ON THE COUCH ... Suflan SHAMSUDDIN
TAN MAY LEE chats with Suflan Shamsuddin about his thought-provoking book, Reset: Rethinking the Malaysian Political Paradigm, which sets out to achieve the goal of making Malaysia an effective and prosperous nation through rethinking the Malaysian political paradigm
SUFLAN SHAMSUDDIN is a lawyer in London, and has had an interest in politics since a young age, having extensively read Bertrand Russell and Immanuel Kant by the age of 14. When classmates were out playing football, he would be huddled with a small group of friends, discussing politics and philosophy. Although he was the Chairman of Kelab UMNO United Kingdom and Eire when he was at university, he put politics on the backburner when he started building his legal career.
Suflan Shamsuddin writes for The Malaysian Insider.
Could you compare Reset to other titles on the shelf about Malaysian politics?
This book is totally non-partisan, and it does not place blame on any person or party. It focuses on trying to draw a common platform from which all Malaysians could understand the challenges of (or obstacles to) nation-building. It then uses this platform to prescribe a solution, which involves a structural change to the democratic framework. I know of no other book that does that.
In the first part of Reset (“Aligning Views on the Social Contract”), you talk about riveting discussions with your friends about the state of the nation; however, many Malaysians, particularly those who live outside the cities, might not even have the vocabulary to contemplate such matters because of limited education. Should all Malaysians rise up to this intellectual level, or is there a way for us to comprehend politics in simpler terms?
I think we have failed our youth by neither encouraging nor giving them the tools and space to think critically and to express themselves. There are many societies which have had much less opportunity for material progress compared to us, that have developed both a tradition and culture of critical analysis, and this is what makes a society learn, grow and adapt.
We could think of your position or current residence in London as an advantage because you are able to view things somewhat more objectively and critically. Do you discuss politics with your foreign acquaintances? Would your book appeal to an international audience?
Many of my foreign friends know Malaysia quite well. They are amazed at how well it has progressed, but many are sceptical about how much further it can go because they sense the difficulties ahead. I find it relatively easier to explain my views about our problems to a dispassionate non-Malaysian, and I think it is because he or she lacks the baggage and prejudices that make many Malaysians cynical about any solution.
I think the book would definitely appeal to an international audience, provided the reader is sufficiently acquainted with Malaysia’s overall politics. I have had, in particular, quite a bit of interest from Singaporean readers.
In the chapter, “Meeting the Principles,” you say: “We are also witnessing a great exodus of Malaysian talent who choose to work and settle elsewhere.” You, too, have been and are based abroad (as a lawyer) for many years. How connected are you to your roots? And how does this influence your approach to local political issues?
I’ve spent 21 years away from Malaysia, all in all, over different periods of my life. But I’ve never felt any other country to be truly home. My children, my parents and other members of the family are still in Malaysia, so I remain very committed to the nation, and anticipate returning there one day sooner or later.
Having said that, the exposure to a very cosmopolitan and industrious environment has made me appreciate diversity, inclusiveness and the value of honesty and hard work all that more. It has also allowed me to look at Malaysia from “outside the goldfish bowl,” so to speak, which lets me see the nation’s political difficulties from a totally different perspective. This is a tremendous advantage because I would not have been able to develop the ideas in the book if I had remained in Malaysia.
Is this a good time to live outside Malaysia or fully engage oneself with the community?
I think these are interesting times in Malaysia, and we all have a tremendous opportunity to contribute towards the creation of a new and aligned vision for the country. What we must be able to do is to put the figurative knives back into the sheaths and embrace a commitment to find an accommodative and inclusive solution.
The challenge to our country will not get any easier, and a zero-sum game attitude is a dangerous attitude to have when things get much harder, as they certainly will. We owe it to our children to find a lasting solution to develop a bangsa Malaysia.
How has your career as a lawyer helped you in writing Reset?
I previously held the position of Group Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer for one of the world’s largest multinationals, and it gave me tremendous insight on how issues of good governance and ethical conduct might be encouraged and promoted. Also, as a lawyer whose work is primarily focused on international mergers, acquisitions and divestments, in which the endgame desired by the client is a solution that generates long-term value, I have learnt to dissect issues in order to find win-win solutions.
Let’s talk about the publishing of your book. How long did it take from the first draft to getting it in print? How meticulous was the editing process?
I developed the main ideas about eight years ago. The difficulty I had was finding a way to express these ideas so that all Malaysians, irrespective of religious or ethnic background, could understand and appreciate them. Once I figured out how to do this and set my mind on writing the book, it took me three months to produce a first draft and another six months to get the book in print.
The editing process was reasonably robust. But at the end of the day, I think you have to be very critical of your own writing, and also get views from a number of different people if you want a final product that you are happy with, exercising judgment in making sure that the arguments are balanced.
Reflecting on Reset some months after its publication, are there any chapters or details you wish you could have elaborated on better or change?
I think once a book is in print, and you receive some feedback, you realise that there might have been things which could have been said differently to make some concepts easier to understand. What I am happy though, is that I have no regrets whatsoever about the substance of the book’s message.
You have identified various conflicts in your book, and suggested solutions and paradigm shifts. What are your thoughts on taking a more proactive approach?
That is indeed a difficult question that I have asked myself many times! And so have my friends! I think my approach is to take things one step at a time. My first duty is to get my views out there, which I have discharged. I’ll see what the reactions are to my ideas, and monitor the situation on the ground before determining what more I should do.
A version of this interview was published in the January-March 2009 issue of Quill