Where values begin

(First published in theSun on 8 January 2015, here).

FOR all of our technical analysis of how to improve such-and-such a public policy, the most current of which being the deforestation decisions that may have contributed largely to the flood disaster, the main question often asked is whether there is political will to follow through.

This is the conundrum that policy wonks like us in think-tanks have to face squarely each day: whether or not facts and figures really influence policymakers at the end of the day (both civil servants and politicians).

Sure, it is still crucial that someone does the job of number-crunching and doing comparative policy research.

But perhaps it is equally – if not more so – important that non-governmental organisations like ours get our feet dirty to wade in the more difficult waters of changing cultural values in a more direct way.

It is our values that shape us, which influence our weltanschauung (worldview), sometimes “through a glass darkly”. These values are inculcated at a young age, influenced by the society we keep, both family and otherwise. The great divide we have observed in the ethno-religious debate in Malaysia is a perfect example. Just like how you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it is near impossible to convince several deeply entrenched NGOs that the Sedition Act should be abolished, for instance.

If I were to recall my personal motivations for doing the things I do today, one would need to trace the values imbibed from a young age. Books that I read, experiences encountered during those very impressionable years of teenagehood, and most profoundly, people I looked up to as leaders, who eventually became – and still remain – mentors to me during periods of vocational self-doubt in this journey.

It is for this reason that IDEAS, after much deliberation, decided to embark on a new and exciting project, based on the understanding that it is the shaping of values from a young age that can truly transform the future of this now fragile nation. Through this, we hope to provide the same experience that many of us now working hard in civil society had the opportunity of having those many years ago.

We are calling for 20 of the brightest young Malaysian leaders from all over the country to be part of a nine-month National Unity Youth Fellowship programme, during which they will engage in a series of roundtable discussions, seminars and national conference where they will interact with community and religious leaders and other speakers we will identify. This is being done with the support of the National Integration Research and Training Institute at the Department of National Unity and Integration.

We hope that by the end of this period, we would have built up a strong and united, multi-ethnic and diverse “fellowship of 20”, whom, through their close-knit interaction, discussions and purposeful sessions of working together to formulate solutions, will become advocates for liberal ideas in tackling the problem of unity that we face today.

It is not enough that the youth of today have access to online media. Being connected to the internet ensures young Malaysians are exposed to the many dimensions of a particular issue. But a structured programme like this allows for young leaders with the greatest potential to be given specialised training on technical skills, the opportunity to build relationships with academics, opinion-shapers and thinkers, and most importantly, the ability to network with other like-minded leaders from different states across both Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak.

It is a continuing challenge for the moderate-minded in Malaysia who feel frustrated over the way this nation of great potential has instead regressed. Overhauling the system would be ideal, but it will also take a long time, with many corresponding layers to tackle.

We have instead chosen to channel those frustrations into this programme that can have an immediate impact upon the young. It is hoped that at least one or two eventually feel that this intervention was meaningful to them, and that the right leadership, mentorship and training helped them reframe the way they see Malaysia and its plethora of identities. Perhaps we would then have contributed to the values of these future leaders, whatever they choose to do next with them – this is where values begin.

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