IT seems sedition season is on us again. Now, the DAP is being called seditious for calling Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin seditious. This was after Muhyiddin was quoted as saying that non-Muslims were insulting Islam, in apparent reference to a three-year-old video featuring Maznah (Chetz) Mohd Yusof including her pet dogs in her Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations.
The name-calling and accusations are just part of the ethno-religious pandemonium that has filled local news and social media feeds for the last several months. Déjà vu? Certainly. Malaysians are no strangers to incidents that supposedly offend racial or religious sensitivities. This comes complete with back-and-forth between politicians and ethnically based NGOs, topped up with a generous dose of sedition accusations.
It seems that our nation’s leaders are intent as ever on engaging in divisive rhetoric, but how should Malaysians respond? Is such a thing as “national reconciliation” needed, or even possible?
In his Aidilfitri message, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak exhorted Malaysians to value unity and dismantle prejudices. This followed Najib’s promise at the close of the 5 May elections to undertake a programme of national reconciliation. But several weeks later, Najib stipulated that the “main premise” of his version of national reconciliation was everyone’s acceptance of the general election results.
Fortunately, national reconciliation doesn’t actually mean voters reconciling themselves to the Barisan Nasional’s apparent mandate. The government isn’t the nation. We are. This doesn’t absolve the government from its duty to foster rapprochement between its people. But it does mean that, when speechwriters’ bombast proves hollow, we can take things into our own hands. In fact, since reconciliation is a relational act, it is better embodied by the posture associated with the morning of the first day of Hari Raya: A face-to-face, hand-to-hand affirmation of forgiveness and restoration.
It isn’t easy to hold on to the importance of every person, and of every interaction we have with one another. It’s especially difficult when the most publicised interactions centre on hostility rather than mutual respect. But this is one of the most important reasons why border-crossing relationships matter: Such relationships are one of the surest ways of inoculating ourselves against resignation and antagonism. One of the most convincing answers to the “same old, same old” conundrum is: “But I’ve seen new and different.”
“Mendukung cita-cita untuk mencapai perpaduan”
There aren’t any magic formulae or surefire systems for developing reconciliation. Unity is an endlessly complex journey comprising many simple steps. Fortunately, “simple” need not mean “boring” – not when we’re talking about the country that has produced a superhero called Cicak Man and a giant roti dish called roti Komtar.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of ways we can move closer together, mutant lizards and overgrown pastries and all.
We must not allow our cynicism about political spin to make us cynical about the crucial missions of reconciliation and transformation. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
One way to defend our dreams is to balance criticism of the inadequate with affirmation of the whole. When Najib presents an emaciated form of national reconciliation, we shouldn’t just point out the hollowness of his words – we must also articulate a fuller vision.
Again, such articulations, though affirming ideals that have endured through time and space, need not be boring. In a persuasive contribution to the vigorous public debate of the Chetz Yusof video, anthropologist Rusaslina Idrus reiterates a longstanding truth: “Opening spaces for discussion and allowing for diversity of opinions will not shatter but instead strength[en] our faith as a thinking and knowledgeable ummah.” Her essay is refreshing – not only because of her lively account of a 1930s public debate at Kelantan’s Istana Sri Cemerlang about dog ownership, but also because of her conviction and good sense.
One of the heroes of this year’s bulan puasa was Raven Murugesan, a teacher who paused in a long supermarket queue to offer food and drink to a tired cashier who was due to break her fast. By the first day of Aidilfitri, Raven’s initial Facebook post had generated nearly 10,000 shares and was covered by The Star.
Raven’s act wasn’t costly or inconvenient. His message was simple: “Just treat everyone like brothers and sisters.” But his story was compelling because it epitomised the everyday thoughtfulness that we instinctively appreciate but may not instinctively practise. Kindness to strangers is at once ordinary and revolutionary.
Similarly, many personal accounts about the Bersih rallies highlighted two common thrills: Taking a risky stand for a cause you know to be true, and sharing that stand (as well as salt and water supplies) with people who are from different backgrounds but are no more and no less Malaysian than you. The same sense of extraordinary solidarity is evident in accounts of this year’s Fast4Malaysia event.
But we don’t have to wait for large-scale organisation to live out the unity that many of us espouse. Start small conversations. Smile – it turns out that the annoyingly perky song on RTM spoke truth: “Senyum kepada semua … Dengan senyuman terjalinlah ikatan.” (“Smile at one and all … Through smiles, bonds are forged.”) Exchanging a genuine smile with a fellow stranger can yield enough joy to make you grin at the next five people you pass, and to help you weather any awkward repercussions from those grins.
Humans of New York is a photo blog featuring people on the streets of New York City, with now over a million Facebook “Likes”. Followers keep returning not only for its images, but also for the accompanying quotes and stories. Many of these snippets are adorable, inspiring, or off-the-wall funny, but some of the most compelling ones just offer honest humanity.
While we don’t have an equivalent of Humans of New York (Manusia Malaysia, anyone?), a few young Malaysians recently created a Tumblr called A Beautiful Malaysia. Its moderators say that they created the site “to allow us the opportunity to just detoxify ourselves of all the negativity and hatred … so we could … take a few moments to sigh and appreciate how beautiful our country truly is”.
Celebration is vital because it helps us remember that progress can happen, and that all of this is worthwhile. We must recognise not just the unity enjoyed in some urban pasts or rural idylls, but also the hard-won triumphs of the messy present.
Hari Raya Aidilfitri may have passed, but we’re less than halfway through the month in which we commemorate our national independence. Here’s to freedom.
Hwa Yue-Yi took a break halfway through writing this column to enjoy rendang and kuih raya at her aunt’s mother-in-law’s house. She feels blessed and well-fed.