Kota Marudu Member of Parliament

Bonding at the national level (The Sun, 18th - 19th September 2004)

THE NATION celebrated Malaysia Day on Sept 16, an occasion that has yet to receive as much attention as Merdeka Day.

Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department who heads the National Unity and Integration Department, tells CINDY THAM and JACQUELINE ANN SURIN that more can be done, not just to foster better relations between the different communities in the country but also between Malaysians in the peninsula and in Sabah and Sarawak.

theSun: The National Unity and Integration Department traces its origins to the National Unity Department formed after May 13, 1969. How has the department's role and the socio-political environment evolved over the past 30 years?
Ongkili: As you know, it was formed from 1969, May 13, during the national-operation period under emergency at that time. But it has grown. In fact, it has come in and out of Jabatan Perdana Menteri (JPM) no less than three times. It was a board on its own, then it came back to JPM.

The major leap would have been [more than] 10 years ago, when it became a ministry on its own together with the [National Unity and] Social Development Ministry.

It went on there for almost 12 years, and then this time, when the Prime Minister [Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi] formed the Cabinet, he decided to bring it back to the PM's department and then left the social-development part to merge with the Wanita [Women and Family Development Ministry, now known as Women, Family and Community Development Ministry].

Now, we see that as a progression. Some people might think it's a setback, from a ministry going back to the Prime Minister's Department. But we, in the department, see it as a strategic placement going back to the Prime Minister's Department, where the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are closer to getting involved in the programmes and giving input.

As you know, all departments placed under the Prime Minister's Department are known as strategic departments. So, it grew from the need to build and preserve unity. It also has the role, right from the beginning, [of preserving] security. And really, national unity cannot divorce [itself] from matters of security because when people are disunited, then it affects peace and other matters of security ...

For instance, a major arm of the department is Rukun Tetangga. And of course, Rukun Tetangga was formed on the basis of the Essential Regulations Rukun Tetangga 1975 and charged with two purposes.

One, as an instrument that is a grassroots organisation ... to organise activities, formulate programmes for the purpose of unifying people through interaction, through activities that promote interaction, and therefore, tolerance and common understanding.

In the process, there is unity.

But the second arm of it is the security aspect. This is supposed to assist the government machinery in terms of making sure that peace and harmony at the grassroots level is maintained. And so Rukun Tetangga, under the Essential Regulations, when it does patrolling, it's bestowed with police power.

And actually, the Act is a very powerful Act, which the Prime Minister or the Home Affairs [Minister] or the minister in charge could... anytime further enhance its role in promoting unity and doing pencegahan, crime prevention, whereby the minister can declare the area a registration area and everybody has to register in and out of the area.

The department has grown. Its focus is on programmes for unity and security and it evolved to focus on neighbourliness in the 1980s especially, and then in the 1990s, the focus was still on national unity and racial interaction. But our activities are now more diverse to handle the aspect of community empowerment.

Our programmes are then wider than this aspect of purely security and racial interaction. We focus on instilling patriotism ...

So, we have four major arms under Rukun Tetangga, for instance. You have Tunas Jiran, [for] those below 15 years old; then Jiran Muda, the belia, youth and young teenagers; then Jiran Wanita, the women's group; then, you have Usia Mas for the grey-haired. So, we have a programme for all these sectors of people.

We have a kindergarten programme for the younger ones, camping activities and so forth. We now have a Social Reference Centre at our Pusat Rukun Tetangga. It's equipped with computers and counsellors. So, young people can also come in and make use of the facilities or seek counselling. And the higher levels of the youth, we do camping, we do study method camps.

And then the Wanita, they do a lot of creative things like craft and other economic activities. And the old people, give them room to sit together, exchange opinions, do some writing. So we have programmes for everybody.
This is what we call empowering the community, aside from the patrolling which is a permanent feature of Rukun Tetangga.

And the last function of the department, because it has been renamed... Dulu (In the past), it was Jabatan Perpaduan, National Unity Department. Under the new administration, it's named Department of National Unity and National Integration.

