Five years ago I spoke about the importance for all of us to accept each other as fellow citizens of the country we love, regardless of our race or religion. I feel the same now: we are all Malaysians and each one of us has the right to call Malaysia home. – Permaisuri Johor, Raja Zarith Sofiah
EIGHT years ago readers of newspapers and social media audience may not have noticed the news report of a speech by Permaisuri Johor, Raja Zarith Sofiah Sultan Idris Shah, the consort of the Sultan of Johor, buried in the inside pages.
The occasion of the speech was a conference on Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason held on Nov 16 in Kuala Lumpur.
The prime mover of the conference was PCORE, a citizen’s group which described itself as an Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason. This small NGO has been active until recently in sharing its peace paradigm as a way forward to achieve unity and integration.
Following that meeting, I had written that credit must go to the PCORE leadership for bringing together a diverse mix of young and older people from different backgrounds to voice their frank concerns on current issues and developments. I had also noted that: “For me the real star of the conference was Raja Zarith Sofiah”.
Our common identity and humanity
In her keynote address, she described the use of “pendatang” to describe non-bumiputras as “hurtful and ignorant”, and explained that more discussions were needed to address and resolve the gulf between ethnic and religious communities.
“Rather than simplify and shy away from sensitive issues, we should fight destructive rhetoric with constructive dialogue. It is shameful when apparently educated and mature individuals use such terms or suggest fellow Malaysians go back to where they came from.”
Describing her own ancestral background as a mix between Sumatran and Peranakan Chinese, she said it was important to recognise the diversity of Malaysian society, brought about by centuries of interracial and interfaith marriages and communication.
This open and proud acknowledgment of her mixed ancestral background was unprecedented. It puts to shame the way many leaders, who have a similar mixed ancestry, either try to hide or suppress the inconvenient truth, or engage in flaunting or agitating a mono-ethnic or religious stance as if this has been part of their, and the country’s DNA, from time immemorial and even recent times.
Raja Zarith Sofiah’s speech was much more than what was reported in the newspapers. It also covered her personal experience and thinking on religions and the importance for Muslims to learn about other cultures and religions and their heritage.
She spoke from the heart, simply and without the need for any convoluted intellectual argument or high sounding clichés to drive home the importance of cherishing and protecting the Malaysia that belongs to all of us – highborn or commoner; brown, yellow or black; and worshipping one, many or no god.
Readers may not be aware of her wide ranging accomplishments and interests.
She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Master’s Degree from Oxford University (her BA is in Chinese Studies).
Besides Malay and English, she is able to communicate in Mandarin, Italian and French. She is a patron of the arts, an artist and author who has written children’s books including Puteri Gunung Ledang, and published a compilation of her newspaper columns in a volume titled, On Common Ground.
Common sleepless nights
We need the type of monarchy she personifies more than ever to hold the country together and to remind of our common humanity. With her and other royalty who care for the country in the way she does, there is greater hope that the nation can overcome the racial and religious demons that torment many Malaysians and some more recent arrived residents.
During the lunch chit-chat on topics ranging from how the handphone and Skype have transformed our lives to the inconvenience of sleep apnea, our group learned that she has had sleepless nights thinking about the predicament of our country and our people, and wondering how best she can be of service.
The insomnia that troubles her also afflicts loyal and patriotic Malaysians concerned about the way ahead for the country.
In her most recent posting in The Royal Johor facebook titled “Love knows no colour” just after her 60th birthday Raja Zarith Sofiah shares her love for her Chinese maternal grandmother.
She also reminds: Children are actually – if left to their own pure and innocent thoughts, and their own understanding of the world – oblivious about racial differences. It is us – as parents – who consciously, or unconsciously, make them aware about these differences.
This is advice which may have come too late for the millions of young and adult Malaysians who have been exposed to the daily concoction of racial and religious differences made more destructive by the local peddlers of racial and religious dominance and supremacy, abetted by foreign counterparts.
But it is not too late for the leaders of our nation – especially political and religious – to pull us back with principled and strong action – from the brink of a calamity which many Malaysians see as looming ahead should the fires of racial and religious hatred not be doused.
The latest warning
The escalating inciting of racial and religious sensitivities has led inspector general of police, Datuk Seri Abdul Hamid Bador, to issue this latest warning on the danger of leaving it too little too late in taking action.
“I call on political leaders to have a sense of responsibility this month (National Month) because we want to celebrate National Day. Many irresponsible statements are made, they (political leaders) should be held accountable after we had successfully upheld the democratic process (change in government after the 14th general election).
“Now it’s like a total mess. All races and the people are afraid with what is going on in our country. Be responsible, do not issue statements without thinking, stop all this.”
Needless to say, the public expects even-handed and fair action by the authorities when the mess is finally addressed.
Tenth in the series on the state of Malay dominance. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lim Teck Ghee’s reply to a letter (Rural votes count) published on Aug 22.
THE writer needs to read my article more carefully as he appears to have jumped to various conclusions of his own.
But firstly, yes, there are members of the Malay middle class who have done well entirely on their own.
A minority possibly? Still, kudos to him and his children on their success. Hopefully this self-reliant trend is the norm soon for the Malay middle and upper classes.
Also, nowhere did I suggest that the Malay middle class has to choose between a multiracially oriented government and a religious-centric order.
As to history demonstrating that “Islam successfully governed societies all over the world”, he needs to brush up on his world history, and especially contemporary history.