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Dreaming good dreams

LAST month was convention time in the US. It was very interesting to listen to the acceptance speeches of the candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency from the two major political parties in the US. The prose has been poetic yet powerful; the rhetoric aplenty. There were some strong lines, some very good words. Some of the sentiments struck home, even in our Malaysian context. I confess that some thoughts and ideas made me very emotional.

The majority of Malaysians have not gone
to war (© Jafaris Mustafa / Dreamstime)
I will be the first to admit that I have not gone to war to defend my nation, or taken up arms in defence of foreign policy interests overseas. But this is also true of millions of my fellow Malaysians. And for this I am indeed grateful to the government, which has pursued a foreign policy that has obviated the need for our young men and women to fight foreign wars.

At the same time, we should acknowledge the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform who have died or been injured in the course of protecting peace as participants of United Nations missions abroad.

When Malaya first gained independence in 1957, there was a foreign “enemy” upon which to focus. We were fighting the evil of colonialism. Malayans then drew together, regardless of race or religion, to begin a new nation, a new dream. When Malaysia was formed in 1963, the idea of freedom from domination by someone not of our own choosing was still strong in the heart of a young country. Indeed, one could argue that the threat from a second “enemy”, Indonesia, which confronted us as a newly formed federation, solidified the spirit of Malaysia.

One could also argue that Indonesia was in need of unity. President Sukarno may well have used confrontation against Malaysia as a means to strengthen his popular support at a time of crisis of leadership in that country. That he ultimately did not succeed and was replaced by General Suharto is another story.


Anti-British leaflet distributed by Argentina during the war over
the Falkland Islands, depicting Margaret Thatcher and then
US president Ronald Reagan (Public domain)

But there is nothing like rallying the country behind the flag and charging headlong into a foreign battle. Americans know what that means. And even the British under Margaret Thatcher arguably did the same during their war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands (or Las Malvinas, depending on which national football team you support). 

There is even a word for it: irredentism. It has got nothing to do with getting your teeth checked. Instead, it is hoping that you do not get your teeth kicked in as you wage war with an external party as a diversion from the internal disunity besetting your own country.

We in Malaysia should be no strangers to irredentism. To a certain extent, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad practised it when he launched his “Look East” policy. Let us, Malaysians, unite against the evil Europeans and Americans; let us, Malaysians, rally together with our Asian brothers and sisters and follow the example of our Japanese and South Korean neighbours. Similarly, irredentism can be found in religion, in the call for the ummah to unite in the face of the wicked West and their wanton ways.

Tun Dr Mahathir: Look East (Public domain)
But this is where we come acropper, and for two reasons. A vision of religious unity that only unites one half of the country makes for weak nation building. It encourages citizens to take sides (or sometimes we have no choice as to which side we are on) and see all things in a “them vs us” perspective. Lines of divide are drawn. Families are separated, and a nation is torn apart. 

Instead of “Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu”, we have a breakdown in nationhood because Ali, Ah Chong and Muthu are “encouraged” (i.e. have no choice but) to pursue sectarian agendas as a means to get ahead. A house divided unto itself will fall. So instead of “unity is strength”, disunity is weakness.       

Alternatively, in the absence of an outward target upon which to focus, we might be tempted to turn inward against ourselves. And this is what we are seeing today: two different and contrasting visions of the future of this country. Which is the right path?

Along animal lines

The elephant or the donkey? (© Mary Burr / Dreamstime)
The Americans face this problem every four years: which to choose, the elephant (Republicans) or the donkey (Democrats)? And every four years after what is always referred to as a divisive or bruising election, the winner graciously reaches across the political aisle in a call to once again unite for the good of the country. This year will be no different.

But what about us? How do we move forward? Which animal should we support? The anoa or the hybrid Mongolian tapir?

Some Muslim scholars have suggested expanding the concept of ummah to include everyone, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, both equal in an egalitarian society. If this can be done, will we then have cause to hum “oom pah pah” as happy days are here again?

Others have sought to expand the idea of jihad into a struggle not of one religion against another, not of East against West, but instead a moral challenge to lift ourselves out of and away from our petty perspectives — to embrace the big picture of seeking the common good. It is a battle to overcome our own prejudices and to act against our individual selfishness and parochial self-interest. 

Borrowing from the US presidential candidates’ speeches, are we able to aim to be better than what we are now? To achieve much more collectively than we ever could individually? Perhaps this is the “war” that we must now fight, and for which our people, young and old alike, must rally. 

Robert F Kennedy (Public domain)

The French used to have a political party known as the Rassemblement Pour la République (Rally for the Republic) — which, since 2002, has merged into the Union for a Popular Movement. Perhaps we need a rally of our own, for our federation, for the future of our country, for our collective place under the sun. (But if it’s a rally, don’t forget your police permit application.)

I close with the words of a putative Democratic presidential nominee of 40 years ago, Robert F Kennedy, who sadly did not go on to win the nomination but was instead gunned down on 5 June 1968:

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”            

May we dream good dreams, and work towards making them come true. Will we succeed? Only time will tell. 

Andrew Khoo is an advocate and solicitor in private practice, and an aspiring columnist and commentator.

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2 Responses to “Dreaming good dreams”

  1. Hi,

    I really enjoyed this article and everywhere I go it is apparent that the world is in dire need of truly inspiring and visionary leaders. This article brings to light that we (as individual human beings) are also sorely lacking the ability to dream the future.

    I have always loved this quote: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” and I would like to shed a little bit of light on its origins.

    The original quote is “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not,” penned by George Bernard Shaw.

    Bobby Kennedy paraphrased it and used it, but I am quite sure he also sourced it. Wikipedia tells me that Ted Kennedy acknowledges this in his funeral eulogy for Bobby Kennedy. I think the quote should be acknowledged as such.


  2. Andrew Khoo says:

    Since I started my article by referring to the US presidential candidates’ nominations, I wanted the ending to tie in with that, and so chose Robert Kennedy’s (himself a candidate for the nomination for the US presidency) formulation of the original quote by George Bernard Shaw. But I thank Siva for wanting Shaw to be recognised. For your information, Shaw’s original version is as follows:-

    “Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”.

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