SABAH, famously known as “The Land Below the Wind”, is the second largest state in Malaysia, sharing the island of Borneo with Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan.
Well, I am in Kota Kinabalu for the Borneo Rainforest Law Conference and the Opening of the Legal Year (OLY) 2019 for Sabah and Sarawak. I attended the same event for Peninsular Malaysia just last week. Unfortunately, the difference between the two OLYs is painfully noticeable.
While the event in Sabah is exciting and full of pride, sadly the one in Putrajaya was a very sombre and tired affair. I feel utterly rejuvenated being in Sabah. I feel a sense of camaraderie, friendship and love. Sabahans and Sarawakians are Malaysians at their very best. People of different ethnicities and religions sit side-by-side. None better than the other, none superior than the rest.
There is no “tolerance” of the other, only unadulterated acceptance. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the secret.
Is it possible for all Malaysians, especially for us in the peninsula, to adopt such an approach in our lives? Are we capable of living without subjecting others to moral judgments based on our religion and ethnicity? Moralising about others and taking actions on it? Why are our brethren in Sabah and Sarawak capable of such an acceptance of others that they live a truly harmonious existence whereas here in the peninsula, we have grudging tolerance at best and outright hatred at worst?
I have struggled with these questions for a long time and, depending on your point of view, the answers to them are actually depressingly easy.
Racial polarisation in Malaysia is self-inflicted, of our own creation and we continuously do so. Instead of merely acknowledging a need for affirmative action, we created a group of people with a “special position”. That institutionalised those people with an entitlement mindset that does not see the need for merit.
Do you know where else this has been implemented to disastrous consequence? The United States accorded Native Americans similar status, and their “protection and special position” is also institutionalised to the point that they practically have nations within a nation. What did the natives get for their special position? Casinos for their elites and cronies to get rich with while the communities linger in the worst poverty with the most poorly educated population in the United States.
Sound familiar? Just substitute casinos with 1MDB and the like and you will see what I mean. Yes, the natives also clamour for preservation of their language and culture – just substitute that with the Malay language and our religion. Unfortunately, no one is interested in what history has already proven and we, the human species, are doomed to repeat history again and again.
Why are Sabahans less judgmental than their peninsula counterparts? I will tell you why. Theirs is a society that is truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious where none is really that much of a majority. They have family members from every ethnicity and every religion that mix with them on daily basis. They are all family with a capital F. Thus, humanity shines through rather than ethnicity or religion.
So no one can pull rank based on ethnicity or religion. To do so would invite scorn and contempt from other members of your own Family. There is practically no refuge for the racist and the bigot to gain protection or encouragement.
You can have ethnic pride but you are not allowed ethnic arrogance. If you were to talk up your religion or your ethnicity as the supreme one in public, you would be looked at like someone who has gone off the rails or an arrogant piece of turd.
That is not so in the peninsula. On a daily basis, you have government leaders, politicians, civil servants, media, and religious clerics ranging from self-appointed vigilantes to ulamaks and even Muftis expounding the supremacy of their race and religion shamelessly.
They make pronouncements that put down the Other with no counter from leaders to push back the radicals and extremists in their midst. They are either of the same persuasion or are just cowards. It is only left to laypeople like you and me to push back. Such is the character of our political elites.
Let me give you a recent case in point. Has anybody heard of any push back from any Malay or Muslim ministers on the recent “cross-lighted” building in Penang? (The lights on the facade of a semi-built building appeared to be in the shape of a cross, and people objected to it on social media.) None. Crickets.
Why can’t a chorus of government leaders and Muftis stand up and say this is absolutely embarrassing to my race and religion. Where are the voices saying that even if that is a sign of the cross, it means nothing to my pride or my religion? That Islam, and the faith of Muslims, is so strong that it has no problem allowing the expression of another religion in as grand a look as it wants in a Muslim majority country like Malaysia.
They are so scared that they have no ability to lead. So they allow the extremist elements in our society to set the agenda.
Have any of you been to Lutong in Sarawak? Go there on a Friday or a Sunday and see how the car parks open up between the An-Naim Mosque and the Good Shepherd Church, sitting side-by-side and providing congregants of both to have space to attend to their religious affairs. Instead, in the peninsula, we have the Taman Medan church in Selangor facing protests for putting up a cross.
The lesson from our cousins in Sabah and Sarawak is clear. If you believe your race and religion is above others’ and you act accordingly, you will become racists and bigots.
Your race, your ethnicity, is neither biological nor genetic, it’s just cultural. Otherwise, the peninsula Malays, Muruts, Bajaus, Ibans, Jawas, Minangs, Filipinos, Cubans, Colombians, Mexicans, and countless others’ so-called races and ethnicities would be of one race. So to those who insist that race is biological, wake up. If you want to understand why all these disparate races look biologically the same, pick up a book on evolution by natural selection.
Being a humanist instead of a racist means that you know that your so-called race is merely an accident of birth and yours is nothing more special than the next person’s. That no matter your ethnicity, it merely defines your cultural roots, not you nor the other person.
Take pride in your culture; celebrate it as part of what makes all of us a nation of cultures, but know that it is not what defines you nor is it what makes you a better person. You make yourself a better person.
Pluralism means you believe that yours is the right religion for you and maybe for others if they so choose but you accept that others have a right to feel the same about their religion.
And for those who say pluralism will ail the community, I say you can keep your bigotry to yourself. It is beliefs like that that are polarising our nation today.
Have you seen how Sarawakians and Sabahans eat together, be together, celebrate together?
Does that make you smile and warm your heart, or does the sight of Muslims eating and drinking with others at the same table disgust you?
That will tell you what kind of human being you are.
We have to ask ourselves, does our race or religion make us better human beings or do they make us judgmentally arrogant to others? It cannot be that a superior culture or a superior religion makes us worse human beings to those around us. But if it does, than maybe what we are practicing is be the right thing after all.
Maybe we should look around us and see where people are living on much better terms with each other, in harmony and happiness, and with mutual respect – and ask why.
We cannot demand respect from others. There is no such thing. We need to earn respect.
Our cousins in Sabah and Sarawak have earned my utmost respect. They are the better angels of our nature.