By Art Harun
Once we were beautiful
I am blessed. So are many of my friends who are of or around my age. So are many who are older than me.
As a child of the 60s, I went through my formative years in an English-stream school. It was a big school in town. And there were hundreds of us Malays, Chinese and Indian boys (it wasn’t co-ed). Our first headmaster was a Chinese gentleman who was as fierce as they came those days. When he left, he was replaced by an Indian gentleman, who also was as fierce.
My first class teacher was Ms Leong, all long haired and short skirted. And yes, armed with a wooden ruler, she would knock my knuckles for failing to properly write the number 8. My first English sentence, learnt on the first day at school was to be uttered after raising my right hand, “Please teacher may I go out?” That was to be said if any of us had to go to the toilet to do the normal stuffs we all do in the toilet (and not to eat).
Then there were Mr Linggam, Cikgu Aziz and wife, Sharom, Mr Lee the karate guy, Mr Khor, Cikgu Mutalib and various others.
We were a happy bunch. We played together, ate together, learned together and of course, at times, punished together. And we were equal.
In standard 5, I began fasting. The school canteen stayed open for the whole month. No renovation. No closure. Muslim and non-Muslim kids, who did not fast, ate as usual. If they bought a proper meal, such like nasi lemak or mee goreng, they would eat at the canteen. If it was some kind of snack, they would just eat while walking around, in the class or where ever.
No fuss. No issue. No problem.
My impressionable years were spent in a boarding school. It was the same scenario. All of us, regardless of race or religion studied together, ate together, played together and at times, getting one or two rotan together.
Visiting a non-Malay house was not a problem. Eating there was not a problem too. Sharing food with non-Muslims was not an issue.
Things have however, sadly, changed. And change for the worse.
Nowadays, non-Muslims don’t send their kids to national school anymore. They prefer to send the kids to the vernacular schools. The ones who could afford would send their kids to private schools. National schools are almost invariably filled with Muslim/Malay students.
National schools would recite prayers before classes begin in the morning. Quranic verses and hadith would adorn walls in the canteen, school office and even classes. Ustaz and ustazah would even ask school kids to raise their hands if their parents do not pray 5 times a day. In secondary schools, the tudung is not compulsory for girls – according to the Ministry of Education’s circular, if I am not mistaken – but girls without tudung would be viewed askance by schoolmates and teachers alike.
Due to the small number of non-Muslim/Malay kids in national schools, the Malay kids do not have the opportunity to mix around and integrate with non-Malays in their formative and impressionable years. The small number of non-Malay kids also gives a sense of false superiority complex to the Malay kids as well as teachers.
Thus, my race and my religion are more important than you, your religion and everything else. Hence the closure of the school canteen during Ramadhan. This is prevailing in many national schools. Apparently, this is done to “respect” the Muslim students who are fasting. Forget the fact that non-Muslims do not fast and they, like any other human beings or animals, have to eat and drink. Forget the fact that there are Muslim kids who do not fast. Anybody who just about mentions the word “food” would have been taken as insulting Islam.
On Facebook last week, there were two guys admonishing a hotel which advertised its breakfast package on its page. They viewed it as disrespectful. But to be fair, the two were widely condemned by other Muslim facebookers.
The eating-in-the-changing-room debacle yesterday is just the surface of a far unhealthier trend in Malaysia. Beneath that surface is a society which is fractious, intolerant, selfish and uncompromising.
The obvious question is how did we, as a nation, become like this?
As a nation we started so well. The Federal Constitution was agreed upon by consensus between three major races anchored to a give-and-take and win-win camaraderie. There was a blemish in 1969 but that was quickly nipped in the bud and we soldiered on.
In football, we were in the Olympic final in 1972 and 1980. By the law of progression, we should be in the World Cup by now. By contrast, Japan and Korea, whom we used to beat, were already in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. We now struggle to beat the likes of Vietnam and even Singapore.
Like our football team, the state of our racial integration and inter-faith relationship has moved in reverse gear. Years of political posturing utilizing religion and race have now begun to show its ugly consequences. The so-called Islamisation that we embark upon, which is shorn of any meaningful spiritual understanding of the religion, but rather born out of political necessities, convenience and mired in political one-upmanship has now produced a nation which is unsure of itself and a people who are fractious, angry, suspicious and at odd with each other.
We need to take a real good look at ourselves and examine our ways. And we need to reboot our operating system if we want to avoid a total crash.
And we need to reboot fast.