Its open hearts and open minds, not open houses, are what Malaysia needs most if it is to enjoy continued peace and harmony among its races.
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 3 — The Malaysian tradition of the open house during festive seasons is often cited as proof of how well its many races get along. But is it really proof of harmony?
One can’t help but wonder since the country’s Home Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar announced on Sept 18 that the government would soon draft a Race Relations Act to build tolerance and harmony in Malaysian society. That would include throwing into jail anyone who severed already frayed racial ties.
The proposal has already received much flak. Chinese politicians — Deputy Information Minister Datuk Tan Lian Hoe and incumbent MCA president Datuk Ong Ka Ting — said such an Act would be redundant and an unnecessary forcing of what needs to come about naturally.
Others, like political analyst Shamsul Amri Baharuddin of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, say the proposed Act is a knee-jerk attempt to deter racial bad-mouthing of the sort that might lead to racial riots.
Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Shafie Apdal, who is working with Syed Hamid on the proposed Act, reinforced this view.
He told the New Straits Times on Sept 28 that the country needed such a law against anyone who “touched on” racial issues because there were currently “no provisions under any Act — the Sedition Act, even ISA (Internal Security Act). If you use it, people will say it’s an abuse of power”.
Ask the average Malaysian about recent instances of such badmouthing, and he could rattle off a whole raft of them.
Example: Penang politician Datuk Ahmad Ismail calling the country’s Chinese “immigrants” who merely squatted in the country.
Then there was opposition MP Teresa Kok, who told reporters that the curry-and-egg meals she was given during her detention under the ISA late last month were “almost like dog food”, although she stressed later that she had not referred to dogs as a way of being disrespectful to Muslims. The Malay press railed at her because, as they pointed out, eggs were vital nourishment for the country’s poor, most of whom are Malays.
The proposed Act comes too late for Johor student Wee Meng Chee, who is being investigated under the Sedition Act for his rap titled Negaraku-ku, a play on the country’s national anthem. Among other things, his rap likened the azan (Muslim call to prayer) to a morning call, and poked fun at lazy civil servants, more than 90 per cent of whom are Malay.
To look on the bright side, you could say it is better late than never, so the proposed Act is to be welcomed. But that is not to say that the law itself is going to solve Malaysia’s racial problems, for it will not, not by a long shot. Malaysia needs to do far, far more if it is to truly foster national unity and racial harmony.
In the early 1980s, the government unleashed concerted patriotic song campaigns over national television and in national schools, drumming into every Malaysian’s mind that whatever they wore, spoke or ate, they still lived under the same sky and belonged to a land that was for all.
Today, the patriotic shoe has shifted from a shared inheritance to one in which non-Malays are seen in some quarters as mere pendatang (Malay for immigrant) if they are not Malay or Muslim.
The big question is, just how Malaysian can Malaysians today be, really?
Fostering racial unity should start in school. There is no easy solution there, though, not when the country has five different school systems, mainly because each race insists on jealously guarding its language and culture.
Education Minister Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein himself has driven a huge wedge into race relations by kissing the keris in public and vowing to use it against anyone who questioned Malay rights. He apologised for doing so after Barisan Nasional nearly lost this year’s general elections.
Then there are the country’s increasingly zealous Islamisation drives to contend with. They have led to the religious authorities in some states hauling up even Chinese courting couples — who were not Muslims — for khalwat (immorally close proximity) because they were canoodling in public.
And what of the Islamic affairs authorities pulling families apart by isolating Muslim family members from their non-Muslim kin, including driving apart spouses who have lived under one roof for more than 20 years?
Racial ire has been stoked further by the demolition of Hindu temples and Chinese war memorials by certain municipal authorities, sometimes without notice to the relevant communities.
Above all, it is Umno’s framing of the relationship between the 13 million-strong Malay majority and the country’s other races under the banner ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) that chafes at race relations the most.
With such unapologetic master-and-servant posturing, how is the justice and equality mentioned by Syed Hamid to be achieved among the many races, new Act or no new Act?
For now, it would seem that the only acceptable social leveller in Malaysia is an increasingly pro-Malay, pro-Muslim agenda.
If that is so, then perhaps open hearts and open minds, not open houses, are what Malaysia needs most if it is to enjoy continued peace and prosperity. — Straits Times