COMMENT The furore over a song recorded by Jaclyn Victor five years ago is a painful reminder that religious and racial extremism continues to freely haunt and divide Malaysia under a 55-year-old government.
Immaterial of the song's religious sentiment, Malaysians will always have to contend with people like Perkasa's Syed Hassan Syed Ali, who will insist that Islam must reign supreme with an iron fist in spite of a secular federal constitution.
The divisiveness has not only gone unchecked by BN for decades, it has been fanned and encouraged.
I was born weeks before Merdeka, and the Malaysia of my youth was never secular in practice or its government openly discriminatory to my Catholic faith. My religion and Indian heritage were my cross.
The township of my youth, Sentul, just off Jalan Ipoh in Kuala Lumpur, was a bustling and thriving concoction of Chinese, Malays and people from the wider Indian subcontinent.
Within a square-mile radius were mosques, churches of various denominations, Hindu temples and places of prayer for Buddhists, Sikhs and others.
Add the coffee-shops, stalls, cafes and restaurants that offered banana-leaf fare, laksa, chap fan, mee rebus, mamak mee, char siew pau and nasi lemak, and you had a wonderful township that embraced all ethnic backgrounds, races, religions and cultures, notwithstanding the baggage that came with it.
Most public schools were non-denominational, and boys and girls from myriad backgrounds studied and played together. Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali and Christmas would see whole, mixed-race groups of us visit our friends' homes en masse and 'halal' was not yet a force that segregated us.
Underlying it all, sadly, was a system that had already begun to make life difficult for the non-Malay and non-Muslim. Ultimately, my school record suffered, I descended from a straight-A student who consistently made the top five in primary school, to an angry, disillusioned young Malaysian who only managed less than his best in the LCE, MCE and HSC examinations.
Deep and meaningful friendships with Malays were lost and I developed, even nursed, a strong distaste for many things Malay and Muslim, resented every new mosque and call to prayer, and couldn't believe that pork-sellers at the wet market were suddenly relegated to a partitioned corner at the back.
Through the wonderful help of my best friend, a former classmate and Malaysian Baba who also grew up in Sentul as a Catholic, many of those friendships have been rebuilt through very happy reunions that he has organised on my every single trip home.
You cannot buy Malaysians like him, but you can corrupt a whole nation.
I now stand as a Malaysian who has thrown off the yoke that made me, in a sense, racist and bigoted. I no longer blame an entire faith because of some of its followers, and have awakened to the beautiful rainbow of races in Malaysia.
I can only speak from painful personal experiences, which I will recount here in hope and prayer that a new government will forever wipe out the destructive, soul-destroying practices and policies that allowed both institution and individual to make so many of us, impressionable and innocent, to see ourselves as 'us' amid the ever-encroaching presence of 'them'.
Discrimination and division
While this is only one Malaysian's story, the experiences I now share played out in a thriving and beautiful multi-racial community close to the heart of the nation's capital.
And from everything I heard and read about, Sentul was not the exception to the debilitating rule of discrimination and division that has dragged us to the Malaysia of today.
St Joseph's Church, 10am, Sunday morning, early 1970s
What was once a low sidewalk outside the church along Jalan Sentul, which allowed scores of cars to park after whole families were driven to weekly Mass, is rebuilt overnight by the local council, to a height that simply makes parking impossible. Suddenly, we have to park streets away from the church, if not simply take the bus.
Today, whole cities in Malaysia face transport gridlock as Muslims double-park on thoroughfares and main roads for Friday prayers, with the assistance of traffic police no less. We simply live with it, acceptance has descended into the irritable and ultimately insulting notion of tolerance, and we are long resigned to policies overt and covert that make the free practice of religion ever more difficult.
Form 2, La Salle Secondary School
I wake up one morning at home to read in the newspaper that I must achieve a certain minimum score in the Bahasa Melayu paper if I am to hope for a Grade 1 in the LCE. I immediately develop a mental block to learning that language, and in an ultimately self-defeating and warped exercise in resistance to the wider education system, I go on to pay the price in all subsequent exams.
Form 3, La Salle
Students are being registered to sit for the LCE in the school classrooms. One by one, each of us stands as the teacher in charge reads out our names and residential addresses, and asks us to confirm the details.
