YESTERDAY, Star Publications CEO Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai led a walk of harmony in Brickfields, taking a group of people to temples, churches and mosques to show that as Malaysians, we can all accept each other as we are.
It was part of The Star’s moderation campaign that saw an earlier walk in Penang’s Jalan Kapitan Keling along which lie the Saint George’s Church, the Sri Maha Mariammman temple, the Kuan Yin temple and the Kapitan Keling mosque. It’s a great campaign.
And it’s also very sad.
How did we come to this? That harmony and moderation have to be drummed into people.
I remember a time when it was just our way of life. There were many such places where people of different faiths and races lived and prayed next to each other. And many of us who could not see the other as different.
I grew up on Penang island, a place where intolerance was almost unheard of. Neither was moderation, for that matter.
There was just acceptance.
Mustakim was a classmate who spoke Hokkien like a Chinese. My neighbour, a Chinese lady, spoke to me in Tamil. I could go to the sundry shop and ask for anything in Tamil – even any of the scores of herbs that Indians use in their cooking – and the good, old apek would pick it out for me. Of course, everybody spoke Malay too. It was a time when we were really one.
St George’s Church was our playground and the Kuan Yin temple was where you stopped by to gawk. There were beggars, priests and rituals, which sometimes included huge pots of boiling oil.
The Maha Mariamman temple was where they served sweet rice and the Kapitan Keling mosque was where they gave away meat during Hari Raya Haji (It wasn’t Hari Raya Aidiladha until much later).
They were not icons of different faiths on the same street, they were just part of us. We were not aware of our differences. We were indifferent to them.
In the Sungai Pinang area, the mosque was open to all. I have slept there. The Church of St Britto was open to all. Sunday school saw many Muslim students attending. They came for the lessons and for the Milo and the biscuits and cakes that were served.
Up in Penang Hill, the Hindu temple and the mosque shared the same ground. There was no fencing between the two. It was just a short walk from one to the other.
We were open with each other. The Chinese coffee shops sold everything from char koay teow to curry mee and nasi kandar. Beer and coffee were consumed on the same table. Indians, Chinese and Malays sat at the same table, each tucking away at their own choice of food and beverage.
We opened our doors to each other. I would walk to my friend Ishak’s house some 15 doors away and have lunch there. Ah Tat (Tan Cheng Tatt) lived next door and I spent most of my time in his house. And my home was open to them.
How things have changed. Now, most of us do not even know our neighbours, never mind spending time with them. We even have neighbours from hell, except maybe in villages where everyone is often of one race or religion.
Even housing estates are divided according to race. There was a place in Sungai Petani where I stopped to ask for an address. “Oh rumah India, itu semua jalan sana (Oh, the Indian house, it’s all along that road),” said the Malay man whom I had approached.
If division by race is bad, division by religion is worse. Food courts are divided into two, where walls come up between halal and non halal. The sight of a cross is unbearable to some. Others complain about the decibels of the azan and there are those who cannot stand the sound of temple bells ringing.
We have drifted far apart. But I always have hope.
While there are those who want us to drift even further apart, there are many who say enough is enough. We have to be one as a nation. Look at the support for the moderation campaign. So many – both older leaders and young activists – have joined up.
The Anas Zubedys and the Lyana Khairuddins of this country and my many young colleagues give me hope.
I think we are coming a full circle. That the days of yore when race and religion divided us are coming to an end.
In recent months, I have linked up with many old classmates, thanks to social media and smartphone apps.
The conversations make me confident. Most of them remember the good old days. Young graduates are asking for change. Yes, there is a need to help those who have fallen behind and to respect the demographics of the country.
But there is an equally important need – to showcase the country as a model of how people of different faiths and ethnicities can live together.
And I haven’t even started talking about Sabah and Sarawak. There, moderation still rules!