Whither dignity for fellow humans?

The recent outpouring of hatred towards Rohingya refugees on social media has been nothing short of appalling.

One “meme” stood out in particular to me – it was an edited comic strip depicting a human and a dog sleeping in a room. The human, who had been sleeping on his bed, ended up sleeping on the floor because the dog had climbed onto and gradually took up all the space on the bed.

I am sure the original comic strip was intended to depict the funny sleeping habits of dog owners and their beloved pet dogs.

The edited comic strip, however, painted a different narrative as if the dog had stolen and occupied the bed which is rightfully the human’s. You get the racist idea: here, the human is the Malaysian and the dog, the Rohingya.

This set off so many alarms in my head. It scares me to think that there are Malaysians who actually believe that the Rohingya are animals, but at least I know for certain that these people are outright racists.

The scarier ones are those who do not hold such a belief but are willing to go to the extent of likening the Rohingya to dogs just to express their opposition.

Persons of this category are willing to sidestep their sense of morality in order to push forward certain agendas.

Either way, it is dehumanisation, and a precursor to escalated violence and hostility against vulnerable minorities.

Adolf Hitler had referred to the Jews as rats. During the Rwandan genocide, the Hutus called the Tutsis “cockroaches”. The Palestinians were also not spared from being referred to as animals by the Israelis. It follows that such “animals” and “vermins” ought to be exterminated.

This is not to say that Malaysians with negative sentiments of the Rohingya now possess genocidal tendencies. A majority of arguments against Rohingya are premised on the idea that they are Covid-19 carriers which is, nonetheless, prejudicial.

The virus does not discriminate, anyone can be infected and become a carrier. It is different if we say that they are more susceptible to Covid-19 because they have no choice but to live under deplorable conditions making them more vulnerable to diseases.

It is surprising that despite having a better understanding of diseases and how we can overcome them, we still choose to resort to prejudice.

The hatred towards the Rohingya is counterproductive to the efforts of eliminating Covid-19. It makes them afraid to come forward to report any infection or disclose contact with positive cases.

It is not hard to believe that the Rohingya are unhygienic if we have little or no contact with them. The brain pieces together a negative representation of them based on biases fed to us by politicians and the media. Then we fall into the vicious cycle of having these prejudicial ideas reinforced.

One reckons that Malaysians would understand prejudice better than anyone else on this planet given that, we too, have experienced it at some point of our lives: “Malays are lazy, this is why they are poor and backward”; “We already give you citizenship, you Chinese and Indians still want to demand more rights?” ; “Sorry, we rent the house to Chinese only”.

Malaysians should be able to understand the pain enough not to cause it unto others and yet, we see the very comments we hate receiving on petitions initiated against the Rohingya.

Prejudice reduces a person’s humanity into a single living signifier.

In this context, nationality or ethnicity becomes the only things we see in a Rohingya.

It is so easy to vilify the Rohingya when we don’t see that, they too, have personalities, interests and ambitions just like us. We have more in common but our ability to empathise is simply shut off.

Malaysians need to move beyond their discomfort and defence to a more constructive discussion on the Rohingya refugees crisis. It will not go away simply by turning away refugee boats.

Afford the issue with the level of thought a regional humanitarian crisis would require. It is honestly better to grapple with the dilemma than dumbing down our God-given thinking abilities by resorting to simplistic prejudicial arguments.

The Rohingya are humans too. Empathy is required to free ourselves of prejudicial sentiments.

This is not pity, which often stems from a position of superiority. By being empathetic, we acknowledge the common humanity which we share with the Rohingya and which builds a mutual sense of respect crossing ethnic or racial lines.

Michelle Liu is a member of Liberasi.

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

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