By Asma Abdullah
In recent months, there has been a constant reference to the “three Rs” of race, religion and royalty in Malaysia, highlighting the increasingly polarised ethnic relations in the country.
While these topics provide the cultural dimensions in our daily conversations, they need to be approached with care and sensitivity in our multicultural society.
The question is do people in Malaysia, after six decades of independence, have the knowledge and skills to handle racial sensitivities calmly, without emotional outbursts?
Adding to the complexity of the situation, a former leader said the Federal Constitution never explicitly proclaimed Malaysia as a multi-racial country, emphasising the ‘Malay-ness’ of Malaysia. This has added confusion to the discussion.
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So, how should we describe Malaysia to others? Are we a multicultural society? Or does one dominant race provide the defining characteristic of our nation? Is there a description acceptable to all ethnic groups in the country? Or are we still uncertain about our Malaysian identity?
If we wish to describe Malaysia as a multicultural society, we must navigate the intricacies of talking about race, religion and royalty in a way that respects and includes all ethnic groups. Do all the diverse ethnic communities in the country share a common understanding of what it means to live and coexist in a multicultural society? Or is this a phrase we have yet to define in terms of form and substance?
In light of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s vision of building a civilised, skilled, and inclusive multicultural society where all ethnic groups have a place in the Malaysian sun, what role should the people play to support him?
With the rising influence of individuals and interest groups in the name of identity politics, racism, bigotry, discrimination and religious extremism, the journey ahead may indeed be an uphill battle. Competing interests, conflicting identities, confusing ideologies and ongoing scepticism will muddy the way forward.
This challenge has been heightened by recent incidents related to dress codes, liquor sales, gambling, risque films in local cinemas, foreigners in bikinis in hotel swimming pools, massage parlours, women’s hair salons and rock concerts. These incidents suggest a lack of understanding of what it takes to show respect and understanding of ‘the other’.
To foster multicultural understanding, it is crucial to recognise and tackle these issues. Drawing from studies conducted in multicultural societies, we can identify several key characteristics that Malaysians should develop.
Self-knowledge of culture: Have a deep understanding of our own culture, its values and beliefs, and be able to describe them to others.
Understanding other cultures: Recognise the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions and typical behaviours of people from different ethnic groups, beyond what we learn from books.
Cross-cultural knowledge: Understand the histories, heroes, traditions, customs and social institutions of other ethnic groups when making decisions.
Respect for diversity: Show consideration for the cultures of others and be willing to influence one’s own value system.
Empathy and perspective: Approach issues from the perspective of more than one ethnic group to develop a deeper understanding.
Acknowledging contributions: Acknowledge the historical contributions of all ethnic groups to the development of the country.
To be truly inclusive in a multicultural society, we must have a range of appropriate skills and be sensitive to nuances, manners, observations and restrictions when we communicate with others in Malaysia.
The potential danger we face is when we are comfortable interacting only at the intracultural level – within our own ethnic group.
What we must avoid is imposing our values and beliefs on others without understanding their sensitivities.
Our challenge is to ensure that when we make decisions and interact with others in Malaysia, we are aware of their values and sensitivities.
We must each find ways to promote inclusivity in the spirit of muhibah (goodwill through coexistence) dan bertolak-ansur (tolerance and acceptance), based on knowledge and understanding of the cultural values and hidden assumptions of the various cultures in the country.
A true Malaysian should embody compassion (ihsan) and respect (hormat) and not be perceived as ignorant and arrogant, especially when dealing with diversity. After all, diversity is a source of creativity and innovation (daya cipta).
As mentioned in Surah Al Hujurat (49:13), “O mankind, we have created you all from a male (Adam, the foremost father) and a female (Eve, the foremost mother) and formed you into nations and tribes so that you may recognise one another. The noblest among you with God is most conscious and fearful of Him. God is All-Knowing and All-informed.”
This verse carries profound implications for our multicultural society. The purpose of diversity is to know each other, to learn from one another – and not to despise one another because of our differences.
Truly embracing multiculturalism requires respecting the values and sensitivities associated with all the ethnic groups in Malaysia.
We need to strive for accuracy in our judgements based on our understanding of the complexities and sensitivities of the situation.
If this principle had been observed, the recent incidents mentioned earlier would have been better managed in the true spirit of muhibah.
Finally, fostering multicultural understanding in Malaysia is not merely a noble aspiration but a pressing need. It requires an unwavering commitment to respecting, embracing and celebrating the rich diversity that defines Malaysia.
By developing intercultural skills, empathy and a shared commitment to unity, the people can lead the way in building a society that thrives on the strength of its multicultural fabric.
This journey may be challenging, but the rewards are a harmonious, inclusive and prosperous Malaysia where every person can find their place in the Malaysian sun.
Asma Abdullah is an interculturalist based in Kuala Lumpur