On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Hang up the hang-ups

There are certainly many things we in the peninsula should learn from our brethren in Sabah and Sarawak who see Malaysia from a very tolerant, multi-racial and multi-religious point of view.

BRAVO! Someone has to drive some sense into our politicians and many of us must be glad that there are still rational, reasonable and moderate-minded leaders among us who dare to tell off those who prefer to play the racial and religious card.

Over the past few weeks, we have heard how leaders from Sabah and Sarawak have told their counterparts in the peninsula to keep their brand of politics to themselves.

They have said, in no uncertain terms, that the kind of politics advocated in the peninsula has no place across the South China Sea. In short, shove it and please leave us alone.

One Sabah senior politician, Datuk Yahya Husin, reminded us that in his state, it is perfectly normal for non-Muslims to have Malay names. The most famous example from that part of our country must surely be Datuk Seri Idris Jala, a Kelabit Christian from the Bario highlands in northern Sarawak. Apparently, when he first came to national prominence upon being appointed CEO of Malaysia Airlines, many in the peninsula just assumed that he must be a Muslim because of his Malay-sounding name.

Yahya also said that in Sabah, it was normal for non-Malays to wear the songkok as part of their customary headgear, citing the practice in the remote northeast district of Paitan.

The Deputy Chief Minister also reminded us that not everyone in his state with the name Muhammad is a Muslim and that a person with the name David is also not necessarily a Christian. He personally knows of people who have Muslim-sounding names but are actually Christians.

It is such a timely reminder to many of us in the peninsula – whether we are Malays, Chinese, Indians or others – that we should not make assumptions and see others from a narrow racial prism.

There are many of us, especially the Chinese, who cannot draw a difference between an ethnic costume from religious gear, thinking that wearing a sarong or a songkok would mean embracing Islam.

If we were to accept such a ridiculous perception, then the Chinese who are not Muslims should not be wearing the songkok at all, even at official functions.

I have seen how some racist politicians make an issue of the songkok but do not mind wearing the headgear to the palace when they are given an award after they have come into power. Talk about opportunism and hypocrisy.

Likewise, we also assume that every Malay-looking person with a Malay name has to be a Muslim. To see him in a church or a temple could mean that there are sinister moves to convert the person.

As a regular visitor to Sabah and Sarawak, I have always admired the way the people from these two states live and respect each other’s way of life. They do not have the kind of hang-ups that many of us in the peninsula have.

My favourite aunt – my mother’s sister – married a Malay Muslim from Tawau. Her husband, who came from a prominent family, was an open-minded man.

When he visited Penang and stayed at my parents’ house, we made sure we respected his dietary requirements. But he never made any fuss over the utensils we used to cook the food or the cutlery we used. And like many Sabahans, he had no issue with having coffee with us at an ordinary coffee shop.

It is the same with the Sarawakians.

I continue to be blessed with having many Muslim friends, colleagues and family members who continue to see Malaysia from a very tolerant, multi-racial and multi-religious point of view.

Many politicians, by continuing to play the racial and religious card, have made many of us grow pessimistic about the future of Malaysia. These politicians are divisive in their approach and seem to take great joy in building walls that divide rather than bridges that unite.

Fortunately, the many ordinary Malaysians around us – the ones who matter, not those selfish, self-opinionated politicians – continue to keep the faith in this country. At the end of the day, it is these ordinary Malaysians who matter.

And sometimes the gem can come from the most unlikely source. As our politicians squabble over whether the Allah issue is applicable in the two states and whether the court ruling is confined only to the Catholic weekly, Herald, it had to take Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud to clear the confusion.

The Sarawak Chief Minister may not be the most popular politician in Malaysia but the fact remains that he delivers the votes to Barisan Nasional and he keeps the state as a safe deposit for the federal government.

So that gives this veteran politician plenty of clout and when he speaks, the politicians in the centre had better sit up and take note.

In his own words, “the Allah issue between Muslims and Christians in peninsular Malaysia does not affect Sarawakians because we are a tolerant people”.

“To us (people in Sarawak), there is no issue. We have lived with people of different races and different religions for many decade¬≠s, even before Malaysia,” Taib said in his first public statement recently on the issue since the Court of Appeal ruled that the word Allah could not be used by the Herald.

In case there were further doubts, Taib – who is sometimes branded a dictator by his critics – declared that the ruling was not binding on Sabah and Sarawak.

Yes, he also spoke on behalf of Sabah.

Taib, who has openly stated that he ¬≠studied and sat for the Bible exam as a student, said: “I myself come from a mission school and it never bothered me when other people made the sign of the cross. It’s because it’s their religion, expressing their respect for the Almighty. I can understand it.”

Taib said he would bow and offer his own prayers the Muslim way when his Christian friends made the sign of the cross.

In 2010, Taib had also spoken out against an attempt to curb Bahasa Malaysia Bibles from being freely brought into the state.

He described the Home Ministry order to stamp the Bahasa Malaysia Bibles with serial numbers as a “stupid idea” that should not be applied to Sarawak, and also called the restrictions on the Al-Kitab nonsense.

It is important to note that the assurance was also given by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak who said the Appeals Court’s decision on the use of the word “Allah” does not affect Christians in Sabah and Sarawak.

Najib said the contents in the 10-Point Agreement decided by the federal cabinet on the matter would be maintained for the two states.

Shame on many of us in the peninsula – there are certainly many things we should learn from our brethren in Sabah and Sarawak, bah!