By Johan Jaaffar
How things have changed now. We talk about strength in diversity, yet we allow our differences to take center stage. We talk about living harmoniously among the races, yet we are not trying hard enough to accommodate each other. We pride ourselves as a shining example of tolerance and understanding, yet we allow bigotry and hate to ruin us.
We can't survive in a multi-racial society without making adjustments and compromises. We must make room for each other. We must bring back the spirit of the old day where race and religion were merely definitions and concepts.
People of my generation has seen better days in race relations. We fared better in understanding each other. We learned the lessons of disharmony and suspicion. Now we are lamenting the fact that our people are drifting apart, more so now than ever in the history of this nation.
We can't go on like this. We can chose to differ, but we have to find the common ground. Taking a strong stand on issues we believe will benefit our own kind will not benefit the nation as the whole.
I learned from my experience growing up in a village – Kampung Sungai Balang Besar.
My kampung – a cowboy town with two rows of shophouses - is 27 kilometers from the town of Muar in Johor. Back in the 60s there was a Malay sundry shop and a coffee shop. The rest were owned by Chinese - including two shops selling fish and vegetable, a Hailam coffee shop, a bicycle shop and three sundry shops.
My late father was a rubber tapper in the morning. In the afternoon he was the village barber. He was known as "Jakpo Tukang gunting" (Jakpo the barber). The word "Jakpo" was easier to pronounce by everyone in the kampung rather than the official name "Jaaffar"). I was known in the local Chinese community as "anak Jakpo sekolah orang putih" (son of Jakpo who went to an English school). I was the only boy who went to an English school when it started in 1960.
All my Malay friends went to a Malay school and the Chinese went to a Chinese school. But we lived harmoniously together, bathing in a muddy river near my house or playing hide and seek whenever we have the chance. We knew we were "different" but that did not deter us to play and work together. Today, many of my Chinese friends have moved out of the kampung perhaps following the children elsewhere.
At the English school in Semerah, the border town of the districts of Muar and Batu Pahat, more than half of my classmates were Chinese. They came from surrounding villages. They became my close friends, some of them I still keep in touch even today. At High School Muar, where I did my Form Six, again I developed a tie with many Chinese and Indian friends. At the University of Malaya from 1974 to 1977, for two years I was staying in the hostel, both years I have a Chinese as my roommate.
More than diamonds, friends remain friends forever.
That is the spirit I inculcate to all my children. I have a simple advise for them – we are living together with "Others". We are not alone.
Let us ask ourselves, what went wrong over the years? What is happening to our society now? Why are we using race and religion as our shield and to build barricades around us? Why are we less tolerant than before? Why is that our people are living in a racially-charged atmosphere now?
We were hoping the win by Pakatan Harapan (PH) in 2018 would be a fresh start in term of race relation. But sadly it gets worse. Which is sad. We are using the race and religious cards without remorse now. We are allowing ourselves to be defined by who we are and what faith we profess.
There is nothing wrong championing the causes of our race and religion. But we must be mindful of the sensitivities of others. We must start to relook at how we used to live together before, with the spirit of muhibah (understanding) and perpaduan (unity). We must look at the bigger picture, not just the interest of our races.
I longed for the days of the old, when things were less complicated.
We need to move forward. We can't survive as a nation divided. We need to stay clear from racial politics that will destroy us forever. Or the unreasonable demands by certain interest groups to show they are the champions of their races.
The Malays have a saying, "Bersatu teguh bercerai roboh" (we will be strong if we unite, we will disintegrate if we are not). In our case, we have no choice but to forge ahead as nation together. Just like an African proverb, if you want to go fast, walk alone, if you want to walk far, walk together.
We need to walk together, and further.
To all my Chinese friends, Gong Xi Fa Cai!
(Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and a former Chairman of a media company.)