A place in the sun for everyone


There will be dif­ferences of opinion in how to proceed but leaders, especially politicians, must grow out of the habit of thinking that their adversaries are automatically wrong or less patriotic than they are, or that those with differing opinions do not have the best interests of the nation at heart just as they do.

Zaid Ibrahim, The Star

We want to realise the dream of our first Prime Minister, and the National Reconciliation Plan is a bold step towards that.

READING the daily news alone, one might think that ethnic and religious relations in Malaysia have deteriorated to the point of no return.

Disputes are becoming more serious and deeply entrenched while hotheads seem determined to spoil the good relations we have with one another.

However, ordinary Malaysians have not risen to the seemingly endless provocation – at least, not yet. Perhaps we are growing more politically mature, or maybe we are simply too preoccupied with rising costs of living and other hardships to be swayed into misguided action.

But just because we haven’t acted doesn’t mean that ill feelings do not exist. When extremists­ dominate the national discourse on a daily basis and re­inforce the same puerile messages, it is unreasonable to think that Malaysians will somehow remain unaffected.

We are only human. If we let things fester, something will eventually crack and we will all have to pay a terrible price.

We know that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is concerned by these developments.

Last week, he announced that a National Reconciliation Plan was in the works and that the Government is seeking to build unity and consensus by promo­ting the principles of “respect, working and playing together, and the spirit of give and take”.

While the details of the plan are still unknown, I think it is important that political leaders of all stripes are able to set aside their differences for the purpose of building a basic bipartisan consensus to stop the extremists in their tracks.

Our leaders must recognise that things are going seriously wrong and that we urgently need remedial action. The Prime Minister deserves support for taking a bold step forward and it is incumbent on his coalition, the Barisan Nasional, as well as the Federal Government to help him lead by example.

Otherwise, even the best policies will devolve into no more than catchy slogans. If political leaders think of reconciliation only in terms of party-political, racial or religious unity, they will achieve nothing for ordinary Malaysians whose trust they bear.

Divisions run deeply in our society today and it is the people of Malaysia, not the politicians, who want and need to come together again in an environment of friendship that transcends individual differences.

We want to realise the dream of Tunku Abdul Rahman, our beloved­ first Prime Minister: in Malaysia there must be “a place in the sun for everyone”.

This will take a monumental effort. The National Reconciliation Plan can articulate this goal, but the work will require long-term planning and more importantly political will and the personal commitment of all political and social leaders.

I say “commitment” and not “agreement”. There will be dif­ferences of opinion in how to proceed but leaders, especially politicians, must grow out of the habit of thinking that their adversaries are automatically wrong or less patriotic than they are, or that those with differing opinions do not have the best interests of the nation at heart just as they do.

They must lead by example and it is their honesty and sincerity that will shine through for others to see. We will need these qualities if we are to overcome some of the greatest obstacles to the true unity of our country today.

For example, we need an honest­ appraisal of the national school system not just from the perspective of education but also for the purpose of social cohesion. Efforts must be made to make national schools “national” once again.

The national curriculum, the quality and service conditions of teachers, the quality of textbooks and assessment – none of these issues is new but what we have lacked so far has been the will and ability to tackle these problems in a clear, systematic and sustainable way.

We need to consult widely. The views of communities and parents­ are just as important as those of experts and leaders. Vernacular schools must be brought into the mainstream as partners in the field of national education and must be encouraged to open their doors to a broader spectrum of the community so that we can all learn from each other.

We must honestly admit that vernacular schools are an integral part of the national education system and play a key role in the transmission of cultural values and traditions.

As such, they must neither be ignored nor elevated above others but if they are willing to educate the children of other communities, then they too can help build bridges to greater understanding and unity. Let’s see if the Chinese educationists will be “open” for Malays to be given a sufficient number of places in Chinese schools.

At the same time, I am sure if the national schools are truly national in outlook then more parents will want to send their children there instead of vernacular schools. During my time, most Chinese parents sent their children to national schools.

The same concern is reflected in the national economy. For too long, those with extreme views have badgered and vilified the Chinese community for “controlling the economy”. We know this to be partly true but the high visibility of exclusively Chinese-run small and medium enterprises (SMEs) is all too often used as ammunition in these pernicious debates.

I think that this is an opportune time to encourage Chinese-run SMEs to diversify the ethnic composition of their operations by working with and employing non-Chinese Malay­sians as partners, employees and apprentices. Let’s give them incentives based on the bumiputras they employ or train.

Perhaps it is time the Govern­ment considered providing these SMEs incentives such as tax breaks and greater access to loans and skills upgrading in order to encourage more multiracial interaction in this crucial sector of the economy and the labour market.

And while it is widely recognised that education and employment are two major catalysts for greater national unity, I believe that more attention must also be paid to housing­ and town planning to ensure that vibrant and mixed neighbourhoods continue to flourish.

The authorities and property developers have taken pains to ensure that the majority of housing estates reflect a diversity of economic incomes but relatively little has been done to ensure a balance in racial and religious backgrounds as well.

Not only should federal, state and local government policies be reviewed for any direct or indirect promotion of “ghettos”, new policies should be formulated to ensure that different religious and ethnic communities have sufficient access to places of worship and cultural acti­vities within their own neighbourhoods.

We need more and larger public spaces such as parks and community centres where Malaysians of different­ faiths and walks of life can come together to work on community issues, organise community events, celebrate one another’s festivals or simply just to mix and spend time together.

If we can learn, work, and live together, I believe that, in time, we will find that the challenges we face and the dreams we aspire to are shared deeply by all of us and not just those of our own ethnic or religious communities.

We shall see that there is nothing to fear – indeed, there is more reason to fear for our fellow Malaysian who has been marginalised or left behind in our collective march to progress – but we can never do that if we ourselves remain divided and suspicious of one another.

In this, I hope that Malaysians will come together in support of all efforts, regardless of who makes them, to promote greater harmony, understanding and mutual respect in our nation.

These efforts will have an important impact not just on our conti­nued development into a great nation – they will directly influence whether­ we survive as a multiracial country in the next 50 years.