Alia Aishah Shahrir

Alia Aishah Shahrir is the ­daughter of a Penangite father and Muarian mother. As a result, she believes she has inherited the bark of the north and the bite of the south. Law student by day and documentary enthusiast by night, she is a realistic optimist with a soft spot for comparative theology and philosophy.

Loyalty, patriotism and self-determination are crucial aspects of every individual called upon to provide service to the country, what more the burden placed upon a leader.

THE Omar Series is a marvellous show I was introduced to during Ramadan which portrayed the life and times of Omar al-Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam. A scene which captivated my attention was where Omar had to make the difficult decision of deposing Khalid al-Walid, who, according to Wikipe­dia, was responsible for the conquest of Persian Mesopotamia, Arabia and Roman Syria. He was a soldier and general so renowned that his peer is difficult for the history of heroism to produce.

In the said scene, Omar confronts the people to explain his reasoning for stripping Khalid of his post. It was not for any misdeed or treachery on Khalid’s part, but fear – not for himself, but for the nation he commanded at the time as Khalid was so successful that the people had begun to repose greater trust in him than in God, to the point where they were convinced that battle sans Khalid would ensure certain defeat.

Whilst reaching a point in which a single man becomes indispensable is certainly great for one’s ego, the same cannot be said for the nation as a whole. In essence, and in Omar’s words, “A nation that attaches its affairs to one man is bound to fail. When that man goes, the whole system falls.”

Khalid ungrudgingly acquiesced to Omar’s orders and, notwithstanding his dismissal, continued to serve the empire with unflagging zeal in all its campaigns thereafter. Loss of status did nothing to impede Khalid from offering his personal opinion, even if it was to the chagrin of Omar, who would accept it with open heart regardless.

The invaluable lessons to be gleaned from this event are three-fold: loyalty, patriotism and self-­determination. These are crucial aspects of every individual called upon to provide service to the country, what more the burden placed upon a leader.

While most would equate the position of Caliph to the Prime Minister, or their preferred political parties, Malaysia’s true Omar is in fact the rakyat, and I do not only mean those who constitute the electorate. All 28 million lives, aspirations and well-being, matter. Ultimate allegiance belongs to them.

Everyone is entitled to repose their personal loyalties in whatever or whomever they please. It may be in a particular leader, political party, even ideals. Done right, it is the key to your kingdom; done wrong, it may become skeletons in your closet. How many atrocities and genocides have we witnessed across the world caused by blind loyalty?

Surprisingly, I have found Malaysians to display an acute understanding of loyalty towards the English football teams they support, that is unobserved in other spheres. For example, Liverpool FC has arguably the most loyal supporters. Despite their lack of silverware and success in recent times, they still hold dear to the achievements of yesteryear, and continue to urge their team on. Loyalty is only true when tested. So yes, it does require us to be blind as the correctness of a decision is only known on hindsight, but only to an extent.

On the other hand, Manchester United fans just could not bear to see their beloved team achieve lacklustre results under David Moyes. Despite giving him the benefit of the doubt due to the support they had for the club, and the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson had chosen him as his successor, loyalty was displayed when the fans could take no more, which led Moyes to walk out the door.

This bravado to speak out when it counts, without fear or favour before matters turn embittered, is the mark of sincere, true fidelity. This is by no means a one-way street, as even leaders have the responsibility to correct the people if they go off the rails and in such a circumstance, our loyalty must be given. So as Mark Twain said, loyalty to the country always, loyalty to the government when it deserves it.

Patriotism, though often thought to be synonymous with loyalty, requires commitment and the willingness to subordinate personal interests to national interests. I have grown weary of people working current affairs into conversations and when prodded to participate in making a change, shrugging it off and saying, “Small fry like myself? What changes can I possibly bring?”

Well, nothing if you lack social relevance. Start by getting engaged in the causes of the community.

The beauty of patriotism is that it exists on a continuum. From the soldiers who risk their lives and the teachers who educate our future generation, to the members of the proletariat who contribute to the multiplier effect, we all have our own social currency.

Serve others in whatever capacity you can, diminished or enhanced. Everyone is a single thread with a role to play in weaving the grand design of our social fabric.

This grand design will form our institution and machinery, which brings me to my final point: Malaysia needs to be reminded of her values again.

She is a nation that manages her people as a herd, yet respects everyone as individuals with their own needs, creeds and abilities. Malaysia understands her people would pursue their distinct personalities, worldviews and interests but that being together is the means to maintaining their individuality, and their differences bring them together.

She is fair, just and genuine. That is the apparatus which has enabled us to thrive confidently thus far, and if we hold on to it, come hell or high water, any leader who wishes to perpetuate anything less shall be swallowed by the system whole.

I am by no means advocating an­­ar­chy. We do need leaders to manage our affairs, but I pray that one day if need be, Malaysia will have the gumption to replace a man of Khalid’s calibre from a position of power when natural progression calls for it because her self-esteem will no longer be tied to one man or woman.

Change shall not bewilder her. Verily by then, everyone would be a Khalid and no shoes would ever be too big to fill. Believe in yourself again, Malaysia; that is where it all begins.


Originally published on The Star on Saturday September 26, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM