“It’s a universal law — intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.” — Aleksandr I Solzhenitsyn
Toleration. That was the first word that came to mind that uneasy evening. I sat with my back to the wall, fidgeting while the airport immigration officer made some calls to unnamed individuals to ascertain that I was not a security risk in an election-primed India. It was my annual visit to the land of the Kamasutra and I had never before been subjected to a query such as this. When asked where in India I was going to visit, I replied, “Srinagar, Kashmir.” And the drama began.
Apparently, my name coincided with one other whom the immigration officials were on the lookout for. After all, Kashmir is a contentious state, with three parties claiming ownership — India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris seeking self-government themselves. India was not going to tolerate a possible “rebel-rouser” in its midst.
The ordeal was not long, but the five minutes seemed an eternity. Passengers in the snake-like queues were looking at me, curious, and for once, I did not feel like the enterprising fund manager that I am; I felt like I was in a Jason Bourne movie, suspected of covert intentions. My reverie ended when the immigration officer called my name, and after a terse “Thank you for your cooperation”, I was cleared to join the rest of my fellow Malaysian travellers. The relief must have shown on my face, because for the first time, the officer smiled as he waved me through.
I am sure some of us might have had similar experiences when travelling to foreign destinations — being randomly picked up while in a queue, undergoing full-body checks before embarkation — all this is the new normal at airports around the world. The world is no longer safe and my sorry episode at the Indira Gandhi International Airport was nothing new. Governments are sacrificing tolerance and withdrawing “benefit of the doubt” in return for the security of their people. Toleration — the first victim of an untrusting world.
Before I left Kuala Lumpur, news was rife that the Malaysian government was withdrawing from the Rome Statute to avoid a “confrontation with the Conference of Rulers”, even though the treaty would not erode the royal institution. To me, the government’s decision was more than a sign of respect for the royals, despite their differing stance on the matter. It was a sign of toleration — a quality that is in short supply all around the world.
But what actually is tolerance? The Declaration of Principles on Tolerance issued by Unesco in 1995 says tolerance means accepting the fact that human beings, naturally diverse in their appearance, situation, speech, behaviour and values, have the right to live in peace and to be as they are. It also means that one’s views are not to be imposed on others. In this day and age, tolerance is required on many different levels — world, continent, country, community, family, teams, couples and individuals. If historical anecdotes are to go by, previous empires that were tolerant of differing views contributed most to the progress of humanity as a whole. The enlightened communities of Constantinople, Baghdad and the learned inhabitants of old India are apt examples.
Being in India, despite its external façade of homogeneity, is to be in a land of contrasts. And toleration is core. The diversity of its religions is a case in point — the majority Hindus and the minority Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Parsees live mostly peacefully and contentedly. That is, until some extreme elements stoke centuries-old embers of enmity to provoke communal discord. The same can be seen in Malaysia too, and if we are not careful, we would be fighting the same intolerant destructive fire.
To write an obituary for tolerance is untimely because there is much we can do to strengthen that notion. All it takes is strong leadership and determined political will.
Bending to the will of some fractious-minded people when the majority supports a certain move can seem like a U-turn, but a government must think of the greater good of the nation. When there is a possibility of the issue being manipulated to the extent that people may take to the streets, being tolerant of a contentious issue seems to be a noble act. And a mature one. As leaders, we have a responsibility to embrace the differences and be tolerant of those whom we disagree with.
Leading a nation is no walk in the park. It is serious stuff. We have divisive leaders who wish to tear us asunder by our distinct values, our sex, our colour and our basic human differences. Leaders who want to divide us do not wish to be inclusive; rather, they want to instil a hatred in others to keep a gap between tolerance and inclusion.
If we allow them space, we will never advance our businesses, our country or our generation. We will only be wasting time pointing out what separates us and exclude those whom we disagree with. It is a no-win game to be intolerant.
I am of the opinion that toleration is an important but brittle word, and especially in a multiracial, multireligious nation such as ours, I would much prefer we practise the deeper idea of acceptance rather than toleration. We need to accept fellow Malaysians as they are. I cannot change the fact that I was born of a different race than you, and neither can you. I have my culture, my faith and my idiosyncrasies. So do you. If we can accept our differences, we can celebrate and build on our similarities. For example, the various religions professed by our fellow citizens. If not handled well, this can be one of the most divisive elements in any community.
Most of our deeply held faiths are divinely inspired and do not need mortal efforts to defend. An ancient Persian proverb says it best: “Musk smells sweet on its own. You don’t need a perfumer to tell you of its sweetness.” We need not defend our religion, but we should try to spread its beauty and teaching. As clean-living, God-fearing folks, we should share our most precious of gifts, our faith, with others so that they may understand us, and we them.
Tolerance means we do not angle to win a debate; we are not trying to chalk up more souls to boost our community’s numbers. Our religions are not personal properties. They belong to the world. Humanise our faiths. Present its human face. Spread peace, feed the hungry, honour kinship ties and pray. Do not think about identity. Think about good character, because that requires a large degree of tolerance.
Zakie Shariff is managing partner of Kuber Venture Bhd, a specialist investment company. He is also a director of Universiti Malaysia Pahang.