You sit in the corner of the café, inhaling the strong aroma of kopi-O. You have decided to forego human companionship, focusing on the Facebook newsfeed on your smartphone.
As you absent-mindedly nibble on the kaya toast, your eyes are drawn to news of a terrorist attack in a café in Jakarta, one that is not dissimilar to the one you’re sitting in.
You look up with widened eyes, as a sense of panic sets in. Things that barely registered moments ago take on a new meaning — that couple whispering over there, that man who is hesitating a little too long at the cashier, that foreigner with a large backpack.
But, this is Malaysia; surely nothing like the events in Jakarta, Istanbul and Paris would hit home? It’s not like we have extremists living in our midst. Right?
You sit back and take a sip, dredging up bits of the History lessons you never quite enjoyed in school. No, this has happened before. Malaya dealt with communist terrorists, we lived through a period of fear during which violence and death were deemed acceptable by those who meted it out. Collateral damage is not a new concept.
Malaysia went through a period of time in which she was under siege, but she survived to become stronger. She appears to be at risk of a different danger at present, but the underlying threat remains the same — that of individuals who are fixated on a particular ideology, individuals who are unable or unwilling to think outside the straightjackets of their beliefs.
These are the individuals who believe that the end justifies the means, the same men and women who are quick to pronounce judgment upon those who view the world through different lenses.
You realise that extremism does not appear overnight. There may be elements of geopolitics at play,
manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres that you may have read and many more that you will never hear about.
However, there are local instances and incidences that you have passively watched and chosen to ignore; events that may have contributed to the increasingly fragile framework on which Malaysia is built on.
You noted that the more extremist views insert themselves into the nation’s narrative. You viewed the newspaper articles on racial supremacy and the not-so-subtle condemnation of “the others”. You shook your head as you walked past schools and noticed students congregating in race-based groups.
You maintained your silence as the fundamentals of your religion were skewed beyond recognition for the interests of the few at the expense of the many.
You think of the words of Ruqia Hassan, the 30-year-old woman who was killed for her defiance in Syria:
“The only thing the secular man remembers from the Quran is that God is the most merciful, and everything comes from that,” she wrote.
“The only thing the extreme Islamists memorise is one verse — to be tough with infidels and merciful to believers; but to the extreme Islamists, everyone is an infidel, whether Muslim or not.”
You finish your toast and absent-mindedly push the crumbs around, holding on to self-pity for a little longer before shaking it off as you do the crumbs from your T-shirt. You make a pact with yourself — you will not be part of the silent majority anymore. The airwaves and papers have been filled with soundbites from the inane and the insane for too long. Enough is enough.
The time has come for a system that fosters critical thinking and unity, not rote learning and discord. The moment has arrived for disenfranchised youths to be empowered, rather than falling victims to the sweet promises of those who would groom the victims of an ever-widening income gap towards extremism.
You realise the importance of your History lessons, of the wise words of our founding prime minister, who asked us to play to our multicultural strengths. You begin to appreciate that the lessons of yesterday need to be applied today in order to achieve a better tomorrow.
You vow to make a stand, to not remain silent. You swear to not be cowed by the ideologues, to counter each encroachment of your civil liberties. You do this because you realise that the battlefields in today’s wars are all around you, and that you play as important a role as any soldier on the field. No, in fact you are a soldier yourself. So you promise to defend your country, your way of life. You promise not to stay silent when you next come across a careless comment or casual racism.
You will push for a different form of politics, one that does not cater to fear. You recall Barack Obama’s words in his final State of the Union address, knowing that it holds as true for Malaysia as it does for the United States: “We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong”.
You will begin to hold politicians accountable for their words, and will encourage your friends and loved ones to join the chorus. Because deep down, you know that hope is not lost. Malaysia deserves better. You deserve better.
The writer is a consultant respiratory
physician and a Founding Associate of the Institute for Democracy and Economic