If Malaysia were a dish, it would begin in a seasoned brown belanga. Simmering in its cavernous belly, an assortment of ingredients would swim and swirl together, in a burbling process of assimilation. From this boilingmelange, a new mix would emerge in which the flavor, aroma and texture of each condiment would be fittingly represented. And when served, this common staple would bring to the table people of diverse origins, desires and dreams together in their collective hunger for one true and tasteful bangsaMalaysia.
Sadly, it is no longer possible to savour this storied concoction. For too many years, despite our best effort (and intention, one would hope) – by using the same ingredients and following exactly the recommended cooking techniques – the taste this dish is famed for has continued to elude us. And for far too long, this deprivation has kept us wanting and craving and pining listlessly. But as the growls in our gut grow louder, we know there’s an urgent need for a sound solution.
Not unexpectedly, there’s no shortage of ‘experts’ claiming to possess the secret of this recipe. But in spite of their multitude, none has been able to prove their claim. In fact, their cacophonous clamour for attention only adds to the din that denies us the calm and clarity to focus on finding the right answer. Where is the voice of reason that spoke of moderation in the face of excesses? Where is the voice of reason that roused our humanity to rise above our differences? Where is the voice of reason that rallied all of our hopes in the proclamation of “Merdeka!”?
That these are tough questions is unambiguous; less clear and more vital is where to begin looking for the answer. Am I about to reveal my recently discovered cure-all to the ills that ail our nation? I wish! But what I desire to share here are my observations about our current state of affairs as Malaysians, particularly the way we don’t talk to each other the way we used to any more. In so doing, I hope to persuade fellow Malaysians to honestly look at what we are doing to ourselves and to the country our forefathers, only one generation ago, built with their bare hands, sweat, blood and tears.
It’s All in the Ingredients
When a dish goes awry, it’s not unnatural to want to examine what stuff went into its making. This could mean sifting through a menu of causes, ranging from the skill of the cook to the quality of the ingredients to whether or not the recipe has been faithfully followed. Quite a big plate to sit down to, you might say!
A Spice Too Much
Of late and with rueful regularity, our peace is pricked by issues that reek of race. It does seem nowadays that anything which can be painted with a racial stripe will be so coloured, regardless how unnecessary or injurious it might be to race relations. To top it off, half-baked facts, uncooked opinions and stale lies become the flavor of the day and allowed to pass off as news in the mainstream as well as social media, ad nauseam.
Its fulsome and infuriating, this trend. A champion of the Malay cause is inevitably a racist Bumiputera. A spokesman for the Chinese interest is without doubt a Chinese chauvinist.
An Indian activist who airs their concerns is evidently an Indian rabble-rouser. No one is spared even when the matter at hand is manifestly national in nature, affecting all races! What happened between 1957 and 2015 that has so chafed our spirit of give and take and our sense of fair play? We are merely 5 years away from Vision 2020 and we are trudging along with blinkers on?
Ironically, at this point of the greatest wealth, intellect and infinite access to information in our nation’s history, we are at our most polarized as a people. Why can’t the agenda of the Malays, Chinese, Indians and others be part of one national agenda? Aren’t our rights and privileges granted and guaranteed by the constitution? For the sake of discussion, if we feel the constitution needs to be updated, there’s always a lawful recourse through the 2/3 majority rule. So why the baseless fear and phony fragility and fake siege mentality? Who is actually profiting from this ruse?
No Secret Recipe
Sometimes a dish can be prepared differently depending on certain variables. Typically, these include the ethnic background of the cook or the place where the dish is commonly served or famous for. Take asam pedas. We have the Johor style, the Melaka type and the Peranakan variety. Then, there are also variations in the garnishes and condiments used. For added aroma, some prefer daun kesum, others favour bunga kantan, yet others opt for the leave of kaffir lime. Each of these variations serves up a distinctive character but all of them are, at their core, the good old asam pedas. One is no more, or less, ofasam pedas that the other.
