In the book Introduction to Political Psychology (published by Lawrence Erlbaum in 2004), the authors assert that the best long-term solution to ethnic conflicts is "the development of an overarching common identity among the groups". In the case of Malaysia, this suggestion would call for the creation of a Malaysian Race (Bangsa Malaysia), a call embedded in the Vision 2020 (Wawasan 2020) blueprint announced in 1991 by the then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.
Malaysia is indeed a country blessed with economic prosperity and decades of peace and harmony. Many other countries who gained independence around the same period (in the aftermath of World War II) have been beset with periods of instability due to ethnic-religious conflicts. In contrast, Malaysia has had only one major racial clash, the tragic event on 13th May 1969. Yet, the situation in Malaysia remains fragile, and to some superficial. Though violent conflicts are very rare, tension is very high, thus the need to ensure that the multiracial society of Malaysia remains solidly united.
How can we use psychology to promote Bangsa Malaysia? My personal view would mirror the ideas expressed by B.F. Skinner in his controversial book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. According to Skinner (1971), to elicit change in a society, the culture of the society should be changed. To him, "designing a culture is like designing an experiment; contingencies are arranged and effects noted. In an experiment we are interested in what happens, in designing a culture with whether it will work." (p.69)
So, the question now is, how can we design a culture here in Malaysia that is geared towards the creation of Bangsa Malaysia? Changes can be made at different spheres and levels in the society through the education system and the mass media. These new initiatives are geared towards one simple objective: to promote greater ‘meaningful’ interaction among people from the various racial groups in Malaysia. This is in accordance with the contact hypothesis, which states that relations among groups can be enhanced by greater interaction, which brings forth greater awareness and understanding, and eventually a greater sense of solidarity.
At schools, students should be encouraged to learn about the cultures, religions and languages of other ethnic groups. Malay students for example, should be strongly encouraged (if not required) to learn Mandarin, Cantonese and Tamil, and learn to appreciate and respect beliefs and customs of the Chinese and Indians. I once argued in a workshop on inter-religious dialogue here in Kuala Lumpur that we should re-introduce the subject Tatanegara (Civic Education) in our national schools. Tatanegara was a short-lived subject taught from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s as a core course at primary schools. Although the course was no longer taught when I started school in 1984, I have come across some of the textbooks used for the course. In reviving the course, the new syllabus should incorporate information on common values shared by different religions and customs. Values such as justice, honesty and filial piety exist in all religious teachings, and this ought to be emphasized to students of all religions and beliefs.
In the past several years, the government has been running the National Service Programme (Program Latihan Khidmat Negara) to promote greater interaction among teenagers (age seventeen) of different races. Similar programmes (with similar goals but far less logistic requirements) ought to be introduced earlier at the national level involving for example Year Six students (upon completion of their UPSR examination), and Form Three students (after their PMR examination). The programmes should be non-academic but involve meaningful activities such as humanitarian work and environmental projects. By working towards a common goal, students from different racial groups will learn to cooperate together and realize the importance and benefit of national unity and solidarity. Inadvertently, this may also help diminish whatever sense of prejudice they may have against people of different races and religions.
I have sought the opinions of my students this semester on how we can use psychology to create Bangsa Malaysia. Many of their suggestions are similar to what I’ve stated above while they are others who have argued for a more creative use of the media. Among those are proposals for ‘multicultural’ reality TV shows such as Academy Malaysia and Intercultural Explorace. And, in addition, the airing of more bilingual informative and entertainment programmes with multicultural characters and subtle use of cross-cultural messages.
In conclusion, after more than fifty years of independence, multiculturalism in Malaysia should strive towards the true spirit of muhibbah (love and understanding). To be a member of the Malaysian race is not to lose our respective ethnic and religious identities but to attain a genuine feeling of respect of and tolerance for others.
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