ONE of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, as narrated by Muslim, is that “kindness is a mark of faith”. Indeed, all religions teach us to live serenely and selflessly in the midst of suffering.
An admirable illustration of such kindness occurred a few days ago in Taman Free School, George Town, when the shelter of a surau was offered to non-Muslims who were rendered homeless by devastating floods in the middle of the night.
This spirit of compassion and mutual concern is what Malaysia is all about. Anyone familiar with the history of our struggle for Merdeka will know that our constitutional and political structures and our economic, social and educational systems were designed to reflect a vision of shared destiny, moderation, tolerance, harmony and mutual respect.
We need to recapture this vision, strengthen our social fabric, repair ethnic bridges, dismantle cultural walls, and heal and reconcile grievances, real and imagined, that exist on both sides. This is not the job of the government alone. All of us have a role to play.
Accept diversity: All members of society and of the government need to come to terms with our diversity, heterogeneity and pluralism. This diversity is here to stay. We should regard it as an asset despite its many challenges.
Intermingling of cultures: For centuries, Malay, Chinese Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Kadazan-Dusun, Iban and European cultures have mixed in our soil to constitute our rich cultural mosaic. “There is far more cross-cultural mingling, sharing and co-dependence among us than we care to recognise, admit or celebrate,” says sociologist Patrick Pillai.
Social science research can do much to highlight this reality. Most of us share mixed ancestry and imbibe many cultural values from many shores.
We grew up in hybrid cultures that “seeped through porous ethnic borders”. Due to the administrative classification of West Malaysians into artificial, socially constructed “races” by the name of Malay, Chinese and Indian, the dazzling diversity within these groups remains largely unexplored. In fact, the country has over 100 ethnic and sub-ethnic groups.
Multiple identities: All human beings stand at the centre of a large number of concentric circles – each circle representing an object of his loyalty or commitment. Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria counsels, “We should not see ourselves and (other) people only from the lens of ethnicity; other identities are equally important dimensions of life and existence. These enable us to have a sense of belonging with others.”
Constitutional literacy: We need to improve knowledge of the Constitution’s glittering generalities, especially its provisions on inter-ethnic relations. If we read about the making of the Constitution, we will see that by far and large Tunku Abdul Rahman and the other forefathers of our Constitution were animated by a remarkable vision and optimism of a shared destiny among the various peoples of the Peninsula.
The Constitution, even in its “ethnic provisions” sought to avoid extreme measures and provided for a balance between the interests of the “Bumiputra” and “non-Bumiputra” communities.
Our secondary schools and universities must have a familiarisation course on the basic features of the Constitution and the reasons for the many delicate compromises contained therein. Such knowledge will help to moderate extremism and give appreciation of one of the world’s most unique and hitherto successful experiments in peaceful co-existence in a nation of dazzling diversity.
Conflict resolution: We need to provide a new statutory, institutional framework for reconciling race and religious conflicts. These are unavoidable in any vibrant society. It is time to legislate a National Harmony Act (by whatever name called) after wide consultation. An Equal Opportunities Commission was proposed by the National Economic Advisory Council in its report entitled New Economic Model for Malaysia (2010).
The National Unity Council should be upgraded to a statutory status (much like the Race Relations Boards of the UK). Perhaps there should also be a statutory Inter-Faith Council to foster dialogue over all that unites us and to seek tolerance and compassion towards all that divides us.
Promote interfaith studies: In schools, colleges and universities, interfaith studies should be encouraged as a step towards understanding, tolerance and unity. Most prejudices are born out of ignorance. We have to teach people that the primitive ethic of tribalism, racism or religious exclusiveness has no place in modern society. The circle of life has expanded. We are all brothers and sisters on this big blue marble.
Exposure to other religions and cultures will not weaken our faith. It may strengthen it.
I believe that just as religion is a divisive force, it can also be a great uniting force for justice. Refer, for example, to Prophet Muhammad’s advice to his community: “Shall I not inform you of a better act than fasting, alms and prayers? Making peace between one another: enmity and malice tear up heavenly rewards by the roots.”
Educational system: An educational system must bring the learners together, not separate them on grounds of race, religion or language. If young people do not learn together, how will they live together? The ethnic diversity of school teachers and school principals must be restored. We must use school sports as a uniting force.
Criminalise hate speech: Hate speech polarises communities and often leads to violence. Existing provisions in the Penal Code, Communications and Multimedia Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Sedition Act need to be buttressed by a new law.
In many societies including Singapore, the UK and the United States, the law is being used to socially engineer a more tolerant society. There is no shame in emulating others and building our garland with flowers from many gardens.
Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi is Tunku Abdul Rahman Professor of Law at Universiti Malaya. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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