MP Hannah Yeoh’s donning of the headscarf during her recent visit to a mosque in her Segambut constituency has become a bone of contention not only for certain quarters in our society but also a few of her DAP comrades.
Her critics see her action as appeasing, if not submitting to the dictates of, the majority Malay-Muslim community, which they fear would alienate the base of the ethnic Chinese-dominated party.
The Segambut MP, however, contends she is only giving respect to her Muslim hosts and Islamic tradition while visiting the mosque, as well as trying to forge moderate politics in the country.
To be sure, she, like many other considerate Malaysians, would give similar respect to other places of worship.
Furthermore, her move is emboldened by the fact that, as she assures her co-religionists, wearing the headscarf does not sway her Christian faith. On the contrary, it gets reinforced.
Similarly, we would expect those, particularly non-Christians, who want to foster inter-ethnic communication and goodwill to not have their faith shaken by the mere sight of the cross.
In a society where the cultural practices and religious obligations of the majority community are perceived by members of the minorities to have gradually encroached into the latter’s cultural terrain of late, Yeoh’s initiative is likely to be construed as a contentious endeavour, if not a betrayal of her own kind.
A case in point is the ban on selling liquor at grocers, convenience stores and Chinese medical halls in Kuala Lumpur enforced on 1 November. While customers can still buy beer at such premises, it can only be sold between 7am and 9pm.
Another example is the government’s recent decision to disallow the Thaipusam chariot procession for the festival next month. Critics argue that, in contrast, football matches in Kuala Lumpur drew tens of thousands of fans into packed stadiums.
In other words, it is the kind of social context that gives rise to suspicion and fear among the minorities.
The situation is made more intricate when identity politics becomes entrenched, as some politicians employ it over the years for their own political survival at the expense of ethnic relations.
Yeoh’s act at the mosque may be symbolic, but it is politically significant.
It is a crucial step towards building bridges in a diverse society such as ours, especially at a time when our social fabric appears to be frayed by bigotry and religious extremism.
Indeed, it is an example of reaching out to the “other”, although this can also be read, rightly or wrongly, by some as an attempt to gain political mileage.
Still, the willingness on the part of Malaysians to embrace the diversity that our society has to offer is crucial.
There are, of course, other forms of inter-ethnic engagement that go beyond the symbolic. Some of them are more fulfilling, such as providing financial and other forms of assistance to the needy and marginalised, irrespective of their ethnic and religious backgrounds.
That said, what is more important is that MPs, like many other ordinary Malaysians, should not only be open to diversity but also respect fellow Malaysians so that their dignity as humans is honoured and protected while their basic rights as stakeholders of this country are not violated and trampled upon.
There can be no greater respect than that. – The Malaysian Insight