Tackling race relations creatively

DATUK Lat. Vanggey Restaurant. Datuk Lee Chong Wei. Ola Bola.

The Prime Minister is right. Those are icons of unity.

We salute Datuk Lat for bringing tasteful cartoons to us – sketches that excite not incite – that remind us of our differences but that within that diversity we are sharing many hilarious things together.

Vanggey is one of the best-known nasi kandar restaurants in Ipoh. Malays, Chinese, Indians and others are queuing to get the taste of au­­thentic mamak utara dishes there.

Who can fault Datuk Lee Chong Wei for trying his best to win the first Olympic gold for us? He failed. But he has been the reason why we are cheering in unison these last many years. We learn from him that tenacity and dedication matter. He inspires many.

And of course Ola Bola, the feel-good movie about young footballers of various races trying to make their country proud.

It matters little if creative licence is being exercised sparingly, but who cares! It is one of the best Malaysian movies in recent memory.

There are many other icons of unity out there.

There are many images of moments that will be etched for­ever in our consciousness.

Those are about people – our peopl­­e – showing the spirit of Muhibbah (co-existence) and Perpa­duan (unity). We celebrated our 59th anniversary as a nation last Wednesday.

As we near six decades of Independence, there is a need for a lot of soul searching, unity-wise. The route to the next 59 years will be more challenging.

The world has changed beyond recognition the last 59 years. How much our society has evolved.

Look at how people lived their lives in Penarik Beca, the film directed by P. Ramlee two years before Independence. Even an orang kaya (rich man) took a beca (rickshaw).

Just read Abdullah Hussein’s no­­vel about the plight of three fa­milies that defined fledgling Malaya as a nation. The story of Seman, Chin Huat and Maniam reflects that of the three major races.

The novel is not without flaws but the controversies surrounding it don’t negate the fact that we need a multi-racial novel. Interlok is the Ola Bola of its time.

We need to address race relations in our creative works too. There have been very few novels, dramas or films based on multi-racial Malaysia.

Perhaps we shy away from the subject for fear of repercussions.

Lat has tackled race relations in his art. The late Yasmin Ahmad proved that such films can be made. Chiu Keng Guan has done that with Ola Bola. Creative works transcend race.

Recently I presented a keynote address at Universiti Putra Malay­sia’s Malaysian International Confe­rence on Languages, Literature and Cultures entitled “The Otherness of the Other: Rethinking Differences, The Malaysian Experience.”

I took a tedious route to understand race relations in the country from the post-modernist perspective.

It is a journey into an unknown territory, full of surprises and horrors, littered with statements by “hate-triots” and downright racists, from all sides of the racial and poli­tical divide.

I cannot imagine having senior politicians talking about “Cina Boleh” when Lee was captivating the nation with his ferocious display of sportsmanship. I thought it was “Malaysia Boleh”.

I find it disgusting that a few supposedly wanted Lee to lose so that the present Government is deprived of the credit.

I cannot imagine even the most vociferous supporter of Barisan Nasional among the reporters praying for Selangor to lose so that the state cannot claim credit for the win. So much for not taking sides!

The cyber-world is definitely not helping. There is simply too much hatred out there.

I find the recent cover of TIME magazine interesting, “Why we’re losing the Internet to the culture of hate.” Joel Stein laments the tyranny of the mob in the cyber realm.

We are using the Internet as a weapon of mass destruction, which is a pity, for it promises a totally new world.

We are not spared – neither our leaders, nor even ordinary people. We believe what we read and help forward materials that even we find distasteful.

The truth, in this country, is that all is not well on the unity front. We will self-destruct as a nation if we don’t manage it well.

In my paper, I praised the Indo­nesians for their show of patriotism every time they celebrate their Independence. Perhaps they understand the need for negara bangsa (nation state) better than us.

They value Independence more. Perhaps jingoism is not trendy anymore. Patriotic songs have lost their lustre.

Patriotism is taking many forms, some would argue. But manifesting patriotism is never out of fashion, the last time I checked.

Instead, our people even debate the need to respect the national anthem played in cinemas. Or the theme of every Independence Day celebration.

We argue feverishly about many ways to manifest patriotism, not just by placing flags in our homes or office premises. Yes, we argue for the littlest of excuses. And we are championing our own causes instead of those of the nation’s.

We are One. Don’t ever forget that!

Johan was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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Opinion , Johan Jaaffar , columnist


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