Friday, January 26, 2007

Special Focus: Racial barriers still evident on campus (NST)

26 Jan 2007
Rina De Silva

Are public university students ready to make the ethnic relations module a success? The module covers basic concepts of ethnic relations, Malaysia’s pluralistic society, the Federal Constitution, economic and political developments in the country and challenges to ethnic relations. Is it true that there is a lack of inter-racial mixing on campus? The NST sent its reporters to find out. Below are their first-person accounts.

KUALA LUMPUR: The canteen at Universiti Malaya’s science faculty was bustling with chatter at 9.30am when I walked in yesterday. I was there to observe the level of racial integration among students. I had done the same last November, and it gave me an opportunity to see if there had been any changes since. At first glance, the canteen crowd was multiracial. The canteen was three-quarters full and bustling with chatter in Malay, Tamil and Chinese dialects. Just a few spoke in English.

I saw a group of Indian students and many groups of Malay students sitting at round tables, which could seat up to eight. Not all the seats at the tables were occupied. So when the canteen seats started to fill up fast, some students shared the tables with others, regardless of race. The ones seated earlier obliged in a friendly manner. But once they had settled down, there was an absence of communication among the different racial groups. But I noticed a pair — a Chinese and a Malay girl — who were obviously good friends. They spoke mostly in Malay. A group of three Malay girls came to sit with them.

But the new group did not talk to them, not even to the Malay girl. It made me think that maybe the students of the same race were not sitting together because they just did not know each other.

Some light was shed when science students Anuradha Kanasan, 23, and Nur Afini Md Saad, 22, came to sit near me. They became friends two years back just by saying "Hi" when they sat next to each other in a class during their second year. It was the start of a close friendship when they both found out that they were from Kedah.

Since then, they have studied, eaten and shopped together. I asked them about the racial segregation apparent in the canteen. "I think they do not eat with one another because they do not know each other," Anuradha said.

"I think language also plays a part. If you can’t speak another language well, it is difficult to interact," said Afini. During their first year, they experienced "culture shock" when they saw only students of the same race mingling with each other. The lecturers had to ask students to mix during their lectures. "You will see students sitting with other races because they are forced to," said Anuradha.

Lee Pei Pei , a 23-year-old from Ipoh, attributed it to "the school system and the environment they grew up in". Student Law Yee Song said he had friends of his own race until Form Two when he was made prefect at SK Datuk Abdul Rahman Andak. "My added responsibility forced me to get to know students of all races." But he often mixed with his Chinese friends.

"It is a cultural thing. I like Chinese movies and Chinese food. Only my Chinese friends would be interested in joining me." — By Rina De Silva

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Malay World and Civilisation Institute director Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, the editor-in-chief of the new Ethnic Relations module launched on Wednesday, talks to June Ramli about the eagerly awaited document.

Q: Is this module a revised version of the book from Universiti Putra Malaysia which caused a furore?
A: No. It is a new module and has nothing to do with the old one.

Q: Why did you take the job of editor-in-chief?
A: I have been writing about ethnic relations in Malaysia for the last 25 years and I thought I could share some of my views and opinions. Also, after reading all the chapters in the older module, I thought that it badly needed a rewrite. Some of the facts were totally wrong while some of the interpretations were biased.

Q: Do you think the course will succeed in improving inter-racial understanding at public universities?
A: It will not have an immediate effect but perhaps changes can be seen in the long run. Personally, I blame the school system for polarisation in universities. It’s a social baggage that students carry from schools. This is the first subject to address that matters and I hope it will initiate efforts to teach similar subjects in schools.

Q: Will it teach new interpersonal skills?
A: The ethnic relations module is not a formula on how to behave. Basically it is a critical thinking course which teaches students about the society that we live in and whether diversity is bad for them. The course is very specialised, so much so there are people who are not happy with this module. That is why we had the Cabinet take a look at it

Q: But ever since the first book was introduced it has created antagonism and angst, don’t you think?
A: Obviously, but I prefer to have people tongue wagging rather than parang wagging. So that is why I feel that this is the best thing that can happen to us. Because we can come out and voice our unhappiness. But what you see here is a continuous expression of people discussing topics related to race relations. You can ask any counsellor or psychiatrist and they will tell you that all this is very therapeutic as it is discussed openly. This is contrary to what many people have accused this country to be, which is that they were not allowed to speak much on race relations. But with the ethnic relations module, people can say anything which otherwise would be considered seditious or whatever (if there was no module). But this book has allowed open discussions.

Q: But many are questioning why the government chose to omit incidents regarding racial clashes such as that in Kampung Medan in 2001 in the new module. Why?
A: There are many cases of ethnic clashes. Some 60 odd cases in the country, to be exact. There is a record in the Internal Security Ministry and the British have it to. The biggest clash was in 1945 and it does not matter whether it was during the colonial time or not, it was still a clash in which some 3,000 people died. But the course’s focus is not on ethnic relations crises. If people want to find out about the clashes, they can do so.

Q: Would it be good to list all the clashes in the ethnic relations module?
A: Well, the DAP does not like it. Not the government, remember that. Regarding the last module, no one gave an opinion that it was good to be open about these things. I told the minister that the DAP talked about freedom of speech and autonomy in universities but when its name was mentioned in the UPM book, its leaders got angry. So the answer to all this is hypocrisy, and not the students. The Press also practises hypocrisy. It is only concerned with Kampung Medan and does not look at all the other clashes.

Q: How do you think people should view this course?
A: I think that people should take the advantage of looking at the openness of the subjects and discuss them in an open manner. Malaysians should realise how lucky we are and they should see that everyone in the world wants to use our country as a model country. That means we must be doing something right. Sometimes we do break down and incidents like the one in Kampung Medan are testimony to it. The module is basically a healthy way of looking at ourselves.

Reader's Comments

Jessie, Kota Kinabalu:
Dear NST, The said incident is not a stranger to most IPTA here in Malaysia. When I was doing my degree in UNIMAS, most of the students only mixed with their own race. But it has only been obvious for the peninsular students. Us however, the Sabahan and Sarawakian students easily get together and there is no obvious barrier among our culture. I believe that this barrier exists due to different prespective and opinion towards our own race value. It is such a sad experience seeing this especially now that we are globally known as a multiracial country. Nevertheless, some of my coursemates from the peninsular have begun to open up and mix well with us, the Sabahan and Sarawakian students. Still, this problem will persist if we continue being close-minded and too conservative towards other races.
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