So, the National Integration part encompasses matters of integrating Sabah and Sarawak and Semenanjung [peninsular Malaysia] as a single entity of the country. That, we focus on creating visits, we support students, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) who go to Sabah and Sarawak for field trips or even for sports and cultural exchange during National Day and cultural festivities.

On National Day, we get people from Sabah and Sarawak to visit the Semenanjung and also during Pesta Kaamatan, the Harvest Festival in Sabah and Sarawak, we get people here in the Rukun Tetangga to visit. That part is the regional integration aspect. So, it's two-fold.

The thing about Sabah and Sarawak is that other than facilitating the visits, there are other issues that still remain questionable. For example, the need to show an IC when we enter the states. How does the ministry deal with that?
Sure, those issues have been raised over the years. But actually, when you look at the whole country, those are minor issues when they are seen in their proper perspective. Matters of immigration are, of course, matters bestowed on both states as part of the requirement for the Malaysia agreement.

Over the years, both state governments have more or less agreed to say, dilute those positions. Nowadays, you do'Ít have to show your passport; you can just show your IC and fill in a form, which we call Form 114.

In fact, there was a time when if you travel to Labuan, you [didn't] even have to show anything. But now, MAS [Malaysia Airlines] has imposed requirements. Irrespective of where you are going within the mainland, you still have to show [your] IC now because of matters of terrorism and security and so forth.

And I think, from my own study over the years, and impressions, it should not really be a major hindrance, the need to show identity or to fill a form as you enter Sabah and Sarawak. Because one of it is the distance factor.

And when you have an open [sea] -- keep in mind that it's 1,600km from here to Kota Kinabalu and 1,100km from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching -- a lot of things can happen in the course of travelling, where, for instance, after the federalisation of Labuan, they opened the gates.

A lot of bad hats came through because people just walked in without even showing anything. The bad hats, illegal retailers, criminals, illegal immigrants and so forth. So, those are safety [considerations] for the country.

Now, if you ask Malaysians in Sabah and Sarawak, they will say that we subscribe to that -- immigration rights were part of the pillars of Malaysia, and if you want to strengthen the country, pillars must be respected.

Having said that, the Sabah and Sarawak state governments have been very open to discussions [to change] from passport to now Form 114. Except that the act of doing it may make you feel as if you are in a foreign land, but if you look at it as a security provision, it shouldnÍt be seen in that light ...

But more importantly, it's explaining the rationale behind the position ... Actually, information is very, very important. This is where the media is important.

So, there is a gradual opening up or removal of these perceived barriers?
Yes. I mean the word you use is "perceived barriers". When you explain [the rationale] behind it all, people begin to see it in context. And that's why information is very, very important.

Considering the history of the formation of Malaysia, these requirements were seen to be pressing to the two states at that time. This leads to the next question, Sept 16, the anniversary of the formation of Malaysia, which is hardly celebrated in a big way. Do you sense it, especially since that you are from Sabah?
Well, that's a very valid question. It's been asked many times. The federal government has been addressing this issue, actually. The Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) used to organise conferences on this matter. There was a very important conference in 1997, where this was specifically raised.

They said that when we celebrate kemerdekaan [independence], it's 47 [years]. Actually, 47 is for Malaya. For Sabah and Sarawak, it is 41 because the nation Malaysia was formed in 1963. So strictly speaking, it's 41 for Sabah and Sarawak.

The federal government has been very sensitive [about] this and that's why we celebrate it for one month. We start on Aug 17 and we stretch it until Sept 16... I think we can do a lot more to highlight the issue.

There is the suggestion from the public and from conferences that Aug 31 is the Merdeka celebration and Sept 16 is National Day or Hari Kebangsaan.

We are still in the process of refining the celebration in terms of leading them in that way. For the moment, Hari Kemerdekaan is celebrated for one month, which ends on Sept 16, which coincides with the day the Malaysia agreement was signed.

Malaysians in Sabah and Sarawak are very open to this. But there is the desire that Sept 16 should be given greater emphasis than what is given today.

A desire from East Malaysians?
From Malaysians in Sabah and Sarawak. We try to avoid calling East and West. Of course, the regional definition, sometimes we cannot avoid it, but actually, it doesn't occur in the book of the government that there is West and East.

