Creating a just society for all in Malaysia

It is most unfortunate that even after 60 years of independence we are still unable to find our footing in ethnic relations and tolerance.

In fact, we were more tolerant and understanding during the early years after independence, embracing cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity. But political schisms, racial and religious bigotry, reared their ugly heads in the May 13, 1969 racial riots, which prompted the government to initiate programmes to foster communal engagement and interaction, and economic equity, in the aftermath.

However, these programmes only addressed the symptoms, not the causes. There is not enough common ground to foster ethnic interaction and religious tolerance.

Politicians are the culprits for causing and perpetuating communal dissonance and discord.

First and foremost, we have a political landscape fragmented along racial and religious lines. We have Umno and Pas that purportedly serve the interests of the Malays and Islam. MCA champions the Chinese, while MIC, the Indians.

Barisan Nasional, which is a coalition of several disparate political parties, maintained its ethno-centric disposition.

Each racially-based political party cannot see beyond the confines of its ethnic imperatives, engage others to foster an understanding, and establish common denominators.

Even though they are in a coalition, they maintain a covert adversarial stance, while displaying an overt, friendly demeanour. For them, it is more of preserving one’s ethno-cultural identity than integrating into the national cultural matrix.

Umno, the dominant partner in Barisan, presented a dual facade, one that is Malay- and Islamic-centric for the consumption of rural Malays, and the other, of a cosmopolitan, all-encompassing visage to the multiracial urban population.

However, MCA and MIC have no qualms about insisting on their ethno-cultural bias. Pas is an ethno-Malay religious party that uses Islam to entice its members with promises of heaven on earth, and paradise in the hereafter if they support the party.

The political scene is not conducive to fostering an integrated society. This is further aggravated by the existence of several educational streams, namely, the national, vernacular, private English, and the religious schools.

It is common knowledge that the Chinese send their children to Chinese vernacular schools; likewise, the Indians, to Tamil schools, to preserve their culture and mother tongue.

Malay children attend the national Malay medium schools, while children from the wealthy upper class go to international schools, with English as the medium of instruction, using foreign based-curriculum. Religious schools are exclusively Malay, and have become fertile breeding grounds for certain political parties in indoctrinating the students to support their political agenda.

From day one, the children are segregated and calcified in their ethno-cultural community. There are no opportunities for these children from various races, and cultural and economic backgrounds, to interact and learn from one another.

The current situation is such that racial and religious animosity, which before was covert, have now become overt. This fire of animosity and hatred is being fanned by so-called religious political parties. Religious issues are blown out of proportion, stoking incendiary sentiments.

A case in point is Kuala Langat MP Ahmad Yunus Hairi  who cautioned the government not to approve other houses of worship in the vicinity of mosques, so as to not upset certain sensitivities.

He needs to come to Penang to see the co-mingling of religious houses.

In downtown Penang, around the enclave defined by Pitt Street, Chulia Street, Armenian Street, Ah Quee Street, and Buckingham Street, there are various houses of worship, with the heritage Kapitan Keling Mosque being centrally located. A hundred metres from the mosque, is the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Queen Street where the golden chariot leaves for the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple (Hilltop) during the Thaipusam celebrations.

Three hundred metres west of the mosque is the Kek Lok Si temple, and a mere 100 metres west, is the heritage Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh. North of the Kapitan Keling Mosque on the same Pitt Street, is the Kuan Yin temple. We also have the St George’s Anglican Church on Farquhar Street. Two hundred metres down Farquhar Street is the Church of the Assumption. Indeed, the street names testify to the cosmopolitan nature of the area (which is designated as Harmony Walk).

Another contentious matter connected to houses of worship is the ‘Jom Ziarah’ programme organised by Impact Malaysia, an agency under the Youth and Sports Ministry. The programme invites youths of different faiths to visit houses of worship to foster a better understanding of the different beliefs in Malaysia.

This simple interfaith, interactive effort became contentious in the hands of people with ulterior motives. It negatively assumes the fragility of those professing the Islamic faith.

Even the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (Mais) is against such a programme, believing that Muslim youths could subtly be proselytised. Jumping on the bandwagon of the religious schism is the Mufti of Pahang, who warned that visiting the houses of worship of other religions is forbidden in Islam.

As a result, the ‘Jom Ziarah’ programme was cancelled, and the Youth and Sports Minister called in for questioning by the police.

But sanity prevailed when their majesties, the Sultan Of Johor, and the Sultan of Selangor, decreed that Muslims in Johor and Selangor could visit churches, or Hindu or Chinese temples, as long as they are not involved in religious rituals.

Then, there is the controversy about the film ‘Mentega Terbang’, purportedly advocating apostasy.

Adding to the cacophony of hatred and angst, is former prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who accused the other races of robbing the rights of the Malays.

For this nation to survive and prosper, there is a dire need to revamp our thinking with regard to ethnic relations and engagements, religious tolerance, the need for economic equity irrespective of race, and encourage social and educational interaction, in order to create a just society for all, in this blessed land we call home.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.