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Sunday August 31, 2008

The right recipe for unity

Although Malaysia celebrates her 51st Merdeka anniversary today, the issue of race, identity and unity still looms big in the nation. However, many Malaysians have transcended race and religion to forge closer relationships through mixed marriages.

WHEN we first started going out, there were people who threw stones at him when he came to visit me in my kampung. They threatened to puncture the tyres of his motorcycle if he ever returned to the village.”

Retired teacher Teh Soo Choon, 62, recalls the reaction of some people in her community in Bukit Mertajam when she first began a relationship with her Indian husband M. Pusparajah, 63.

Celebrating differences: Pusparajah and Teh with their daughter Priyia, son in-law Tan Thuan Ngee and grand daughter Annoushya make up a happy inter-racial family.

Of course, in the 1970s, interracial marriages were still rare, she says.

“When we were courting, people said nasty things but I just blocked it all off. I understood that it was difficult for some people to accept.”

Today, mixed marriages are becoming more common in Malaysia and in a multiracial country like ours, they should be a cause to celebrate.

In fact, former minister in charge of national unity and integration at the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili, said last year that the role of inter-ethnic marriages in strengthening national integration should be studied.

Still, as Teh – who has been married for over 35 years now – experienced, the path has not been easy.

Own identity: Chong has retained her culture and name after her marriage to Hussain.

“Our families took it badly at first. His mother said that she would lie on the railway tracks if we ever got married. My mother said if I wanted to marry an Indian man he’d better be rich. It was only when both sides of the family got to know us and each other better that they were able to accept our decision,” she says.

Teh shares that her grandmother made an observation that has stayed with her over the years.

“She said it would be all right when we are young, but when we get older, the cultural differences would be a problem. The one thing she was concerned about was what would happen when I die – she said who would take care of my funeral, would I be Chinese or Indian?

“I discovered that in many ways, she was right. In the early days, during family gatherings, it sometimes struck me that I don’t have a shared culture with my husband.”

Over the years, however, she and her husband have built a shared history and fusion culture to call their own.

“We can’t be 100% Chinese or Indian, so we have a fusion culture together. For example, during Deepavali, I make Chinese goodies and for Chinese New Year we go back to my family’s house and we bring back some Indian-ness. My daughter married a Christian Chinese, so now we celebrate Christmas too.”

Teh stresses that she was strict about one aspect, which is to raise her daughter with a strong identity.

“I made sure that I didn’t confuse my daughter; so while exposing her to my background, I raised her with Indian culture and as a Hindu. So, for my daughter, race has never been an issue. Unfortunately, it was drummed into her by certain aspects of the society, especially when she entered university,” she says.

She is optimistic that race relations in Malaysia are better than ever now.

Common factor: Religion is the bond that seals the union of Hannah and Ramachandran

“I believe the younger generation is more open to the different races. Although sometimes it feels like as a nation we have regressed where race relations are concerned, at the personal level, the ties are still strong.”

Religious bond

Subang Jaya state assemblywoman Hannah Yeoh agrees that there is much to be done in Malaysian society to foster better racial understanding.

One way, she stresses, is to start with the young.

“Children are colour blind and that is why it is important to expose them to other cultures. I like to believe that is what my parents and my husband's parents did for us, enabling us to see beyond our race.”

Yeoh got married to Ramachandran Muniandy, a systems engineer, in January.

She finds that people in the urban communities are more open to mixed marriages. However, she divulges that there are those who have made nasty remarks about her and her husband.

“The worst comments I’ve received on my blog is ‘Are all the Chinese men dead that you have to marry an Indian? My husband has also received comments about whether there were no Indian ladies good enough that he had to marry a Chinese. We just ignore them. Anyway race is not what good marriages are made of. There are so many marriages of the same race that have ended up in divorce.”

Yeoh believes a uniting factor between her and her husband is their similar background.

Fitting right in: Eunice Tan and her husband Khairil make sure that their son Jascha takes up agama lessons.

“We went to national schools, went through the same education system, and we speak the same languages. That is why I really think language can play an important role to reconcile the different races in Malaysia.

“And although we all speak Malay and English, we should also learn Mandarin, Tamil and others. I think we are also not doing enough to expose the young to the different cultures, languages and religions in school.”

She opines that it is important to have an open forum on religion, race and culture.

