Malaysians have always been told that we are a ‘Truly Asia’ country where people from different cultures and background come together and live in harmony.
But the reality is not cookie cutter perfect as issues have arisen over the 59 years since Malaysia received its independence that make you wonder what went wrong in the sentiment that Malaysians are made up of people who are united.
In the most recent incident, a principal of a national school decided that schoolchildren of different religions should not be drinking from the same cups, so they separated the cups by labelling them ‘Murid Islam’ (Muslim student) and ‘Murid Bukan Islam’ (Non-Muslim student).
It was reported that the school principal decided on the practice to ensure the cleanliness for Muslim students, and this prompted an outcry from many different parties as it sends a negative message of inequality to the children.
The situation was so absurd that even religious leaders came out to denounce the practice, one of whom was Perak mufti Datuk Seri Harussani Zakaria who said that the segregation was not only unfounded in Islam but it also reeks of racism and hate, and urged the school to immediately stop the segregation policy as the practice is insulting.
Even Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) founder Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim was quoted in media reports urging the school to reverse the ruling.
She points out that imposing one's religious values on others is not the way forward, especially for children.
With less than a week to go before our nation welcomes its 60th Independence Day, it is timely to look at how we can move forward towards fostering unity given the unfortunate taint this cup segregation issue has cast on our nation's 1Malaysia aspirations.
“Make Things Easy And Do Not Make Them Difficult”
Firstly, we sought to put to rest once and for all that separating cups or for that matter any eating utensils by religion is a false belief.
The view of the Perak mufti was echoed by religious scholar Dr Fathul Bari as he shared his views with Malaysian Digest.
He stressed that things like this would disrupt unity and it should serve as a reminder to others to seek clarification with religious authorities first before coming up with decisions such as this.
“I personally think that people should refer to local religious leaders and authorities first before deciding on actions that could cause a rift between races when there was no issue to begin with,” he said.
He urged Muslims to not make things too rigid and difficult when Islam has not done so as he said that if they continued on with the logic in a wider scope, Muslims would be in a state of constant doubt of the things that they touch, which would be extremely detrimental to them.
“Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) (PBUH) even said in a hadith (sayings of the Prophet) narrated by Anas, “Make things easy and do not make them difficult, cheer the people up by conveying glad tidings to them and do not repulse (them)”. [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]
“A companion had also asked the Prophet (PBUH) whether they could eat using utensils that belong to the People of the Book as they live in their lands and the Prophet (PBUH) replied, “As for what you have mentioned about the People of the Book, if you can get utensils other than theirs, do not eat out of theirs, but if you cannot get other than theirs, wash their utensils and eat out of it.” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]
Dr Fathul Bari said that the hadith clearly shows that there is no issue in Muslims sharing utensils with non-Muslims since the only requirement is to ensure that the utensils have been washed before it is used.
Because of this, he strongly advised Muslims to seek guidance and clarification with religious authorities before coming to their own conclusion on a decision that could affect society.
“Don’t look at something from your perspective only. Refer to religious authorities to get their views and exchange your own, and get a fatwa so that you would not decide on an action that can create tension between the races if you are not careful.
“Islam teaches us to bring people closer and it is our responsibility is to do so but actions like this would push people away and create a barrier between us,” he cautioned.
Islam Places Community Tolerance And Unity Higher Than Personal Needs, Says Parenting Coach
Admittedly, while the cup segregation in one Selangor school appears to be a 'storm in a teacup', it can serve as a trigger towards more religious and racial tensions.
Netizens were quick to point out past incidences of non-Muslim students in a national school being asked to eat in the toilet during Ramadhan while another school was apparently caught attempting to separate Muslim and non-Muslim students in school over a lack of teachers for Islamic Studies and Moral Studies subjects.
How should parents counsel their children when faced with a potentially explosive situation like that which could influence a child to think negatively of other religions and races?
For parental coach Zaid Mohamad, he sees the practice as an unnecessary and extreme behaviour by the decision maker since Islam is a religion that promotes peace and tolerance especially for a greater good.
“Islam also teaches us to ease our daily life and not make it too stringent to the point of putting people off. So, the action of separating the cups and other similar ones could send the opposite messages to children, that Islam is intolerable and strict in all aspects.
