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Monday, September 27, 2010

Getting along in Malaysia


Everyday we have to deal with racial bigorty
Bunga Pakma

All these decades I have been watching how races, religions and classes have fought one another throughout the world and in our own country. It seemed to be a good time to step back and ponder the nature of intolerance and tolerance.

The path of my thoughts is leading me to higher regions. I only hope the trail doesn’t at last toss me off a cliff.

Along with hunger, sex, pain, death and the eternal struggle for a living, the uncertainty of whether human beings get along together or don’t get along together is a basic fact of our troubled existence. All these decades I have been watching how races, religions and classes have fought one another throughout the world and in our own country. It seemed to be a good time to step back and ponder the nature of intolerance and tolerance.

Malaysian public life is a spectacle of squabbling as unending and invasive as the roar of Malaysian traffic. We ignore the constant noise as best we can, but today I woke up to just how loud and irritating it is. I have come, metaphorically, out to the quiet back of the garden to think.

No particular event prompted me to contemplate these heavy subjects. A discovery had formed itself in my head: tolerance, by its nature, is manifold and diverse; its opposite, intolerance, is one, simple and absolute. I wondered whether my mind was telling me a truth, and to find that out I had to think.

“Toleration” derives from the Latin verb tolero. “Put up under” is as good a translation as any. By definition, to tolerate something is to put up with something you don’t like. For example, we tolerate the pain of an aching back well enough to go to work.

If we look honestly into ourselves, we have to admit that we are all readily capable of hating other people. To have to push through a crowd of strangers at the LCC terminal doesn’t improve our opinion of the human race, and at times the people we love most will get on our nerves. People cause each other pain, even without intending to. Exactly why is one of the tragic mysteries of life.

The wise person, then, recognizes this as the unavoidable human condition and puts up with that condition, and with other people. The key to tolerance is the realization that you are just as irritating to others as they are to you. Each person has a limit of how much, and what, she or he can tolerate, and each person practises a different strategy of tolerance.

I had some ideas of my own on what these strategies and conceptions of tolerance are. Unwilling to rely on myself alone, I compared my thoughts with those of the German philosopher Rainer Forst, who has contributed the article “Toleration” to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.1 Forster talks about toleration mainly with reference to societies and states. His observations can be explained and applied also at a person-to-person level.

Toleration can be permitted or granted. In a family, the parents may say “go out and play and make noise, but don’t bother us while we’re talking.” Here, the parents have the authority, and they make the rules. On a grand scale, in many states a minority has been permitted to practice its religion as long as its members keep it strictly private and don’t engage in politics or public life. Under mild rule the minority may willingly agree. Harsher governments ensure the submission of the minority by force.

“Live and let live” might be the best label for a second kind of toleration. I put up with the noises of renovation next door—including the ear-piercing shrieks of a saw cutting through tiles—because I know he has no choice but to fix his house. Few people share my taste in music, but nobody has ever picked a fight because they can hear it from my window. We have a right to our tastes. Most people practice this garden-variety, common-sense tolerance, as natural to human beings as being irritating is. How far the moral control of this kind of tolerance extends, I think can be judged by the way people drive. Most people try to be careful of others’ lives, but we’ve all seen a few that don’t.

“Live and let live” is based on a shared sense of limited humanity. Powerful people and groups tolerate one another because they must. The Soviet Union and the US tolerated each other because a lack of respect on either side would have had unspeakably appalling consequences. Two-party politics, at its best, works this way, the Government and the Opposition keeping each other in line. At the lowly level of academia, learned scholars “agree to disagree.”

Forst admits one more type of tolerance, a tolerance based on admiration, esteem together with the recognition of irreconcilable differences. For example, I admire and esteem the Penan, the Orang Asli and other forest-peoples. I can by no means ever more than touch the surface of their world, much less enter it fully. Yet I so fully accept the value of their ways of life that I would think this planet a sad and empty place if they were wiped out. This mode of toleration is so mature that perhaps it is no longer toleration at all. It requires understanding, and the people who are “being tolerated” don’t even know it.

Most Malaysians as human beings simply and unconsciously live and let live. The Malay proverb lain padang, lain belalangembodies the ethic.

When we turn to the present régime, what is its view of toleration? The ruling clique in Malaysia is schizoid. To this date, nobody knows what “1Malaysia” means. Does it mean that choice of religion and who one sleeps with are a person’s own business and not the State’s? Does it mean that Ketuhanan Melayu will “permit” “other races” to live next to it? On what terms? We see that UMNO is split down the middle (for all I know, in fragments), and it’s likely factions are considering anything and everything.

Ideally, what I believe Malaysians would like to see is a nation in which, as in the US, “live and let live” is nurtured as a fundamental principle of our relations with one another. From the beginning, US law protected individual freedom. The US constitution implies throughout that the law must not infringe upon a person’s private life. What does not hurt another is his own business. Several states have decriminalized cannabis and allowed gay marriage. There’s no reason to outlaw these things; they are none of the public’s business.

Look at the history of religious tolerance and intolerance and you will find that “toleration by permission” only worked when 1) a clear majority of the population belonged to one faith, and 2) that faith was controlled by the ruling authority, which punished dissidence and enforced doctrinal and ritual conformity among the faithful, in order to present a “united front” against the minority. The textbook example is Western Europe. Once religion was ousted from power—it took a few hundred years—the “consensus” maintained by force fell to pieces. It was safe for everyone to think as they wished, and everybody did think as they wished.

If elements in UMNO hope to establish a “toleration by permission” régime in Malaysia, they forget that they cannot forge a majority which simply does not exist.

This change happened from the ground up. Toleration can never be enforced. It happens. It can happen here.

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