Diversity is our strength


RECENTLY, I was asked to address an insurance company’s staff on Unity and Diversity. While pondering on what to say, many thoughts came to my mind. At the global level, Samuel Huntington’s hypothesis of the clash of civilisations seems to be not too far off the mark. While not on a large scale, clashes and skirmishes mostly based on religion and race are simmering in many parts of the world. 

The Northern Ireland fight between the Catholics and the Protestants is not new. We saw the atrocities in Bosnia; we see it in Palestine. Nearer home, in the Philippines, there is the disagreement between the Muslims in the south and the government (mainly Christians) in the north. Along racial lines, clashes occur in Fiji, Aceh and most starkly in Sri Lanka. 

A recent tour of Sri Lanka brought alive its beauty and, sadly, its setbacks. Sri Lanka is a lush green island, which in my estimate is close to 20 years behind Malaysia in terms of development.  

Let me run a quick comparison between Malaysia and Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka obtained its independence in 1948 while Malaysia became independent in 1957. Both countries were colonised by the British, which means they had similar systems of administration and education prior to independence. 

Both had an economy that was agriculture based, Malaysia depending on its rubber and later palm oil and Sri Lanka on rubber, rice and coconuts. 

The early leadership of both countries was also similar in many respects. Malaysia’s Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak had obtained their degrees from the United Kingdom. D.S. Senanayake and Solomon Bandaranaike were also educated in the UK. 

Even the climate of the two countries is pretty similar. 

In Malaysia, the Malays form about 55% of the population, the Chinese about 30% and the Indians about 8%. In Sri Lanka, the Singhalese form about 74% of the population and the Tamils 18%. 

What worked in Malaysia and what went wrong in Sri Lanka? The Singhalese and the Tamils could not work things out together. The early disagreement had erupted into full-fledged terrorist attacks or freedom fighting, depending on whose side one is on. The crux is, there was no attempt to compromise, and this cost the lives of tens of thousands of people. Prime Minister Ranil seems to be doing something good at the moment with the peace negotiations that are being brokered by Norway. 

For Malaysia, a number of factors worked for her. There was, of course, mature and considerate leadership, which gave rise to political stability. The economic development and the education policy also galvanised the country in no small measure. Malaysia was well endowed with rich soil, good rainfall, tin and now oil and gas. Underlying all this was a strong and salient factor that was inter-racial acceptance, tolerance and the spirit of give and take.  

However, I fear that many people are taking this for granted. Some are even playing it up from time to time to suit their own ends.  

Racial and religious acceptance must be worked at with more than ample examples from leaders. Open houses and Hari Raya or Chinese New Year parties are good but not enough. From the educational system to housing policies to the provision of job opportunities to religious practitioners, this attitude of acceptance and give-and-take must prevail. Students must be taught other religions, customs and practices besides their own. This will not only be good for the country but will also prove to be practical and advantageous in a “borderless” world. 

As a test at the said address, I asked the following questions. Readers are welcome to have a go as to their understanding of a multi-religious/ racial society. 

1. The significance of Wesak Day (to be answered by non-Buddhists). 

2. The significance of Good Friday (to be answered by non-Christians). 

3. The meaning of Islam (to be answered by non-Muslims). 

4. Why celebrate Deepavali (to be answered by non-Hindus)? 

5. The Golden Rule – please explain.  

Scientists tell us that as human beings, we have 30,000 genes. And the difference between you and me or between Tiger Woods and me or between Michelle Yeoh and Aishwarya Rai is only 30 genes – meaning that there is a 99.9% similarity and only 0.1% difference. And yet we humans have worked out lists and lists of what makes us different (unique) from others. It is becoming a habit, a bad one at that, to emphasise the differences. 

While there are many good examples to go by, Malaysians must with commitment and gusto make inter-racial relationships flourish. We can be a good role model for the world.  

Recently, a foreign bank set up its multi-million dollar “hub” at Cyberjaya despite offers from Turkey, etc. The reason is that we have a Mandarin-speaking population that gives access to the huge potential in China, a Muslim majority that can open doors to the Middle East, an Indian minority that has connections with the wizards in Bangalore and, most importantly, a population that can communicate in English. We can and should make this diversity work for us. 

In the end, it is a question of man’s ability to rise above the petty, to place the interests of his larger community before his; learn to see the good and the virtues in others be they in culture, values, religion or practices. We need to remind each other that this nation will prosper when we all prosper. 

I would like to end with this beautiful Chinese proverb: 

If there is light in a soul 

There will be beauty in the person 

If there is beauty in a person 

There will be harmony in the house 

If there is harmony in the house 

There will be order in the nation 

If there is order in the nation 

There will be peace in the world 


Answers to the questions above: 

1. Commemorate the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha. 

2. Commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. 

3. Submission – surrender. 

4. The victory of good over evil. The riddance of the tyrant ruler, Naragasuran. 

5. Do unto others as you would want others to do unto you. (This saying is found in all religions and would make a good start for an individual to adopt it as his or her personal philosophy.) 


  • S. Hadi Abdullah is a member of MIM and is currently programme director of MIM’s community-oriented Tun Hussein Onn Renewal Awards (Thora) programme scheduled for Sept 28 to Oct 4. 

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