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Mission impossible? Why national unity need not be an elusive dream

We must find common ground and shared values that promote acceptance among the various ethnic and religious groups


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The date 15 February 2021 may yet turn out to be significant in our country’s history. That was when Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin launched the national unity policy and the National Unity 2021-2030 Blueprint. 

I use the proviso ‘may yet turn out’ because after almost six decades since the formation of Malaysia, we are far from being a united people and a cohesive society.  

Rather than celebrating diversity and drawing upon its strength, often enough, we sometimes come across situations where ethnic and religious differences rear their ugly head. The Seafield temple riots in November 2018 showed us how incendiary conflicts can flare up so easily.

It doesn’t help that we have some overzealous religious leaders who preach that it is haram (forbidden) for Muslims to wish Christians “Merry Christmas”. We should be striving to build bridges, not walls.

The pervasive prejudices and lack of inter-ethnic trust end up fuelling suspicion and causing disunity. Ethnocentrism remains prevalent, and hence questions and doubts arise – is the unity blueprint going to work this time?

As patriotic Malaysians, we should fully support such a laudable move to promote national unity. But it remains to be seen just how far the powers that be are willing to fully implement the blueprint.

We hope that the unity blueprint is not another publicity stunt to shore up the image of the government as a general election looms. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has announced he would call for a general election as soon as the coronavirus pandemic is under control in Malaysia.

The objectives of the unity blueprint cannot be faulted; they ought to be lauded:

  • Understanding the concept of unity in the Malaysian context
  • Creating a clear vision and aspirations, to be achieved within a decade
  • Underlining comprehensive targeted strategies and initiatives for unity

The blueprint also outlines action plans and strategies to achieve these objectives. It places much emphasis on the people forging greater understanding and unity with one another, based on the principles of the Rukun Negara principles and provisions in the Federal Constitution.

Yes, it looks good on paper, but do our leaders have the political will and gumption to carry out these plans and action? Unfortunately, experience suggests we should not get our hopes up too high. The trust deficit is wide.

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Moving past race-and-religion narrative

Veteran DAP politician Lim Kit Siang fired the first volley at Muhyiddin, asking the PM if he was now ready to label himself as “Malaysian first”. 

In 2010, when Muhyiddin was the Barisan Nasional deputy chairman and Umno deputy president, he candidly announced that he was Malay first but Malaysian at heart. Muhyiddin, who was then also Deputy Prime Minister, explained it would be deemed improper for him to declare himself a Malaysian first and that the Malays would shun him.   

Therein lies the problem. When push comes to shove, many political leaders lean towards political survival and expediency. Often, this means playing to the gallery. If the situation calls for the unsheathing of the keris or asking aloud, “Apa lagi Cina mahu?” (what else do the Chinese want?), many politicians won’t hesitate.

The race-and-religion narrative dominates Malaysia’s political landscape. This is partly due to the predominant and ascendant position accorded to race-based or religious-based political parties.

In the past, parties such as Umno (for the Malays), the MCA (for the Chinese), the MIC (for the Indians) and Pas (for Muslims) fared well in general elections, and the Alliance – and later Barisan Nasional – coalition was to rule the country for six decades.  

It was only in the 2018 general election that Malaysians voted for change as the new Pakatan Harapan coalition, with the multi-ethnic parties such as PKR and the DAP in its fold, swept to power. Sadly, due to internal squabbling and a factional tussle for power, the PH government ruled for just 22 months before it collapsed.

Since then, race-based and religious-based parties such as Umno, Pas and Bersatu – which are now in power – have been fighting hard to dominate the political landscape and corner the Malay-Muslim votes. The contest is fierce, while multi-ethnic parties are facing a tough battle.

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For ex-minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa, who was involved in the now-defunct National Consultative Council for Unity, the existence of such parties and their causes run counter to national unity objectives. Unless we get rid of race-based parties, national unity will remain an elusive dream, he believes.

How we can promote unity

But surely, we can take positive steps to promote unity. Our priority must be to review thoroughly what is being taught in schools. We must highlight what we share in common – our fondness for sports and food. Prominent sports personalities such as “Pocket Rockman” Azizul Hasni (cycling), Nicol David (squash) and Lee Chong Wei (badminton) can help promote unity. Favourite ethnic culinary delights can be another unifying factor. Celebrate the diversity and variety in society!

We must also review the education syllabus to instil values that promote mutual respect in our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. We should come out with a comprehensive, targeted strategy that would roll out well-thought-out education policies to promote unity.

Get the fundamentals right and acknowledge the sacrifices and contributions of the various ethnic groups in the growth and development of the nation. Work steadily and steadfastly in developing a unique Malaysian identity.

Challenge all forms of ethnic stereotyping. “All Malays are lazy”, “nothing straight about the Chinese except their hair” and “Indians are drunkards” are the sort of stereotypical prejudices that surface in conversations all too often. These are myths we must debunked and bury. Let’s work towards a time when such abhorrent generalisations are no longer a part of our discourse.

For a start, set up a new national unity consultative council and provide it with the clout to make things work. Assign the council the task of drafting a national harmony bill, focusing on building bridges, not walls.

Outlaw bigotry and challenge all xenophobic tendencies. We should never allow an us-versus-them mentality to develop, pitting ethnic or religious groups against each other. The venomous words against the Rohingya over social media, for example, is saddening.

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We must find common ground and shared values that promote acceptance among the various ethnic and religious groups. Emphasise that there is only one race, and we are all members of the human race.

Truth will set us free

The authorities must have the courage to reveal the truth, no matter how sensitive. Take the enforced disappearances of Pastor Raymond Koh, Amri Che Mat, Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth, for example. Raymond has been missing for over four years, Amri close to five years. Who abducted them? Are they still alive?

The national human right commission Suhakam in their April 2019 report, after conducting an extensive inquiry, concluded that Raymond Koh was a victim of enforced disappearance by the state, namely the Special Branch of the Malaysian police.

The government then formed a taskforce to establish Raymond’s whereabouts – but so far, we have not seen any report. Meanwhile, Raymond’s wife Susanna Liew is suing the police and the government over her husband’s abduction.

As they say, the truth (about the abductions and enforced disappearances) is out there and the evidence in the Suhakam inquiry points to the police, in particular, the Special Branch.

Be brave enough to reveal the truth. If Raymond and the others have committed any crimes or broken any laws charge them accordingly. Rumours suggest that Raymond had helped everyone, including Muslims, and rumours also suggest some Muslims he had helped may have converted to Christianity.

But we cannot operate on rumours. Reveal the truth so that we can deal with inter-religious differences calmly and rationally. Granted, it will be sensitive, but surely we are all mature enough to deal with it.

Yes, national unity has been elusive, but any objective, rational evaluation of the reasons for this would reveal that successive government have NOT been serious in pursuing it.

I hope to be proven wrong this time around and that Muhyiddin’s unity blueprint will actually be a great success. But, based on experience, I make no apology for being sceptical.

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