KUALA LUMPUR: Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita) director Distinguished Professor Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin once asked his students to list 10 things related to the Indian community and he was shocked when tosai came out tops.

“They couldn’t think of anything other than a food item. This cannot be taken lightly as it is a clear indication of how

shallow their understanding is,” he said during a discourse entitled ‘Malaysia After 62 Years of Merdeka’, organised by newspapers Sin Chew Daily and Sinar Harian recently.

“I can ask how much they know of the culture and sensitivities of other communities but I bet not many can answer that,” he added.

Shamsul Amri observed that most people’s perception of another community’s culture is based on what they see, which is at a superficial level.

“For example, if asked aboutthe difference between Deepavali which is celebrated by Hindus and Baisakhi celebrated by Sikhs, not many (non-Indians) can give the answer.

“These festivals are celebrated by Indians who profess different religions. So, there is more to Indians than just tosai.”

According to Shamsul Amri, lack of understanding can cause misunderstandings and prejudices.

“When we don’t know something well enough, it’s easy for us to believe the stories we hear in coffee shops or on social media, most of which are about trivial matters. But when a (trivial) matter is exaggerated, it can threaten interracial harmony.”

Recalling his childhood, he said he was raised in a kampung in Jempol, Negeri Sembilan, and studied at the nearby St Aidan primary school in Bahau which was located close to a rubber estate.There were many Indian and Chinese pupils in that school who became his close friends.

“I remember that the first movie I watched was a Tamil film whose title I can’t remember but the lead stars were MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan. I watched it with my Chinese and Indian friends, the atmosphere was so lively,”he added.

Pointing to the importance of educating from a young age, Shamsul Amri said it was with this in mind he helped to introduce a module and course on ethnic relations.

“But it was only at the university level. How about at the kindergarten, primary and secondary school level? There are topics that address this issue but not in an in-depth manner. We can’t expect only parents to play a role,” he added.

Quoting the Malay proverb tak kenal maka tak cinta (one can only learn to love a person after getting to know him/her), Shamsul Amri said only by grasping the culture and sensitivities of other races can one be driven to move towards unity.

The 2018 National Unity Index  found that Malaysia has yet to attain unity in the context of its racial and cultural diversity.

“Of course Malaysians are united to a certain extent. So, what has Malaysia achieved?

“What we have achieved now is integration towards attaining our long-coveted goal of unity. In other words, integration is a prerequisite for attaining unity,” he explained.

Stressing that unity can only be achieved once the people have reached a consensus on most issues, Shamsul Amri said currently, Malaysians have the tendency to agree on some things but disagree on others.

“Whatever it is, the wonderful thing about Malaysians is that even though we argue with each other, we don’t resort to violence.That is the strength of Malaysians who can quarrel when necessary and unite if the need arises,” he said.

Former MCA president Tan Sri Ong Tee Keat, who also spoke during the discourse, said some Malaysians were still trapped in this mentality, whereby they envy what other races have attained and fear their own rights would be eroded.  This, he added, would never happen because the Federal Constitution protects all
communities in Malaysia.

“We should be looking into issues that are more complicated and challenging and not argue about trivial issues,” he added.

MIC vice-president Datuk C Sivarraajh, meanwhile, said parents play an important role in inculcating the spirit of muhibah and unity in their

“We’ve weathered many challenges together, so let’s not gamble away the peace and harmony just because of a trivial issue or two,” he added. – Bernama