This was the sort of day for me that encapsulated a lot of what it means to be Malaysian today.
Interfaith dialogue, understanding one another
In the afternoon, I dropped by at the St Anne’s Catholic Church in Bukit Mertajam, which was holding a dialogue session with Dr Dzul, the MP for Kuala Selangor and Pas central committee member.
This is Dr Dzul engaging in open and frank dialogue with Fr Henry Rajoo, the parish priest over some of the contentious issues in Malaysia. This was a dialogue and not a debate, the crowd was told. The mood was one of willingness to listen to the other’s point of view, trying to get to know and understand one another.
One thing Dr Dzul said struck me: he said he didn’t like the term ‘non-Muslims’. “Why should minorities be referenced in terms of the majority community? When I lived in the UK, some people used to refer to me as non-Christian!” he recalled. He much rather preferred the term ‘people of other faiths’.
Over a hundred parishioners and around 30 Pas supporters, men and women, turned up for the session. A whole range of current issues – the Valentine’s Day hoo-ha, moral policing, religion in politics – was discussed.
That’s the Muslim-Christian crowd during the closing prayer at the end. This gives me hope for a new Malaysia where all truth-seekers will be able to live in harmony and with justice.
Overcoming mental barriers
But challenges remain. After the event, we adjourned for tea and mee goreng near the church lecture hall, prepared by a Muslim caterer. I heard from the organisers that the previous Muslim caterer engaged by the church for a similar event was reluctant to come this time, as he apparently was told by his peers that he shouldn’t be venturing into church premises. This anecdote reminds me that we still have challenges and mental barriers to overcome before we can truly accept one another in a spirit of openness. Thankfully, the new Muslim caterer and his staff hired for the occasion did not appear to have any qualms about being inside the premises.
Perception from the ground
Later I met a couple of BM residents who discussed the current political situation and suggested I run a couple of polls. So here they are:
The mysterious rock: A second look at history
St Anne’s Church was established in the 19th century, but on my way out I was reminded that other communities had preceded them in the area long before. I spotted the Cherok Tokun relic, a large boulder with an inscription on it, within the Church premises – presumably this a relic from the Bujang Valley civilisation, which is said to have stretched all the way from Alor Star in the north to Bukit Mertajam in the south.
According to one website, the writing is in a pre-Pallava script in the Sanskrit language and it reads: “Thus vanquish, the enemies of King Ramaunnibha.”
This ancient rock dating back around 1,500 years ago was discovered and includes an inscription by Col James Low in 1845. This boulder tells me that we are still in the process of understanding the full history of our land.
A haircut, globalisation, cheap labour, crime
On a more mundane level, I thought I would get a haircut this evening, but I was surprised to see the local veteran barber closed with an “Untuk disewa” signboard hanging out side. He charges RM8 for a cut.
So I decided to try another barber shop a little further down. This was staffed by three barbers. The guy who cut my hair said he was from Chennai and his parents and two siblings were still in India. He had been here for four years and spoke passable Malay. His boss owned 15 such barber shops across Penang, mostly staffed by workers brought in from India. The haircut cost me RM6, cheaper than the local barber’s.
I asked him if he knew what happened to the local barber. Yes, he said, that barber had packed up and now settled in Ipoh. Before he left, his house, where he operated his business, had been broken into and he had been hurt in the process. I reflected that a combination of age, lack of security, and globalisation (cheaper labour from India) had conspired to force him to call it a day.
Brain drain, lack of recreational space, restless youth
During the day, I received work that the son of a family friend had passed away in an accident in the United States. He was one of the young Malaysians who had gone there for tertiary education, and like so many of them decided to stay on to work in a foreign land.
Later that evening, I took a walk along the Butterworth Outer Ring Road along the seafront. There’s not much space to walk between the highway and the beach down below. But still crowds had gathered as this was their only recreational space in Butterworth. This evening, a whole lot of youths had gathered on motorbikes. Many of them probably have little alternative for recreation and entertainment. What sort of future do these youths have, I wondered to myself.
I suspected they had come to watch something. Before long, motorbikes were racing up and down the highway, some of the riders lying with their tummies on the seat and legs trailing horizontally in the air.
By and by, I saw blue lights flashing. “Police,” I thought. I walked up and saw a crowd standing around police vehicles. A motorbike lay sprawled on the road, its owner probably whisked away to hospital. It was an accident involving motorbikes, someone in the crowd told me.
Dialogue of everyday life: celebration of diversity
I strolled a bit further and ran into a mini-Thaipusam festival, complete with a chariot. Nearby, a couple of hefty guys were dancing on the street while balancing pots that were spinning on their head. A lorry cruised by, carrying a few ‘women’ attired in sarees – but they had male voices.
A few metres up the road, along the old Dragon Temple Lane, the Chinese temple looking resplendent.
In between the mini-Thaipusam festival and the Chinese temple were people indulging in their favourite past-time – dining at a food court.
The restless local youths on their bikes, the mini-Thaipusam festival, people tucking in warungs and food courts, the resplendent Chinese temple, all within 50 metres along the road. People co-existing harmoniously with one another without any interference from the politicians.
A microcosm of life in Malaysia today on the ground reflecting some of the issues that confront the nation.