Pandemic brings about virtual communities, super-diversity

Photo for illustration purposes. Photo: Sigmund on Unsplash

The Covid-19 pandemic has redefined world behaviour and culture which have given rise to a virtual global community, going beyond the scare level of the Y2K (the year 2000) at the beginning of this millennium.

The global community is developing in our country and not just virtually as the population estimate for 2020 shows that out of the total 30 million people in Malaysia there are 3.1 million non-citizens.

Data compiled by the Department of Statistics Malaysia 2010 also shows that non-citizens make up 15% of the total population of the country. This indicates that many of our towns and cities have super-diverse populations.

However, the pandemic has ushered in new norms, new behaviours and new regulations governing social interactions that stress social distancing and some forms of virtual activities rather than face-to-face meetings between individuals.

Virtual breakfast and super-diversity

A breakfast may take place in the home, at a popular restaurant or by the seaside but the social interactions that take place at the same time can transcend residential areas, districts, state or nation as we engage one another on a digital platform.

We are watching different ethnic food choices on our computer monitors across spatial and time zones being taken from nasi lemak, soto, kolo mee, half-boiled eggs and roti bakar, etc. with our colleagues.  

Obviously, the food choices may have no significance on our ethnic and religious origins. A Mat Salleh may have soto, an Iban chooses half-boiled eggs and roti bakar, Malay goes for roti canai, a Chinese has a nasi lemak instead; Malaysians have varied choices based on their origins and the new immigrants of other nationalities are working and living within their midst.

This breakfast story replicates itself in the assembly lines in the electronic industry, on the oil palm and rubber estates and in the sales and security sections of shopping malls, etc.

Irrespective of ethnic, religious, state and nationality origins, Malaysians have embraced diversity among themselves as they grapple with the emerging social reality of super-diversity of the country in ensuring their family sustenance. Malaysians find themselves dependable on foreign maids, workers, experts, students, tourists, investors, etc, to spur the economy. In their daily lives, these foreigners are their workmates, neighbours, university mates,etc, and, among them, are their friends and those married to their own family members.

Prejudice and discrimination towards foreigners are being replaced with concerns beyond immigration control and visas. Voices from the grassroots are calling for these foreigners’ visas to be extended with ease, giving them Malaysian nationality as they have been married to  Malaysians for the past 20 years or a permanent residence status as they fulfil the condition of years of residence required  in Malaysia and have contributed to Malaysia’s success. 

Relearning from the new waves of immigrants

In the case of an Assam Indian married to a Malaysian Indian or a Ghanian married to a Malaysian Malay, their marriages are built on diverse cultural traditions that Malaysians may not be able to comprehend. Their inter-marriages may be ‘Indian couples’ or ‘Muslim couples’ but their languages, cultural values, religious interpretations, world views, food habits, etc, may be as different as our experiences with Chinese and Malay or Indian and  Iban relationships.

Their success stories in building harmonious and happy families that transcend linguistic, cultural and religious lines lie in their acceptance of differences and arriving at a consensus with a respect for differences. Nobody loses their identity but the toleration and muafakat arrived at have enriched their socio-cultural lives.

These new perantau (immigrants) of our nation are repeating the tradition of the Malay Civilisational World that being a maritime society and economy, we have to accept super-diversity as the socio-cultural landscape of this world within the socio-political system and cultural heritage of the Malay canopy. Toleration and muafakat have been the living and shared internal mechanism that define our world views as we relate to one another and build a prosperous nation.

Racism and the way forward

However of late, we are shocked by racist statements towards one of our national badminton player and by a politician being tasked to formulate the policy of the nation who played an ethno-religious card. A religious preacher to guide mankind with humanity has instead sparked religious hatred of the other religions. These were among the incidents that shocked the foundation of this harmonious and peaceful nation. The discussions on the 12th Malaysia Plan are not free from ethnicised political interpretations.

Leaders and scholars must equip themselves with the regional and global history, development gains and failures, constitutional and political literacy, sociology of ethnic relations and nation, etc, so that they can speak on the diverse micro-alignments in the community and bind them as bangsa Malaysia.

Shallow or ‘katak di bawah tempurung” (frog under a coconut shell) views of the world often start from a point without embracing the super-diversity of our regional and national experiences.

As Malaysia progresses as an industrial, cosmopolitan and middle class society, ethnic identity in its primordial sentiment will embed greater civic sphere of justice, inclusivity and participatory democracy in managing our super-diverse nation. Social inequality, prejudice and discrimination demand value-based and competent leadership in managing the economy and the political life of our country.

The Saturday virtual breakfast has informed us of the changing ethnic landscape that transcends ethno-religious divides in a global community and the transformation of Malaysia into a super-diverse nation.

Are we ready to manage not only diverse ethnic and religious needs but also ensure proper governance and development that benefit the needy and national-building and develop a national collective consciousness of being ‘bangsa’ Malaysia but also  extend these concerns to our non-Malaysian citizens as they are #OrangSini #OrangKita?

For Malaysians to be civilisational builders as our forefathers were, the policy of nationhood as a family of bangsa Malaysia is timely to move forward from sharing prosperity to sharing of the nation. The sense of belonging of #OrangSini, #OrangKita to #KitaKeluarga Malaysia is the glue that binds us together.

  • Dr Mansor Mohd Noor is with the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

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