It is worth noting that this year’s Malaysia Day in Kuala Lumpur had been a peaceful one compared with last year. Unlike last year, it was not marred by remonstrations propagated by irresponsible parties shouting racial slurs in the fight for their political ideologies.

While we still live in relative peace, we have to be cognisant of the fact that our society is highly polarised and relations rather fragile. Bigotry will soon rear its ugly head and cause greater disintegration among Malaysians. Many of us may have been blessed with healthy and functional relationships, but there are some who have experienced racism or discrimination on a larger scale, which, in turn, may have contributed to their skewed opinions.

We must blame ourselves for our own failure to listen to, let alone accept, the views of others. Our minds mostly struggle to comprehend views and opinions that are in contrast to our own. We are quick to generalise and classify everyone else who holds opposing views as “the others”.

The terms of classification we like to use include “liberals”, “moderates”, “conservatives” or “ultras”, but we often overlook the fact that these terms are subjective, and that what is “moderate” to us may not be “moderate” to some.

We will never be able to understand if we refuse to listen and this holds true for all relationships, be they at home, at the workplace or between states.

How many of us are receptive to listening to opposing views? There are many, but probably only a handful are in decision-making positions with influence to build trust between opposing groups and remedy relationship conflicts.

Many concerned parties have held talks, hosted roundtables and conferences on topics relating to national integration. We have had local leaders from all ethnicity and faiths voicing out their concerns time and time again, yet we are unable to come up with a cure-all for this illness.

Although we have made headway in spreading awareness of the underlying causes of these conflicts, there are still many, mostly at the grassroots level, that are more impressionable and had been raised to believe that these conflicts exist due to racial, religious or territorial differences.

Another important point to note: the government had initiated most campaigns to promote unity. Top-down initiatives spearheaded by the government are always intertwined with its brand of political beliefs. Unfortunately, these types of initiatives can no longer garner endorsements from the public, especially in the current political climate.

The things that we have been doing may have worked, but they are not without limitations. The dynamics of social relations change over time, including world views and opinions. With things rapidly changing due to globalisation, where information sharing is quick, there is a need to revisit the approach on political communication to cater to a more informed generation.

Gone are the days where information or ideas can just be passed on and the public is expected to ultimately buy into it.

It is crucial that we lay the basic foundations, such as acceptable social norms, especially in times of conflict, before we toy with the idea of introducing or revising policies to foster unity.

Since the issues and challenges to integration mostly concern the absence of trust in relationships, speaking to only subject matter experts may limit the scope of the discussion, without actionable items that can be accepted or supported by the public.

Gathering the main influential figures from opposing factions in a common space to speak freely on the issues remains to be the biggest challenge to conflict resolution. We fail to recognise that we too need to constantly build trust with the people in our daily lives. There is no magic formula to remedy these conflicts. It requires continuous effort by everyone to begin with the end in mind.

This article first appeared in The New Straits Times on 5 October 2016.

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