EVERY year I take my family for a year-end holiday. This time it was to London. The family enjoys the cold — a welcome relief from the perennial sweltering heat from an overbearing sun.
On the last day, we took a cab to Heathrow to catch our flight home. I dread these cab rides to the airport. We usually get nosy drivers.
They want to know everything about you — from the size of the family to where you hail from and where you work. These loquacious drivers disturb my time for reflection.
This cab driver was no different. He was an Afghan who had fled his country with his family to the United Kingdom. When he heard that we come from Malaysia, he immediately went on a discourse on how great Malaysia is and how atrocious things are in Afghanistan.
“In Malaysia, you are multi-racial. There is a church beside a mosque. In Afganistan, 92 per cent of the population is Muslim. Yet there is so much killing — sons killing their fathers and vice versa, and brother killing brother,” he lamented.
That gave me a new fodder for reflection, quite unlike the usual stock-take of my life during these taxi rides.
I then realised how blessed it is to be a Malaysian and how much we have taken racial harmony for granted.
Against the troubles in Afghanistan and other war-torn areas, ours is a peaceful society.
It has to be preserved at all cost lest it be broken through the needless and incessant cacophony of racial rhetoric.
Social media has aggravated this narrow obsession with race and religion. These technologies have ratcheted up the intensity of vitriol spewed by irresponsible elements in society.
But this dark fixation on race and religion must be destroyed, lest the fabric of harmony be damaged beyond repair.
Here are recommendations to ensure the continued goodwill among all communities in society.
FIRST, leaders, be they political, community, or religious, should lead by example. Their speech should be spiced with love. It should be edifying, uniting all communities rather than splitting them asunder.
What these leaders may say may well be the truth. But truth is always bitter than fiction.
So, unless it is a life-and-death issue, it is best to exercise restraint and not articulate it. As Mahatma Gandhi, the revered Indian pro-independence activist, once said, “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.”
The tone at the top is important. His Majesty the King has set that tone.
In all his royal addresses he has kept the main thing, the main thing. And that is national unity.
SECOND, the authorities must swiftly act without fear or favour against any individual, or group of individuals, who threaten to disrupt the peace.
Allowing these people the liberty to say whatever they want to say against others with impunity will only fuel further vituperation and even violence.
And once we relax societal norms a little, society itself might soon unravel. While we cherish democracy, we may need to regulate it to ensure its sustainability.
In 1739, David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, wrote that “men are not able radically to cure, either in themselves or others, that narrowness of soul.”
He believed that government institutions, such as parliament and law enforcement authorities, would temper our impetuous and selfish behaviours, and forge society’s long-term welfare.
Perhaps, we can take a leaf from our neighbour. Singapore comes down real hard on matters relating to race and religion.
One woman lost her job over a thoughtless slur about another race on social media. Its police spares no one of a criminal charge for publishing racial insinuations.
THIRD, we should strengthen the department of national unity and integration. Perhaps we should even alleviate it to become a full-fledged ministry.
It is sad that after 62 years of independence we need such an institution. But the reality of the day dictates it.
To give bite to this new ministry, a race relations act should be enacted. It should stipulate how racial unity is to be strengthened.
FOURTH, we the public have a role to play as well. For one, we can be disciplined not to post or forward disparaging remarks about others on social media. We need to exercise greater tolerance and show deep respect for everyone.
The mantra “Love thy neighbour as thyself” best sums up this discipline. It is so simple. Yet it has seemed so hard for some.
Sometimes, politicians are so down-right short-sighted that we need leaders who can perceive the long-term damage that racial bigotry can inflict upon the tapestry of national unity.
We are still muddling through after a historic political shift two years ago.
Our daunting challenge is to reinvent our society to ensure inter-generational justice.
We do not want to leave a tattered nation to our children by playing the dangerous race card. How to do this is the most urgent political challenge of our times.
The writer is a professor at the Putra Business School
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times