by Dr. Helmy Haja Mydin. First published in The Sun 20 January 2012

One of the first things that I am asked when I come across a fellow Malay in the UK is “Which boarding school did you go to?”. This is almost always followed by a look of incredulity when they hear my answer: “I went to a normal school”.

This had on occasion led me to wonder if it was disadvantageous to have attended a ‘normal’ school. A significant number of students are pushed towards attending vernacular and Malay-predominant boarding schools that have the advantage of better financial and human resources as compared to your regular Sekolah Kebangsaan. I remember it being almost inconceivable to some of my teachers and family members that I had turned down an offer to attend the nation’s most prestigious boarding school and had instead chosen to remain in the small town of Taiping.

It has been more than ten years since I left St George’s Institution but I still retain extremely fond memories of my alma mater, especially the ease in which I was able to build and maintain friendships across the spectrum of ethnic groups. We endured the highs and lows of being a teenager – teasing and taunting each other about girls, getting rapped across the knuckles for mischievous behaviour, debating the politics of the day (without adverse effects on our studies, of course) excitedly grappling with new ideas and philosophies (which were, more often than not, totally unrelated to our textbooks) – the list is endless.

The key thing though is that we did it together and as any person who has been to a boarding school will readily tell you, these are the formative years that lead to the creation of bonds of friendships that last a lifetime. It is not that we were unaware of the different shades of our skins; it is just that it did not matter.

The brilliant Dr Farish Noor once stated that “unless and until Malaysians transcend the logic of narrow ethnic/racial compartmentalisation we will never reach the level of a national politics predicated on the universal category of citizenship”. This statement is as true today as it was ten years ago, and unfortunately one of his predictions has come true as well: “should these trends remain unchecked, they will merely continue to fester and replicate themselves until we witness the rise of more and more ethnic and religious-based movements that will turn to the democratic process to advance agendas that are sectarian and particular.”

The increasingly racist and vitriolic statements that are unabashedly spewed in our society today do not only concern me, but angers me as well. I was especially disconcerted when I came across a sermon stating that “Muslims are selling out the religion to certain quarters, Muslims who associate with non-Muslims or stand up for non-Muslim causes betray their faith.”

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had said ‘He who abuses a dhimmi (non-Muslim) then I will be his rival and dispute on the Day of Judgement’. Imam al-Qarafi had also stated that ‘it is the responsibility of the Muslims to the People of the dhimma to care for their weak, feed the hungry, provide clothes, address them politely and even tolerate their harm even though the Muslim would have an upper hand. The Muslim must advise them sincerely on their affairs and protect them against anyone who tries to hurt them or their family, steal their wealth or violates their rights’.

Previous caliphates had demonstrated an importance of fairness when dealing with non-Muslims; the examples range from guaranteed seats in the majlis ash-shura (the ruling council) to choice of Jewish physicians in the Ottoman empire. A rather interesting example is the story of how the Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 15th century were welcomed by the Caliphate of the time. With their knowledge of glass-making and metal-working, they rose to compete with the Venetian traders, leading the Ottoman Caliph Bajazet II to say (with reference to the expulsion of the Jews by the King of Spain) “How can you call this Ferdinand ‘wise’ – he who has impoverished his dominions in order to enrich mine?”

The point of these stories? Bigoted statements that are supposedly made in the defence of Islam are anathema to the teachings of Islam. It is a religion that preaches kindness and tolerance. One of the main reasons it has survived for centuries and continues to be the fastest growing religion is its blindness to colour.

I am grateful that my ‘normal’ schooling allowed me to develop close relationships with individuals from various backgrounds. We should move away from encouraging the development of an education system where children of different backgrounds are brought up in ethnic-based cocoons and are then expected to miraculously develop an appreciation of the diversity of our society when they have reached adulthood.

My wish for the new year is to see the development of a post-ethnic society in our country. The true meaning of 1Malaysia should be living in a society where being a Malaysian means being equal in the eyes of each other.

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Dr. Helmy Haja Mydin is a fellow at IDEAS

Image Credit: MTHAGO

1 Comment

  • Syed Mohd Naqib 2012 Jan 25 / 22:44

    Brilliant write-up, Dr. Helmy. I couldn’t be more agreeable with your points. Undeniably, I’d have to say attending normal school was one of the best time I had. The interracial mix was so harmonious until I had the thinking that this solidarity equilibrium was an emulate of the real situation in the outside world. It wasn’t exactly true indeed. It was then when I attended college I had a cultural shock trying to make sense why are there clear segregation of ethnic groups and even among the Malays, they have their own groups. Only after an elaborate explanation from my mother I began to understand why such situation appears, of course due to the obvious reason; the different environment they were brought up since the early years of their education.
    As I grow older, I began to be more appreciative of my schooling years and the different races of friends I have, and until now, we kept wishing each other every festive season despite some of us not celebrating it, but as form of keeping the bond stronger and to make it last a lifetime.

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