CITIZENS must coexist peacefully and harmoniously for a state to continue to be prosperous, especially when it is characterised by ethnic and religious plurality.
The statement, which has been repeated frequently in public by democratic egalitarians and political leaders alike, has almost taken on a life of its own.
It has found expression in policy statements, in the agenda of political parties and charters of institutions.
Although nobody would argue about the sanctity of the statement, nobody could also claim that the passage towards peace, harmony and unity in the wider society is a straight one, free from intervening hands.
Myth or reality
Whether critics regard the trajectory of unity, harmony, and peace as myth, reality, fiction, or the truth, it is pleasant to the ear and a colourful sight to behold.
Unity in diversity has a significant impact on the development of the nation because an integrated nation will always advance along the path of development.
Compared to a state that is socially unstable and severely divided, an integrated state will have fewer internal problems. This ought to be the case in theory.
Unfortunately, the realities frequently outsmart the ideals and aspirations promoted by the vision.
The desired path of unity in diversity built by men of high vision purportedly united by a shared destiny would probably diverge from its intended course when the human factor and power of hegemony take centrestage.
Why is this the case despite the fact that a national policy or plan has been created and approved by all parties involved, regardless of ethnicity?
Party politics, which occasionally preys on emotive ethnic consciousness, can be identified as a major offender, but is only one of many complex factors that may be to blame.
The idea that diversity, equity, and inclusion are based on the values of valuing individual differences and the benefits that diversity brings to our homes, communities and places of employment, prompts us to take a critical look at our social and cultural diversity.
If we celebrate diversity in all of its manifestations, how does that also celebrate the unity we seek in this place?
How do we celebrate the unity we seek if we accept diversity in all of its forms?
And don’t we find that we are battling a paradox inherent in our creation?
However, diversity, equity and inclusion are either definers or determinants depending on how one chooses to view or analyse them in the complex context we are in.
Politicians use them to adorn their speeches and impress audiences, while the majority of sociology academics use them to provide phenomenological explanations but end up problematising the issue.
Even politicians would need to exercise caution, especially when speaking to a particular audience that may be different from another audience in terms of ethnicity and religion.
He may need to play to the gallery and make concessions to the realities of politics.
You could be excused for claiming that in this situation, power obfuscates the ideas of equity, inclusivity, and unity in diversity.
Seeking root-cause solutions
While compromise is frequently chosen as a means of resolving the complex multi-ethnic situation and is reflected in institutions, it does not always provide root-cause solutions.
The covert hegemonic assertion of the systems makes many previously ideal cross-ethnic positions less accommodating.
Many politicians are either reluctant to bring up certain important questions or find it challenging to address and respond to them.
In situations like this, political correctness is typically a factor that cannot be disregarded.
Are we prepared to take the initiative and speak out as a group to close the gaps and overcome the obstacles?
Do we genuinely support initiatives that ensure equitable distribution of the advantages that some ethnic groups already enjoy in the fields of education, business, and employment?
Are we prepared and willing to look beyond the specific requirements of our own ethnic community and to embrace a shared ideal that values and respects everyone equally?
The preservation of peace and stability has always been a predominant concern – an ideal that is also enunciated in the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations
The gap between the idea of peace and harmony and the reality of silent tension remains a major challenge.
Because solutions are never simple to find, many fair-weather leaders would observe the phenomenon from a distance.
Filling the gap with solutions might spark debate and trigger more sensitivity than necessary, if they do not favour the interest of certain groups.
In an era of greater global connectivity, the assertion of cultural identity can only be seen as being based on respect for one another and an appreciation of diversity.
In an increasingly multi-polar context of globalisation, the traditional, frequently patronising and propaganda-like approach to cultural cooperation has not made many strides.
The Malaysian culture or for that matter, the Sarawak culture, can fully develop and realise its own identity when participants in our local cultural melting pot are able to relate to other cultures and ways of life in a thorough and interactive way.
A people’s or a nation’s capacity for constructive engagement with other societies determines its strength.
Yes Minister, it is a process that involves ‘dialectics of cultural self-comprehension’.
It ought to provide leaders with a window into a deeper and broader understanding of intercultural engagement than just that of power dynamics.
Although maintaining a peaceful society with people from various cultures and backgrounds can also result in some internal hiccups, unity in diversity is crucial to achieving this.
It contributes to their continued unity despite their differences.
The most thorough integrated approach, however, has not yielded a single definition that addresses these ethnic nuances, regardless of how they manifest, express, or are made to elude awareness.
Unity is intended to create an overarching sense of fusion and grouping.
Theoretically, people are brought together by a shared spirit and a connection that expresses a sense of justice.
At the recent National Unity Week celebration at the Kuching Waterfront, hundreds of Sarawakians from various ethnic backgrounds came in their proud traditional attire and shared their cultural performances along with a variety of activities and artistic displays, bringing this spirit of togetherness and connectedness to life.
The week-long National Unity Week, which was attended by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah and Raja Permaisuri Agong Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah, Yang Di-Pertua Negeri Sarawak Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and Premier of Sarawak Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg, was a celebration of Sarawak’s multi-ethnic culture and made a powerful social statement about the state’s prevailing unity and harmony that states in Peninsular Malaysia should learn from.
Will that spirit of harmony, openness, and acceptance permeate the national institutions and pervade the government’s policies?
Will we have to wait until the next National Unity Week before we are reminded and awakened?
The spirit of unity and openness brings together different groups and makes them function as a single entity in the pursuit of a shared destiny.
Again, these are all noble statements, virtuous claims but deconceptualising and contextualising them in the reality of time and social nuances, is a different challenge.
Wisdom and courage
Do we have the wisdom and courage to plot the best course for establishing a revived civilisational order, or as Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim describes it as ‘a new Renaissance’?
It is a challenging, even contentious, question that may not be resolved for a long time.
The same old script continues to remain faithful to the mantra ‘unity in diversity’, refusing to uncover, much less deconstruct, the social layers that matter.
Rhetoric still rules and provides a cursory glance at the dictum.
The concept is best understood from a phenomenological perspective as the absence of distinctions made between members of various ethnic and social groups based on racial, linguistic, or religious factors.
Dissimilarity and diversity both exhibit differentiation.
It can be summed up as the distinctions made between various groups based on racial, religious, or linguistic factors.
However, it is not quite as straightforward and uncomplicated as one might hope.
* Toman Mamora is ‘Tokoh Media Sarawak 2022’, recipient of Shell Journalism Gold Award (1996) and AZAM Best Writer Gold Award (1998). He remains true to his decades-long passion for critical writing as he seeks to gain insight into some untold stories of societal value.