Monday, September 04, 2017

Reflections on racial harmony in Malaysia

WEEKS ago, I noticed on my Facebook feed that some friends were sharing the latest music video produced and composed by Namewee, entitled “Ali, AhKao dan Muthu”. Namewee is a controversial hip-hop artist who was once condemned by Malay right-wing groups following the release of “Negarakuku” 10 years ago. His song carried some anti-government undertones, and he was accused of disrespecting Islam, the Malay race and insulting the national anthem.
In stark contrast to his previous song, “Ali, AhKao dan Muthu” is a politically-correct portrayal of racial harmony among the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia, namely Malay, Chinese and Indian. Its chorus goes “…kawan selama-lamanya, satu hati satu jiwa”.
While I do not dispute Namewee’s well-meaning intentions (and indeed that of other artistes) who are working hard to promote interracial harmony via songs and videos, how can one transcend stereotypical symbolism of interracial harmony to address the elephant in the room – the real complicated issues that create discordance, mistrust and discontent among the multiracial community?
Firstly, racial harmony in Malaysia typically emphasises the unity of only three major races, leaving out diverse communities, for example, the aboriginals (or ‘Orang Asal’) in Peninsular Malaysia, the native bumiputera in East Malaysia and mixed parentage groups such as baba-nyonya, Eurasian and Chindian, as if they do not fit into the whole picture but only the fringe ‘lain-lain’ position. These groups might feel disconnected or disillusioned at being excluded.
Secondly, a study on interracial relations published by CIMB Foundation on January 2017 found that 89.5% Malay, 79.0% Chinese, 68.7% Indian respondents reported having a lot or almost all of their friends from their own racial groups, pointing to a lack of deeper racial interactions on a daily basis.
This is indeed a disturbing reality, and one that contradicts the “Ali, AhKao dan Muthu” friendship propagated by Namewee’s video. The question we must ask ourselves is this: how many Malaysians actually desire such inter-racial friendships, and if they do, what are the real life obstacles that prevent these relationships from forming?
Certain people, including politicians, have alluded to the single-stream schooling system as the magical silver bullet that will bolster interracial harmony in Malaysia. Some weeks ago, during a TN50x session on politics, UMNO Youth exco Shahril Hamdan claimed that having single stream schools could be “the formula to achieve unity among races” based on “constant engagement with one another from a young age”. But is this “short cut” to promote unity, as he claimed, really something desirable?
People often forget that Malaysia’s strength lies in the diversity of our multicultural-multilingual plural society. This diversity is very reason why so many travellers, from near and far, fall in love with our country – a country that is indeed a Truly Asia, a well-known international recognition.
The former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi once proposed to introduce ‘home language’ classes in national schools.
"We should be learning the languages of other races in line with today's needs," he said.
Although the then government had other motives for that proposal (and if we disregard the issue of shortage in mother tongue language teachers), it was nevertheless a praiseworthy policy proposal mirroring language policies practiced in other multi-lingual countries such as Canada and Switzerland. In those countries, children are made to learn dual major languages in school (English and French for the former; German and French for the latter).
Make no mistake, I am all for students from different backgrounds coming together and interacting more frequently with each other. Such positive actions should be strongly encouraged, moreover language should not be the barrier since vernacular school students are taught in Bahasa Malaysia too.
Still, I argue that language alone will not guarantee racial harmony especially not when Malaysians are still accorded different treatments and rights based on their race and religion. Even if school children were to share a classroom, they would still be constantly aware and reminded of how different each is to other.
One need only recall the incident when poor non-Muslim students had to eat and drink in the restroom during Ramadan, or, in another case how cups were separated according to Muslim and non-Muslim in another national school.
It is true that “no child is born a racist”. Some years ago, a documentary produced by local filmmaker Jason Lim showed that as children grow up, the messages they receive from the surrounding environment shapes and influences the way they perceive things.
Under adverse circumstances, certain racial stereotypes could infiltrate young minds, forming the basis for discrimination. The government and society should do more to cultivate a good environment for children to form multiracial friendships from a young age.
Positive affirmative action is an accepted worldwide practice. When applied appropriately, it holds much potential to reach the goal of delivering social justice. However, to attain that goal, policies for positive affirmative action should focus on channelling resources towards qualified individuals who need the assistance the most.
Class-based positive affirmative action is usually the mainstay, though in certain countries the absolute minorities (e.g. aboriginal tribal communities) do enjoy certain preferential treatment. The abuse and distortion of affirmative action creates social injustice and unhappiness for those who are non-beneficiaries of the system.
In Malaysia, certain quarters might feel they are rightly or wrongfully treated as ‘second class’ citizens, and perceive that some enjoy more privileges and opportunities than themselves. Such sentiment could brew over a long time and pass down through generations if nothing is done to weed out the roots of this dissatisfaction stemming from differential treatment according to racial and religious lines.
Left unchecked, it could even erupt into ugly (not necessarily violent) conflicts. Such cases have already unfolded now and then in our country. If the perception of unfairness is allowed to persist, it would be a real stumbling block to realise the true spirit of national unity, trust and mutual acceptance among various ethnicities in Malaysia.
The government and lawmakers must periodically re-examine our existing policies, laws and constitution, and strive to ensure that these reflect the universal values of liberty, equality and fraternity.
What use is there in propagating a superficial rhetoric of interracial harmony, if no concrete action is taken to deal with the underlying causes of dissatisfaction among the grassroots? When will Malaysians be able to embrace their different identities and daily practices, yet be treated as equal citizens sharing this land? 

Published at The Malaysian Insight, Voices, Aug 28, 2017.

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