Letters - Room for dialogue

I AM convinced that room for talk and dialogue must be expanded to consolidate effective civil society communication in the public arena.

This is crucial if we mean to give ordinary people the opportunity to participate in discussion of issues which affect their lives and that of their community.

A mature democracy is obliged to give its citizens their democratically and constitutionally endowed freedoms which include the freedom of speech, and create the space for them to express themselves.

Some may choose to manifest their concerns by joining peaceful street protests and demonstrations; others may want to literally give voice to them by speaking up at public forums or by writing in relevant publications.

Instead of being heavy-handed and threatening, government departments entrusted with public engagement should do just that, that is engage the rakyat by listening to their pleas and requests. The people, on the other hand, should exercise their rights in ethically and legally acceptable ways.

Instead of being armchair analysts and critics huddled together in private spaces replete with conspiracy theories, Malaysians should be prepared to come out in the open, not only to give vent to their unhappiness but more importantly, to offer constructive suggestions and solutions to societal problems, real or perceived.

This was what Dialog Rakyat 2 inspired among 80 participants at their roundtable discussions last week. That the group was not large was secondary as they were there by invitation to discuss in depth issues that were threatening national cohesion and unity. Their brief was to offer "actionable practices" to address these issues. Dialog Rakyat 2 augmented the public forum of Dialog Rakyat 1 held last December.

It was indeed encouraging to see the earnestness and enthusiasm with which some of the nation's most senior thinkers as well as youth leaders handled the deliberations during the two sessions – Session One on key issues and Session Two on programmes and activities. At the end of each session, table representatives presented their findings and conclusions.

Yes, the general consensus is that there are issues, some more pronounced as a result of educational, religious and political developments in the country. Malaysians are being driven apart by what should unite them viz a wholesome and nurturing national education system. If indeed the national education philosophy has promised the most desirable outcomes for the nation, the way the national schools have developed over the last few decades leaves much to be desired. Polarisation not integration, as was envisaged, is now the order of the day.

Of course there was the usual cry for a single school system which I think will not and cannot happen without encountering a battle cry which might literally tear down the fabric of Malaysian society.

A more feasible proposal is to incorporate the teaching of Rukun Negara and the Federal Constitution into the school curriculum. Through the teaching-learning of the nation's philosophy and its governing and governance structure across the national and national type schools, children will be exposed to the very foundation of the Malaysian value and ethical systems.

At university level, students should be directly involved in unity through diversity platforms, programmes and activities. Apart from the teaching-learning of the Federal Constitution at a higher level, its spirit and that of Rukun Negara must be shown to be directly manifested in a Malaysian value system where respect, understanding, accommodation and harmony among the communities is key to national cohesion and unity.

I joined the discussion on race and religion and was rather impressed by stories of what are already being done by various youth and residents association groups on the ground. The most recent one reported in the media was a Chinese New Year gathering of more than 400 residents organised by a residents association in collaboration with a mosque. What was intriguing was that the mosque committee allowed Chinese songs and music to be played on its loudspeakers while people ate together in the mosque grounds.

It was generally agreed that food is a great rallying factor and novel parties over a food theme at picnics and sports gatherings will definitely bring people together. And so will cultural events such as costume parties with traditional dance and music.

At the official level, religious and community leaders are meeting to consolidate research findings with a view to formulating better interracial and interreligious policies, which in the long run can feed into law reform. What they should be urging for is the Malaysian Anti-Racism Act. A retreat should be initiated by the committee where bigger discussion groups can interact in a more congenial setting. I am convinced this will be barrier breaking.

With more and more groups joining forces to collaborate in formulating action plans and codes of ethical conduct for various events, there will grow a citizens movement focused on building national cohesion and unity. This will be a constructive development to counter the naysayers and to provide a platform for the ordinary rakyat to show their love for the country they call home.

Datuk Halimah Mohd Said
President
Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason