HOW can we achieve national unity by 2020, when we are yet to have a single-stream school system?
This loaded question came up right after Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies founding director Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin had delivered his lecture on “Cohesion in Diversity”.
In this desire for unity, we may have this unattainable idealistic idea that everyone must be the same. — Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin
Rather than providing a neat answer, Prof Shamsul Amri’s reply served more to reveal the way we perceive the concept of unity.
“When some of us talk of unity, the implicit meaning is that unity equals uniformity; meaning that we want ‘one race, one language, one country’.
“In this desire for unity, we may have this unattainable idealistic idea that everyone must be the same.
“I think that if we can admit to our differences, then we can start talking about where we have common ground… and how we can live with our differences,” he said.
Adding that these differences exist beyond ethnic lines alone, he said: “We have so much diversity within races as well — at the age of 10, I was told to not marry a Kelantanese woman, because they only cooked sweet food!”
The lecture was part of the Distinguished Professor Leadership Lecture Series organised by the Higher Education Leadership Academy.
Prof Shamsul Amri is one of the three academics who currently hold the title of Distinguished Professor. The other two are Prof Tan Sri Mohd Kamal Hassan of the International Islamic University Malaysia and Universiti Malaya’s Prof Dr Lai-Meng Looi.
Created by the Higher Education Ministry last year, the award recognises academics who have made exceptional scholarly contributions to their fields of study as well as the country as a whole.
Being a professor of Social Anthropology, Prof Shamsul Amri’s main focus in his lecture was the need to recognise the unique nature of Malaysia’s ethnic relations.
“While we are still working towards unity, what we enjoy right now is social cohesion,” he said.
“We can still talk about things; if we are not in this mode (of social cohesion), then we would be rushing to stockpile food for fear of what may happen tomorrow.”
To highlight this ability to share and discuss problems openly, Prof Shamsul Amri used the example of the ubiquitous locale of popular discourse – the mamak stall.
“If you’re unhappy with (the state of) the country, you go to the mamak shop to talk; you are happy, the mamak is happy, everyone is happy. We talk and talk, and after that walk away to enjoy the rest of the day,” he said.
In another illustration, he explained that “talk” in itself was an important process of establishing unity.
“A Parent-Teacher Association conveyed to the Education Minister their concerns over racial polarisation at their school in Klang.
“The ministry then created a committee to look into it, and it took almost a year for a report on the issue.
“But by then, the school had resolved the matter through their own discussions. For me, this is an example of how the process of answering a question can be a solution in itself,” he said.
During the question and answer session, Prof Shamsul Amri reiterated that “diversity” also meant including the spectrum of political and idealogical views present in society.
“In a democracy, the majority already rule, so there is an obligation to allow the minority to speak up — the question is whether we give them (the minority) the space to do so.
“I think we are beginning to allow this space, as the Government is realising that they don’t know everything and social media has allowed more people to voice their views.
“‘Oppositionism’ can be either to provoke conflict or to improve an idea, and I don’t think that people generally disagree for the sake of opposing — they are just trying to add to the discussion,” he said.
He added that Malaysia’s journey towards unity has “not been plain-sailing” and social research and development is crucial for the future of the country.
In this regard, the National Science and Research Council, under the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry, has formed a sub-committee to study seven key areas of research.
“Among these areas are economy and quality of life, security, ethnic relations, social problems as well as youth and the future,” shared Prof Shamsul Amri.
“This will be valuable for gauging the ‘social health’ of the country, like how the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research provides feedback on our economic health.
“We always talk about political leaders and political parties, but not about the average Malaysian – whom everyone’s only interested in every five years during elections.
“That’s not fair; we have to study our everyday relationships — we have a really unique experience here that we can share with the world,” he said.