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Unity needs empathy

RACE and 1Malaysia have occupied my thoughts in the last few weeks. It can’t be helped, given the articles I’ve had to write on both subjects of late. I’ve almost reached saturation point listening to people debate the meaning of 1Malaysia.

Last Friday, 24 July, I attended a forum where a small group of academics, writers and other thinkers debated whether 1Malaysia is a concept, a vision, or a slogan.

Who cares what it is, really? Categorise it how you want, but what’s more important is whether the idea of it — a united Malaysia — can be achieved, and what are the means to get us there.

Perhaps to make it more digestible, those tasked with explaining what 1Malaysia is have broken it down into eight core values. I was surprised that empathy is not listed as one of them. I would have thought that being able to put oneself in the shoes of another would be crucial to understanding the other and overcoming differences. Wouldn’t empathy be crucial for a pluralistic society like ours?

crowded stand for press at an event
Crowded press stand (© Scott S / Flickr)

I was reminded about the journalism of empathy after reading “Being a journalist means being human“. I am wondering what it would be like if media practitioners attempted to adopt this when reporting about race, and even political leaders when making statements.

An ingredient of good journalism

Empathy and good journalism are co-dependent, notes that article on Poynter Online, the journalism institute’s resource website.

The kind of empathy I’ve been seeing, however, is more of the defensive kind aimed at getting the other side to conform, rather than to bridge differences.

Melayu dikhianati? asks Utusan Malaysia on 31 May 2009. Malay Malaysians who feel aggrieved by the demands of other Malaysians will ask the other to remember the sacrifices they have made — giving Chinese and Indians citizenship at Independence, and allowing mother-tongue education. MCA’s Tun Tan Siew Sin and MIC’s Tun VT Sambanthan are often quoted for their statements in the 1960s on the graciousness of Umno and Malay Malaysians in the granting of citizenship to non-Malay Malaysians.

A sense of betrayal is now felt that despite these sacrifices, Chinese and Indian Malaysians have continued to ask for more, be it in the form of government scholarships, or laws on conversions to Islam.

a lot of journos and photographers
Media people documenting police in the midst of attempting to detain someone at MACC protest outside Plaza Masalam

In Nasib Melayu di bumi Melayu, Malay Malaysians are told to feel that they are no longer masters in their own land. Nobody makes a hue and cry for them if a Malay Malaysian is victimised by the police or the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, such as in the case of Umno member Halimi Kamaruzzaman, but there is outrage if the same happens to a Chinese or Indian Malaysian. Teoh Beng Hock‘s death is cited as an illustration of this and so is the 2005 nude squat case in a police lock-up. The woman detainee concerned was initially thought to be a Chinese national but it was later revealed that she was a Malay Malaysian.

What’s happened in the Bahasa Malaysia press is a reverse kind of empathy with non-Malay Malaysians: Step into our shoes. This is our land which we shared with you. Feel what it’s like to have given up so much and yet be asked to give up more.

Ironically, it’s the same thing other Malaysians are feeling too, but from their own perspective: Step into our shoes. Chinese and Indians fought for an independent Malaya, too. Not all of us are rich. Feel what it’s like to pay income tax that’s used to support policies which don’t benefit us. This feeling of having paid their dues, yet being denied what they feel they worked for is why outcry over Public Service Department scholarships has become an annual episode. And the response, typically, is that non-Malay Malaysians are once again asking for too much, or that Malay Malaysians have it too easy all the time.

Breaking the cycle

How do we break this cycle of counter-accusations? If we employ empathy, I would think that reporting on race would firstly, be less accusatory.

It wouldn’t solve the inequalities immediately, for those require structural and mindset change. But it would cut through the cross-talk of perspectives and be a leap towards objectivity. From here, real problems in the system can be identified instead of racialising issues in broad strokes. For that matter, I think we should have more empathy in reporting about religion, too, but I wanted to narrow my focus in this column to the question of race.

In a little exercise on empathy, I listed down some questions which I would love to ask Malaysians of different ethnicities and economic class.

people of presumably varying gender and ethnicity talking with each other
Let’s discuss this (© Ruth H /

What makes you feel insecure? Why? What do you feel when a politician of another race or a newspaper talks disparagingly about yours? Do you think it’s just politics, or do you take it personally?

Do you feel any sense of indebtedness because your ancestors were given citizenship? Is that even relevant for you in today’s world?

Do you find it hard to get a job in a company run by this/that race? Do you feel indebted to the government because you were helped by affirmative action policies? Do you think you should receive these privileges because you are bumiputra or because you are poor? Do you agree that the poor of other races should also receive this same help?

What is the most extreme demand you think other races are making? Why shouldn’t they be allowed that demand? Do you feel betrayed? What needs to happen for you to feel secure?

And these questions could cut both ways for either side of the divide, because all races can be equally blinded and use broad labels, such as all Chinese Malaysians are rich, or all Malay Malaysians are poor.

I’d like to hear the answers from the mouths of Malaysians themselves, instead of a few politicians, or newspaper columnists or bloggers who appear as if they are speaking for the rest.

Would my empathy be wasted in the larger scheme of political agendas? Would my questions be deemed too sensitive? For me, until we understand what makes the other tick, 1Malaysia will continue to be elusive. Economic equity can only take us so far. We’d all be rich, but living in ghettos of our own race and mindsets. Favicon

Deborah Loh‘s shoes are a size 5, or 6 depending on brand, just in case anyone wants to swap shoes to walk in. 

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2 Responses to “Unity needs empathy”

  1. Eric says:

    I agree with empathy as a first step, we can also understand there is strength in unity and I’d add a bit of science too. I have yet to see a scientific definition of race to distinguish groups of […] Malaysians. The Malay Dilemma is not only outdated but wrong.

    I only see humans everywhere I go in this country. If this family is poor, they are poor, full stop. We get no value added saying they are from this or that ethnic community. If that officer is corrupt, same thing, no value added based on community. Same for his or her corrupter, they are just scums, if you allow me, whatever their ethnic or religious background.

    Bangsa Malaysia (as in Bangsa-Bangsa Bersatu = UN) is the solution.

  2. D Lim says:

    Dear Deborah,

    Good questions. If only we inculcated a sense of empathy and moral justice not based on race but as a fellow human beings in schools and in our children, sensitive questions [would be] easier to resolve. But good on you for asking these questions.

    Hopefully, some will wake up and think about it. I am about your shoe size but have no intention nor the qualifications to wear your shoes! :=)

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