ISSUES of race and religion have been hogging the headlines.
In fact, most issues these days seem to be imprinted on a disturbing tapestry of racial or religious bigotry.
Time and time again, the Chinese community have been told to go back to where their ancestors came from.
Likewise, the freedom of worship and religion, enshrined in the Constitution, has been constantly challenged – and infringed.
As part of Malaysia, we find ourselves often wondering what is the real intention behind the propensity of some leaders to stoke racial and religious tensions – or why certain insensitive decisions have been made in total disregard of a particular community.
It’s easy to ignore statements intended to discriminate, demean or belittle. It’s also not that hard to forget instances where rights safeguarded under the Constitution have been disregarded – or even violated.
It is, however, difficult to stem the mounting unease over insecurity and uncertainty, sparked by radicalised rhetoric on race and religion we so often hear about.
The Chinese community in the country is dogged by a sense of vulnerability which they feel is exposing them to the sort of unfriendliness – even hostility – not known to them in the past.
From Sarawak, looking across the waters, one hopes the sea could be wider so that the racist and extremist culture alien to the state will be kept at bay.
After all, we here neither share much of their negative sentiment nor their insensitivity towards others they consider different from them.
That being said, Sarawakians must never forget they can ill-afford the unbridled optimism of taking for granted that things will continue to remain as they are without conscious efforts made to ensure that they do.
It’s true we have been able to avoid the culture of hate and intimidation because of existing confidence and trust among the various communities.
Our daily experiences with our colleagues and neighbours from other races and religions have demonstrated that we can live side by side if we show mutual respect for each other’s cultures, traditions and beliefs – and also understanding and tolerance towards each other’s differences.
Everyday, we toil for the same end – a better future. While it’s true that the peace and harmony prevailing in Sarawak is grounded in the readiness for cordial co-existence by the diverse ethnic groups that make up the population of the state, the sensitivity and wisdom of our political leaders who do not
hold with the notion of one race being superior to another race, have also been a contributing factor.
In particular, Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem, though a Malay, has a profound understanding of the concerns and sentiments of the Chinese community
He had made clear the state government’s stance on many aspects of inter-communal relations at a meeting with the Chinese community on June 26 at Borneo Convention Centre Kuching.
For Chinese private education, the Chief Minister vowed to pursue the matter with the Prime Minister.
In response to questions from Chinese leaders – Richard Wee and Liew Thian Leong – on government assistance for Chinese education in the state, Adenan said: “If you are not happy with the land we gave you (in aid of Chinese education) because it is very far away near the Indonesian border, you can give it back and in return, go look for state land in urban and sub-urban areas which we can deal with in due time.”
For a long time, non-Chinese political leaders have assumed the main concern of the Chinese community is education.
No doubt, education is one of the main concerns but the root cause of Chinese voters drifting away stems from the feeling of being discriminated against, resulting in a heightened sense of insecurity, anxiety and abandonment in the community.
However, Adenan, at his own behest, predicated on his avowed promise to be a Chief Minister for all Sarawakians, has assured the Chinese community that you are not pendatang – coupled with an unequivocal acknowledgement of the contributions by the community to the Malaysian economy.
Adenan has also given a firm assurance on freedom of worship, declaring: “You are free to exercise your religious rights and I have no right to tell you how you practise your religion.”
On the long perceived partiality in the recruitment of civil servants, he did not dither but admitted with commendable candour that “there is a bias to the advantage of the bumiputera.”
“Yes, that’s true,” he said, but in the next breath, offered hopes of redress by assuring: “That has to be corrected. Not only that, in the police and the army as well. So we have to do something about it.”
Adenan has given more than what the Chinese community is asking by recognising the fact that issues raised – tacitly or explicitly – by the community affecting them are not without basis and truth.
The Chinese professionals taking part in the June 26 meeting came away with a sense of relief because they were given concrete answers to their questions but mostly because Adenan has addressed their innermost concern with a firm assurance for a future of equal opportunity.
While the insensitivity of asking“what more do the Chinese want” remains vivid, Adenan’s sensitivity has managed to lift the trepidation and angst, triggered by the posing of that rather intimidating question.
June 26 has to be a special day for the Chinese community in Sarawak. They used to know Adenan had a weak heart but now they know he has a big heart – one big enough accommodate the whole community.
In fact, the Chief Minister’s big-heartedness is shared by Sarawakians whose magnanimity is distinguished by their willingness to accommodate fellow Sarawakians of different ethnicities.
The case of Herman Sihas, 28, sacrificing his life trying to save 19-year-old student Kho Ying Qi shows beyond an iota of doubt that Sarawak has long risen above race and religion.
Let us continue to embrace our uniqueness and appreciate others who are different from us.
Let us pass on our experience of celebrating our lives together as people from different ethnic backgrounds.
And let us strenuously protect our peace by doing our utmost to reinforce Adenan’s observation that “May 13 is a distant thunder on the other side of the hill.”
Let us live in peace as Sarawakians have since time immemorial.