd. Where else have we heard an incumbent defence minister claiming his own illustrious soldiers and pool of citizens as not patriotic enough? In this writing I am trying to have a modicum of understanding to this bizarre situation.
Thanabalasingam, the former Navy chief, and Goh Seng Toh, a retired general, came up with their disappointment and anger, the former describing the minister’s remark as “it hurts,” and the latter with “unfair, stupid and racist”.
D Swami, a retired officer, then wrote on CPI of many cases of (non-Malay) military officers showing patriotism in warfare both within the country and abroad. They have clearly denied the ministerial accusation.
I am in full agreement with these individuals, basing my judgment from their straight- from-the-horse’s-mouth accounts above and from my personal experience in life. I came from the Royal Military College, with many ex-school and classmates joining the armed forces. Many of them left when they realised that their dedication, competency, loyalty, professionalism count for very little in their career development; but race and religion do.
But they can’t help being born (in this case) to the non-Malay ‘race’, and religion is very much a matter of personal faith and belief, of choice. So they left.
Yes, they left the military disappointed, disillusioned, and frustrated. Until today they voice their unending sorrow. And now their patriotism is doubted. To them this is like putting salt to a wound. I should know this for I meet with many of them regularly.
To come back to the issue, obviously patriotism among the non-Malays is alive and well now and as it has ever been. Obviously too, this minister has made an error or blunder of high proportions. If it is a bomb, it could equal C-4 explosives.
Where has the minister gone wrong? For this let’s explore what patriotism is all about. It is akin to nationalism i.e. one’s feeling of love and loyalty to one’s country and its way of life. But one’s feeling of love and loyalty for one’s country would yield at least four varieties:
a) Loyalty to the country, its peoples and their ways of life; also known as nationalism.
b) Loyalty to the country and its people, and going all the way to protect the country’s prestige and reputation. This is patriotism.
c) Loyalty to the government running the country (e.g. Loyalty to Barisan Nasional).
d) Loyalty to the individuals running the government running the country (e.g. Loyalty to Najib Abdul Razak, the Prime Minister).
This categorisation has some credibility. The Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) has unwittingly touched upon it recently. It defined its role by fusing (a) and (c) together.
Witness what its commissioner Mahmood Zuhdi A Majid (right) said on human rights: “The commission took a careful approach to strike a balance between government and public interests.” Whether or not Suhakam is justified in adopting this middle road is a potentially contentious issue, and would merit some scrutiny. But I won’t delve any further into it at this time.
Unlike nationalism, patriotism indicates a person’s dedication and commitment to the protection of the welfare and prestige of his country. He is ready, willing, and able to go the extra mile in terms of personal sacrifices (including his life) he has to make and to withstand any discomfort this may cost him.
It is different from one’s loyalty to the government of the day.
Today the Barisan Nasional is in power. This does not mean that a PAS, DAP or PKR man is un- or non-patriotic. Nor does it mean that a person with no party affiliation is non-patriotic either.
It is certainly not one’s loyalty to the political party in power.
Certainly patriotism is not loyalty to the individuals holding the country’s rein of power.
With this initial definition, let’s see where to slot Ahmad Zahid. He was not even talking about nationalism or patriotism. He is way off course. I am inclined to think that he has demonstrated items (c) and (d) above. He is showing loyalty to his party and to Najib Abdul Razak.
Sentiments of the romantic past
He might have been echoing the sentiments of the romantic past, like during the Malacca sultanate days. This was when society was generally agrarian in character and the population number very small.
Tribal warfare was more or less the norm and national defence was then a question of collective responsibility. Each member of a tribe would be required to ‘Mempertahankan negara dari musuh-musuhnya’ or to defend the nation from its enemies each time the society was under attack. At this time, patriotism was demanded and expected.
This must have been the case when the Portuguese came calling in 1509 and 1511. Likewise during the time of British rule when there appeared many Malay warriors daring to rise and challenge the colonisers. The fact of the matter would be that it was every person’s patriotic duty to defend his country.
But times have changed. Today we all live in a post-modern democratic society, and our total number come to nearly thirty million. We live in a world with modern economy, with its individual-oriented social norms. Mainly we live in an era of specialisation where we do one tiny bit in one big economic machine. National defence would be handled by the professional soldiers organised by his Defence Ministry.
With changing times come changing attitudes. In any case we humankind have developed independence of thinking. We have a growing concern over our government putting dominance over our lives as individuals. The sense of the individual or individualism has entered our domain.
Also the rules of engagement of warfare have also changed: In the past we were using bows and arrows, kris and swords, lances and machetes. Combat was essentially one-to-one. But today warfare invariably makes use of modern weapons of war, which means guns and bombs, tanks, rockets, jet bombers, warships and submarines.
Put all this together – the sense of the individual, the large number of population, the huge economic machine, the specialisation of functions, and we see the need for the state to plan, budget, set up, train, maintain and manage a war machine. There is need for a technically savvy and professional and permanent bureaucracy to ensure continuity, growth and development of the national war machine.
This means there is an absolute need for specially and professionally trained members of the armed forces to man a nation’s defence mechanism. Professional soldiers would mean the setting up of a good and clear path for career advancement for the individuals who have chosen soldiering as their profession.
Now, a word about the modern professional soldier. The modern soldier to begin with is a modern individual. The sense of the individual in him is strong. He joins the armed forces out of his free will, after having discarded other alternative careers he might have chosen.
He does his job with a sense of duty, integrity, competency, and professionalism, as provided by his training and skill, all in order to gain the satisfaction of a job well done. He is there to satisfy his own inner self, and if in his career he has to undergo sacrifices then he is ready to do so.
Sweep it under the carpet
But inasmuch as the minister has made a boob, the government reaction has been wanting. In other countries the minister would have been made to apologise and or resign. But here in our country of supposedly high morals and integrity it is business as usual.
As the Star puts it Ahmad Zahid had explained his claim to Najib.Apparently the prime minister had described this case as a mere polemics and asked not to discuss the issue openly. Zahid said Najib wanted a stop to any open discussion on the issue as ‘nothing would be achieved from it.’
In other words sweep it under the carpet, and nobody is the wiser.
But there is this adage of psychology or philosophy stating a person can make one mistake and he can be forgiven, but he should learn from it. He would be a fool if he repeats his (first) mistake. The moral is that we have to learn from past mistakes.
I see this wisdom being side stepped by Najib. Zahid will not open his mind and learn the fact that he might have said something troublesome (and even bordering on treasonous), so there is no guarantee that he will not repeat this same mistake again. Nor will other members of the cabinet learn from this one mistake and stopping them from repeating the same or a variation of the same mistake again.
It’s good to ask why Najib elects not to give Zahid a tougher reprimand. There can be many reasons. I’d hazard one guess – perhaps not to show or expose any weaknesses in his cabinet team. If this hunch is true, then how unpatriotic of him for not making use of this window of opportunity to improve the intellect and open the mind of Zahid and his other cabinet members.
AB SULAIMAN is an observer of human traits and foibles, especially within the context of religion and culture. As a liberal, he marvels at the way orthodoxy fights to maintain its credibility in a devilishly fast-changing world. He hopes to provide some understanding to the issues at hand and wherever possible, suggest some solutions. He holds a Bachelor in Social Sciences (Leicester, UK) and a Diploma in Public Administration, Universiti Malaya.