MySay: Strength in diversity, sustainability in unity

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 31, 2020 - September 06, 2020.
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Irecently attended a performance by our very own stand-up comedian Douglas Lim. I have always believed that wit represents intelligence, and I therefore accept that humour may not be enjoyed by all. Since Merdeka Day is around the corner, it may just be an opportune time to share some of his lighter jokes with good reminders, which had me laughing that night. I hope Lim approves of my sharing his jokes for the benefit of many. Please have an open mind before you continue reading and do put away your sensitive bone for a while and enjoy it as comedy.

He started by sharing that he recently heard in Parliament a Malay MP calling a Chinese MP “Cina sepet!” A verbal war then broke out, with Chinese MPs shouting: “Hey, racist!” To Lim, all of us must have learnt in biology class that it is a statement of fact that Chinese have slanted eyes. “I’m Chinese and I have slanted eyes. And it’s not a bad thing. When there’s haze, our eyes are more protected from the dust unlike others. Slanted eyes also make us look more intelligent, as if we are always thinking. For example, when people ask us questions like how come we don’t know billions of ringgit were deposited into our account, we could look intelligent like Jho Low and say we don’t know,” he said, squinting his eyes.

Why must we feel sensitive about such a thing as “mata sepet”? It depends on how we receive and perceive these comments. Perception is a reflection of what is in our hearts and minds. If we think negatively about it, then it will be negative. If our thoughts are positive, no matter how bad the name-calling is, we are not affected at all. We can even pass it off as a joke and have a good laugh about ourselves, as Lim obviously can.

I thought his next comedic sketch was even funnier, although I have to qualify that my retelling of it is no match for his delivery on stage. As he was driving along the hilly road in Ulu Yam, Selangor, he saw an old Malay pakcik riding shirtless on a motorcycle. As the pakcik rode past Lim, the pakcik shouted: “Babi!” Lim felt hot under the collar and thought to himself: “I know I’m Chinese but there’s no need to mention my favourite food.”

Lim retaliated and hollered a profanity, a Malay word that sounded like “ooo iii akk”. He said he never expected an elderly pakcik to be rude. As Lim turned the corner — thud! Guess what he had hit? It was a pig (babi). He then realised that the pakcik was actually cautioning him to drive carefully, as there was a pig around the corner. He regretted thinking that the pak­cik was racist. Then, a funny thought struck him: Could the pakcik be thinking that he was being warned not to bump into “ooo iii akk” around the corner?

I appreciated Lim’s joke, as I had the privilege of growing up with good Chinese and Indian friends. I went to mixed schools at both St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur and Sultan Abdul Hamid College in Kedah, where I learnt and practised how to befriend and play, argue, eat and study with other children of different backgrounds. We grew up together with the understanding of each other’s cultures, beliefs, backgrounds and even family stories.

Until this day, I have many Chinese and Indian grannies, uncles and aunties of my friends whom I can call my own when I visit them. They remember me as the naughty budak Melayu who used to play with their son or grandson but was always respectful of the elders — something that is probably not as prevalent today as it was before.

In my generation and the generations before that, it was not a big deal to call a Malay, “Hey, Melayu!” and a Chinese, “Hey, Cina!” We would just slap each other’s back in jest and walk with arms around each other’s shoulders. The colour of our skin, or the size of our eyes, just did not matter. Whether we were Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or Hindu, we would visit each other’s homes during our respective festive celebrations. We genuinely cared for each other and we enjoyed each other’s company.

The generations today are, unfortunately, racially divided from young, with many as early as six or seven years old sent to vernacular schools of only their own kind. While I understand the intention of studying and maintaining dedicated schools for culture, language and heritage, the segregation does come at a cost.

Our young understand only their own kind and become clique-ish — sticking with their group. With 11, sometimes 12, years of practice through primary and secondary school, they would have perfected the training of how to co-exist with only their kind. They are deprived of understanding other cultures and way of life apart from theirs. Those young Malaysian children will grow up lacking in understanding, empathy and tolerance towards other races or religions other than their own.

Segregation from school level results in the skewed thinking and behaviour that we see today, which over the years has bred scepticism, suspicion and contempt towards those who are not of the same kind. It has also bred ultra-Chinese, ultra-Malays, ultra-Indians and ultra-Others. The ultras who throw insults at each other; the ultras who cannot eat and play with one another; the ultras who simply cannot live together. We only need to glean comments on social media to see how true this is.

We cannot even blame them. They are the result of what has been bred — the consequence of past populist policies. If anything, we should empathise with them. We cannot turn back the clock or change the present consequence. All we can do is fix the future.

More than ever now, education must be centred on values. No longer should it be merely academic. After all, digitisation and the world of internet knowledge are now accessible to all. That can be easily sourced and self-taught but values need to be instilled and practised from young, if not at home, at least in schools.

All the best resources should be channelled to developing interracial schools. Single-race schools that divide and sub-divide should go. Or perhaps there should be a pivot, where the composition of students in vernacular schools represents the nation’s population. Racism and division must be eradicated at its root.

Times are tough; the whole world is reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Stop adding more burden to ourselves. Stop fighting, for when we attack each other, we will only become weaker as a nation. When we are weak, the nation’s enemies can easily cripple and conquer us. When we are conquered, we will lose our independence. Do not underestimate the real risk of losing it.

Yugoslavia was a great nation not too long ago in history and we can learn from its mistakes. There are many things that we do not appreciate until they are gone. Our nation’s independence is one of them. Only when we lose it will we appreciate its value and want it back.

As patriotic Malaysians, we do not need government slogans to remind us. Rather, we can feel it in our heart and know that we are stronger united than divided. Whether to ride out the pandemic or rebuild our nation and the economy, this is the time for all Malaysians to collaborate, not cannibalise or compete because we need to work together to build and expand our economic pie. If the industry or the business is small, we must find a way to scale it up, not fight over crumbs. These efforts and sacrifice ensure our sustainability.

When push comes to shove, sometimes we can see the true nature of man manifest itself in greed, envy, hatred and so on. But if we were to skin ourselves layer by layer, we would find that we are similar at the core, that we all have a soul. And our soul’s aspiration is to thrive in harmony and peaceful existence. Like-minded souls attract each other and can mirror one another.

Mirroring can help us create powerful connections and spread trust and positivity. Let us all set an example on how to do this and not give in to behaviour that divides us. Integrate by leveraging each other’s strengths, and we can be a powerful nation. Once all Malaysians unite, no threat — be it domestic or foreign — can undermine us.

Strength in our diversity, sustainability in our unity — that is the calling that we must choose for Malaysia. This must be our collective mission, our soul, our goal.

Happy 63rd Birthday to our young nation and here’s to a brighter future. Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!

Datuk Azrin Mohd Noor, founder of Sedania Group, is an innovator, author and IP expert

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