My turn comes up, and the Malay teacher reads out my full name (including my middle name and the name I have chosen for the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation): "William John Martin de Cruz," he reads out, pauses, and then adds for all to hear: "You don't want to add son of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, ah?"
Today, a single utterance of this nature, made against a Muslim or Islam, is punishable by law, while the BN government has publicly shown how it will dilly and dally as it mulls what to do with people who bring along a decapitated head of a cow to protest against the presence of a Hindu temple in a mainly Muslim neighbourhood.
Form 3, La Salle
My brother, his best friend and I form a singing trio that takes part in ‘Bakat TV’, a nationally televised talent competition that has us all riveted to black-and-white screens every Sunday night. Neighbours from my Jalan Kovil Hilir home crowd my living room on our performance nights.
Fanfare magazine, The Malay Mail and various Tanil newspapers give us publicity we never dreamed of; my teachers despair at the 'distraction', and say so in the remarks column of my report cards.
About noon of the Sunday when the finalists are to be announced in a special TV show, a RTM representative telephones us at home, to ask if it is true that our trio will be cut down to a duet - the national broadcaster has come to know that my brother's friend is due to leave for Britain to further his studies, and his departure will come before the date of the finals.
That night on TV, our group is named as a finalist. It is then announced that we have been disqualified - because if you begin as a trio, you must close as a trio. The women in my family cry, my brother and I are devastated, speechless.
Not long after, in the same talent quest, an all-Malay five-piece singing group enters the finals despite the fact that they have been reduced to four, and they go on to win.
1973/74, RTM headquarters, Angkasapuri
My brother and I are invited to perform at a Christmas TV special. We arrive at the briefing early one Saturday. As the performers and RTM backing band mingle, a clerk comes up to us and shows us a sheet of paper, with a list of words and phrases, typed out one after the other to make almost one-and-a-half pages.
It's a Christmas show, but according to that piece of paper (RTM policy on the run), any song we sing cannot have words such as Jesus, Mary, Joseph, God, saints, angels, Bethlehem, Alleluia, Christ, holy....it goes on, ad nauseam.
We nevertheless end up singing a Kris Kristofferson classic, ‘The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)’, which sounds religious but actually glorifies a legend among musicians who drinks, takes drugs and loves like the best and worst of them. We have thrown a stone at the fools on the hill, but a blindly ignorant RTM just doesn't get it.
1975, Registration Department
Despite the fact I was born in a Petaling Jaya hospital, and have the papers to prove it, I have lived with a red identity card (IC), which makes finding permanent work near impossible.
Upon my first application, I am told I am ineligible for that prized blue IC because my family cannot show proof of my late father's place of birth. Any number of people will attest to his being Malaysian, including respected government officials and professionals, but it is not good enough simply because we have no papers to prove it.
But there is a bit of light - I can attend an interview that will re-assess my eligibility. It comes down to one question that I now cannot recall, but I have the correct answer. I am granted a blue IC and get on the road to citizenship.
Ahead of me, in the queue of other 'Malaysians' also wanting that vital, blue IC, is an old, bent Chinese woman, whose chances of getting the correct answer immediately look dismal to me.
I clearly remember the question that is posed to her (it is simply put to her from across a counter for all to hear) - Who is the king of Malaysia? She replies, "Agong". She fails.
I later learn that she should have said, ‘Duli Yang Maha Mulia Seri Paduka Baginda Yang diPertuan Agong’. The poor woman was probably illiterate.
Today, we all hear stories of how citizenship is being doled out, constituency by constituency, to build voter blocs in any number of elections.
This is part of my story as a Malaysian of Indian background and Catholic faith.
This is why I must return to Malaysia to vote, as soon as the 13th general election is called, to help Pakatan Rakyat in any way I can.
And this is why I will be very vigilant of a new and welcome Pakatan government in Putrajaya, as a member of society who will strive to ensure such bigotry, extremism and racism as I have endured may only be relegated to the scrapheap of an ugly history we must all leave behind.
WILLIAM DE CRUZ is a Malaysian who resides in Sydney, Australia. He is a registered voter and fully intends to return to vote in the 13th general election.
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