Unity an ongoing Malaysian project

By Marina Mahathir (The Star)

Having stayed together with only relatively minor spats over the past 52 years, we need to ask ourselves if we are really as divided as some politicians will have us believe.

I KNOW that every new administration feels the need to carve a new character for itself and so finds some slogan for this purpose. Our current government has chosen ‘1Malaysia’, which is rapidly becoming ubiquitous.

I understand the sentiment behind it. It seems that we have become so divided that there is a need for unity among all of us. And indeed there is much that can divide us – such as race, religion and social class – if we let them.

Yet for 52 years, we have survived with all these differences among us and, apart from some relatively small incidents, we have managed to stay together.

We have not gone the way of some countries where people who were once neighbours have turned on each other in very brutal ways, often egged on by politicians. What-ever differences we had were resolved in generally peaceful ways.

So we have to ask if we are really as disunited as we think. I suppose it depends on what we think of as united.

On the one hand, we have politicians who insist on stressing everything that is different about us.

When problems can be solved, they have often shown themselves to be too weak-willed to do so.

If only the principles of fairness and justice were applied to these problems, none of them would fester at all.

It is also true that in times of economic difficulties, people tend to focus on their differences rather than their similarities.

Whatever they feel deprived of is blamed on others having more, rather than the fact all are living in an environment of newly-amplified inequality.

If everyone felt they were suffering equally, just as in good times they benefited equally, then these problems would not arise.

But when the authorities hesitate to redress these inequalities for whatever reason, then tensions naturally arise.

It often seems that it is mostly politicians who sharpen these differences.

Despite some highly charged events recently, we can still walk around and not be afraid of insults being thrown at us, or be attacked for merely being of a certain race or colour.

Instead, in our vulnerability to crime, we are certainly not discriminated against.

At the people level, we are more intent on sharing than splitting. I have been more than amused by the craving for lemang and rendang brought on by the Raya season on the part of non-Muslim friends.

You feel that to have an open house with all these dishes is almost an act of charity.

One friend has been unwell and unable to attend any, and has been moaning endlessly about it.

I know of one young family who went out on a rendang hunt simply because they got into the Raya mood and felt it wasn’t complete without the right food. And they were not Muslims at all!

I have to say that around Chinese New Year, I start wondering who is going to invite me for a yee sang meal. And it’s been my bad luck to be always away for the past few Deepavallis, thus depriving myself of all the festive goodies.

We like to say that food unites us. But it’s not just a matter of gastronomy, I think.

Our festivals – and food is an integral part of them – are so much a part of the fabric of Malaysian life, that few people feel isolated from them.

The cultural symbols of our festivals are wired into all of us, regardless of our race and religion. And so when it’s those times of the year, our whole spirit starts to crave.

These are not things any slogan can instill. Neither is it anything new. It takes years to imbue people with this hardwiring.

We have always been this way and, bar any catastrophe, we will always be this way.

I would venture it’s because we are united already on one thing: the ongoing project that is our country.

Commonality of purpose is a very unifying factor. I used to run an organisation where everyone was united against a virus that could kill anyone, regardless of race or religion.

Our staff composition was truly a rainbow reflection of Malaysia; what mattered was your belief in the cause and your passion and commitment. Your race, sex, class or orientation did not count as long as you believed.

That singular Malaysia is an ongoing project that started in 1957, not this year.

To talk of it as something new is an insult to the decades of unity that has existed. Worse still, to depict it in shallow visual ways is meaningless tokenism. Nor should it be for tourism purposes.

It’s not about coming together for a show, and then retreating to our separate enclaves. It’s about having no enclaves.