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Ethno-religious divide remains stumbling block in New Malaysia

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Some politicians are capitalising on the divisive aspects of our diversity for their own political gain, writes Kenneth Lee.

In recent times, various controversies – from the introduction of khat in the school syllabus to the late firefighter Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim’s case to a bill on unilateral religious conversions – have plagued our country. These have often set netizens’ tongues wagging and even invited heated arguments over social media.

It is OK to comment, exchange opinions and debate issues on such public platforms in a mature and rational manner. But the harsh reality remains that many comments left by netizens on social media today are far from ideal.

Sadly, hateful and emotional comments remain evident online. This is happening even in a supposedly “New Malaysia”, where there should ideally be more socio-political maturity. Many comments seen on local news portals or in social media are not based on facts. They also contain hate speech and racial slurs.

Such comments expose the radical, racist and even extremist mentality of many netizens. It is a manifestation of what people do not get to express as much outside the cyber world. Perhaps it is because commenting online is a more effortless alternative to direct face-to-face confrontations.

Malaysians spend on average as many as eight hours online and three hours on social media daily (based on findings by We Are Social and Hootsuite). This is scary as the internet can breed hateful ideologies that would hinder peaceful development and national unity.

Such comments also show us a hurtful truth: the ethnic and religious divide continues to cast a shadow on Malaysia and has become a stumbling block to nation-building. The various ethnic groups have little understanding of what Malaysians want or expect.

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Social stigma remains. As sensitive issues touching on race and religion continue to be played up, Malaysians of various backgrounds find it increasingly difficult to come to a consensus on the common issues facing the country.

Our ethnic and religious pluralism is something that we should be proud of. But some politicians are capitalising on the divisive aspects of it for their own political gain.

What solid programmes or activities have been put in place to improve inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding and harmony? What impact has the Malay supremacy concept and the like had on the divide? Why is there evidently better inter-ethnic harmony and acceptance of diversity in Sabah and Sarawak compared to their peninsula? These are simple questions to ponder on.

Politicians are not dumb enough not to know the formula for inter-ethnic harmony. It all lies in the focus of what they are doing – whether they are serving the interests of the public or their own.

At the grassroots level, perhaps it is time we acknowledge that the ethnic and religious divide will never benefit us – even if our politicians tell us otherwise.

It is time educators train students to become thinking individuals so that the younger generation will be capable of making sounder decisions and steer our nation in the right direction. They will then be mature enough to vote for quality representatives who will put a stop to racial politics.

After all, what is the point of boasting about being a multi-ethnic and multicultural country if there is very little understanding among us?

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Kenneth Lee Tze Wui, an Aliran member, is a lecturer at Tunku Abdul Rahman University who is passionate about issues of culture, identity, and nation-building.

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