So, in regional planning, we look at zones, as in the Sabah zone and Sarawak zone. I think it's practical because otherwise, we create another divide...

As with Kuala Lumpur, Malaysians in Sabah and Sarawak see it as Sabah and Sarawak joining Malaya to form Malaysia. The word is never that we joined Malaysia because Malaysia was not in existence then. We formed Malaysia together with Sabah and Sarawak and Singapore at that time, which exited [in 1965].

Is this the first time we are having a month-long celebration?
Oh no, it has been going on for a few years now. Last year, it closed in Sabah.

Somehow, the message that it is closing on Sept 16 because it is a recognition that it is Malaysia Day is not coming through...
Yeah, that part maybe. A lot more can be done in that area. The one-month celebration came from an earlier conference, that it is to be celebrated for a month and to end on Sept 16.

We have been doing that for many years except that the rationale for it has sometimes been overlooked.

Is it a public holiday?
It's a public holiday in Sabah and Sarawak because it coincides with the birthday of the Tuan yang Terutama, the governors of Sabah and Sarawak.

Why isn't it also a public holiday in the peninsula?
That has been suggested for some time. At the national level, the federal government has not taken it up, [chuckles] partly because we have so many public holidays at the moment.

[Laughter] We can have more!
The former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir [Mohamad] and the present prime minister, they are workoholics, you know. And so, there are 14 days [of public holiday] only for the whole year that is permissible and the Cabinet, for the moment, has decided it should be retained at that.

Yeah, we're working at it, but for the moment, it's to enhance the celebration that is important, which is to celebrate it for a whole month, to bring more meaning to it and that's why we're closing it on Sept 16.

Some of the comments we've come across in our research on this whole idea of national unity and integration is that the term Bangsa Malaysia still confines the thinking to race. Another view is that, isn't it ironic that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government is functioning under a race-based political party system and that formal applications still require the individual to identify whether he/she is Malay, Chinese, Indian or lain-lain? Do these work against what your department is trying to achieve?
These are practical issues we are grappling with but they are not necessarily a hindrance to national integration, or for that matter, what has been envisioned in Vision 2020, what is called Bangsa Malaysia.

It has two meanings. Bangsa Malaysia can mean the Malaysian nation, a nation of multiracial people. The other one is that it is a Malaysian race. To me, they are not contradictory. They refer to the same [idea].

Maybe in terms of a Malaysian race or ethnicity, it refers to, essentially, a community of people who are no longer so identified with their own race but his race draws from all the good aspects of the other races and that makes him uniquely Malaysian.

And together with his Malaysian brothers and sisters, they have common goals, a common affinity and desire to develop this country. So, that is the perspective of what you call a "Malaysian race"...

Of course, we still have this political party [practice] based on race. There are those who have to identify themselves in certain forms.

There is still a large portion of the community who want be to identified by their ethnicity, not because they are less Malaysian but by virtue of the need for identity at the micro level. But this requirement for identification should not make us any less patriotic...

Definition-wise, there is also the contention on how we should call ourselves: a Malaysian Chinese or a Chinese Malaysian? A Malaysian Kadazandusun or a Kadazandusun Malaysian? There are different opinions on this. I would like to say the word "Malaysian" is the adjective, the descriptive objective. I'm a Malaysian Kadazandusun. I'm a Malaysian first and then, I'm identified by my race...

Other people say, "No, it should be the other way around. The race defines the nation." I disagree. To me, the nation defines the person.

But does the Cabinet agree with your view?
Well, this is my personal view and the government is not very legalistic about this. But we should be Malaysian first, and secondly, our race. The Malaysian nation should define us.

Your department is trying to raise awareness on all this among the adults, through Rukun Tetangga, and the younger generation, through Rukun Negara clubs in schools and other educational institutions. How is this Rukun Negara club going to work?
The Rukun Negara is the tenets, or the falsafah, of the country, our national ideals. It's actually a very, very good set of ideals. I've got to hand it to the people who crafted the Rukun Negara, especially after the 1969 racial conflict, for coming up with a very comprehensive set of ideals, which is timeless, which is so ongoing, it has no set timeframe.

