OUR nation is going through some turbulence in the areas of race and religious relations. Not a fortnight passes without some incident or the other degenerating into a racial or religious controversy.
Race-baiting, scapegoating and looking at everything through the lens of race or religion have become the obsession of many political aspirants.
It was not always like this. Until the 1990s, Malaysia was an exemplar of successful inter-communal living. A few years ago, we scored well on the World Peace Index, being ranked 19th out of 153 states evaluated. Sadly, we have regressed.
What can be done to repair the bridges of intercommunal friendship, tear down the walls of suspicion and revive the spirit of accommodation of 1957 and 1963?
Constitutional literacy: We need to include at all levels of education, knowledge of the Constitution’s glittering generalities, especially its accommodative provisions on inter-ethnic relations.
Lack of familiarity with the basic charter’s provisions even within the top echelons of the civil service, the police, parliamentarians and politicians is contributing to the present state of unease.
Constitutional literacy will help to moderate extremism and enhance appreciation of one of the world’s most unique and hitherto successful experiments in peaceful co-existence in a nation of dazzling diversity.
Diversity: All officials and citizens need to come to terms with the diversity, heterogeneity, pluralism and multi-culturalism that our Constitution recognises. This colourful mosaic is here to stay. We should regard it as an asset despite its many challenges.
Affirmative action: Political theory and our Constitution’s Article 153 recognise the need for positive measures to help any communities left behind. Affirmative action should open up vistas of opportunities and not to inculcate the complacency of handouts.
Further, as resources are finite, the largesse of the state should be based on need and not on race alone. Conflict resolution: Conflicts are unavoidable in any vibrant society. What is necessary is to reconcile them with the least friction and to provide appropriate remedies when rights are infringed.
It is time to consider a new legislative initiative by way of a National Harmony Act. The National Unity Council should be upgraded to a statutory status or converted to a statutory Community Mediation Council.
There should also be a statutory Inter-Faith Council whose job is to foster dialogue over all that unites us and to seek tolerance and compassion towards all that divides us.
In many societies including Singapore, Britain and the United States, the law is used to socially engineer a more tolerant society.
There is no shame in emulating others and building our garland with flowers from many gardens. In addition, we can look to Sabah and Sarawak’s good example of unity amidst diversity.
Hate speech: If conciliation fails, the laws on hate speech in the Penal Code, Communications and Multimedia Act, Printing Presses & Publications Act and Sedition Act need to be employed. Prosecutions must be expeditious and equal against all who poison our air with racist vitriol.
Education: Most prejudices are born out of ignorance. We have to teach people that the primitive ethic of tribalism, racism or religious exclusiveness has no place in modern society. The circle of life has expanded. We are all brothers and sisters on this big blue marble.
Our educational system must nurture tolerance, mutual respect and intercultural dialogue. It must bring students together, not separate them on grounds of race, religion or language. This is not to suggest that vernacular education should be abolished. If we put our heads and hearts together, vernacular education and national education can combine and coexist at the primary level.
What needs to be realised is that it is the decline of national schools that made vernacular education so attractive. If national schools can be rescued from the depths they have plunged to, vernacular education may lose much of its attraction.
The curriculum of primary and secondary education needs drastic revision.
The ethnic diversity of school teachers and school principals must be restored. We must use school sports as a uniting force.
Role of Malay Rulers: The Malay Rulers are the sovereigns for all citizens in their states. Their Majesties can play a significant role to moderate extremism in all forms and to build bridges of understanding.
Declaration on harmony: Similar to the Rukun Negara, let us put our heads together to draft such a declaration. It will act as a polestar for executive and judicial action and will exert normative influence on citizens.
Sabah and Sarawak: The special position of these states in 1963 has been deeply compromised in many areas – partly due to the acts of their own past leaders. There is little doubt, however, that some constitutional amendments, some federal policies and some superior court decisions have been insensitive to the constitutional rights of Sabah and Sarawak.
Orang Asli: The Orang Asli do not qualify for Article 153’s special position of Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. However, Article 8(5)(c) talks of their protection. More needs to be done to bring the rays of justice to these forgotten people.
Electoral system: There are no ideal electoral systems, but it is generally true that the single-member constituency system we operate makes it difficult for ethnic, religious and political minorities to win seats.
Reforms to the system to accommodate some multi-member constituencies under a proportional representation system may give minorities more representation. If more constituencies are racially mixed, political parties will be forced to give up extreme race or religious agendas and instead adopt more inclusive policies.
Cultural intermingling: All citizens must acknowledge that for centuries Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Kadazan-Dusun, Iban and European cultures have mixed in our soil to constitute our rich cultural mosaic.
“There is far more cross-cultural mingling, sharing and co-dependence among us than we care to recognise, admit or celebrate,” says sociologist Patrick Pillai.
We should not be ashamed to acknowledge our mixed heritage.
Racism versus race consciousness: We need to distinguish between racism, which is hatred for others and a desire to keep them down, and race-consciousness, which is a positive desire to help the upliftment of a community, not necessarily our own.
Moderation: We need to adopt moderation as a way of life. We must recognise human rights for all, not only for ourselves. We must welcome social engagement with “others”. While venerating our religion, we must never condemn other faiths. We must not stereotype any race or religion.
Finally, we must be the change we wish to see in the world. Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, once said: “As we walk through the meadows of our mind, let us confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity.”
This article was first appeared in The Star on 24 October 2019