By Aish Kumar
She is a student pursuing Economics and International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. Aish also has an interest in people and their perspectives, because everyone has an interesting story to share.
Malaysians are an opinionated bunch. We always have something to say, whether it’s about politics, food, religion, beauty, or more. But there’s a difference between being reasonably opinionated and being judgmental. Sometimes, we talk about silly, unnecessary things. We comment on everything from unshaved legs to a person’s marital status to sexual orientation. Anyone who doesn’t comply with society’s standards will be judged. Perhaps even shunned. It doesn’t matter that it’s nobody’s business; people still like to gossip and speculate. We really do run the risk of being a very judgmental society (if we aren’t already).
Malaysians can be ignorant too. In fact, for the most part we make statements that are not at all acceptable, so constricted are we by our lack of knowledge and refusal to learn new things. I still can’t believe so many get away with making ridiculous and unfounded statements, both in the private and public sphere. Words have too much power to be used so callously. We must hold people responsible for what they say, and constantly check the veracity of their claims.
These two make for a potent combination of ill will and misunderstanding. They breed a society where people don’t feel secure expressing themselves. Where people are irrationally stereotyped and imaginary lines of separation are drawn, eventually becoming nearly insurmountable barriers to mutual acceptance.
I know some disagree with my generalizations. For I too know many Malaysians who are progressive and intellectual and make a point of being politically correct. But ask yourself if that’s true for the entire population. I grew up in Kuala Lumpur, sheltered from all talks of racial politics and surrounded by friends of different backgrounds. I really did believe that was true for the entire country. Once I wisened up and met people from around Malaysia, that illusion was shattered.
I was furious at the comments people made about each other. These comments were made out of sheer ignorance and irrational fear of the ‘other’. On the surface, everyone was nice, acting unified, and feigning understanding about each other’s cultural/religious/familial practices. But underneath, there’s this rising tension. I could see too that some of them did enjoy each other’s company, but their mentality was ‘this is an exception’ or ‘I like him/her despite…’ That’s hardly helpful to building a harmonious community.
I know I’m not the first to make these observations, and I won’t be the last. Lots of people talk and preach in the safe and secure domains of blogs or circle of like-minded friends. However, it’s frustrating because that’s all most of us seem to do. We are too cautious and scared to leave our comfort zone. What can we actually DO? One way to solve these problems is to voice out our opinions where it would make the most impact. Get a say in the conversation. Be mindful of the situation, be rational and diplomatic, but say something to make a difference.
Sometimes that can be difficult. If you come from a very strict family where your elders have the final say, what do you do? Maybe your father makes a false conclusion about a friend and you speak out. You’re soundly berated and given a lecture on obedience and what’s wrong and what’s right. Or maybe you’re with a group of friends and they make a racist joke. That’s a conundrum. If you say something, you could be a killjoy who takes things too seriously. Or if you don’t and laugh it off, it gives the impression that you don’t mind, thus setting off this cycle of jokes at someone else’s expense. (On a side note, what do we do about racist jokes? Is it funny or wrong? Is political correctness stifling good-natured humor? Or does it depend on the joke itself?)
These situations are never easy or comfortable to deal with. But they must be addressed. Conversations shape a society. Changing how people talk and think is the first step in changing how people act. That’s why having constructive discourses and debates are vital for a healthy society.
Malaysians will always be opinionated. But we need to be opinionated the right way -backed by well-reasoned arguments and open-minded acceptance.
So why wait? Let’s start now.