4 June 2017

Wisdom of the Masses: Navigating Multi-Culturalism
Focus, Sunday Star
Opinion shapers and leaders should listen and attend to the aspirations and concerns of the people who have shown grit and grace in these challenging times.

By Ibrahim Suffian
sunday@thestar.com.my

In a nation that is bisected by differing cultures and faiths, it is natural to expect that most Malaysians tend to favour and trust their co-religionists more compared to their other countrymen. It is normal human tendency to favour those who are like them due to shared values and expected norms. A survey, which was carried out by Merdeka Center on behalf of the University of Oxford and funded by CIMB Foundation, found that Malaysians tended to consider their co-religionists more favourably compared to those of other faiths. Unsurprisingly, they also reported knowing less about other religions compared to their own and tended to see people of other religions to be less like them. All the above attitudes were found to be prevalent among all Malaysians, but were more accentuated and much stronger among the Muslims surveyed. (See chart)

On the surface, these findings could serve the cause for further probing, to understand why the Malay Muslims see themselves apart from others and perhaps regard themselves as exceptional. While these attitudes exist and are held, the same respondents express agreement that Malaysians should strive to live in multicultural and multi-faith neighbourhoods so as to foster greater understanding and tolerance. This attitude can be construed in a number of different ways, but the most hopeful is one that sees it as an expression of a maturing society that appreciates each other’s need for spiritual and cultural space, but at the same time, wants it to be moderated by the need for mutual peace and cooperation.

Through surveys done in the past by Merdeka Center, we know that the major communities that make up the Malaysian citizenry see the world through different lenses: they read and learn about news in different languages, hold affinity to different regions of the world and dream about different vacation destinations. The Malay Muslims feel affinity for news and developments in other Muslim countries, particularly the troubled Middle East, dream about vacations in Turkey or Central Asia and imagine furthering their careers in the Gulf states.

On the other hand, the Chinese follow news and entertainment from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, they also consume more news from Western media outlets than their Muslim counterparts, and many imagine seeking employment in Singapore or further afield in places such as Australia or the rest of the West. As such, it is inevitable that their worldviews are different. Thus, while one part of society is transfixed on the violence perpetrated in places like Manchester or Paris, the other is affected by the daily atrocities in places like Syria, Palestine, Pakistan or Afghanistan.

These different worldviews would undoubtedly play a role in orientating communal behaviour, potentially pushing communities further apart. Closer to home, there are those who seek to stoke sensitivities over race and religious issues, such as the prolonged polemic over non-Islamic religious scripture in the Malay language, protests over religious symbols on buildings, and, more recently, over a little-known book written by a local politician about her faith. It is interesting that all of these issues came into the public arena when we are about to have the most competitive electoral contest in our political history.

Despite what appears to be manufactured polemics aimed at mobilising communities towards a particular option, most Malaysians have chosen restraint over reaction. We have some empirical examples from recent political history: in our analysis of the 2013 general election results, we noted that despite incessant media and political treatment of the use of some Arabic terms in non-Muslim scriptures in the five months leading up to polling day, the issue hardly budged the Malay Muslims. Instead, the Malay voter swings were more correlated with regional or local issues, such as the perceived performance of leaders, resolution of local issues or the quality of candidates fielded by parties. This and many other examples in past years show that the Malaysian public, the Malay Muslims in particular, are more mature and considerate than some of their purported leaders give them credit for. Through their restraint, the vast majority are not easily perturbed by manufactured slights and sensitivities.

Many see through these polemics as distractions from the real issues and challenges that confront ordinary citizens and the nation. For most of them, their principal concerns are centred on providing for themselves and their families, seeking opportunities to better themselves in terms of educational or vocational attainment, and simply making ends meet – the same worries that keep all Malaysians awake at night, not what colour or creed they belong to.

These past four years have added challenges to the average working Malaysian family: reduction of subsidies, introduction of a consumption tax, and weakening of the ringgit that has shrunk their buying power. Through these real and present challenges, the average Malaysian has shown grit and wisdom: they are not going to be swayed to take it out on one another, but instead, roll up their sleeves and take that second job, start a small business and scrimp on luxuries so they can meet their obligations.

It is a pity that the same conventional wisdom and spirit are missing from many of those who purport to be leaders and opinion shapers. It would do the country good if the views of the masses, who share the same aspirations and worries, are heard and attended to, instead of being manipulated to divide us further.

This article is the fourth of a four-part series on multiculturalism in Malaysia. It is based on findings from a recently-conducted research project funded by CIMB Foundation, which aimed to understand the challenges and promise of multicultural Malaysia. The research study and interviews, conducted by Merdeka Center, was designed and analysed by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. We surveyed 1,504 adult citizens aged 18 years and older in Peninsular Malaysia, with a view to extend the survey to Sabah and Sarawak in the next phase. A report on the results and recommendations is publicly available at www.cimbfoundation.com.

Ibrahim Suffian is a co-founder and programmes director of Merdeka Center.
 
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