THERE are no quick-fix solutions. The causes of disunity are many and the cures must tackle a whole range of swirling, divisive forces, some of which are believed to be gaining strength.
Among them are unhelpful historical narratives; inter-ethnic as well as intra-ethnic economic inequalities; identity politics; inadequate laws and poor enforcement of constitutional safeguards; educational policies that divide instead of unite; and religious, racial, and regional organisations that believe in homogeneity, forced assimilation and exclusiveness.
After 63 years of independence and 57 years of Malaysia, where do we stand on national unity? This is difficult to answer objectively.
My view is that nation-building is a continuing journey and not a destination. It is a long-term process that requires constant strengthening and recalibration.
Sixty-three years is not a long time in the life of a nation. Malaya and Malaysia’s journey have not been all smooth. There have been ups and downs. There are many blessings and many shortcomings.
One can choose to be a gutter inspector and find much that is troubling in our body politic. Or one can adopt a broader and comparative perspective and be conscious of the many blessings of this land.
Some of the racial and religious discord that exists in our society is a natural process of democratic freedoms. As a transforming society opens up, pent-up feelings are expressed, often in ways that are deeply hurtful to others.
The triumphs of technology have contributed to the weakening of the social fabric. The Internet allows hate-mongers to empty their bowels in cyberspace and to poison delicate race and religious relations.
If we concentrate on the voices of discord of our politicians and the occasional disgraceful deliberations in our elected assemblies, there is indeed much to despair. But why should a nation be judged solely by the depravity of its politics? There is more to culture and civilisation than the cuts and thrusts in the corridors of power.
Every day, in so many ways, there are acts of friendship and transcendence in our schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods, clubs, shops and sport arenas by ordinary citizens towards each other. These acts rarely get reported in the media.
In general, Malaysians understand the value of harmony, peace and stability. For the bulk of citizens, there is more to life than the identity politics of race, religion and region.
Most of us judge each other by our character and conduct and not by the colour of our skin or the race or religion of our birth. What divides us pales in comparison with what unites us.
It is some politicians who seek to divide and rule, exploit fears and summon us to join them in the gutters of hatred. This is so in many lands, for example the India of Narendra Modi and the United States of Donald Trump. In the dark underbelly of electoral democracy, race and religious baiting is a tested and tried vote getter!
Let us abandon that trap. Let us do our civic duty to recapture the spirit of 1957 and 1963 and reintroduce our winning formula for living together. We must come to terms with our diversity, heterogeneity, pluralism and multiculturalism. This diversity is here to stay. We should regard it as an asset despite its many challenges.
We must recognise that our cultures are intermingled and interdependent. Instead of denial, we should be proud of our mixed heritage. For centuries, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Kadazan-Dusun and Iban cultures have mixed in our soil to constitute our rich cultural mosaic. The author Patrick Pillai says: “There is far more cross-cultural mingling, sharing and co-dependence among us than we care to recognise, admit or celebrate.” This intermingling can help us to see “the other” as our distant cousin.
We must develop multiple identities. All human beings stand at the centre of a large number of concentric circles of loyalty or commitment. Dr Denison Jayasooria suggests that “we should not see ourselves and (other) people only from the lens of ethnicity; other identities such as culture, professions, employment, neighbourhoods and even hobbies are equally important dimensions of life and existence.”
Our children’s education begins at home. We need to teach them the value of tolerance, respect and diversity. We need to improve our
constitutional literacy. Malaysia’s Constitution is illuminated by a spirit of accommodation and vision of shared destiny among the various peoples and regions of the country.
We need to improve knowledge of the Constitution’s glittering generalities, especially its provisions on inter-ethnic relations. The lack of familiarity with the basic charter’s provisions even among the top echelons of the civil service, police, parliamentarians and politicians is contributing to the present state of unease.
Our secondary schools and universities must have a familiarisation course on the basic features of the Constitution and the reasons for the many delicate compromises contained therein. Such knowledge will help to moderate extremism and to give appreciation of one of the world’s most unique and hitherto successful experiments in peaceful co-existence in a nation of dazzling diversity.
We must participate in cross-cultural engagement. We must be prepared to listen to differing views and combat them intellectually without demonising the person involved.
We need to distinguish between racism and race consciousness. Racism is hatred or disrespect for others. It is a desire to keep them down, to deprive them of their fruits of labour. Race consciousness is a positive desire to help the upliftment of a community, not necessarily our own.
We must not stereotype other races and religions. We must separate the faith from the faithful. There are good and bad people in all communities. Extolling the beauty of the faith or culture or language one is born into is understandable. But this should not be done at the cost of others. To belittle is to be little and is a distasteful game that two can play.
Finally, as patriots, we must be prepared to speak up, even if gently, against the evils of race and religious bigotry and corruption. Lone voices of protest can be like ripples from a pebble thrown on the surface of a pond. Or like the desert where, sometimes, sand dunes grow around a single blade of grass.
This article was first appeared in The Star on 27 August 2020