“It may also make them think it's difficult and cumbersome to practice. All these are not the correct signals that we want to send to our kids,” he told Malaysian Digest.
Because of this, he said that it is the responsibility of the adults to portray the beautiful and more important side of Islam such as kindness, discipline, hardworking, honesty and integrity.
Apart from showing to the students what Islam is really about, parents also play a big role in encouraging unity among them and he says that they can do so by making their voices heard through the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) but it needs to be done in a non-confrontational manner.
“Remember, our objective is to sell the ideas that Islam places community tolerance and unity higher than personal needs.
“If parents are confrontational, the school will be defensive,” he advised.
He added that parents need to be smart in approaching the school and working together to come up with programs that bring students together, rather than separate them further and advised parents to be patient when dealing with rigid individuals, be it adults or children, who may have different opinions.
“Try to see it from their perspectives and find a similarity rather than focusing on the differences,” he said.
By being honest and truthful without any hidden agenda, Zaid said that more people will support the cause.
“Most importantly, both parents and teachers must be good role models themselves.
“They must be aware that kids are watching their every actions and words,” he reminded.
Once They Grow Up Thinking To Themselves That They Belong To One Ethnic Group Then They Will Never Change – Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim
Despite the occasional blunders cropping up that unintentionally threaten national unity, continuous efforts have been made to achieve a better future for Malaysia, one of which is through the introduction of 1Malaysia, which is a concept that encapsulates the very idea of unity in diversity, and emphasises on the importance of national unity regardless of race, background, or religious belief.
A random sampling of Malaysian youth over the unfortunate cup segregation issue reinforces the prevailing sentiment that Malaysia still has a long way to go before it can confidently say that Malaysians are all united under the Jalur Gemilang.
“Race and religion divide us and we're all too busy shoving our personal beliefs down each other's throat. Supremacism is very much alive within our nation.”
"Bickering occurs within each respective community, especially the Malays, and that's already a clear indication that we are not united.”
“We're united when the situation calls for it, such as sports and tragedy. Unfortunately when that all ends, majority will retreat back into their shells and identify themselves as race/religion first than as Malaysian.”
Although the views shared above seem a bit harsh, that is how some younger generation of Malaysians view the current state of Malaysia.
But there are also those who are optimistic that change is slowly but surely happening as one young Malaysian thinks that the younger generation are more united than the older generation because “as we age, and from socialising in schools, we grew tired of racism that the older generation has been barking for many years.
“I guess subtly, while they were showing their racial agenda down our throats, we began thinking, ‘but my friends are not like what you say’" the young Malaysian said.
For Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim, who has seen Malaysia in different phases in history, it saddens him that Malaysians are still not united and agrees that Malaysia has a long way to go before it can say that it is truly united.
“It will take a long time for change to happen. Unless the people themselves change, nobody can force themselves to change so they must understand what it means to be a Malaysian.
“At the moment, they don’t understand what it means to be a Malaysian and people are not ready to think of themselves as 1Malaysia despite the continuous assertions by various parties,” he said.
Despite his encouragement to other people to mix around, as he himself mixes around and never stood up for one particular ethnic group, the 80-year-old historian can only continue to hope that Malaysians will one day be united.
He shares the prevailing view among many Malaysians today that our national schools are not helping to foster closer ties among the races and religions.
If you look at the Hulu Langat school involved in the cup segregation controversy, the racial breakdown is 219 Malay and 145 non-Malay pupils so we are not talking of a tiny percentage of non-Muslims present.
“So the schools and the parents play a big part but unfortunately they are not playing their part.
“They have to change when they are young. Once they grow up thinking to themselves that they belong to one ethnic group then they will never change,” he concluded.
“So the schools and the parents play a big part but unfortunately they are not playing their part,” he lamented.
Malaysians are currently brought together with the Kuala Lumpur 2017 SEA Games which provides a common ground for all Malaysians to come together to support our athletes, it is never too late to evaluate what each of us can do to take a step closer to unity.
With the 60th Merdeka just around the corner, perhaps we can all reflect on the wise words of our nation's Father of National Unity.
"It is a challenge and a blessing because no one race can dominate the others. I would hate to see the day when any one race dominates the others.'' - Tun Hussein Onn (1922-1990), third Prime Minister (1976-1981)