Community, Featured, General, Mind, Philosophy, Politics

Rethinking ‘unity in diversity’

My article, originally published in MalaysianInsider

OCT 29 — There are two stories in the Bible about unity and diversity. The first is about the beginning of civilisations, and the second about the beginning of the church.

The first story is quite famous, about the Tower of Babel, found in the book of Genesis of the Old Testament. A long time ago, all of humanity were speaking the same language and shared the same culture. In other words, there was a lack of diversity. One day, someone had a brilliant idea, “why not build a skyscraper?!” That was the first mega project in the history of humanity recorded in the Bible. The plan was to build a tower so high that it reaches the heavens, believed to be the dwelling place of God. They wanted to become like God. God obviously thought that it was a bad idea. Their unity made them very proud and forgot who they were. So, the Bible said God confused the language of the people. The first skyscraper project failed and was abandoned because people begin to speak different languages and have different opinions. In other words, diversity emerged.

The second story, a lesser known one, is found in the New Testament, in the book of Acts. This is the story about how the church was started. Slightly more than three months after Jesus was sentenced to death as a political rebel by Rome, the Jews in Jerusalem celebrated the festival of Pentecost. Pentecost is the Jewish harvest festival. Tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world, from Europe to Africa to Asia came back for pilgrimage in Jerusalem. You can almost imagine the noisy narrow streets of Jerusalem, filled with excited pilgrims catching up on the news of the holy land, and most of them speaking in the languages of their adopted homeland — speaking in Greek, in Latin, in the Asiatic languages, in Arabic even.

And on that day, Jesus’ disciples were gathered in the upstairs of a house in Jerusalem. They were obviously very afraid, their leader Jesus was just being sentenced to death under the Roman version of “crimes against the King”. They were praying — that is probably the best thing a small oppressed minority can do. Then suddenly, God sent his spirit like a wind into the small room where the disciples were. When the spirit of God came to them, the disciples, led by Peter were suddenly empowered and energised with new passion. They began to come out of their hiding place into the streets filled with pilgrims and begin to speak about the message of Jesus Christ. The interesting thing was, the disciples were not speaking in their own language — Aramaic or Hebrew. They were instead speaking in foreign languages, languages they never learnt before, the languages from the places where the pilgrims came from. It was like Babel, there was a confusion of languages. But this time, despite the diversity, each of them spoke one message, the message of God’s love preached by Jesus.

Why do I tell this story?

I want to show that interestingly, and perhaps counter intuitively, our religious traditions have always preferred diversity.

A pivotal verse in the Quran, Surah al-Hujurat verse 13, celebrates diversity as being divinely ordained — “O mankind! We have created you from a pair of man and woman, and made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

Our religious traditions do not perceive diversity as a bad thing. In fact, from the biblical and Quranic texts I quoted, diversity was a direct consequence of God’s creation or intervention no less. And notice, the Quran did not say God made diversity so that we can ultimately have unity, but rather so that we may know one another, presumably so that we may learn from one another.

Hence, I want to invite us to rethink this whole discussion about trying to achieve unity in diversity.

Tyrants hate diversity

Hatred for plurality and diversity is a consistent pattern in authoritarian society. Dictators hated diversity. They promote unity as if unity is the ultimate good thing, but they are in fact afraid of differences. Notice how the moment our politicians see diversity, they are quick to propose “solutions” as if diversity is a problem. In recent times, we often hear calls for one nation, one country (1 Malaysia?), “kerajaan perpaduan”, or that the people should set aside “ideological and political differences”, whatever that means, and to “be united”. As it were, to be different and to express differences cannot be tolerated. To be different is especially problematic for those in power. When people are different, they are difficult to control and manage. It was Lenin himself who said: “Trust is good but control is better.”

When I said Lenin, don’t think hatred for diversity is a problem strictly confined to Cold War communist regimes. The goal of capitalism is to have singularity, a common market. It is easier to assume that everyone needs the same product and commodity. Hence, advertisements tell us, whether you are a Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan or Orang Asal, you need to buy such and such product. To the capitalist, it is definitely more profitable to be able to produce a product which can serve the need of everyone.

In fact I want to go a step further, how even in those who are progressive, we tend to see others not in the diversity of idiosyncrasies, but in the pretext of respect and tolerance, we often reduce others into “fellow human beings”. It is not terribly wrong, but if we think hard enough, isn’t this yet another way of “colonising” the other, trying to make them like us, a “fellow”? What happens is we risk creating our neighbours in our own image.

For many of us in Malaysia who are familiar with the Roman divide-and-rule political strategy, often employed by authoritarian regimes to ensure political survival against a strong uprising, to commend diversity can be problematic. Counterintuitive as it may sound, I want to propose that the solution to the chaos of diversity is not necessarily to force some kind of simple unity or even to have more tolerance, but rather, it is in politics — we must get our politics right because ultimately politics is the art of managing diversity.

Promoting diversity

Firstly at the individual level, we must realise that human beings are multidimensional. We must not allow our government to impose on us a single dimensional identity, for example, you are either a Bumiputera or not, you are either pro-government or anti-government. We may be from different ethnic groups but many Malaysians cheered Lee Chong Wei as he battled it out on the badminton courts. We may support different political parties but many of us share the love for durians, evidenced by the durian parties held every year in Parliament. We must allow this fuller multidimensional perspective of our neighbours and ourselves to emerge.

