Empathy and myopia: How Malaysians no longer understand one another

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The absence of a shared public domain where there is the recognition of different subjectivities is one of the factors that is compounding the problem of nation-building and that is why we as a nation remain fragmented and unable to empathise with one another, observes Aliran member Farish Noor.


Malaysia is once again landed with yet another predictable mini-controversy (as there are too many controversies at the moment, this one has been relegated somewhat) involving a report that was purported written by two Muslims for the magazine al-Islam. The report was written by the two Muslims who claimed that their intention was to investigate the allegations that Muslims were being converted to Christianity in the country, but the cause of the controversy lies in the fact that the two writers chose to pretend to be Christians and took part in Christian rituals of worship in the Church. For many Christians the most offensive aspect of the investigation lay in the claim that the writers took part in the rituals without revealing who they were, and that they consumed the holy wafer/bread of Christ, then spat it out, and photographed the remnants of what they had consumed later.

Now of course this begs the obvious question: How would Muslims had reacted if some non-Muslim journalists had done the equivalent; to enter a mosque, take part in rituals, photographed them, and then published the report in some journal?

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In response to the clamour of complaints that have been issued, the authorities now claim that the two writers will be investigated, and if found guilty of carrying out acts detrimental to public order may even be imprisoned. This would not, however, address the key issue which is this: have levels of emphathy and understanding in Malaysian society dropped to such an extent that someone could even contemplate doing such a thing without considering its wider impact on society and the consequences to others and themselves? Could the writers of the article not even consider the potential offence that they might have caused by assuming a fake identity only to take part in rituals they did not believe in; and did they not realise that this might have been seen as outrageous by others?

Empathy – the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another, no matter how different that other person is – and to share the pain, joy, hopes and aspirations of others is one of the variable factors that hold societies together. An alienated society that does not communicate with the various streams that flow within the broader mainstream is a society that is in danger of losing touch with itself and growing more fragmented and alienated in time. That is the juncture that we have reached in Malaysia, despite talks of national unity and one-ness.

Here again we need to look back to the structural and institutional factors that may account for this lack of empathy among Malaysians.

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For a start, a quick look at our urban landscape will tell us that the shared public spaces that ought to mark out the contours of our public domain are rapidly deminishing. Our public parks and playgrounds are being replaced by shopping malls and condominiums, and the shared spaces where young Malaysians may meet, interract and form lasting childhood friendships are being lost and eroded in time.

To compound matters further, our manifold multi-streamed educational system that still allows for different vernacular streams has also eroded the shared public domain where young Malaysians can meet and interact across the divide of ethnicity and language. Is it a surprise that some Muslims can walk into a Church to write a report as was done by the two writers today? After all, when we look at the social landscape of Malaysia at the moment there is precious little in terms of space where genuine inter-ethnic communication (and by this I mean meaningful communication, not ordering a pizza) can take place. The absence of a national educational system for all means that young Malaysians are growing up in not one but several Malaysias that are growing apart. I would not be surprised if the two writers were themselves from such a background, and had had little contact with non-Muslims in their lives.

This absence of a shared public domain where there is the recognition of different subjectivities is one of the factors that is compounding the problem of nation-building and that is why we as a nation remain fragmented and unable to empathise with one another. And in case Malaysia’s Christians are so offended by the article that was written for al-Islam (which it was, in this writer’s opinion) then they should spare a thought for the Muslim minorities who live among us too, such as the Shias and Ahmadis who have for decades now been branded apostates, deviants, heretics and outsiders within. I was informed recently that in our school exams today Malaysian Muslim children are even asked to identify the groups that are considered devaints/apostates, in a systematic and institutionalised manner of generating a sense of alienation and radical difference with others.

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If this is the sort of social and educational landscape that we now inhabit and have to work with/in, how can there be the sort of empathy that is required for citizens to recognise the common humanity they share with others? Worse still, in the present-day context of Malaysia, such strategies of deliberate Othering and alienation have become institutionalised by and through the educational process, as in the case of the exam questions for Muslim kids who are told to identify other Muslims as outsiders and deviants against the norm.

This, then, is the root of our problem today and the revelation of the report in al-Islam is just the tip of the iceberg. If we are worried about the impact that such reports may have on inter-religious understanding in the country, we ought to be more worried about the social environment that produced such reporting in the first place, and which sustains the readership of such divisive material. We are, in short, in a mess.

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