In new Malaysia, moving from ‘tolerance’ to a celebration of diversity

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Many challenges remain before we can fully celebrate our diversity as a nation, a place where no one will be excluded or left behind, writes Anil Netto.

As we celebrate Merdeka and Malaysia Day, we have much to be thankful for, despite recent divisive controversies.

First, we can still be thankful we have been given a new lease of life in a new Malaysia – though many of the old problems remain. But it is an ongoing project. Politicians may come and go, but the people’s resolve to bring about change, inspired by higher ideals and greater spiritual awareness, is what gives us hope.

Malaysia Baru also brings with it a more wholesome appreciation of what it means to be Malaysian. We need to move from ethnic and religious prejudice to stage two, which is “tolerance”.

From tolerance, we then journey to the third stage, which is acceptance of our diversity and what it means to live in a plural nation.

And from this acceptance, we can then move forward to a celebration of our diversity, the fourth phase – a place where everyone feels included and part of the family, a place where no one is left out.

We are still some way off from this full celebration of our diversity. Recently, a local daily, in a headline report, expressed alarm that foreigners were now more visible in a certain town. The report said the town was “under attack” — just because more foreigners were visible, with some of them even having the audacity (my word) to open up thriving businesses in shoplots. The tone of the report was almost as if aliens from another planet had seized control of the town.

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Such news reports are unhelpful at best at a time when xenophobia (dislike/hatred of foreigners) is so prevalent in the country. At worst, they stoke fear and hatred towards foreigners in our midst.

Xenophobia itself probably thrives when people are feeling alienated or left out from the mainstream of economic development. This frustration is then directed (by the media? By politicians?) towards a convenient bogeyman eg other ethnic or religious groups or foreigners.

The report could have been written in another way: “Foreigners and migrants are now becoming more integrated with the local community, setting up thriving businesses that have added to the dynamism of the flagging local economy. They have broadened the range of products on offer and added to the rich cultural heritage of the town, which has been enriched by their presence.”

We forget, throughout our history, that many migrants from all around the world settled in our blessed land. Through sheer hard work and tenacity, they improved their lives, set up thriving businesses and educated their children. Today, no matter where we are in the world, many of us are descendants of such migrants.

Put ourselves in the situation of the foreigners in Malaysia today. Many children of Malaysians are working abroad, some quite successfully. They were given the opportunity and space to develop their talents in their host countries. How would Malaysian parents feel if their children abroad were discriminated against, given separate or segregated accommodation (designated migrant workers’ flats or hostels) and looked at with suspicion and prejudice by the local residents of their host countries?

Perhaps, in our journey as a nation, we are now somewhere between tolerance and acceptance of our diversity. Many challenges remain before we can fully celebrate our diversity as a nation, a place where no one will be excluded or left behind. But we will get there.

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As a visiting UN special rapporteur observed – confirming what civil society groups have widely understood – poverty in Malaysia is grossly understated, especially when the poverty line is set so low.

With the rising cost of living, many are struggling to cope. Social safety nets and affordable basic services have been eroded with the onset of neoliberal policies, corporatisation and privatisation. The root causes of this persistent poverty have to be tackled.

And what about the indigenous people in our midst who are losing their land to plantation companies? What about the creatures in our forests, our flora and fauna which are being displaced or destroyed in the name of “development” and “GDP growth”?

It is not enough to think of Malaysians only. We should also think of the five to seven million migrants in our midst – documented and undocumented workers, refugees and asylum seekers. That is about 20 per cent of the population who are not Malaysian. How inclusive are we in our dealings with them? Do we recognise, let alone celebrate, their cultures?

At last count, we have some 175,000 registered refugees in our midst holding refugee cards issued by the UN refugee agency. If we assume that there could be two unregistered refugees for every registered refugee, we could have up to half a million refugees in our midst, including their spouses and children.

Refugees in Malaysia have no rights that the rest of us take for granted. The problem is serious as refugees unfortunately have no legal right to work and their children are unable to attend government schools. Instead, many of them have to attend often poorly equipped and underfunded schools run by volunteers doing magnificent work.

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Many undocumented foreigners are also afraid to seek medical help in government hospitals. Where do they turn to?

Remember Jesus and his family were themselves refugees and they had to flee to Egypt to escape persecution, violence and oppression. They experienced first-hand what it means to be refugees.

If we want to progress as a nation, it is high time we join the international community of nations in ratifying the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

We need to remember that we are also global citizens. Many of our challenges — migration and refugees, the periodic smog and climate change — are increasingly regional and international in origin. And as such, they demand a regional and international response.

We need to realise that we are all interconnected in a web of the global ecology. What we do in one part of the world could affect the rest of the world — think of the Amazon burning or the clearing of forests.

So we need to reflect on how inclusive we are as a nation and whether we see our diversity as an asset, a reason for celebration. The many challenges we face require courage, compassion and solidarity to resolve. And so the journey continues.

Happy Merdeka Day and Happy Malaysia Day!

A version of this article first appeared in the Malaysian Herald.

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