Multiculturalism: Back to basics

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Politicians have successfully created fear and suspicion in our society, and if this is the tactic they are using, how can we trust this government, wonders Shannon Wong.

`Multiculturalism’ echoes from the ‘mamak’ stalls to the hallowed halls of Parliament. It is a concept widely believed to have originated from anthropological studies.

And it is clear that we are no longer a society whose culture is locked in. Borders are being broken down and there is now easier access to faraway places, exotic cultures. The world around us is getting bigger and our society more diverse.

But are we prepared for change?

When we talk about ‘multiculturalism’ in Malaysia, we must not speak solely of the issues of the various local ethnicities. Foreign influences should be brought into this debate.

With the rising number of expatriates and migrant workers flooding into Malaysia, we can expect more clashes in social views, beliefs that may not sit well with the local culture.

But the irony is that there is an identity crisis within Malaysia’s local community. What is Malaysian culture to begin with? Does it belong to a particular racial or religious group? I would like to think not but that does not seem to be the case.

The Malaysian government’s initiative to launch the ‘1Malaysia’ campaign was apparently to unite these differences among the local racial groups so that Malaysians could have `one identity’.

But there is almost a conflict of thought when those in power talk about unity but hide behind division – to maintain their influence. They preach ‘multiculturalism’ before elections but then undergo a sudden loss of memory, post-elections.

READ MORE:  In Search of… empathy in a deeply polarised Malaysia

Meanwhile, our society grapples with what it means to be Malaysian because those in power simply can’t decide, either. A secular and liberal belief would be to accept that Malaysia is where all ethnic groups are treated equally. We live harmoniously in this multicultural society by respecting one another’s differences.

But is that part of what Malaysia was or is it what it’s going to be? Worse still would be if it is only a lie we tell tourists and ourselves.

Indeed, the very idea of ‘1Malaysia’ has been satirised; more politicians are adding an extra phrase to it – ‘1Malaysia’, my Malaysia’… and hence, my interest alone. This brings on its own sets of fears and further division within a particular community – those who are going to agree and those who won’t.

The sad truth is that when personal interests are invested, those in authority choose to assert their dominance in this diverse multicultural pool of ‘rakyat’. They interpret traditional beliefs, religious laws and archaic secular laws to further propel their interests. Hence, we are fast becoming a society that is ruled by law – while ignoring the rule of law.

Suddenly, we are turning to politicians to tell us about our own identities in terms of race and religion, when really, they know no better.

Differences make us a multicultural society… but elevated and reinforced distinction only breeds chaos.

The idea of supremacy and monopoly by one section of individuals over others would mean that naturally, there will be those who will feel marginalised. When this happens, tension festers among the people and, with it, negative stereotypes develop. We start to create prejudice and internalise our fears of not being correctly represented in Parliament and beyond.

READ MORE:  Home in Harmony

Somewhere along the line, some Malaysians even fall into the trap of believing that it is not dirty underhanded politics but a fight for righteousness. They, like Perkasa, then help some leaders stay comfortably in power as the `defenders’ of their rights.

If we have learned anything from literature or world history, we should be very afraid, especially at a time like this, for two reasons. First, politicians have successfully created fear and suspicion in our society. And second, if this is the tactic they are using, how can we trust this government?

Indeed, if we cannot even address the issue of multiculturalism on a local scale, how can we even begin to understand the implications of the inclusion of foreign cultures? To answer this, we would have to wait and see what is next for the Najib regime.

Shannon-WongShannon Wong is a hopeful philosophy, politics and economics student who believes deeply in the Socratic method of questioning.

She participated in the Aliran Young Writers Workshop on Multiculturalism, supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.

Of the workshop, she says: “I enjoyed the stimulating intellectual debate. It was good to see academics taking an active stance to keep our government in check. A bonus would also be that I learned how to produce powerful political commentary just by changing minor words…”

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