JANUARY 24 — I wonder at what age most Malaysians are taught about tolerance. About race and religion.
For me, it was at school and I was a slow learner at that — not fully grasping the concept of race and religion at home.
For instance, when my non-Malay friends left class during agama lessons, I wondered about what would happen to them.
Movies like The Omen came to mind. Imagine my disappointment when they didn’t emit smoke when walking near the Uztaz. Or to see them wearing crosses or amulets. They were definitely not like the kid I saw in The Omen.
And I remember the time when I had to write about myself in the profile book.
I am all right writing about my hobbies. About my favourite food, ambition, etc. Genuinely happy, can’t wait to start writing, until I came to the one after “Name.”
A four letter word that was foreign, unfamiliar and alien, that was absolutely, utterly, and thoroughly perplexing to me then.
It read simply “Race.”
As if it wasn’t difficult enough to spell and write at the age of seven without having to decipher what things mean.
“Race. Maybe it meant to say contest? Competition? Could it mean sports, maybe?”
So I did what a confused kid would do. I peeked. I looked left, right. But the experience was anything but enlightening. Instead of seeing football and the likes as answers, the boy on my left wrote “Malay” and the girl on my right wrote “Indian.”
I think that was when I had my first frown and headache.
And since I only knew “Indian” as an adjective to describe food, I said to the girl, “Sumi, I think you need to write what sports you like. You know, like in a race?”
She had big eyes. And I got the longest, scariest, most unnerving “Are you stupid?” stare.
People laugh when I share that story with them but the truth is school was the place where I learned about race. Religion. How I am different from Sumitra and Noel.
But given the dynamics we have in the country today, where headmasters and principals pledge loyalty to political parties, and the reports of students being separated in schools that are already almost homogenous on the basis of religion and race, I am assured that my experience 30 years ago has racially and religiously transmogrified and further entrenched into a system that is even more efficient at painting differences, distinctions and dissimilarities among Malaysians.
If this isn’t systemic segregation, I don’t know what is.
Context is for kings
Needless to say, I wasn’t the teacher’s favourite in class. I can’t remember how many times my parents were called to school.
They would try sitting me down and explain to me the idiosyncrasies of this people called Malaysians.
And it didn’t go easy. The more they tried to explain, the more questions I had for them, “Wait, Ma, how come you get to choose your religion but I can’t?”, or “What do you mean my uztazah doesn’t know what chee cheong fun is?”, to, “Wait, if I’m half Malay and half Chinese, why can’t I choose which I want as a race?”
I pitied my parents for having such a difficult kid. And I’m sure I was pitied by many of my teachers, who must have prayed hard for my soul.
But as I grew up, and better understood politics, religion and race, I began to pity those who live in Malaysia but have yet to live, experience and sample all that she has to offer.
And those who are incessantly worried about losing the country to their fellow countrymen.
It would have been really hilarious, if not for the fact the country is flooded with the influx of princes, princesses and international “students” from Africa, security guards from Nepal, the religious bigots from India, Zimbabwe, or the hundreds of thousands from China, Bangladesh and Indonesia in our estates and construction sites.
But then again, not many can see the big picture.
Context, after all, is meant for kings.
No monopoly on patriotism
Our schools should be a sanctum that promotes respect, tolerance, and celebration of differences, not one that antagonises, suspects and oppresses.
One that is inclusive, not divisive. Progressive, not regressive. And if we can get our education system right, Malaysians will not be so suspicious of one another.
We will also not associate race with patriotism — and understand that we need not be soldiers to serve the country.
Doctors treat infections. Vaccinate babies. Manage diabetes and hypertension to prevent stroke and heart problems.
Open up clogged vessels in the heart, cut away inflamed appendix, relieve obstructed intestines and restore vision. Hearing.
We fix fractures, perforated stomachs, those who are suffocating from asthma, bronchitis. Help you manage pain when it becomes intolerable. Unbearable.
Doctors educate the society so they eat better. Live a life that is healthier, fitter and more fulfilling. I have colleagues who received bad news about family members passing while operating, and resuscitating, but kept going.
Then we have other professions. Engineers, vets, technicians who work hard to make this country better.
Teachers, the professionals responsible in moulding future generations and cultivate a society that is culturally, morally, and ethically enlightened and refined. A generation of Malaysians who will contribute beyond the nation, to better our civilisation and benefit mankind.
Yes, it’s true. Many of us may not have the privilege to serve in the army fighting communists and insurgencies.
But don’t mistake that as not fighting for Malaysians.
Because we bleed red, white, blue and yellow for the country.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.