Secondly, we must be bold enough to promote the democratisation of culture. In Malaysia today, we see that the whole country is taken hostage by west coast Malaysians. For example, Malays in the west coast sought to impose our category of “Malay-ness” to the other parts of Malaysia as if Malays in Perlis and Selangor are the same and Malays in Penang and Terengganu or Kelantan are alike. There is an attempt to reduce the rich cultures within the Nusantara society into one single category — Malay. Hence, today, do we hear about the Acehnese or Bataks or Bugis, or Javanese or Minangs or Sundanese? Go to Indonesia and you will soon discover even with their geographical proximity, Bataks in North Sumatra are quite different from the Acehnese and definitely different from the Javanese and certainly to those in Jakarta. The same can be said of the different Chinese and Indian dialect sub-communities. We must celebrate this rich colourful threads which will eventually weave into the beautiful fabrics of the human society.

Thirdly, we must allow for the creation of different polarities in the society. We must not block the emergence of diverse (and it goes without saying legitimate) interests in the society, in other words, allowing a greater democratisation. This at least removes the tension away from the current bipolar competition, for example, between Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputeras.

In a very interesting paper pointed to me by my colleague Dr Wong Chin Huat, a fellow of the Penang Institute, the Federalist Paper 10, James Madison, a founding father of the United States, encouraged the formation of a large country with diverse demography to prevent the easy creation of factions whether a majority factions or a minority factions. To put it simply, in a truly diverse society, it is more difficult to gang up to bully others.

Finally, we must offer politics — I want to avoid using the old term emancipatory politics. So I am using a lame term, good politics. In my recent book “The Audacity to think: An invitation to rethink politics”, I said the answer to all the bad politics around us is not “no politics” but rather good politics. Why do I say the answer lies in politics?

We need intolerance

We are living in a world where the people are turning their back against politics, preferring to allow the “experts” i.e. politicians do to the job, often unsupervised. There is a general disinterest in politics, perhaps caused by distrust or simply ignorance. We no longer see politics as the arena to solve the problems of our society, from the distribution of resources to the dispensation of justice. The failure of the government is now almost wholly mitigated by the market from legitimate business providing goods and services to the black market providing an alternative system of order where government delivery fails (think about illegal parking attendants, syndicates extorting protection money, etc.)

Because of the general disregard of politics, the problem of economic and political inequality inevitably becomes the problem of race and culture. One is rich or poor or powerful or weak not because of some systemic injustice but because of one’s race, or religion. The solution, we are told, is to understand and tolerate one another, the other race is lazier, smarter, more scheming, or less savvy, but let’s try to live with one another peacefully. The classic example here is once again national slogans encouraging us to see ourselves as one country, one nation, one people — 1 Malaysia. The political problem of inequality thus becomes the cultural problem of intolerance. Hence we are then misled to think that solving the world’s problems is not through political action, not through the institutionalisation of justice but rather through respect and tolerance for those who are different from us — often we are told “jaga sensitiviti kaum”.

I think we must move beyond subjective tolerance into a more objective analysis of our social relationship. We will soon realise that our problem is not mainly one of intolerance but really injustice. Which brings us back to politics, or rather “good politics”. To paraphrase the words of contemporary philosopher and social theorist Slavoj Žižek, we are all united not by our toleration but rather by our intoleration, the universal intolerance against human suffering and human oppression. Žižek provided an anecdotal example of this sort of solidarity; speaking of the 2011 protest at Tahrir Square, Egypt, he observed:

“Here we have a direct proof that freedom is universal and proof against that cynical idea that somehow Muslim crowds prefer some kind of religious fundamentalist dictatorship… The moment we fight tyranny, we are solidarity. No clash of civilisations. We all know what we mean. No miscommunication here.”

At Tahrir Square, the people faced with a tyrant joined hands to deal with the oppression they faced. At the protest, it suddenly didn’t matter whether one is a Christian or a Muslim, the focus was the pursuit of the revolution. Even those watching the crisis from afar will soon realise that we too were in solidarity with the protesters as they demanded freedom and justice against tyranny. At that point, we became part of the human family.

The second example is closer to home, Bersih. Back in November 2007, during the first Bersih gathering in Kuala Lumpur, critics claimed that it was really a Malay agenda, only the Malays were interested and were present. The overwhelming majority of those who attended the first Bersih gathering were indeed Malays. But then we saw in Bersih 2 and then Bersih 3, how the demonstration crowd begin to reflect the multiracial demography of our country. And for those who cannot attend, especially from Sabah and Sarawak, they organised their own local Bersih gatherings. Once again, there is no miscommunication here. There was solidarity among Malaysians of all races to demand for a free and fair election.

We can be united along the lines of good politics, noting again this is the lame term I use for what was previously known as emancipatory politics; politics which deals with freeing humanity from oppressions. This is the politics of intolerance, not tolerance.

* Steven Sim is a councillor of Seberang Perai Municipal Council and the publicity secretary of Penang DAP Socialist Youth.

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