Chil­dren should be en­cour­aged to mix with those from other races

New Straits Times - - Opinion -

MAMA, would it be ok if I go play with him?” asked Andi as he pointed at an In­dian boy in a restau­rant, who was about his age. “Of course you can,” I an­swered.

“But, he is In­dian, boleh ke mama?”

You see, Andi goes to a school in a dis­trict heav­ily pop­u­lated by Malays. He is, I am afraid, not pre­sented with a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties to so­cialise with nonMalays, and be­cause of that, prob­a­bly felt ap­pre­hen­sive about do­ing so.

The lack of in­ter­cul­tural in­ter­ac­tion is some­thing I also ob­serve in most of the classes I taught, al­beit out of the stu­dents’ per­sonal choice. Sadly, I of­ten see stu­dents con­sciously or sub­con­sciously seg­re­gat­ing them­selves in my lec­ture hall, sit­ting ac­cord­ing to their eth­nic­i­ties. Not only that, they will hardly do group as­sign­ments in a multi-eth­nic group, un­less I use my veto power. My ob­ser­va­tion con­curs with stud­ies con­ducted by Prof Dr Ezhar Ta­mam, an in­ter­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ca­tion scholar.

Ezhar did a num­ber of stud­ies on interethnic and in­ter­cul­tural re­la­tions among stu­dents in Malaysian uni­ver­si­ties. He found that their in­ter­ac­tions were struc­tured, for­mal and reg­u­lated. Sim­ply said, very much like what I ob­served in my lec­ture hall, he found that stu­dents of dif­fer­ent cul­tures and eth­nic­i­ties usu­ally only in­ter­acted with each other if they were re­quired to do so. So­cial­i­sa­tion, like go­ing out for teh tarik at ma­mak stall or watch­ing movies to­gether, was not a norm. Iron­i­cally, th­ese were also the same peo­ple who, in the ques­tion­naire dis­trib­uted, viewed interethnic in­ter­ac­tion as very im­por­tant.

I feel that it is such a shame, be­cause I have ben­e­fited so much from in­ter­cul­tural re­la­tion­ships. When I was in school, my best friends were mostly non-Malays. Chi­nese New Year meant go­ing to Min Tsui’s house for ha­lal noo­dles. Deep­avali would be Sri Kavi’s for scrump­tious curry and mur­ruku. I would go for sleep­overs at Yeok Cheng’s, and she would un­der­stand that I need to per­form so­lat at a stip­u­lated time and would al­lo­cate a place for that.

Th­ese in­ter­ac­tions have, un­doubt­edly, made us un­der­stand each other and cel­e­brate the di­ver­sity that makes us 1Malaysia. We read­ily ac­cepted each other’s cul­tural pref­er­ences and dif­fer­ences with­out be­ing judg­men­tal.

So­cial­i­sa­tion with friends and peo­ple of dif­fer­ent cul­tures, I be­lieve, play an im­por­tant role in form­ing per­cep­tion of peo­ple. This re­minds me of some in­ter­est­ing find­ings I un­earthed while do­ing my PhD re­search. I had the op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­view a few young Malays and asked them about their per­cep­tion of Chi­nese and In­di­ans.

They opined that In­di­ans were just like the stereo­types in some of the tele­vi­sion pro­grammes they had watched — hot-headed, ag­gres­sive at times and de­manded re­spect. Chi­nese, they said, were very dif­fer­ent. On tele­vi­sion, Chi­nese, they said, were gang­sters, Ah Longs and DVD ped­dlers. In real life, they said, Chi­nese were very good in busi­ness and were very re­spect­ful of their el­ders.

What made them be­lieve the stereo­types of In­di­ans? The an­swer is pretty sim­ple — they have no In­dian friends. Be­cause of that, they gath­ered their in­for­ma­tion about In­di­ans from the me­dia, which may not be true.

How­ever, they do have a lot of Chi­nese friends in school, and that en­abled them to iden­tify the dis­crep­ancy of stereo­typ­i­cal roles in TV pro­grammes. I de­duced that the lack of in­ter­ac­tion with peo­ple of a dif­fer­ent eth­nic­ity may cause an in­di­vid­ual to build a neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of them. Like the say­ing goes, tak

ke­nal maka tak cinta (you can’t love what you don’t know).

Ac­cord­ing to Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist Gor­don All­port’s In­ter­group Con­tact The­ory, the more one in­ter­acts with each other, the more they are fa­mil­iar with each other, and this, in turn, cre­ates un­der­stand­ing. In fact, schol­ars main­tain that in­ter­cul­tural so­cial­i­sa­tion pro­motes pos­i­tive at­ti­tude, sup­ports in­te­gra­tion and de­creases hos­tile per­cep­tions.

Thus, in­ter­cul­tural friend­ship should be en­cour­aged among our chil­dren and so­ci­ety. How­ever, un­der some cir­cum­stances, one may not have the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a mean­ing­ful in­ter­cul­tural re­la­tion­ship. What can we do about it?

In this con­text, I ap­plaud Har­vard Univer­sity’s move in in­tro­duc­ing a free on­line class on reli­gious lit­er­acy — Reli­gious Lit­er­acy: Tra­di­tions and Scrip­tures — es­pe­cially in light of the mis­con­cep­tions about Is­lam. Ac­cord­ing to the web­site, the class aims to give par­tic­i­pants a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing on the “rich and com­plex ways that re­li­gions func­tion in his­toric and con­tem­po­rary con­texts”.

Per­haps, it is time we fol­low suit and cre­ate a class, on­line or not, on interethnic lit­er­acy. Af­ter all, the abil­ity to tol­er­ate and un­der­stand each other is im­per­a­tive in build­ing a suc­cess­ful mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety.

When I was in school, my best friends were mostly non-Malays. Chi­nese New Year meant go­ing to Min Tsui’s house for ha­lal noo­dles. Deep­avali would be Sri Kavi’s for scrump­tious curry and mur­ruku.

A kid’s draw­ing at a school in Kuala Lumpur in con­junc­tion with last year’s Na­tional Day cel­e­bra­tion. In­ter­cul­tural so­cial­i­sa­tion plays an im­por­tant role in form­ing per­cep­tions of peo­ple.

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