But why is it that despite the fundamental similarity we share, we often harp on the frivolous differences. Why do we choose to assume and not to appreciate the truth of the matter? Why do we dig in our heels instead of opening our minds and hearts when discussing our issues? Why do we call each other names when we ought to identify ourselves as one nation? The only recipe to peace and harmony is to be peace-loving, really.
On the same score, we must all face up to the reality of our interconnectedness.
And because of it, just as we share the bounties of our nation’s progress so do we share the blame for potentially causing it to regress. If we continue to ignore the obvious signs, that is. Here are some: our dissatisfaction over the invidious implementation of the New Economic Policy; the existence of vernacular schools standing in the way of genuine integration; the socio-economic culture of race-based politics and profiteering at the expense of true merit, to name a few – all real issues that need to be openly affirmed, accepted and addressed. Keeping the lid on will only cause this sinister stew to spill over and spoil the broth.
One proviso: talk about them if we must but we need to do so responsibly and honestly, in the spirit of muhibah, of live and let live!
The Taste Test
It is all about taste, isn’t it? No one can argue with any group if it feels very strongly about issues concerning its welfare. That’s the way it should be. But that is also why rasa is of paramount importance and must not be taken lightly. A dish must be well-balanced where each ingredient is represented in just the right measure – secukup rasa.
Let me clarify. Secukup rasa aptly advises us to stick to the issue when we speak publically, for instance when talking about the interest of our own particular community. Conversely, others who hear us must also practice the politically correct policy of “jangan mudah terasa”. Being overly sensitive in a multi-cultural society is like ordering rojak buah when what you really fancy is only the pineapple! You can’t cherry-pick your likes without brushing against your dislikes! Interestingly, the word rasa in its original Sanskrit refers to flavor or essence of the arts. From this vantage point, one can say that being sensitive in national discourse, both in the sense of expressing ourselves and listening to others, is to behave in a cultured and civilized way. Surely this is not too tall an order for us in the East since we always beat our chest and claim that we, as opposed to the West and the rest of the world, are living descendants of civilisations that are thousands of years ahead!
In Ratatouille, a 2007 Pixar Studio/ Walt Disney animation comedy, a famous French restaurant was ruined in the wake of the death of its chef Auguste Gusteau, from the fatal blow served up in a review by the fierce and fearsome Paris restaurant critic, Anton Ego.
It also tells the story about how this restaurant redeemed itself and regained its repute in the most unpredictable manner. What I want to share is this: in spite of its comical presentation, the movie’s multi-layered plot dishes out sumptuous lessons that are worth chewing on. Let us try some.
For starters, be wary of arm-chair critic. By this I mean people who are in love with themselves and the sound of their own voices and whose preoccupation is to criticize others. Be damned with the facts. Some even have the gall to brandish the supposed protection of the freedom of speech. But it pays to remember that this right cuts both ways and is never meant as a license to act callously. On our part, we should not let ourselves be easily swayed and sweet-talked into forming fallacious opinions or worse, making erroneous judgments. It does help to be mindful of the responsibility and consequence of our statements and how we express them.
Another instructive lesson from this critically acclaimed, award winning picture is that when faced with challenges, the way to solving it is not always straight-forward, no matter how much we so wish.
Sometimes we need to let go of old assumptions and change the way we approach the problem. At other times, we mistakenly take the symptoms to be the cause of our complaint. In the final analysis, to remedy a situation, when must face the root cause in total honesty and must not cringe at the truth, wherever it may stem from.
All said and done, we must keep vigil our senses for signs of trouble because whether we realise it or not, we do have the capacity to do so. We owe it to ourselves, to our children and to the future we are going to bequeath to them, to think and act as satu bangsa, satu negara. Because, only then can we ensure that when its time for dinner, we will have something to put on the table, fit for all to feast on.
Oh hang on, what’s that smell coming from the kitchen?
Prof Emeritus Azman Awang