Are Malaysians truly tolerant? Published on Malaysiakini
Rathi Ramanathan Apr 17, 06 11:39am
During a casual conversation with a friend last week, the subject of
tolerance came up. My friend insisted that Malaysians are tolerant people,
unlike Americans, who only “appear” to be tolerant because it is the
politically correct thing to do.
As a Malaysian citizen who has spent considerable time in the US, I was
intrigued by his comment enough to examine the word ‘tolerance’ more
According to the Oxford dictionary, tolerance is defined as: “Willingness to
accept opinions or behaviour you may not agree with or people who are not
By this definition, ‘tolerance’ certainly does not describe my experience of
all Malaysians. I can’t remember the last time a Malay/Muslim asked me or
responded to my opinion about this multiracial country. In fact I have often
been warned not to express my opinions when I am in the company of Malays
because I seem too “Western influenced”.
I have been told that I must be sensitive. I agree that it is important to
be sensitive, but why should I compromise on my right to free speech?
I believe that I have something valid and valuable to say, and that it is
only fair that the Malay majority encourages and considers my opinions. As
the dominant majority in a secular democracy, do not Malays have the first
duty to lead all citizens in being sensitive to minority communities that
feel politically or socially oppressed?
The American phenomenon of political correctness came about as a result of
the willingness of the Christian and White majority to respect the opinions
and behaviour of religious and racial minorities.
In time, this respect resulted in meaningful interactions between the
various groups, and resulted in real tolerance – tolerance so that people
from different backgrounds could in fact engage in substantive conversation
without being persecuted or ridiculed for their perspectives. For this
reason, I think political correctness is a value that we should create and
sustain in our diverse society.
I respectfully disagree with my friend: Far from merely veiling their
alleged underlying intolerance, Americans have successfully employed
political correctness as a way to allow unbridled free speech while
simultaneously being able to hold both majority and minority groups to high
standards of mutual respect, sensitivity and tolerance to diversity in the
public as well as personal domains.
When a non-Muslim in Malaysia talks about tolerance, I suspect he or she
talks about being able to freely walk around without being beaten for being
a different colour, and being able to engage in superficial banter with the
Malay. But how is this different from the US where non-Christian and
non-white minorities have those same rights?
There is a tendency in the country to politicise the word ‘tolerance’ much
like ‘Western values’ is a code-word for Western decadence. This unique spin
promotes the underlying message that minorities should be more agreeable and
perhaps even less vocal in expressing their views, because after all, they’
ve got it pretty good, living among the tolerant Malays.
It is also part of the propaganda machine to justify the continued support
for the New Economic Policy, devised to redistribute the wealth between the
Malays and other races. Non-Malays must accept the trade-off of special
rights for Malays for the sake of political stability.
My vision for a strong Malaysian identity is based on the democratic and
secular values enshrined in our constitution. It involves a much deeper
understanding between ethnic and racial groups than mere banter over a cup
of tea; it involves the building of a broad national consensus over issues
of national identity, secularism and representation in policy matters, both
at the national and local levels.
This vision can only be realised through honest but respectful dialogue
between racial and ethnic minorities. Indeed I believe that this meaningful
dialogue is not only possible, but is also the only way we can realistically
and successfully make pragmatic and responsible policy decisions.
Chandra Muzaffar, a long time social activist in Malaysia, in a recent
interview said Muslims in Malaysia are afraid of dialogue and interaction
which promotes understanding. His prediction that religion would be a major
divider is getting more evident, not just in Malaysia but around the world
as it becomes an identity marker alongside ethnicity.
Chandra went on to say that Malaysia is a nation of strangers: “We know a
few things about each other’s culture, religion but in-depth understanding
is not there.”
I would like to take that one step further, and say that in failing to
engage with others who are different, we shortchange ourselves in broadening
our perspective and furthermore, run the risk of alienating minorities as we
pursue progress. In addition, we put our society at the risk of political
instability caused by reactionary anti-social and anti-national elements who
act out of a lack of compassion and tolerance.
I would submit that, Muslim or non-Muslim, we do not have to be afraid to
engage each other, if we couch our dialogue and interaction in the language
of political correctness. Political correctness can help us rise above the
suspicion and animosity that may exist between racial and ethnic groups, to
get to a point where there is real willingness to accept opinions or
behaviours that do not necessarily come from us or those who is like us.
Here is a chance for Malaysia to learn from America something more valuable
than ‘Western decadence’ – how to use political correctness as a tool to
promote the universal values of love, tolerance and respect for human
I call upon Chandra and other social/political activists to lead Malaysians
in exploring our inherent capacity for tolerance and in-depth understanding
of one another using the tool of political correctness, not as a way to deny
or cloak our fears but to respectfully listen and interact in a way that
will inevitably result in strengthening our national identity as well as our
socio-political stability. Political stability is indeed worth preserving.
RATHI RAMANATHAN, a human rights activist, wishes that Malaysians would
start taking an active interest in democratic reform.