In Search of… empathy in a deeply polarised Malaysia

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File photo - People of all faiths joined in solidarity with those breaking their fast at the Acheen Street Mosque in Penang ahead of Raya

If there are enough like-minded people from diverse backgrounds willing to practise empathy, then we might stand a chance of building a more inclusive Malaysia, writes Azmil Tayeb

Recently, I was in Kota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan, to conduct research on Islamic political parties, democracy and governance.

Kelantan is a stronghold of Pas, which has governed the state from 1959 to 1978 and from 1990 to the present. Many of us also associate Pas with the draconian face of Islam, in particular the party’s uncompromising insistence on implementing hudud law in Malaysia.

While Pas is undeniably deeply conservative, the overall picture of the party is less than monolithic. There are pockets of reason, rationality and receptiveness within Pas that defy the public perception of the party as being exclusive, provincial and intolerant. This is a point I will get back to later since it is not the focus of this newsletter.

Since Pakatan Harapan took over the federal government in 2018, we have seen an alarming rise in ethnic and religious tensions across the country. The latest were the Jawi brouhaha and the protest against Chinese New Year decorations in a public school.

At the root of these incidents is a serious misunderstanding and ignorance between both sides of these contentious issues. Ignorance provides unscrupulous politicians and other political actors with the opportunity to mislead and manipulate people by appealing to the public’s irrational fear and base emotions instead of logic and reason.

Put another way, there is a deficit of empathy among various segments of our society today, laid bare by the unbroken string of ethno-religious controversies in the past 20 months.

Empathy allows us to understand others in a sincere and meaningful way, especially those who are diametrically different from us. It forces us to walk a mile in other people’s shoes, so to speak, to better comprehend the fears, joys and aspirations of others who, on the surface, look and act differently from us.

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In contrast to tolerance, another oft-used term to describe the ideal of multiculturalism, empathy forces us to step out of our comfort zones and confront our fears and ignorance of others. Tolerance, meanwhile, encourages various ethnic and religious groups to coexist and respect each other, grudgingly or otherwise, for the sake of social cohesion and harmony. People can still be tolerant while being blissfully ignorant of other religions and cultures. Empathy goes even further than merely tolerating differences; it seeks to understand others and find common values amidst these differences.  

How then can we move from tolerance to empathy? How can we sow the seeds of empathy in our society so that peace and solidarity among various groups can take root and blossom? Prema Devaraj exhorts all Malaysians to redouble our efforts to build a new Malaysia, “to put our shoulders to the wheel of change and keep that vision in sight”. A new Malaysia, she says, is where “the diversity of faith, thoughts and practices cease to be seen as threats” – which is the overarching aim of cultivating empathy in society.

One way to nurture empathy, especially among impressionable young minds, is through the education system. K Haridas argues it is high time the Malaysian education system embodies the values and hopes of all groups in society. It needs a minister who knows the urgency of making the education system more inclusive by including representatives from a broad range of groups in society in the ministry’s policymaking process. It is the first step towards ensuring the education system is balanced and comprehensive.

I will go a step further and say the Ministry of Education must make it compulsory for schools under its purview to implement inter-ethnic and inter-religious activities. For starters, the schools can organise regular visits to ethnic neighbourhoods and places of worship such as mosques, churches and temples. The schools can also invite representatives from various ethnic and religious groups to give talks and organise programmes that promote inclusiveness and understanding.

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My previous research on education revealed that some schools are already undertaking these efforts on their own. It is about time the ministry makes inter-ethnic and inter-religious activities part of its official policy and implement it nationwide.

According to a 2017 review of national surveys by economist Lee Hwok-Aun, the majority of Malays and Chinese only socialise within their own ethnic group, typically caused by circumstances and not by choice. The study also reveals that Malaysians tend to hold other religions in low regard, most likely from ignorance.

But the same study also shows a willingness among many Malays and Chinese to get to know one another – a prime opportunity to encourage the promotion of empathy in our society. It shows that while Malaysian society now might be deeply polarised, the fraying relationship between various ethnic and religious groups is not beyond repair.

We can use empathy to build the proverbial bridges that can span these ethnic and religious divides.

In recent years, Aliran and the women’s wing of Ikram, a Muslim organisation, co-organised a series of “Hand-in-Hand“ workshops for women from diverse backgrounds. Former Aliran president Prema facilitated the activities by encouraging the participants to step out of their comfort zones, confront their prejudices, understand fellow participants who are different than them and ultimately find common values amongst themselves. The aim of the workshops was to promote empathy among the participants through various group and role-playing exercises.

So let’s each make it our personal New Year’s resolution to be empathetic towards others. We can start by getting to know those who are different from us. Malay-Muslims, for instance, can visit other religions’ places of worship and have a chat with the congregants and their pastors or monks. Likewise, non-Muslims can visit mosques and talk with the Muslims there to better understand their worldview.

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Chapter 49, Verse 13 of the Qur’an states, “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.” Diversity should spur people to closer interactions, not serve as a divisive force.        

We can also make an effort in our daily lives especially at schools, universities and workplaces to befriend and hang out with others who come from different backgrounds. We cannot expect the political leaders to practise empathy when we do not do it first. As Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Only by changing ourselves for the better can we hope to change society for the better.

Back to the earlier point I made about pockets of reason, rationality and receptiveness within Pas: I am reminded of an interview I had with a Pas official in Kota Bharu. He wisely said that the source of ethnic and religious tensions in Malaysia now is because people choose to focus on differences rather than looking for common values among them. To find these common values, he felt we must make an effort to know and understand the needs and aspirations of other groups in the country. In other words, empathy can be a panacea to the seemingly intractable ethnic and religious tensions we face now.

His view remains the minority in the party, but if there are enough like-minded people from diverse backgrounds, then we might stand a chance of shaping Malaysia into an inclusive and harmonious nation.      

Azmil Tayeb
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
11 January 2020
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