Where’s our ‘Beautiful Neighbourhood’?

  • Opinion
  • Tuesday, 07 Jul 2020

Beloved icon: A screenshot of Hanks as Mr Rogers in last year’s movie about one of America’s most beloved paternal figures.

There are nation-building tips to be gleaned from the iconic Mr Rogers.

MANY people have asked me why I write the way I do and why I think in a way that is not characteristic of either my race or religion. I never gave such questions much thought until I recently began pondering things that make me sad about the future of this nation.

Why do I think the way I do? Well, let me begin my explanation with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie featuring one of America’s favourite paternal figures, Mr Rogers (played by one of America’s most beloved actors, Tom Hanks). After watching this 2019 movie recently, I came to the conclusion that my childhood was influenced heavily by 1960s and 1970s television programmes.

So my encounter with the “Other” came very early in life. Even though I lived in a small police barracks flat with six siblings and played with Malaysian children in schools and on football fields, the “Other” was familiar to me through hours of reading English comic and story books and watching Western TV programmes.

When I began my path towards a “religious identity”, that “Other” was never far and, in fact, the values and lessons I learned from those books and TV programmes remained a part of my value system even after traversing through hundreds of traditional as well as modern religious texts.

I’ve never watched a single episode of Mr Rogers’ popular children’s TV series that aired for almost 40 years. I just happened to catch the movie with my favourite actor, Hanks, reprising the role of Mr Rogers. I then spent a week watching interviews with the real Mr Rogers who had created the TV series and reading about his life. There were three things that he said and did that I found extremely spiritual and that are powerful nation-building tools.

In interviews, Mr Rogers (Fred McFeely Rogers, 1928-2003) said he wanted to educate children about important things in real life so they could adjust well to events like death, divorce, being sick and many others.

Among his more important lessons were those about racism. In his theme song Mr Rogers repeatedly asks his audience “Would you be my neighbour”, and says that he would love to have a neighbour “just like you”. Secondly, he always reiterates that he loves people and children “just the way you are”.

In these two statements I found an inspiring lesson in spirituality that I have also read in many books on religion. I have also found that they are a key to nation-building that does not cost a billion ringgit or even one sen.

It is about accepting the “Others” as they are, about not judging others with your own lens of morality or “religious correctness”. It is about treating others with the respect that you would expect to be shown to you.

I wondered how a TV persona could have reached such a high spiritual philosophy and thought that he must have had some spiritual guides. True enough, Mr Rogers had a degree in Music and a postgraduate degree in Early Child Development Psychology. He was also an ordained minister. But Mr Rogers never came off as a Christian evangelist, just as a nice man from the neighbourhood.

In six years of primary school education, five years of secondary school and nine years of university education, I have never been taught these simple and yet powerful lessons. I am pretty sure in all the As that our children score, these lessons are not in the curriculum today either.

Thirdly, in one powerful episode, Mr Rogers asks a young black man from the streets to join him on the show as a policeman character. Now, in those days, a black police office was unheard of in the United States.

Then Mr Rogers does the unthinkable and asks the black man to join him in washing their feet in a tub of water – this at a time white people considered black people so “filthy” that they weren’t allowed to use public swimming pools. Mr Rogers was trying to teach the simple lesson that cleanliness is not about one’s skin colour, culture or upbringing.

Now, let’s look at Malaysia’s school education and TV programmes. Do they have moments when we “bathe our feet together”? Do they teach children the sentiment of “I wish you could be my neighbour just the way you are”? Why are our TV shows “single colour” ones? Why do children’s cartoons still depict “others” as empty stereotypes and not meaningful cultures necessary for all our existence?

Sometimes, I wish that we could have simple faith as spiritual truths rather then the complex framework of religious identity. How I wish for a figure like Mr Rogers who treats others as a part of himself to be valued, to be loved and to teach us to grow in kindness and compassion and to accept all as a family in the “beautiful neighbourhood” of Malaysia.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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