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The multicultural question

Ien Ang

Ever felt that Malaysians need to get out more and mix with people from other races and religions? And be open to dialogue with each other even if they hold different views?

Cultural studies expert Professor Ien Ang would probably agree, as demonstrated in her recent public lecture on multiculturalism. Ang, who is Distinguished Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Western Sydney, Australia said Malaysia was not alone in trying to figure out how to live with a multicultural society.

Speaking at a public lecture at Universiti Malaya on 28 Sept 2009, she said globalisation has fuelled vast movements of not just goods, but also people, across national borders. Rapid and constant changes in the population have posed challenges for nation states around the world on how to live with diverse views and perspectives within their society.

Dialogue between cultures

Ang said intercultural dialogue was needed in dealing with the multicultural question plaguing many nations today. “People and groups that are not normally brought together need to be brought together to dialogue,” she said.

She noted that such dialogue was important even if the different groups did not necessarily agree with each other’s views. “It is enough that people get used to living together and develop habits of co-existence. Inter-cultural dialogue is about becoming comfortable with living with the presence of people very different from ourselves,” she continued.

Ang cited a survey which showed that younger Australians were more accepting of their multicultural reality than the older generation. They even felt that living with others was essential to their sense of belonging to contemporary Australia, she said.

Asked how the younger generation came to this understanding, Ang attributed it to the public education system and an environment where children from different cultural backgrounds could mingle and grow up together.

“The public education [system] did have a major role in inculcating the notion that Australia is a multicultural country,” she said. “But more than that, the practice of just growing up with people from many different countries probably contributed to the change,” she added.

“Children would go to school with other children from so many different nationalities. People’s situations just made it so natural to live together with people from many different backgrounds. They become friends and get to know people. They become more used to it and are more appreciative of different people.”

Consensus not as important as dialogue

Ang elaborated that it was the dialogue itself that was important and that consensus need not be a goal. “They need to focus not so much on shared values or a common culture but [on getting] to know each other and [learning] from each other. It is the process that matters, not the product,” she said.

Ang recognised that tension and racial conflict would probably never go away even with the presence of dialogue. “Intercultural dialogue is not the solution to all the problems. It is a method that needs to be adopted so that problems don’t escalate,” she said. She also acknowledged that while intercultural dialogue can be delightful, “it can also be very vexing”.

And what happens if dialogue is refused by one party? “If people don’t want to talk, there’s not much that can be done but to keep trying,” she said.

A Qassam rocket fired from Gaza towards southern Israel, January 2009 (© paffairs_sanfrancisco / Wiki Commons)

Ang cited the example of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where negotiations would often break down because one side refused to speak to the other. “There was a constant refusal of dialogue and then a process of coming back together which would be initiated,” she said. “If dialogue is refused, there might be an escalation of conflict. If that happens, parties then need to get back to where the conversation can be restarted.”

Multiculturalism not enough

Interestingly, Ang said adopting multiculturalism as a model, as Malaysia has done, was not enough to promote dialogue.  Multiculturalism allowed for the proliferation of diverse groups but it did not necessarily encourage interaction amongst them, she said.

In answering a question regarding the break-up of the former Yugoslavia along ethnic lines, Ang said there was diversity in Yugoslavia but it had been defined in very rigid ways. Different groups such as the Bosnians, Croatians and Serbs were seen as mutually exclusive and “that’s where the problem starts”.

Ang elaborated that identities were not rigid and tended to overlap. “It’s not that once you’re an Indian, you’re always an Indian or if you’re Chinese, you’re completely Chinese,” she said. “Personhood consists of many parts which have nothing at all to do with ethnicity,” she added.

“Intercultural dialogue avoids the creation of very rigid definitions,” Ang said. “This would promote better inter-connectedness between different groups.”

Creating spaces for intercultural dialogue


Ang said intercultural dialogue should be actively promoted as sharing was usually the exception rather than the norm in contemporary societies. “People tend to cluster and many cluster around perspectives informed by their ethnicity,” she said. “Perspectives however can change and people often hold several at the same time. Sharing is not automatic, it has to be established.”Where are the spaces for intercultural dialogue amongst Malaysians? Do Malaysians of diverse backgrounds and perspectives have sufficient opportunity to associate, and dialogue, with each other at work, school or elsewhere?

Two recent initiatives come to mind as examples of intercultural dialogue with a respectful and open mind: the visit by a group of people from different religious backgrounds to the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Shah Alam following the cow-head incident and the Fast for the Nation, Peace for Malaysia initiative.

However, are there many other concerted efforts to create spaces for Malaysians to interact and dialogue on a daily basis? Perhaps it is time that Malaysians stopped merely acknowledging the existence of the ‘other’ people and deliberately looked for ways to dialogue and engage with each other. fav

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5 Responses to “The multicultural question”

  1. D Lim says:

    Multiculturalism is, in my opinion, different people with varying religions, cultures and beliefs living together. It enriches the colour of society. But some politicians play the “difference game”, i.e. picking the differences and playing them up. If we continue to live without appreciating and learning to understand each other’s cultures, a world of conflict it will be. It is the leaders’ task, and the people must elect leaders with positive visions so that the earth can be shared and people can live harmoniously together. It sounds a tall order, but what is the option? We can decide!

  2. Lim Goh Tong says:

    Australia has its own share of problems on multiculturalism. However, the width and depth of its multiculturalism problem is not as severe as in Malaysia. In Australia, major and established political parties are not based on race and/or religion. Any politician that champions race or religion would be rejected by the majority of the public.

    The appropriate way forward for Malaysians is to abandon politics based on race or religion. Such political parties have to change, and lead us to a higher level of unity and mutual growth.

  3. pakkarim says:

    Since 1998, Malaysians, especially the Malays, have been made to feel insecure by Umno. When [Malay Malaysians] started turning away from the BN after the expulsion and eventual charge of sodomy against Anwar Ibrahim, the leaders of Umno started currying favour from other Malaysians, especially the Chinese, to the extend that Umno were willing to marginalise the Malays in their efforts to remain in power. Today we see Umno playing the same game, but this time, the Indian [Malaysians] are the target.

    Given this attitude of the ruling coalition, it is only proper that Umno should be shown the door out of Putrajaya; the sooner the better for all Malaysians. The people should initiate dialogs among themselves to enable this agenda to move forward, under the auspices of the PR coalition in all the states of East and West Malaysia.

    Malaysia for all.

  4. Alan S TAN says:

    I think the answer is simple. People/groups/clubs should not impose their will on others. The dominant groups here cannot claim that [they are not imposing on others]. For that, I hold them responsible.

    I believe prejudice is fine. I might not like redheads. I might prefer dark-skinned women. That’s me. As long as I don’t discriminate on the basis of that prejudice.

    As long as … temples and churches are not allowed to ring their bells, I charge all Malaysians who sit by and do nothing that they perpetuate this dysfunctional system. In many ways, the component members of our Malaysian society are codependent. As in a drunk wife-beater and a meek, subservient wife.

    Time for change.

  5. elfin says:

    Malaysia used to be a country where [neither] race nor relegion came between Malaysians. Malaysia used to be a “secular” country. The current dilemma can be placed directly at the path of polticians “profiteering” from “implanting” fear in the minds of the electorate. And over the years, some politicians have “enlisted” religious figures, and religion, to back their depraved vision of a superior, “select” race.

    Cue, resentment, discrimination, suspicion and isolation towards, and by, various races.

    Blaming the ancients, colonials, etc., is and will never be the answer. Taking a good long look at yourselves and facing up to your shortcomings, will be a lot better.

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