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Moving forward with unity in Malaysia’s diversity

The politics of race and religion is highly divisive and detrimental to our social fabric


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Unity is understandably a fundamental concern, especially among people living in a diverse society, such as Malaysia, where the potential of ethnic and cultural misunderstanding, tension and conflict lies underneath the surface.

For they are aware of the detrimental consequences of disunity that could roll back some of the achievements the country has gained over the years in terms of inter-ethnic goodwill and socioeconomic, political and cultural progress. And what’s also worrying is that the consequent scars may even take years to disappear.

It is, hence, appreciated that national unity is often emphasised by the authorities, as well as concerned Malaysians, particularly ever since the May 13 ethnic tragedy of 1969 broke out.

Successive governments, including the current Perikatan Nasional one, have drawn up their respective policies on how to promote unity among diverse people. To this end, a National Unity Department and a Ministry of National Unity have been set up in the supposed desire to strengthen solidarity among people of various ethnic, religious, class and cultural backgrounds.

The professed good intentions of the federal government concerned notwithstanding, it makes you wonder whether the crafting of a new policy, such as the recently released national unity blueprint, and the continuous existence of the department and the ministry, are in a sense an indirect indication that attempts to promote national unity have become more demanding especially in recent years owing to several factors.

For one thing, it appears that the big elephant in the room has not been addressed adequately, if at all, particularly by the powers that be. The politics of race and religion that is often practised, especially by ethnic-based political parties, for political expediency is highly divisive and detrimental to our social fabric. In harsh terms, it means it has the effect of pitting one race against another.

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That is why it confounds concerned Malaysians and experts that the PN government led by Muhyiddin Yassin is promoting its National Unity Blueprint 2021-2030 despite the ruling pact being conceived in the womb of Malay-Muslim unity and interests. The contradiction couldn’t be more striking.

And the inconsistency could not escape public attention with such actions as cancelling Thaipusam as a public holiday in Kedah by its Menteri Besar, Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, a member of the Islamist Pas party, which is part of the ruling pact. Such public conduct by Sanusi obviously collides with one of the concerns expressed in the blueprint, that is, leaders at all levels are expected to act as agents of unity.

Certain public policies, such as those concerning economics and education, that are less inclusive in their approach or implementation are bound to make certain segments of society dissatisfied and feel reduced to a second-class citizenry, which will have an adverse impact on ethnic relations.

For example, in the desire to reduce poverty in our society, much of the official efforts over the years have focused on improving the socioeconomic status of poor Malays, who incidentally make up the majority of the poor in the country. However, given that poverty is colour blind, it has been suggested that more attention should also be given to the poor of other ethnic origins to achieve social justice.

Equally worrying, the nation loses talent when some of those who feel sidelined by the government decide to work in or migrate to what they consider as greener pastures. In other words, these people, who are mostly non-Malays as well as a few Malays, feel deprived of some of the benefits that normally come with citizenship.

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As a way of approaching national unity, it would perhaps be useful and effective if Malaysians from diverse backgrounds are encouraged to unite around universal values, such as equality, fairness, justice, integrity, trust and compassion.

Surely it would be morally enriching for Malaysians to stand in solidarity with, for instance, an initiative questioning policies and actions that bring about injustice, distrust and discrimination. People can also unite against bad or immoral practices, such as corruption, which take place in both the public and private sectors.

Upholding what is deemed morally right should be empowering for diverse Malaysians as this can also serve as a useful way of building bridges among themselves.

That said, a free press is crucial so that concerned citizens can express views critical of certain public policies and measures they consider unjust and divisive. This would go a long way towards creating in the common people an important sense of having stakes in their society.

In this regard, dissent is legitimate in the public discourse, especially in a society that celebrates unity in diversity.

Let not our differences be a convenient excuse for some to drive a wedge between us and them, all of whom happen to be God’s creation. – The Malaysian Insight

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