The people need to improve their knowledge of the Constitution as the delicate provisions dealing with inter-ethnic relations can help to moderate extremism.
TILL the nineties Malaysia was regarded as an exemplar of how a deeply divided, plural society can survive and thrive politically, economically and socially.
However, some believe that lately we have regressed; that racial and religious polarisation has reached alarming levels; that unlike other parts of the world where walls of ethnic separation are being dismantled, in Peninsular Malaysia these walls are being fortified.
A large number of painful, intractable issues keep on tugging at the frayed social fabric.
The above pessimistic view is not shared by all.
Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, Distinguished Professor at the UKM Institute of Ethnic Studies has eloquently argued that in their daily interaction Malaysians enjoy “cross-cutting social ties” and exist “in a state of social cohesion”.
“Even in times of fierce competition”, Malaysians “talk conflict, walk cohesion”.
In his view, the empirical reality is that Malaysia is a nation “in a state of stable tension”.
Malaysians “prefer tongue wagging not parang (machete) wielding”.
Contestation between different ethnic groups does exist but the chosen path is one of consensus not conflict.
Indeed this is so and credit must be given where it is due.
Nevertheless, we cannot deny that new grouses, new problems and demands have come to the fore.
One cannot rest on past laurels. The search for a “new middle ground” is a constant challenge.
Nation-building is a journey, not a destination. To consolidate the achievements of the past, a number of legal, political, administrative, economic and educational measures need to be reinforced.
Constitutional literacy: We need to improve knowledge of the Constitution’s glittering generalities, especially its provisions on inter-ethnic relations.
If we study the drafting of the Constitution, we will see that the forefathers of our Constitution were animated by a spirit of accommodation, moderation, compassion and tolerance.
The Constitution, even in its “ethnic provisions”, sought to avoid extreme measures and provided for a balance between the interests of the “Bumiputera” and “non-Bumiputera” communities.
Regrettably, the level of constitutional literacy is very low and needs to be overcome at all levels – from schools, colleges and universities to the civil service and parliamentarians.
Employment: The public and private sectors are trapped in a tit-for-tat riposte of ethnic prejudices. In recruitments and promotions, ethnicity remains significant. We need to put all this behind us and expand our circle of life.
Subject to the constitutionally permitted quotas of Article 153 in four specified areas, racial differentiation must be prohibited in both the public and private sectors by a National Harmony, Civil Rights or Race Relations Act.
Build bridges, not walls: All of us have the national duty of building ethnic bridges and dismantling walls, of healing and reconciling, and of developing a vision of unity.
A beginning can be made by recognising that disagreements are natural. Truth is multiple. Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
Education: The primary and secondary educational systems must nurture tolerance, mutual respect and inter-cultural dialogue.
The curriculum, the staff and student profile must reflect these aims. If young people do not learn together, how will they live together?
In schools, colleges and universities, inter-faith studies should be encouraged. Most prejudices are born out of ignorance.
With greater knowledge and understanding we learn that it is not differences that cause disunity. It is intolerance of differences that leads to disunity and violence.
In public universities, the carefully crafted Ethnic Relations Module is a good beginning.
Conflict resolution: Conflicts are unavoidable in any vibrant society. What is necessary is to reconcile them with the least friction and to provide appropriate remedies when rights are infringed.
The National Consultative Council and National Unity Council should be upgraded to a statutory status (much like the Race Relations Boards of the UK). There should also be a statutory Inter-Faith Council whose job should be to foster dialogue over all that unites us and seek tolerance about all that divides us.
Race relations training should be part of the agenda.
Federal-state relations: In the light of the recent JAIS raid, it is clear that inter-faith and inter-racial institutions and procedures must exist not only at federal but also state levels. Perhaps the Conference of Rulers can play a significant role to launch this initiative.
Declaration on Harmony: Similar to the Rukun Negara let us put our heads together to draft a Declaration on Race and Religious Harmony. It will act as a polestar for executive and judicial action and will exert normative influence on citizens.
Hate speech: Hate speech polarises communities and often leads to violence. Existing provisions of the law need to be buttressed. The dominant purpose of this law should be to bring parties together through conciliation. Sanctions should be a matter of last resort.
Equal harassment: Equality under the law refers to equal protection under the law as well as equal harassment under the law. The statutory boards proposed above must be given statutory powers to prosecute crimes against race and religious harmony.
Citizens and citizens’ groups must be given locus standi to raise private prosecutions.
Leadership: Political leaders, media personalities and community chiefs must set a good example and accept the burden of calling a spade a spade.
They must condemn hate crimes and hate speech immediately, strongly, publicly and consistently. They must send out a message of tolerance and restraint.
In sum, it can be said that many well meaning people believe that as a nation we are farther apart today than we were 57 years ago.
Knowledge of the Constitution’s delicate provisions dealing with inter-ethnic relations can help to moderate extremism and provide some understanding of the give and take that lay at the basis of our supreme law.
We can also learn from others. In many societies including Singapore, Britain and the United States, the law is being used to socially engineer a more tolerant society.
There is no shame in emulating others and building our garland with flowers from many gardens.
Shad Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own. The STAR Home News Opinion Columnist Reflecting on Law March 20, 2014