Empathy for those far away but no sympathy for those among us?

Sketch by Wong Soak Koon

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One of the pillars of our national philosophy, the Rukun Negara, emphasises good behaviour and morality.

We had the full text of the Rukun Negara printed on the back cover of school exercise books. Children were made to memorise this and recite on certain occasions.

Did all these efforts produce results to make our children’s conduct praise-worthy and enhance their value system? If we had succeeded, we wouldn’t have needed to have a week’s solidarity programme in schools to cultivate empathy among our schoolchildren. What we failed to achieve over the years, we now hope to attain within a week! What teaching module have we invented for such instant results?

Seriously, if we truly wish to inculcate certain values in our children, we have ample local shortcomings to focus on with greater possibility of success. But why choose distant Palestine? Some may think that you are far-sighted because you are looking at issues that are far away!

Seriously, haven’t we done enough as a country to identify ourselves with the Palestine cause? We have had three or four gatherings to express our solidarity with the Palestinians, the last one being a mammoth rally at the Bukit Jalil Stadium with 20,000 attending! These rallies will not have gone unnoticed by the world and the international community.

We have donated RM100m of taxpayers’ money even though such money is not readily available for the needy in our country. Regarding this donation, two views have been expressed:

How do we ensure that this monetary aid goes to provide food, medical supplies, clothes and homes for those displaced by this senseless war? How do we prevent the money from going to Hamas, which will use the money to build more bunkers and tunnels and buy even more lethal weapons without caring for the welfare of the poor Palestinians?

Another view is that shouldn’t the donation be halal? After all, the money is meant for the Muslims. When the money comes from the ‘consolidated fund’, it includes money from non-halal sources – gambling, alcohol, sale of pork, etc, something Pas leaders have been vociferously against. But they don’t mind that money to support their own lifestyle!

Some even suggested that if the donation had come from zakat funds, it would have been more appropriate and not controversial!

But we shouldn’t be narrow-minded and petty when dealing with humanitarian causes. The source of money should not be an issue when it comes to this tragedy.

On top of the ongoing efforts to show solidarity with the Palestinians and the efforts to help them monetarily, the Ministry of Education’s sudden directive for schools to hold a week of solidarity with the Palestinians seems redundant. It may be perceived as a pea-brain plan which imports politics into the classroom.

This is strange. At one time, there was fear that Pas’ influence might infiltrate our schools and turn the children into fanatics. It was felt this must be prevented – and wisely so. But now Pakatan Harapan’s brand of politics is creeping into classrooms in a big way!

Alarm bells rang loudly when a viral video showed some teachers and schoolchildren dressed in Hamas garb carrying toy guns and Hamas flags and shouting slogans entering an assembly hall – with little children finding the whole matter amusing! These participants were in no way depicting the cause of the injustice perpetrated by Israel. They were identifying themselves with Hamas – not with the worthy cause they were supposed to empathise with.

When criticism mounted from many NGOs, the prime minister then declared that this school programme will not be a compulsory week for schools. Since then, more politicians, MPs and state assembly members have openly criticised the Ministry of Education.

In trying to ward off criticism, the ministry clarified that the solidarity week was meant to instil humanism and empathy among children. But how do children absorb these values based on what is happening in a land thousands of miles away from Malaysia? Do the children even know where Gaza is?

If we truly wanted to inculcate these values, why don’t we use local issues where injustice is caused by discrimination and by unjust policies that deny opportunities to the deserving because of their ethnicity? In this land of plenty, we shockingly learnt that a mother of five had to go hungry four or five days in a week to feed her hungry kids. Shouldn’t schoolchildren sympathise with this issue and show their empathy?

Shouldn’t we inculcate abhorrence against corruption, which has been the bane and curse of this nation? Shouldn’t the children be allowed to empathise with the farmers who are being evicted in the PM’s own constituency? Is this eviction any less cruel and dehumanising compared to what is happening elsewhere?

Talking about empathy and human rights, why not teach our students it is not right to forcibly dispossess the Orang Asal from their ancestral lands and to give away the land to companies owned by the political elite and their cronies, like what is happening to the Palestinians?

It is rather unfortunate that there is an element of religiosity in Malaysia’s stand on the Middle East. Didn’t Putin bomb towns and cities, killing children, women and the elderly? Where was our outrage against the carnage in Ukraine? Did we propose a week of solidarity in schools? Is the blood of a Ukrainian child any different from the Palestinian child?

Finally, children should be told that in any war the unfortunate victims are invariably non-combatant civilians, caught in between two contending enemies. An African proverb illustrates this powerfully: “When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.”

Likewise, when powerful forces go to war, it’s their people who are hurt. Those who never asked for the conflict in the first place are caught and killed in the crossfire.

It’s either we learn to live in peace or get blown to pieces!

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.
AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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P Ramakrishnan has been an Aliran member since its inception in 1977, serving on our executive committee for 36 years, half of that period as Aliran's president (1994-2011). He continues to serve as an Aliran member, highlighting issues of public interest to a larger audience
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Marum
Marum
6 Nov 2023 7.43pm

Very well said; but will it reach those that matter?