“When we have enough information, we can make better judgement. With open forums, everyone can get the full picture and understand each other better. Now everything is kept under close wraps and politicised, so everyone is suspicious of each other. We simply assume things about other people. That is why there is a lot of unhealthy fear among the people.”

She notes that in her relationship with her husband, religion plays an integral part.

“We met at church and because of our common believe and faith, we have the same values, so we are able to put our cultural differences aside.”

She says she dreams of a future Malaysian society where race will be irrelevant. If she could change a thing, she adds, it would be to get rid of the race column in the national registry and other official forms, and everyone will only be categorised as Malaysians.

“The Dan lain lain category especially has to go. I find it very offensive, it makes you feel like a second-class citizen and I don’t want my children to have to go through that. If we still want to have racial categories, then we must be prepared to include the other ethnic groups apart from the three main races,” she says.

It must be said that religion is still a sensitive issue for many, especially if one has to embrace another religion in the relationship.

When Wong converted into Islam, her parents almost disowned her. Although they later acquiesced to her decision to convert, and then marry a Malay man, they still refused to attend her akad nikah (solemnisation of vows).

“In many ways, I understand their fears and it does not help that we have a lot of unresolved issues about converts’ rights but I am confident that this is the right thing for me,” she says, adding that she is still hoping that with time, her parents would come around and accept their marriage. Her husband Shahrul says that one of the biggest fears among non-Muslim families when their children convert is that they will have to severe all ties with their families after they embrace Islam.

Major misconception

“This is where the religious authorities can play a part and hold dialogues to allay these very legitimate fears,” he opines.

Sharmin Chong, 30, who has been married to Hussain Karim Ally, 32, for about two years, shares that the biggest misconception that people have about new converts is that they will automatically become a Malay if they embrace Islam.

“Although I am now a Muslim, my race is still Chinese. And unlike popular misconception, I don’t get special privileges for Malays. Anyway that is not why I converted,” she says.

She says that both she and her husband are lucky to have parents who are understanding.

“My mother was a bit worried about the religious aspect where Muslim men are allowed to marry four wives but I told her not to worry because my mother in-law will never allow it,” she says.

Sharmin shares that her life did not change much after she converted and she has even kept her surname.

“That sometimes causes a stir, when they see my husband's Malay name and my Chinese name, so I have to explain that he is my husband and I am a convert but I kept my Chinese name.”

As for people's perception about her and her husband, she shares that most don't even bat an eyelid when they see them together.

“Of course there are still those who stare at us but mixed couples have become a common sight in Malaysia and many don't care.”

Sharmin nevertheless laments the sensitivity that still shrouds the conversion issue.

“I suppose it's part of parcel of being Malaysian, there are still certain issues that we don't broach in public – we are sensitive about what is right to say and what is not – but I feel that we should be able to talk about it in the open because it is only healthy for our nation.”

Eunice Tan, 37, agrees that mixed marriages have become a common phenomenon in Malaysia. Married to a senior sales and marketing director at an IT company, Khairil Azhar, 45, for more than eight years, she says almost everyone in her circle has an inter-racial marriage.

“It's nothing strange anymore and there are also many who are married to foreigners. I think in many ways it depends on the couple and their families. I wasn't scared of converting to Islam because my husband Khairil showed that you could be moderate. He was also open to the Chinese culture, so I was not afraid of losing my identity.”

Eunice admits that her parents were upset in the beginning.

“My parents were especially worried because of the Islamic laws in Malaysia which do not allow you to convert out of Islam if your marriage breaks up or you change your mind. They told me that if we were overseas they would not be worried. But after a few years of marriage, they realise that it is no big deal. “

Her mother revealed that when she was getting married to Eunice's father, there were objections from his parents.

“She said my father's mother was against their marriage because she is a Cantonese while my father is Teochew. She wanted him to marry a Teochew so she created a lot of problems. My mother said she didn't want me to go through the same thing. I just thought that it was interesting that my parents had issues when they are both Chinese.”

Now Eunice tries to create an open environment for their three children by exposing them to their diverse backgrounds. She says she was initially worried about her children fitting in when they started school.

“My oldest son Jascha started primary school in January, and to my relief he has had no problems fitting in the national school. At first I was worried that he will not be accepted by either the Chinese or Malay children but he has fit in very easily. What helps is that there are many other mixed children at the school.”

Eunice hopes that there will be more intermarrying between the different races in Malaysia as it will foster better understanding between them and help them to get along better.

“After all we are Malaysians,” she adds.

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