Inaugural Merdeka Award TV Talk Show Inspires Debate On Key Issues

09 SEPTEMBER 2011, BY Merdeka Award
(A summary of the Merdeka Award Roundtable, broadcast on ASTRO Awani, August 20, 2011, 8.30)
The Merdeka Award was set up in 2007 not just to recognise and reward those who have made outstanding contributions to the people of Malaysia but also to create opportunities to inspire Malaysians to think about how they too can play a role in the continued development of the country.

In line with this objective, the Merdeka Award introduced the Merdeka Award Roundtables, a series of TV talk-shows in partnership with broadcaster ASTRO, to inspire debate and discussion on key issues of interest to Malaysians.

The first of these Roundtables was broadcasted on August 20, 2011 on ASTRO Awani (Channel 501) and later on Channel 318, focusing on the topic “The Spirit of Merdeka: Nurturing A Nation Of Visionaries”.

Hosted by television and radio personality Norina Yahya, the first show featured writer and social commentator Dina Zaman, former Merdeka Award Recipient and Professor at the Department of Physics, University of Malaya Harith Ahmad; Member of the Merdeka Award Board of Trustees and Historian Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim; Secretary to the Merdeka Award Board of Trustees Encik Medan Abdullah; and Managing Director of global management consulting firm the Hay Group Mr Tharuma Rajah.

Norina opened the show by setting the stage for the discussion by identifying visionaries and what they stood for.

“When we talk about visionaries, we’re talking about leaders like (Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and Father of Independence) Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Tun V T Sambathan, men of principle, men of integrity, men of courage and men who acted without fear or favor to do the right thing, to get independence for this country,” she said.  “These men were deeply committed to their own communities and yet they were also driven by a higher purpose that is unity and to achieve independence.  They succeeded because they had the passion, they had the belief, they had the integrity and they shared a common dream, a common goal and that’s what drew them all together.”

Linking these visionaries to the Spirit of Merdeka, she continued, “But what does the Spirit of Merdeka mean to us today? Is it about recapturing the spirit of Merdeka that we had in 1957 or 1963? Or is this about reinterpreting it in the context of the here and now? Or, is it a new spirit of Merdeka that we must foresee for the future?”

The following are highlights from the one-hour discussion:  

Norina Yahya (NY) : The Merdeka Award talks about independence, it is more than just national sovereignty, it is the liberation of the mind and spirit -- only then can one pursue excellence.  What are your thoughts on what independence is?
Dina Zaman (DZ) : If you talk about my generation and the younger ones – we are suffering from an identity crisis. We are invigorated by civil society, the fact that we can say what we want now. But many of us don’t realise how politics influences our lives and that we have the power to change things.

