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What a multi-cultural, multi-religious society means to me

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Why make so much effort to cultivate an appreciation of our plural society when its rich diversity is already in our “blood”, wonders No Culture.

KL street scene
Street food in KL - Photograph: tangodiva.com

The answer to the question above in the context of Malaysia is simple: this “multi-ism” is something I take for granted and enjoy at the same time. Rather than compromising on the differences, I see the diversity as part of my identity, my way of life, not as the “other”.

I am fed up of certain parties constantly telling us what is and what is not a multi-cultural and multi-religious society. Worse, they construct numerous campaigns to (re) engineer the existing formulation of society into a “proper” and official one, e.g. who needs to behave; how to compromise; and do this and do that.

Malaysia is not the only country that enjoys the “multi-ism”. Europe, which is becoming a political entity, the European Union, is culturally becoming a multi-ism society. Travel to Germany or Berlin in particular and you would be greeted by the Turkish kebab, German pretzels and sausages, Japanese sushi, hybrid Asian noodles run by the Chinese, homeless Gypsies, French-speaking subway passengers, wannabe fashion-designer Dutch citizens, Indonesian gaduh-gaduh, the Filipino-Indonesian restaurant called “Mabuhay”, and Vietnamese beers in competition with local brews.

When judging cultural diversity in terms of food, fashion, languages and ethnicities, Berlin is no different from Malaysia. My impression of Berlin is that the multiple tastes and vibrancy of cultures are newly imported and have not yet integrated or set root in German society at large. The oldest would be the Turkish culture.

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Rather than becoming a part of the cultural life in German society, these cultural commodities have become exotic products to consume and, more so, are in a constant state of flux. Arising from the transnational context of today, some of these cultural commodities move, shape and reshape their forms to accommodate the demands of the market. Other cultural entities are not absorbed by global market desires but develop and evolve into their own flavours, catering not to consumer needs but local identity.

We do consume different cultural products e.g. food, movies (mostly foreign ones), music and religion – and some of these are consumer products that cater to the market. But by and large, the diversity of cultures is not subsumed to the market such as in Berlin. Roti canai, nasi goreng, paprik, or wantan noodles are not products of exoticism. I eat (consume) them because I am hungry. I still enjoy Malay movies and songs, if they are of good quality. I do not watch Malay drama series because their quality is not at par with others like Tagalog or Korean drama soaps. Worse, the Malay drama series are coining the official language, out of touch with the reality of daily life. I walk along the street while hearing the Solat being aired. I get annoyed with the traffic jams when there is a religious parade going on. At the same time, I enjoy the many forms of religious ceremonies because of their colours, sounds, and rituals. They are neither exotic nor different to me. I live and grow in these contexts of multi-ism and diversity.

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The Malaysian multi-cultural and multi-religious set up is something that is not constructed by one actor in a linear manner. It evolves through history and was in history long before colonisation by many actors or “agencies”. The majority of Malaysians take this multi-ism for granted because it is born in them as they encounter these diverse cultures in everyday life: on the streets, on TV screens, and in newspapers.

Why make so much effort to cultivate an appreciation of the multi-ism if it is already in our “blood”. The multi-ism in Malaysia is neither exotic nor is it being seen as the “Other”. It has nothing against any moral values that needed to be (re)cultivated e.g. empathy, tolerance, and sensitivity to others.

‘No Culture’ is the pseudonym of a regular contributor to Aliran.

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