Even at that point, they talked about being progressive, about science and technology, which was just beginning to take off at that time. So, it's a very beautiful set of national ideals ...

A lot has been done through the education system so that our young people learn it by heart. But the world has become very competitive. It's now a globalised world. It's no more the same as the 1960s and 1970s ...

Although people learn it [Rukun Negara] by heart, they are so busy with other syllabus and exams, how to get excellent results and scholarships ... we are concerned that in the process of a competitive world, where you really have to do your very best, the national ideals become something you recite but have not internalised in your heart.

So the idea, which came from the prime minister when he was still deputy prime minister, is to set up a structure at primary schools, secondary schools, both government and private sector schools, to help students internalise these values. So, we do that through activities, through debates, through a series of lectures, through field trips.

These [Rukun Negara] clubs will be different from other clubs because the committee members will be the chairmen and secretaries of other clubs in the school. The idea is to bring all the associations into one so that they have a chance to interact. Otherwise, dia terpisah, they are all separated into their [own respective clubs].

We want to give them an avenue, where they can organise one single programme whereby all the clubs are involved. So, it will be highlighting the principles of Rukun Negara, and run programmes that internalise the values of Rukun Negara.

[For example,] they'll be visiting old folks' homes to understand social values and what is kesusilaan. There'll be visits to Istana Negara to appreciate the palace system, the courts to understand the meaning of the rule of law.

On top of that, we want Rukun Tetangga to adopt some of these clubs so that they are involved with Rukun Tetangga's functions.

Have you been a Rukun Tetangga member before?
[In the past] Rukun Tetangga in Sabah and Sarawak was not that popularised so widely compared to here in the peninsula. But I used to work here, in UPM (Universiti Putra Malaysia) and in ISIS. So in my area, there used to be Rukun Tetangga and I used to participate in some of the activities.

So, you used to patrol the neighbourhood at 3am ...
Ah, the patrol I did not take part in then, but since I've taken over this job, I have joined a few patrols. The patrol is important. Not only is it for the security, given the number of petty crime and so forth, [but also] to highlight that it is not the job of the police but the job of everybody.

When you do rondaan (patrolling), the Rukun Tetangga [group] is usually multiracial. When you do rondaan, you should be cooperative with each other, you help each other ...

That's why I'm appealing to the government to make sure that each Rukun Tetangga has a small building. Those involved can sit down, minum kopi (drink coffee) together, they can cerita-cerita (chat) before the next shift. These are small [measures] but are very critical to instilling understanding...

This is clearly a challenging task for you. Do you ever wish you were assigned an easier portfolio? How has the experience been for you personally?
[Chuckles] I'm one of the Malaysians from Sabah who [has had the opportunity to really grasp the notion of "integration"]. I had higher education through the government; I was on the Colombo Plan and then, became a [scholar under a Japanese programme]. When I came back, I served in UPM. Then I served in ISIS ...

So it's interesting, coming from Sabah, mixing with the people here [in the peninsula]. I learn a lot about how the government operates. When I was in Isis, I got to work on a programme on national integration before going back to Sabah to head a think tank and going into politics 10 years ago.

So, this is a field that I like, that is close to my heart.

But as the prime minister told me when I came to report for duty, he said, "Maximus, you're going to be assisting me to manage the people. And managing people is harder than managing projects."

[Laughs] And he told me, "I would like to see you spending more time on the ground than here in Putrajaya." So, I do that. I only spend [a few days in the office] and the rest of it, we are on the ground, with Rukun Tetangga, with the special unity programmes. So that's why in six months, I have visited all the states except for one -- tonight [Sept 7] I'm going to Pulau Pinang. So, I spend a lot of time on the ground.

You mentioned before that racial relations are actually much better now than they were before. Do you see that on the ground?
Oh yes. The feel-good regime is very good. And there is a true sense of nationalism but a lot more work has to be done, in the communities, such as the setinggan (squatter) community that's stricken with poverty, so that the sense of deprivation is addressed.

Because if there is deprivation and unhappiness between two communities, it could lead to tension. To me, a lot more can be done.