One million uncomfortable conversations

FEBRUARY 18 — The unity ministry came up with its 2021-2030 blueprint this week. It’s 63 pages of how togetherness is good. There are pictures to distract from the boring text.

At least that was my experience reading it as every cliché about togetherness was patched together.

Suffice to say, it’s a predictable whack at the perennial Malaysia preoccupation, to improve race-relations.

The perpetual non-problem problem. “We are very happy together, we Malaysians of all colours and types. But, WE are worried, WE are not as together as WE should be, so, let’s do something — preferably through the unity ministry.”

Separately, everyone should admit, the unity ministry sounds like it’s from Orwell’s 1984.

There is one portion of the document which ventures into new ground. The sincerity remains suspect, but it’s there: Engage in new media and produce content to affect opinions.

Which is brilliant and long overdue.

But will the government drive this well?

While we’re not North Korea, Malaysia remains obsessed with propaganda to thaw race frost within its tropical shores.

To tell rather than to engage. To nauseate rather than entertain.

Primarily, it avoids any content which is critical of Malaysia’s past. Approved content holds up the government of the day and its decisions, or it’s not approved.

In short, assume Malaysia is perfect, and by extension its leaders.

Which raises the obvious question, if the above are all true and daily Malaysians hold hands without seeing colour and walk down our pretty streets with multicultural smiles on our faces, why is there persistent caution, fear and concern about unity in the country?

We are OK, we really are

Race-friendly films like Sepet, Ola Bola, Talentime and Adiwiraku draw a certain crowd, but they do not cross unspoken lines.

Movie after movie is made about innocence, family and love, but never about betrayal, privilege, preference and hate in our society.

Surely, the film-makers felt it even in fictional settings but you have to empathise with them.

The movies would not have made it to the cinemas if they told the ugly part of Malaysia’s race relations.

I can imagine the writers and directors wanting to tread carefully, to be positive about race in Malaysian life but without pushing too hard.

They deserve our thanks for doing it inside the perimetres they were allowed. Forced to follow firm guidelines, not only from Finas, the film board, but the mighty home ministry’s censorship board.

How does it happen elsewhere?

I was involved in a team-building exercise for GLC scholars heading to Australian universities almost 20 years ago. The movie Romper Stomper was picked. For these young achievers to watch it and then have a dialogue about it, to help them acclimatise.

The Oz film was about neo-Nazi junkies directing their angst in their economically depressed urban zone towards Vietnamese migrants. Violent attacks, cultural confusion, youthful energy and uncertain regrets. At the end, there is no answer, just questions for the audience.

A young Russell Crowe, unrecognisable to a global audience in this 1992 film, starred.

When the post-movie dialogue began, one of the first to volunteer was this short scrawny lad. He said the film hit too close to home for him. It reminded him of the time in his race-divided secondary school, he had to beat up his close primary school friend because he was not from his race.

They were close as children, but as adolescents wearing green pants they had to accept the race divides and act as expected of them.

To be accepted he needed to assault his old friend. And he did.

His honest admission was powerful, not only for him but for everyone in the session heading Down Under.

I wonder what has come of that cohort.

Did it shape their opinions, did they factor that session or the movie as they experienced actual cross-cultural lives inside Australia? And then juxtapose it with Malaysia when they returned home.

Instructive still, the movie was funded by the Australian Film Commission.

Australian taxpayers funding content parading senseless violence based on race hate and ignorance, by citizens against new arrivals.

Wouldn’t propaganda work better? A movie about a well-adjusted white Australian learning how to make spring-rolls from an elderly Vietnamese migrant chef. Then they become firm friends. Like the American karate film.

Ten years later the commission pays for the internationally acclaimed Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002). Three mixed-aboriginal kids are grabbed from their families to be raised by proper white people selected by the government, in an “attempt to civilise them.” They flee, young children walk home in the wilderness.

Imagine that, the Australian government paying to tell how previous Australian governments were cruel and vicious to aboriginal people.

A woman wearing a mask in the design of the Jalur Gemilang is pictured in Kuala Lumpur August 16, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
A woman wearing a mask in the design of the Jalur Gemilang is pictured in Kuala Lumpur August 16, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

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Countries grow

Malaysia’s multicultural challenges are myriad and not enviable.

But the current method to pretend unity in order to achieve unity does a great disservice.

The sign of our maturity is the ability to discuss our pitfalls and errors, not the least through content.

Countries are works in progress and their shortcomings in the past were always inevitable. Denying the past does not solve the present. It risks disabling the future.

The various content from around the world show mistakes are more universal than anyone likes to admit.

American Westerns used to caricature native Americans as two-dimensional villains blocking progress. Over time that attitude changed. Today’s audience sits through Western classics with some discomfort and use the term “did not age well.” John Wayne is still John Wayne, but surely not a symbol of multiculturalism.

The government’s decision to fund content is correct, but do they have the wisdom to force conversations through the efforts or will it revert to type?

That’s the challenge to the ministry’s document.

Does the unity ministry possess the courage — on our behalf — to talk about our collective pain? Not to allocate blame but to remind us that multiculturalism is a gift but due to our human weaknesses the past and in part the present, has its inadequacies.

Choose not to ignore the wrongs, look at it, generate one million uncomfortable conversations. Unity is a result of pain. To think of it any other way, is naïve. More than that, it’s misguided.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist. 

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