In a season of mistrust, some hope for the nation

It was quite an extraordinary sight that we were treated to last week – no less than seven Pakatan Harapan (PH) ministers standing together to oppose an ugly outburst of bigotry. It is precisely the kind of leadership that is needed to counter the growing racism in our nation.

Earlier in the week, Mohd Khairul Azam of Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia made the asinine claim that it was unconstitutional for a Chinese school to put up decorations in conjunction with Chinese New Year (CNY).

He alleged that the decorations amounted to religious propagation and went on to complain about “excessive decorations” that made the school look like “a Chinese-owned market with religious elements on display that are other than Islam”.

He asserted that the school had created an environment that was “distressing for Muslim students.”

It was a claim so preposterous, so inherently racist, so devoid of logic and common sense, that it left many wondering from which dark corner people like this come from?

But this is where we are headed for – a nation increasingly held hostage by a few gormless bigots who constantly try to outdo each other with vacuous but incendiary statements.

If it’s not lights on a wall that look like a cross or a unity speech at a school function or lanterns, it’s something else. With the kind of febrile minds that our jaundiced education system keeps producing, there is simply no shortage of insecure people who feel threatened or upset by almost anything non-Islamic or non-Malay in the country.

The country faces huge problems but all they worry about is the impact of a few lanterns on an already dominant and well-entrenched religion.

They have nothing to say when billions are looted from public coffers or when so-called defenders of the faith defraud the faithful, but they get all worked up by a few CNY decorations.

How have we come to such levels of asininity, fanaticism and bigotry? How have we morphed into a culture where men aspire to greatness by putting others down, by inciting hate and sowing division?

Thankfully, this time the Cabinet didn’t just sit around lamenting the poor state of race relations in the country; instead it quickly issued a statement rejecting the racism and extremism inherent in Khairul’s allegations.

It also reiterated the government’s commitment to multiculturalism and called on all Malaysians to embrace our diversity.

“We must respect one another because the different customs and cultures are a precious asset to the country,” the statement said.

Basic, perhaps, but no less profound given the way things have been going recently.

In addition, six ministers led by the deputy prime minister herself went to the school concerned in a show of support. That one picture – of Malay, Chinese and Indian cabinet ministers and officials standing alongside Malay, Chinese and Indian students in support of multiculturalism – did more to promote national unity than all the ministerial speeches on the subject since PH came to power.

Thanks to the strong, decisive and united leadership of the cabinet, the issue was kept from becoming yet another major irritant in an already fractious society.

This is what people expect from a multiracial coalition like PH – unequivocal and uncompromising rejection of all forms of racism and bigotry.

What the Cabinet did was to rescue the PH brand from the infamy that was beginning to stick to it like barnacles on a ship’s hull.

Instead of playing to their respective galleries as they have tended to do, the cabinet stood together; I dare say that many took note, took heart and took hope.

Now compare that to the manner in which the whole Jawi/Dong Zong issue was handled. In the first place, Cabinet should have been more sensitive to the competing interests involved and how the issue might play out in an already charged environment.

Of course, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad didn’t help matters either; instead of appealing for calm and working to resolve the issue, he lashed out at Dong Zong and warned of a Malay reaction. His remarks were widely seen as encouraging Malay hostility towards Dong Zong.

Undoubtedly, Dong Zong, too, could have better managed the whole Jawi issue. Instead of quiet negotiations given the sensitivity of the issue, it chose a more confrontational approach.

Even now, as it seeks a meeting with Mahathir (who is acting minister of education) to resolve the issue, it is taking pot shots at him, warning him not to “be stuck in his old ways” or return to his “old policies like teaching science and mathematics in English”.

It is never a good negotiating tactic to publicly insult the very person you are trying to negotiate with.

Instead of making rude and bellicose comments, Dong Zong should sit down quietly with the prime minister and others in Cabinet and try to find a way out for everyone’s sake.

Instead of drawing red lines around issues, both sides need to accommodate each other. The introduction of a few pages of Jawi is not going to spell the end of Chinese education in the country.

On the other hand, there needs to be clarity that the introduction of Jawi will be managed in a way that does not undermine Chinese education.

When trust on both sides is low, extra effort (and patience) is needed to overcome suspicion and doubt.

Let’s face it: the only way we are going to be able to live together in peace and harmony, the only way we are going to make multiculturalism work, is on the basis of compromise and by taking the time to understand each other’s perspectives.

Of course, there will always be people like Khairul Azam. There is no question that we have to stand up to them and their bullying ways because Malaysia belongs to us all.

Whether they like it or not, we are all citizens with as much right to be here as anyone else.

The constitution guarantees all Malaysians certain fundamental rights; bigots must never be allowed to diminish those rights through fear and intimidation.

But we also need to be sagacious in how we fight our battles. Hopefully, with the Cabinet now rising to the challenge, a better way might be found to manage our differences and work to overcome the distrust and suspicion that has accumulated after years of race-baiting.

If PH can take to heart the message that they are strongest when they stand together, there might at least be some hope for Malaysia Baru.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.