Many societies have been divided by matters of class, gender and religion, but the greatest divider of all has been race followed by economic disparity and religion.
The racial divide is becoming pretty serious in the country, driven by impulsive politicians, pseudo-religious figures and even some ill-conceived academics. Racism has in many subtle ways infiltrated politics, the workplace, public education, the justice system and even places of worship. This precarious drift, if not reined in, will be destructive to multiracial Malaysia.
Race or ethnicity is not a biological attribute but a sociological trait. Race is only a social concept with no real biological basis. However, the social construct of race has been a powerful force throughout history, prescribing individual and community identities.
The historical consequences of the concept of race have been instances of prejudice, discrimination, oppression, even violence and ethnic cleansing. This has shattered many nations, causing investors to shun them for fear of mayhem and an economy that will collapse.
Therefore, fantasising that this will not happen and ignoring the early symptoms that could lead to vicious racial conflicts in the country seems otiose.
Race relations should start at a young age. Our education system is not creating an environment in which children of different races can mingle freely. When children are educated in schools by being isolated at the primary level, then isolated again by race at the secondary and tertiary levels, we cannot expect racial unity, tolerance and integration to flower.
The education system has impaired racial unity for the past few decades. If this is the policy of the government, or the aspiration of some politicians, there is no point in talking about better race relations and racial unity in a multiracial society.
Children of different races mingle freely in kindergartens and at primary schools as they are yet to be cognisant of their racial or religious differences. Religious differences only come into play when parents start making their children aware that they are different from others. Even this will not stop children from mixing together: rapport among children at the primary level is an unconscious process. Children are just gregarious without racial and religious stickers attached to them.
Unlike adults, the young do not have distinct attitudes about race as a function of growing up in a diverse society. This leads to good race relations: when classmates and college mates have been friends for long, their differences could become secondary.
Good race relations must begin early, at school, not when the young have left school. No amount of tertiary-level courses in racial or ethnic relations will bring different races together. This would merely be an academic exercise with no real-world significance.
Schools should be made the second home for the young generation. Children are so innocent that they do not identify friends by race, religion or skin colour. It’s natural to see them mixing freely with one another. If they grow up in such an environment, Malaysia will able to enjoy better race relations. There will be more tolerance. It is not necessary for them to profess a single religion to be a united lot.
Economic disparity between races is another key factor that can lead to racial tension. This is quite relevant in Malaysian society. As long as there is a huge economic disparity between races, it is bound to cause racial disharmony. Only by bridging this gap can feelings of hatred towards other races be pacified.
The marginalised in society bring the racial divide into sharp focus. Poverty, inequality and injustice have roots in the history of racial discrimination, which cut off the marginalised from the opportunity of the country.
Limiting a section of the people or race to a life of poverty will make them hate people of other races who are more affluent. The government has a duty to tackle this issue, to help the people rise above the legacy of inequality. True unity is impossible if there is economic disparity or institutional inequality.
Politics of tribalism
In some instances, differences in religion may not be as bad as tribalism or race differences when it comes to polarisation. Religion is quite a subjective matter and differences can still be accepted by the people as they may consider this a personal choice or a private matter. Nonetheless, there have been incidents in many countries where people have been persecuted because of their religious affiliations.
Rarely do Malaysians encroach into these personal rights of others, except for some overzealous preachers who have gone overboard in fuelling religious thoughts in the minds of people and upsetting those of other faiths. It’s only when religious supremacy rears its ugly head and when religion is forcefully imposed on others that it ends up becoming a divisive factor.
It is still the race or ethnic factor that plays a more pivotal role in disuniting the people in many societies. Even those of the same religion may still have the tendency to see others from different ethnic groups as their sworn enemies. It is thus common to see tribal wars in some countries among those practising the same religion.
The never-ending factional wars in some Middle East countries are generally attributed to ethnic tribalism and intra-religious sectarianism. Syria and Iraq were once the cradles of Islamic civilisation but civil and tribal wars have left these countries in tatters. It is frightful to think of such happenings creeping into our country.
Racism is contrary to God’s plan
Of late, traces of racial bigotry appear to have marred society. The chasm of hostility divides the country but has yet to touch the consciences of the people. Some politicians are just being divisive and some others are causing disunity.
Intolerance of other people is ultimately a denial of human dignity. No one person is better than another because of the colour of their skin or the place of their birth or the religion they profess. However, the elimination of racism and religious intolerance may seem too great a mission. Race will remain a potent divisive force in most societies.
Malaysia has to overcome this crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. The continuing state of racial tension will not augur well for the country. This divisive force, if continued to be felt across our land, will become an obstacle to the harmony to which we are called as a human family. It will also indirectly affect the economy and the livelihoods of the people.
The abscesses caused by racial prejudice will be hard to heal. The mission of reconciliation should therefore take on fresh emphasis. Racial supremacy is not the solution. It requires tolerance and acceptance of each other to strengthen our resolve and to tone down emotions.
Social attitudes often take generations to change but if our democracy is to work the way that it should, steps must be taken by everyone to put a halt to all forms of racial discrimination.
The hysterical racial rhetoric and the subtle divisions the country is facing today based on ethnic backgrounds are obviously not a part of God’s plan. Racism is indisputably contrary to God’s plan for humanity. Those claiming to be champions of Islam have ill-advisedly ignored what the Quran says:
“Oh mankind! We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognise each other. The most honourable among you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you. God is All-knowing and All-aware.” (49:13)
Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.