Malaysians, being multi-ethnic and multi-religious, cannot escape socially interacting with one another as neighbours, playmates, schoolmates, varsity mates and workmates. Oftentimes, these kinds of interactions lead to the formation of relationships that can even be stronger than their primary ties.
Have you experienced a time when your request for assistance from your own brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles, or other members of your own ethnic group fell on deaf ears?
Have you experienced a time when your schoolmate, workmate or neighbours loaned you money to tide you over till you received you monthly salary? Has a person of another ethnic group given a lift to your children to school, or given you a lift in their cars as you were caught walking in the rain?
These, and many others, are the many meeting points in our lives where we have cross-cutting social ties with other individuals who do not share our blood ties, ethnicity, religion and tribal similarities.
We meet them in shopping malls, nasi kandar restaurants, McDs, KFCs, pasar malam, Ramadan bazaar, raya bazaar, beaches, recreational areas and so on.
These cross-cutting social ties are not motivated by ethnic and religious differences. The individuals or parties involved are from different ethnic and religious groups, but theirs are not ethnic relations. Such ties should be categorised as inter-ethnic social relations. These types of relations have already been formed between Malays/Melanaus, Ibans, Chinese, Kadazan-Dusun, Bajaus, Indians and others that are horizontally connected to one another, sharing greater similarities of opinions than differences. Researchers have found that Malaysians have shared norms of life based on their own values and universalistic concern of social justice, inclusivity, human rights and democratic principle.
In the olden days we lived in isolation from one another, spatially and by economic vocations in which we live in our own ethnic compartment, meeting only in the marketplace and with no value that binds us together. This is an apt description of our plural society following the end of British colonialism, the effects of which lingered till about the 1980’s.
Of course there are areas in Malaysia that are still isolated because of lack of roads linking them to urban centres. There are pockets of regional backwardness and inherited inter-generational poverty among our population that must be managed. Failure to address them will not only condemn them to become social pariah but the problems emerging from their communities will cause social instability and fuel potential conflicts between ethnic groups. We have seen ethnic skirmishes in Kampung Rawa in Penang, Kampung Medan in Selangor, Low Yat in Kuala Lumpur, Sungai Petani in Kedah and Lawas in Sarawak.
These incidents are socially categorised as ethnic skirmishes as the people involved were from different ethnic groups, but the cause is beyond ethnic factors as the backwardness and poverty of those involved were not the priority of the government.
Malaysians have experienced and observed that our diverse ethnic and religious society has a longer peace and harmonious timeline than our Asean neighbours.
We have been a part of the many moments of unity that bind us together, feeling a shared national pride over Pandelela Rinong’s swimming feat, feeling sorry over Lim Chong Wei’s nose cancer, feeling sorrow over firemen Adib’s death (after he helped put out the fire during the skirmishes in Seafield), and happy that Tun Dr Mahathir (like Tok Nan) is battling corruption and kleptocracy to ensure good governance in the nation.
Malaysians should not take for granted the little instances of micro-solidarity taking place in their lives and society in general as their social interactions with one another are the greatest indicators of our social cohesion, national unity and national integration.
We Malaysians must deliberately and diligently nurture and restrengthen this micro-solidarity that has made us lose our “ethnic smell” as we strive to form ties that bind us as a nation.
• Prof Dr Mansor Mohd Noor is a Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia