Malaysia's social fabric: This is how you can navigate interracial friendships

18 Feb 2024 09:30am
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Malaysia stands as a vibrant melting pot, celebrated for its rich tapestry of race, religion and culture where diverse ethnicities, faiths, and traditions harmoniously co-existing. As we live amongst one another regardless of colour and beliefs, we try our best to ensure we live in peace, making our differences becomes the strength that unites.

However and unfortunately, many still struggle with initiating interracial friendships, as the difference in races makes it awkward for people to find common ground to settle down on and start meaningful relationships.

Racial sentiments and prejudice sparked by normalised stereotypes, such as the usage of verbal slurs still prevails today, and even more concerning when politicians continue using the race card knowing very well it would stir an uproar. Malaysia started 2024 with two-time former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad saying that the Indians and Chinese people “were not completely loyal” to the country as they do not speak the local language and have their own schools and culture.

Dr Mahathir went on to say that there were “less chemistry” between the races today. Is this true? If it is, could his convicted predecessor Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s “1Malaysia” slogan was a much needed campaign to embody Malaysians and “true” citizens of the land?

Sinar Daily spoke to sociologist Associate Professor Dr Rosila Bee Mohd Hussain, a senior lecturer from Universiti Malaya on what it takes to cultivate and navigate meaningful, or at least respectful, interracial friendships.

- Seeing language not as a barrier but as a platform -

Malaysians are part of a pluralistic society, we live with many cultures, languages, and traditions since there are people of many racial and religious backgrounds. The Malay language is the national language thus it should be a basic necessity to be able to communicate with one another using our common tongue.

According to Rosila Bee, the most important thing for a community to blend in well is acquiring knowledge about each other, which is an ongoing process. But the only way to do so is by knowing each other’s language, not just limited to explicit knowledge but also tacit knowledge. This includes learning both the informal language and the formal language to understand each other to the fullest extent possible.

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As important as upholding your mother tongue, the practice of socialising should not be limited by using language as a barrier but as a way to reach out to each other.

The only way to do so is by willingly learning each other’s language, which can be included in the school’s learning system such as having extra language classes in the school syllabus.

A few months back, Machang MP Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal said the simplest element that can unite everyone is language and that it is very hard for everyone to connect with each other if we don’t speak the same language. With this, he expressed his support for the government for wanting to strengthen the the Malay language in official engagements.

- Educating oneself about each other’s culture and sensitivities -

Malaysians should always try to learn each other’s culture before remembering to respect them. How can you respect something that you have no knowledge of? That would be the beginning of nothing.

This means that the responsible part of the community should be voluntarily and willing to learn about other people’s cultures and traditions. So much so that it is important to understand that as happy as we are for our annual festivals such as Hari Raya and Christmas, there is also a portion of us who are just as excited for the Lunar New Year and Deepavali.

Rosila Bee also suggested that an easy way to appreciate one’s culture and practices was to invest in visiting cultural places like temples such as the famous Batu Caves among many, to educate yourself and increase your awareness of the co-existing state of different religions in Malaysia.

This is one of the leading steps to championing harmony and peace in Malaysia, which is to understand that despite our enthusiasm for our own religion, there were also many others practicing theirs.

Rosila Bee also said that there is no superiority or inferiority in one race to another and this, she said especially when it comes to what language one uses. As long as you understand what the other person wants to convey, this should suffice to portray good co-existence of plural races in Malaysia.

- Communicate with each other, especially on complicated topics and find a middle ground –

People need to not just learn the various languages in Malaysia to make communication easier but also to ensure we understand the idioms and context of things. This, Rosila Bee said was to ensure we were able to eradicate any sense of awkwardness between one another on a daily basis, and automatically familiarise oneself with the culture and sensitivities.

She cited an example where people can start discussing complex topics such as how to tackle deep-rooted stereotypes that bring negative impacts by finding a middle ground as a way of making friends and conversations less difficult for Malaysians.

In order for people to live harmoniously, they must understand that certain topics are sensitive to people of a certain race, and knowing when to avoid them when conversing with each other is important.

Also, the mingling of people of different races in Malaysia through normalisation as well as more public appearances of these interracial friendships would be a mind-opener for many who thought that making friends with each other is difficult.

Apart from gaining the benefit of having interracial friendships, people can also expand their networks, exchange more eccentric ideas, become more knowledgeable, and create more genuine relationships. This will lead to a better sense of acceptance of each other’s ethnicities and allow us to live more harmoniously than we are now.

- The key is acceptance -

Acceptance is key to a better reputation for an interracial country, especially for a small country like Malaysia that has yet to embark on a long progressive journey where at some point we can someday be on par with multiracial countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.

Rosila Bee stated that Malaysia has always uphold the “otherness” and this should portray Malaysia as a country of acceptance and tolerance.

Citing Univerisiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Distiguished Professor Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, Rosila Bee said our community is a canopy community where if we were to represent a sports team at a school, we would consist of different houses rooting for the same sports such as the green house, red house as well as blue and yellow. She quoted him saying that although it was seemingly divisive, these differences, with balance where people were not fighting with one another because of petty stuff, would pioneer a great sense of cooperation between races in Malaysia and that despite all the differences, we can still get along well.

Rosila Bee said that well seen when organising and celebrating festivals such as Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Deepavali and Christmas, reflecting that the country as a non-discriminatory country.

- Appreciating our cultures -

Rosila Bee said there is esome concerns by experts that the Westernisation of the country has at some point become worrying where the Americans and the Europeans’ language, traditions, and cultures were more glorified than the country’s.

It is important to always stick to our own cultures, no matter how seemingly outdated and “cringeworthy” (as commonly phrased by the younger generation today) so that they will continue to be passed down through generations and continue to be appreciated for their uniqueness. Previously, National Unity Minister Datuk Aaron Ago Dagang has stated that ethnic languages are national heritage treasures that must be preserved so that they are not lost and can be inherited by future generations.

We also cannot find ours superior than others’ since other cultures also help to enrich our ability to mingle with others. Rosila Bee said even our daily usage of words were influenced by one another.

Needless to say, through the mingling, we have developed an unofficial language known as ‘Manglish', where it’s a unique blend and slang of various words spoken in Malaysia such as Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English; and sometimes we have all four languages in one sentence!

Rosila Bee mentioned ‘tapau’, which means to bring back home when ordering food at a restaurant, a word borrowed by the Chinese. Among other Malaysian favourites include ‘jom’ – let’s go in Malay; “yum cha” – derived from the Cantonese dialect with the literal translation being “drink tea” but it has now transformed into “let’s hang out”; “boss” – borrowed from English and transformed into when talking to someone who is taking your order or helping you out; and last but not least “lah”.

The infamous and ultimate Malaysian slang word “lah” is added to the end of almost every sentence – you can never go wrong. The word itself does not really mean anything but purely to spice up our sentences and emphasising on what we’re trying to say. Also a pro-tip, it makes you sound more friendly and convincing.

We hope these tips help you make more friends... You can start with "Boss, jomlah yum cha!"

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