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There’s no escaping the fact that we are now a nation deeply divided, full of suspicion and fear, instinctively reacting to each other, talking past each other rather than talking to each other. Our national narrative is now all about who is threatening whom and how we should respond. We are living out our fears instead of walking out our hopes.

So full of fear

Muslims worry about Islam losing its special status; non-Muslims worry about the increasing tide of Islamization. Non-Malays are bitter that they are all but locked out of the civil service; Malays are resentful that they are not accepted by non-Malay corporations. Bumiputeras grumble that their special rights are being eroded; non-Bumiputeras protest that their rights are not being respected. Malays insist we need single-stream education to promote national unity; non-Malays say our national schools are not welcoming of diversity. One talks about respecting the federal constitution, the other talks about upholding the “social contract.”

We are so full of fear – of Muslims and Christians, of Sunnis and Shias, of Malays and Chinese – that every time the lalang moves somebody shouts “snake” and we all rush to take out our verbal parangs.

Hostility and suspicion have shrouded our nation like the haze that is now choking us. Clearly, we can’t go on this way without sooner or later facing horrible consequences.

Polluting our politics

For too long we have allowed morally-bankrupt and unscrupulous politicians to pollute our politics with extremist, divisive and racist ideas that pit us against each other. They have frightened us with a steady diet of venomous narratives, of existential threats and imaginary plots.

And we have allowed their narratives to replace the reality that we experience in our own daily lives as we interact with our fellow Malaysians – that all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim, Malay and non-Malay – want the same thing: decent jobs, security, justice, respect, tolerance and the right to live our lives in peace and harmony.

We know in our hearts that this nation of ours is big enough, rich enough, tolerant enough to be a big tent for all of us, that we can be 100% Malay or Chinese or Iban or Muslim or Christian or Hindu and still be 100% Malaysian.

For literally hundreds of years, our nation has been at the cutting edge, the confluence of great civilizations, great cultures, great religions and each of us embody that in one way or another. The English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once said, “I am a part of all that I have met;” we Malaysians are also a part of all that history has bequeathed to us. It is part of our DNA now and finds expression in our cultures, religions, customs, languages, foods and literature. It is a distinctive uniqueness that should be celebrated, not berated.

Who benefits from division?

It’s time to say no to the purveyors and peddlers of hate and division who use race and religion to divide us to further their own ambitions and agendas. They speak of defending the faith when all they do is defraud the faithful. They speak of protecting their community when all they do is feather their own nests. They talk about unity while driving us apart with their hateful and unhelpful invective.

And who benefits from all this division, from all this constant sparring between ethnic and religious groups? Mostly it’s the politicians and their cronies. They grow richer while the people they rule over struggle to make ends meet.  They argue about what poverty means while living lives of luxury that most Malaysians can only dream about. Imagine being paid RM75,000 per month from public funds just for being an aide to the prime minister! Thousands of Malaysians don’t even make half of that in a whole year. That’s the real scandal, the real existential threat to our nation that all of us – Muslim and non-Muslim, Malay and non-Malay – should focus on.

This Malaysia Day, let’s break free of the shackles of hate, suspicion and fear.   Let’s break free of the mental prisons that silly and dead-end arguments have trapped us in. Let’s refuse to accept slander or hate against our fellow citizens. We don’t have to always agree but when we disagree, let us do it agreeably.

Join the buy Malay campaign

A good place to start is the ongoing boycott of businesses and products owned by non-Bumiputeras. It is getting ugly with both sides slanging it out and insulting each other. It’s a silly and ultimately meaningless exercise. Instead of allowing it to become an “us vs them” tussle, a better response would be for non-Malays join the campaign to buy Malay-made products and services. There’s actually enough for all to prosper. They call it a boycott; let’s turn it into a campaign to prosper our Malay-Muslim brothers and sisters instead. They want to divide us; let’s use it to build bridges by sucking the venom out of it.

Perhaps, in time, we can erase the hate and the fear that have been planted in us, that we have come to accept as inevitable and unavoidable. Perhaps, if we take small steps today, we can build a better tomorrow where race or religion or dress or language or culture will matter less than character, integrity, honesty, respect and service.

Happy Malaysia Day!

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |13th September 2019]