I am not saying that we are anti-government, no, please don’t get me wrong. I believe we can work and negotiate but we are still very young, we don’t have the tools and skills to negotiate with the powers and the civil society. We are still clashing, that gap there has not been addressed. So while that has been addressed right now, we are still searching for what it means to be Malaysian, and what it means to appreciate Merdeka.
NY:     Tharuma, you were talking about a rallying point.  Is this what the problem is?
Tharuma Rajah (TR):  I grew up in the era of schools. And the rallying point at that time, when we come to school, the teachers were role models.  They were not graduate teachers but had the passion.  They used to challenge us.
I grew up in the village - you had the religious imam, the bilal, the “village sidang”, the wisemen of the village, the orang tua kampong. There were no formal rules or regulations. Village life got on in a very coordinated fashion, conflict resolution was done in a (proper) manner.   There was political leadership - Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tan Sri Hussein Onn, Tun Abdul Razak, when I was growing up, these were leaders I wanted to emulate.
When I look back at the context of that Merdeka spirit, the context has changed. We must come to (face) reality. After 50 years, now we have to look at the next 50 years - of what it means for Malaysians.  Having travelled worldwide, I think Malaysia’s diversity of Malay, Indians, Chinese today – it is our strength - we are not really tapping into that strength. The world equilibrium is shifting toward the East.  It is about China and India. So I think one of the things that can inspire us is that diversity and we need to tap into it and find a common goal to see that new inspiring vision.
NY :     What has the Spirit of Merdeka got to do with nurturing visionaries?
Medan Abdullah (MA): The Merdeka Award recognises and rewards Malaysian individuals and organisations who have contributed to Malaysia.  It seeks to promote thought leadership, a culture of excellence and a world view.  So what we are doing today is to ensure that we focus on some of the elements that we think are important for the nation going forward.  Our late Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman said, “Independence is indeed a milestone but it is only the threshold to higher endeavour. I call upon you to dedicate yourself, to work and strive with hand and brain to create a new nation”.
So the expectation is that we build on what we have achieved in 1957, and what is important for us is, what do we do now? We can look back at history, understand the lessons of history, (and then) we can look forward and understand what is the vision for tomorrow.
We need to be focused on issues that are important. We must do the right thing, we must make the right choices now for what we do today will influence what happens tomorrow. So that’s the spirit behind the Merdeka Award.
We want to recognise people who have the most of these qualities. You will be surprised that some of the winners, they are not really well-known in the normal sense of the word. But if you look at what they have done, what they have achieved, then you know they have done a lot of things for the nation, at the national level, even at the global level. So that is why we want people to discuss and talk about the right things for the nation.  That is our contribution to nurturing the Merdeka spirit.
NY:     The question is - does one cultivate the kind of thinking that propels you to excellence?
Prof Harith (PH): When I look at young people, we have to be fair to them.  Look at Japan, Japan is a patriotic nation.  In the 1960s, they would die for the country, but if you go to Japan now, the Japanese culture has changed. The youths throughout the world, their mindset has changed. We cannot bring back the past and expect them to have the same values (that we now have).  Our children may have different values but that does not mean that they are less patriotic.
NY:     This is the world of science and technology.  It is not that history is not important but perhaps not as relevant.  But yet how do we know where we are going, if we are not learning from the past and we do not know where we are coming from?
Prof Khoo Kay Khim (PK):  Education is most crucial. Therefore nation building too depends on that.  Our Malaysians today cannot distinguish between nationality and ethnicity.
NY:     You have been quoted as saying to build a nation, you must first build a school. What kind of education are we talking about? 
PK:      We are (now) talking about examinations all the time, then (we talk about) high marks in the exams. Whereas, when I was in school, we use to look down on people who paid attention only to exams. We called them muggers and they were not the heroes in school.
NY:     Who were the heroes?
KK:      The sportsmen, because they helped to build up the name of the schools. I remembered one match between my school and another school in Ipoh, where we charged the spectators to watch the match; 3 thousand of them turned up and paid. You cannot do that now.
TR:      I think leadership has reached an inflection point. I did some studies in India and China, one of the things that differentiated Western leadership and Indian CEOs - we found that the outstanding Indian CEOs or leaders had a much more altruistic approach towards leadership.  They were always looking for a bigger purpose - what I can do for India? When I did a Chinese CEO leadership study, we found that, despite communism in China for 60 years, what really held them together was a lot around values of harmony and self-criticism.  Our leadership should be a lot more value- based. We need a balance of IQ and EQ.
NY:     How do we capture the hearts of the young people, what is it that we have to address?
DZ:      I think we need to have pride in our country, we really do.   Political bickering - seriously, it has got to stop. We have to meet halfway. We have a country that we are in love with. We have a country in which we can grow. Can we focus on a common denominator and work on that?
NY:     Are we looking for our visionaries in the wrong places?
TR:      When the nation got independence there was a lot of emphasis on rural development. Our leaders used to go to the rural areas.  It was also a generation that was more inclusive. With a lot of industrialisation, we didn’t strike a balance between agriculture, business and industry.  Maybe we have not paid enough attention with the inclusiveness of rural development, urban migration and that kind of thing.
MA:    (We have to) make the right choices again; leadership is about doing the right thing. So it may not be the popular thing, but is the right thing to do. Taking care of the less fortunate, the marginalised people and society in general is important to build character, national character. What is the character of Malaysia? Can anybody define that? What does it mean to be Malaysian? These are some of the important things that we need to talk about.
We have to accept that our children will be working everywhere; it can be in New York, Paris and all over the world. Maybe, in the North Pole.  So what is it that makes them feel that they are Malaysians? What is the sense of affiliation to Malaysia? Those are the questions that we need to ask, if we want them to feel Malaysian.
There are so many things but let’s do the right thing. Do it today, because today will influence tomorrow. That’s the message.
The Second Merdeka Award Roundtable is scheduled to be broadcasted in November with the discussion focusing on the topic “Cultivating a Culture of Innovation in Challenging Times.”


Dr Edison Lee Tian Khoon
Dr Edison headed to Sweden’s Uppsala University, where he joined the Department of Chemistry, Ångström Laboratory, as part of his attachment stint. He is currently carrying out active research in polymer electrolyte and nanomaterials for Lithium-ion batteries. Read more about him here:
Innovating the Energy Ecosystem
Chrishen R. Gomez
Having attended the prestigious Ivy League Brown University as part of his attachment programme, 27-year-old Chrishen is now with the Wildlife Research and Conservation Unit at Oxford University. Chrishen is busy developing a genetic-based research project on the Sunda Clouded Leopard. Read more about him here: Conserving Our Forests & Future
Dr Zetty
Dr Zetty is currently working on anti-cancer compounds found in Malaysian seaweed and has continued to pursue her original project proposal of microalgae vaccine carriers for fish. A working solution has been patented by Dr Zetty and will be deployed within the coming year.
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