Uniting instead of dividing

Talking values: The Dalai Lama took part in the online forum from his residence in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India. — Photo: dalailama.com

IT feels like we live in an era of being torn apart.

We are being torn apart by what looks like to be a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. And we are being torn apart by endless political bickering.

The power struggle that precipitated the Sabah state election is a prime example of how the latter led directly to the former.

Then of course there are the recent announcements on one hand and rumours on the other, both concerning realignments of power that may ultimately result in snap federal elections.

If one state election can bring our Covid-19 levels back to near pre-movement control order levels, I shudder to think what effect national elections will have. It appears we have indeed been a little too lax and have been letting our guard down against the pandemic.

While some fiddle and continue in naked pursuit of power as the country burns, it is heartening to know that there are at least some who are doing the exact opposite – trying to build bridges instead of tearing us further apart.

Last Monday, on Sept 28, a historic forum was held featuring His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Prof Emeritus Datuk Osman Bakar, who holds the Al-Ghazzali Chair of Epistemology and Civilisational Studies at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur.

This forum was co-organised by Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim) and the Tibetan Buddhist Culture Centre, Malaysia, and was titled “Compassion and Mercy – Common Values between Islam and Buddhism”. (Search YouTube for a recording of the full session.)

It’s hard to describe the significance of this forum.

On the one hand, it may seem on one level to be just one of the many simple webinars we see nowadays, with two older gentlemen speaking on subjects close to their heart.

But the true rarity and groundbreaking nature of this forum only underscore how thirsty we have been for even such basic conversations in pursuit of harmony, mutual understanding, and affirmation of common ground.

I understand that weeks and months of preparatory work went into making this short event happen, but it all seems to have been worth it.

Having followed Abim’s work closely for some time now, I was particularly encouraged to see them so successfully take another stride forward in their ongoing mission to build bridges among communities.

As so many different people want to tear us apart, I truly feel this is what Malaysia needs now, more than anything: movements of Malaysians, strong and confident in their own sense of religious and ethnic identity, who are unafraid to reach out and build vital connections with those from different backgrounds.

This is the most essential building block of the national unity that Malaysia needs, now more than ever.

We don’t need more politicians aligning, realigning and re-realinging to the point where financial analysts Fitch Solutions have predicted that political instability will stunt economic growth for no less than 10 years.

We need Malaysians who can look beyond existing divides and transcend the unending toxic mire of partisan politics, and do the real work of nation-building.

Looking at Malaysia’s long-term prognosis, I am reminded of a lunch I had with a Cambridge educated economist and Bank Negara Malaysia scholar.

I asked him about the most important things to look out for in terms of Malaysia’s economic future. I expected the answer to be something about petroleum, or GDP, or some such thing. But he started talking about trust.

He said that Malaysians are trusting each other less and less, and without this type of social trust our economic prospects as a nation are dim.

I was really struck by that, and I don’t think this will be the last time I use this story in a column.

If my friend is right, then our only hope is to start rebuilding that trust.

It feels like last Monday’s forum is exactly the kind of step in that direction that we need.

Humans trust one another more when they feel a sense of sameness – a sense that we share certain values and principles.

These days, our political culture encourages us to focus on our differences – on all the things that set us apart.

Last Monday’s forum was a step in the opposite direction – identifying what it is that brings us together.

Both the Dalai Lama and Prof Osman had profound things to say on this matter.

The Dalai Lama spoke of how a sense of concern for human beings is a part of human nature, and how all religions teach the loving kindness that can be the key to our survival as social creatures. He also shared colourful anecdotes about his interactions with Muslims in his younger days in Tibet.

Prof Osman meanwhile spoke about how all human beings have a seed of compassion and mercy, and that mercy is the essence of Islam.

As the conversation progressed, both wise men uncovered more and more similarities between what may at first look like two very different faiths. This journey of discovery was as enlightening as it was heartwarming.

If we as a nation can replicate this process, and keep working hard to find these types of vital common ground that can unite us all, we will have a fighting chance of putting our country back on the right path.Nathaniel Tan works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR) and was thrilled to see Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche participate in the Zoom call last Monday.

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