Thriving in the face of conflicts

We have come too close to descending into the chaos of bigotry and racism

Our cultural diversity is an asset - DR WONG SOAK KOON/ALIRAN

The 2022 general election will forever be remembered as that point in our history when the nation stood still for over four days, teetering in uncertainty.

We held our breath, wondering with trepidation which way it would tip.

Even as Anwar Ibrahim took over the reins as the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia, even as we sighed deep sighs of relief after over four exhausting days of hanging in limbo, I cannot help but feel a certain need to restrain my overflowing sense of jubilation.

Because, underneath this overwhelming joy, I am reminded that all is not yet well with this beautiful country we call home.

The path before Anwar and the nation will be rocky. There are too many twists and turns for him to navigate. Not many countries in the world have these extreme poles of cultural and religious diversity among their people, as Malaysia has.

Bringing us together again will not be easy, but it should be a priority.

Management gurus remind us often that conflicts are not necessarily a bad thing. They should not be avoided, and if managed well, will allow us to ride the steep learning curves to teach us to compromise, adjust, prioritise and reinvent ourselves.

However, Malaysian culture has often been one that has shied away from open conflicts and confrontations. But with the recent situation of a hung Parliament, the fears, the anger, the incompatibilities, the disagreements and the grudges have been openly aired.

And we are now finally aware we have been living in our own separate echo chambers, oblivious to the experiences of others in Malaysia.

And so today, I should thank the leaders of a certain political coalition who have fanned the embers of fear, hatred and anger to win easy votes and, in the process, indirectly thrown these conflicts at us.

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Everyone knows there is no easier and lazier way to win an election than by spewing the familiar but exaggerated rhetoric of fear and hatred.

To anyone listening to their talks, it did not look as if they had anything new in their campaign other than these festering seeds of conflict. They did not offer any real comprehensive plan to revive the economy and to reduce the poverty of their own followers. That said, one wonders if the right questions were asked of them to disclose their elusive economic plan.

This brings us to a dilemma that Anwar’s new government will need to confront. How far along the continuum between the modern Western values of challenging and questioning and the more traditional Eastern values of loyalty and conformity will it have to walk?

Loyalty and conformity may not necessarily be good because one wonders at the extent to which a submissive culture has contributed to the disgraceful levels of graft, bribery and corruption that this country has hitherto encountered.

And so, the recent furore of conflicts following the general election outcome has done well in educating us to consider all the different directions this country could have taken.

These conflicts have shown us how separated we are. We have been lulled too long by our peaceful existence in our own small ethnic bubbles. Most of us no longer live, study or work within the same space.

We are reminded also that the urban ethnic Malays and the ethnic minorities have not understood the rural Malay psyche. We are told that the minorities do not listen to Malay conversations nor read their writings.

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And worse, we are told that we do not speak the same language. We are reminded that this new government led by Anwar will have to start learning ‘Malay psychology’.

Yes, I agree, we need to learn that. I am glad this experience has given us this new enriching insight. This will help us pave the way forward.

But then, it cannot always just be about one insight. There are other insights too from other perspectives.

The Malays too will need to understand that the ethnic minorities also have their own psyche. Whether they are in the peninsula or in east Malaysia, they are just as sensitive about their own respective culture and faiths as the Malays are about theirs.

Schools are the ideal melting pots. Children are the most blind to colour and race, and no one can bring people together like the bonds of friendships developed in schools. Through play, they learn the value of sharing and, through encountering differences, they acquire the ability to see from others’ perspectives.

In the 1980s and 90s, national schools were the preferred schools. And yet today, they are not. Many Malays have told me it is merely ‘arrogance’ on the part of ethnic minority parents, but there is more to it than that.

There is an ethnic Indian family I know who have sent their eleven-year-old daughter to a Tamil vernacular school.

I did not approve of their choice at first, but I was later pleasantly surprised when I had an interesting chat with the girl about Pride and Prejudice! To top it off, she told me with a dreamy glint in her eyes that her favourite character was Mr Darcy. Which adolescent girl who has read Pride and Prejudice has not been a little in love with Mr Darcy!

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But a discussion like this would not have taken place, nor would it have been appreciated or entertained in any national primary or secondary school. I recall vividly an ustazah (religious teacher) criticising me for making my students write an essay about the person they admired most.

And so, we have to learn that there is more than one narrative, one ideology and one perspective. We are each not a one-dimensional point on a two-dimensional map. We are all multi-dimensional communities, with differing perspectives and priorities. Speaking up and reaching out would be the first step.

We have learnt that we cannot take peace for granted. Nor can we afford to ignore our respective differences or remain in our own little cells anymore.

We have come too close to descending into the chaos of bigotry and racism. More than once in the last few days, I was left wondering if there would be a home here for me, for I am not Malay nor a Muslim.

If a mono-ethnic political party with a religious extremist perspective was to have taken office, I wonder if the only way that a non-Malay-Muslim could exist here was to remain forever mute and invisible.

And so to start breaking down walls, a little understanding, an unexpected apology and a warm handshake can go some distance. We will need to learn to reach out to one another, to listen and to know. It would be a start.

But we will still have mountains to climb and miles to go before we become a truly great nation. And I believe if anyone can make that happen, it would be Anwar Ibrahim.

Sukeshini Nair
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
25 November 2022

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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26 Nov 2022 8.43pm

Thank you for the article. It is not that we had NOT known all this while what constitutes real unity. The article articulates well the need for ‘compromise’ and deep understanding of one race relation with another both in terms of racial psyche and religion, if the nation were to survive. There is no reward in being egoistic. what is crucial is that every component of the community needs to swallow their own pride and move on for an equitable compromise acceptable to each community on the cohesive nature acceptable to each and every community what our forefathers of the nation has subtly ‘formulated’ for a peaceful existence.