February 14th, 2013

It’s possible to be a builder of bridges

For so long we have managed to live together quite happily, regardless of race or religious differences.

THEY say fact is often stranger than fiction. Well, real life can often be better than slogans.

Long before we had this slogan about being all one, Malaysians already were.

We went about our lives familiar with diversity, used to being citizens of many different hues.

I suppose it’s true when we say that we are not in fact a racist people, just that when something happens – an economic crisis, political insecurity – then we express ourselves through racist behaviour.

In Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he shows how inter-racial or inter-tribal conflict often arises out of some economic issue, over land, food or some other ingredient essential to survival.

But the point is, when everything is going fine, people are not really racist and would probably remain so, even in troubled times if opportunists did not stir things up.

After all it is as much a choice to explain things through economics as it is through a racist lens.

I for one generally believe that our people are essentially good, especially if left alone.

For so long we have managed to live together quite happily, regardless of race or religious differences.

And we have numerous real-life examples to prove it.

A friend was telling me about a family he met in Sabah that comprises a brother who is a Christian priest and a sister who is an ustazah.

Both had made conscious choices to take these paths in life, and they remain loving siblings.

In Sabah and Sarawak, it is not a situation that anybody bats an eyelid at.

In the peninsula, in urban areas I think there are many more of these mixed families than we really know.

While it may be unusual to find such a situation among siblings, it is not unusual inter-generationally.

That is, the parents may be of one religion and the children another.

Nor would it be unusual among cousins and in-laws.

I know one family where each daughter married a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew, respectively.

Thus, their children would be all cousins of different religions. Last I heard it wasn’t an issue.

When I worked in HIV, too, neither race nor religion was an issue in our everyday work.

Since we were dealing with a virus that doesn’t care what anyone believes in, neither could we discriminate against anyone if we wanted to be effective.

We are all human with a common enemy.

It did not make any sense to fight it individually in our own little corners.

I know of one story that truly illustrates how Malaysians can be caring without looking at people’s race or religion.

It also shows how the lack of political interference can allow people to be easily humane and compassionate.

Several years ago, our army and police peacekeepers in Timor Leste befriended some orphans and took their orphanage under their wing.

In the course of this, our medical corps realised that some of these orphans were in dire need of medical treatment that could not be found in that very poor country.

So they arranged for them to be flown to Malaysia and one by one, each got the treatment they needed and most of them recovered very well.

Today, 12 of the original 17 are still here studying because the Malaysians who cared for them realised that for them to have any chance at all in life, they had to be educated here.

And here’s the best thing of all: these orphans are being looked after by a whole array of Malaysians who have simply ignored any racial or religious differences in order to do the best they can for these kids.

Timorese are very devout Catholics but the army and police personnel who have been looking out for them are mostly Muslims.

They organised their medical treatment and since they have been living here, often take them out for treats, invite them for Hari Raya open houses and lavish much affection on them.

Additionally, a group of ladies from a Buddhist society helps to fund their groceries while others from various religious and social backgrounds assist in fundraising for their schooling and other daily needs.

A local doctor – Muslim – lets them stay in a house he owns rent-free and doesn’t fuss when they hang up religious pictures or builds a nativity scene at Christmas.

Every time I visit, my heart swells with pride at how generous and hospitable Malaysians have been towards these kids.

Not only are these orphans getting a school education, they are also learning that people of different races and religions can live in peace together and not have to descend into civil war like their home country did.

It is possible to be bridge-builders. As long as we don’t listen to politicians.

If anyone would like to help the Timorese kids in Malaysia, please contact Touch of Hope Charitable Society (Secretary: Ms Chua Lay Choo at melakanyonya@yahoo.co.uk).

MUSINGS By MARINA MAHATHIR  The STAR Home News Columnists Thursday February 14, 2013