Can we stop ranting about the shower canteen?
Two articulate writers, both lawyers, both Muslims, both patriots, have commented on the Seri Pristana primary school incident, which I too have commented on.
Art Harun's piece is titled "Once we were beautiful."
Art reminisces about his schooldays in a mixed race, English-stream primary school in the sixties. He names some of his Chinese, Indian and Malay teachers. He affectingly recalls being corrected by some of them. He notes it was then normal not to fast till Year Five and it was even normal, not disrespectful, to snack while walking about.
Art recounts his move to a "mixed" boarding school. He studied, played, ate and made mischief with friends who weren't Malays. Inter-communal mixing was normal.
Art laments that "non-Muslims don't send their kids to national school anymore," preferring vernacular and private schools. He points out that now national schools require students to recite morning prayers, have walls adorned with Quranic verses and are filled with Malay/Muslim students.
Art's point about the state of our schools today is:
"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.
Art says the superiority complex is the reason why "many national schools" close their school canteens during Ramadan, though that's not the publicly offered reason.
Art's view: Seri Pristana is only one of many national schools which close their canteens during Ramadan; canteens are closed because of a Malay superiority complex. The superiority complex arises from the "Islamisation" of national schools and non-Muslims who've responded by sending their children to other schools. We used to be beautiful, and were journeying on a joyous path to victory. Not anymore.
Zaid Ibrahim's piece is titled "When will kindness prevail?"
Zaid's first sentence is cautious. He says "if the reports . . . are correct."
Then he marches on assuming the reports are correct. He uses words like fiasco, ugliness, marred, furore. He says he's unsurprised at the predictable responses of ministers. He reminds us of the 2010 incident when the principal of a school in Johor made racist remarks against her Chinese and Indian charges. (What action was taken against her? Where is she now?)
Zaid gets to his explanation quickly. He says:
"What has happened is the result of heightened Malay-Muslim consciousness, promoted by politicians and Islamic bureaucrats who-under the cloak of race and in some cases religion or both – want to be identified as champions of their race and religion."
Zaid shares his vision for Malaysia: a nation of equals. To this end, he encourages non-Malays and non-Muslims to stop being overly respectful of Malays and Muslims. He encourages them to stop staying "in the background" and instead stand up for their rights. The astute politician adds that he recognizes this is the rightful aspiration of the young. Then he says:
"The real culprits for the present day distortion are the Malays who always blame the Chinese for their shortcomings, and the false Muslim preachers who teach the Muslims to have an all-consuming fear of God but then conveniently forget that Allah commands us to look after our fellow beings more than ourselves.
“What ails the country are these false teachings and false ideologies that are bereft of human decency and dignity, making meaningful relationships among the people of this country difficult to achieve."
Zaid's view: Seri Pristana is one of a continuing series of abuses of non-Muslim students by Malay/Muslim authorities; the root cause of the abuses is the inclination of Malay/Muslim leaders to blame "the Chinese" for weaknesses in their own communities; it's made worse by non-Malays/Muslims resorting to submission instead of respectful challenge. Zaid wants the prime minister to "remove the distorting prism that guides our present actions purely on the basis of race or beliefs."
I salute Art and Zaid, both Malay/Muslims, for writing on this subject and for sharing their opinion that the root cause of this incident is an unchallenged, crude form of race/religion.
I am surprised that they both quickly assumed the worst, i.e. that only non-Muslims were required to use the shower room as a makeshift canteen. I attribute their quickness to their greater watchfulness over developments amongst Malays/Muslims.
I still maintain that everyone should be assumed innocent until proven guilty. The headmaster is as worthy of due process as the next suspect.
It's worth recalling the issues in the Seri Pristana incident, which incidentally, have not been addressed by the deputy prime minister (who is also the education minister) and the deputy minister for education:
What's the government policy with respect to operators of canteens in public schools closing for business during Ramadan?
How many operators of canteens in public schools close for business this Ramadan?
What's the government policy on where non-Muslim students may eat during school hours during the month of Ramadan?
What's the government policy on closing canteen buildings during school hours?
Did the administrators of Sekolah Seri Pristana breach any established policies?
Since this is now such a public incident, when will the ministry complete the investigation and take appropriate action, if any, at Sekolah Seri Pristana?
I am an Indian, though I like to think I am neighbour first.
I don't know what right I have to speak for Indians, just as I don't know what right Art and Zaid have to speak for Malays/Muslims. I suppose we speak because we can and because we feel it is part of our civic responsibility.
I am regarded as an Indian; I do not downplay my Indian heritage.
I am aware of the lack of credit given to my community for the growth of this nation
I am aware that public schools have done little to promote self-respect amongst Indians.
I am aware that Tamil schools have failed just as miserably.
I am aware of the bad press my community currently has in the area of armed robbery.
I am aware of frequent deaths in custody of persons from my community.
I am aware of many non-Indians who stand up for "Indians," and vice versa.
I am also aware that many Indians use the "race/sensitivity" card. They adopt the Mahathir/Perkasa/Umno strategy and expect the same gains.
While we ask who speaks for the Malays/Muslims, let's not fail to ask who speaks for the Indians and the Chinese. The answer, I think, is no one.
Even within communities people are not homogeneous: Christians have stopped counting the number of their denominations; Muslims disagree over who can call God "Allah."
We have to stand up not only for "our own" rights, but also for the rights of others. At Sekolah Seri Pristana, and other schools nationwide, students and teachers should be reflecting on how they have stood up for the rights of persons who do not belong to their own communities. (Perhaps they are doing so. Isn't this a great time to talk in schools about minority rights?)
Regardless of what actually happened in Seri Pristana – and we really do need to know – many of us, across racial divides, are sure that our nation and our schools are in bad shape because of our apathy in the face of strident, government-tolerated racism.
Can we stop ranting and braying? Can we work together to make things better? How can we oppose government-tolerated racism?