We met on Friday March 7, 2008 at the polling and counting agent briefing for Lembah Pantai. It was an unexpected friendship which was birthed from unplanned circumstances. Both of us were thrown into a mini-crisis to sort out volunteer arrangements for the school we were assigned to. By 3AM on Saturday, March 8, 2008, after multiple phone calls, loads of stress, and a singular desire to make sure we have a workable solution, together with those who were REALLY in charge we knew we would at least survive the morning.
At first glance, we come from different worlds. He had more experience as a polling/counting agent, I was a newbie who did not have a clue what to do. He is working at a Management Institute, and I am a pastor of a church. He is a member of political party; I don’t have any political affiliation. He is a Malay Muslim, I am a Chinese Christian. He studied all his life in Malaysia; I spent a couple of years overseas when I was younger. He lives in the nearby crowded low cost flats; I am renting condominium with a swimming pool. There is nothing on surface which immediately unites us.
On second thoughts, we do have some areas in common. We are Malaysians. The next link is Bangsar, he lives there while the church I pastor is based there. We have a commitment to ensure we had a free and fair election, so being polling and counting agents was our contribution to the area in which we are working and living, besides voting in our respective constituencies. We are both young adults in our 30s, married with children; he has one while I have three. We aspire to see Malaysia become a better home where our children can blossom and grow. We are hoping that our lives can flourish in all aspects with a more mature democracy after the 12th General Elections of Malaysia. We were united on a path towards a common future we could agree together. Well, perhaps not in all the details, but at least as we started to talk to each other, and tried to listen to our common concerns, and explore some baby step solutions; we were heading somewhere better than where we were previously coming from. And more importantly, we became friends – friends in conversation and companions along the journey together. Yes, I have been talking with the “other side".
After the euphoria of the results of the last election, the elated feelings of hope now have come back down to cautious skepticism about what is the next step for our country. The recent UMNO-PAS talks have caused alarm among many non-Muslims, especially when many supported what they perceived to be a more progressive PAS. There have been voices from the Malay Muslim community which lauds this move by both parties. Of course, what we see is merely the tip of the iceberg; it is news generated from mainstream media which we can’t help but read with more than a pinch of salt. The latest news is that PAS reaffirms their commitment to the Pakatan Rakyat, and their refusal to cooperate with UMNO came to the relief of some and the frustration of others.
One thing is certain, I am learning not to allow the ups and down of my daily life to be determined by the headlines of the main stream media. There is always more than meets the eye, and in our current Malaysian context where news is based on spinning or speculation, so much effort is needed to read between the lines where we don’t have access to more reliable facts. I was amused when I read that a blogger was considering cancelling his satellite TV Astro subscription in the light of the political dramas these days. I’m glad I had not even started subscribing. The news and views on the internet are already information overload and for better or worse keeps me glued to the latest; better than any TV series.
Coming back closer to where most of us might actually be, the conversations with my new Malay-Muslim friend brought the issues down from the headlines to the heart of the matter for people on the ground. One’s perspective on issues surrounding “Malay Unity” is nuanced after hearing the genuine frustrations of being a Malay Muslim who does not have access to power. It was surprising to discover the deep distrust ingrained in those who have felt betrayed by their fellow Muslims. The surprise was not so much intellectual, but emotional, when one can “feel” the hurt in close proximity. I received an SMS one day asking me, “Do you still trust PAS?” Immediately, I was reminded of a statement slipped into our conversations over teh-tarik, “How can we trust UMNO after what they have done consistently in the past?” It’s hard for me to imagine the exact meaning behind this rhetorical question. But it’s a start.
While there were genuine concerns over the implications of these so called UMNO-PAS “Malay Unity” talks, there was an intuitive critical stance within me to question what was communicated through the main stream media, as well as what was really happening. I called my friend to ask him what he felt and how he perceived the matter – and it wasn’t as enthusiastic as the media portrays it to be. Then again, another important lesson I’ve learnt in our conversations that the Malay Muslim community are much more diverse then we give them credit for, even within their own political aspirations as well as religious emphasis. On another occasion, one unforgettable comment I heard from a conversation with a Malay Muslim academic was about how hard it is for intra-religious dialogue to happen in our country, so we can imagine the uphill challenge of inter-religious dialogue. As a Christian, and a pastor I can resonate with these sentiments in my own religious community. Its fascinating that sharing like this actually draws us in solidarity together as we deal with our own challenges in changing mindsets and postures to others.
Too often, our minds are only geared to see the issues before us either in “confrontational” mode or “compromise” mode. As Christians for example, if the only topics we are known for is related to religious conversion and our religious rights and freedom, then we have little else to connect with others not of our religious persuasion. Where in actual fact, there is much more happening and can happen in between which I would term as a friendlier “conversational” mode.
Polarities, conflicts and confrontation sell more newspapers. The opposite pole of compromise and lack of position sends the message that one does not have a back bone or easily labeled as a chameleon. When we are seen as a powerless minority, we don’t want to be seen as begin easily bullied. So, a lot of genuine cooperation and hidden conversations based on friendship and efforts towards a common future are too boring and mundane and are given less attention.
And yet, it’s these unseen conversations, invisible friendships and informal non-heavy-agenda-driven relationships which provide a healthier environment which contribute to the long term maturity of our democratic process beyond the recent “Political Tsunami” – a popular term some like to use.
Hopefully by now, the reader will guess that what I am trying to get at is not the official talks by those in power or in position. There will always be a place for that. There will be questions of religious freedom which cannot be swept under the carpet in the name of being nice neighbours to one another, or being politically correct citizens. We will still need to face painful experiences due to misunderstandings, perceived infringements of our rights as citizens guaranteed by the constitution, and difficult questions surfaced by the fact that we do live in a pluralistic society of differing beliefs and convictions. “Confrontations” and “Compromises” will be part of this process of wrestling with the complexities before us. What other ingredient is missing? What needs to be uplifted as well so we won’t be captive to the agendas of self-serving politicians, or a mass media which thrives of sensationalism and polarities?
May I humbly suggest, taking our “conversations” with those considered on the “other” side more seriously. I am referring to the ordinary citizen like you and me being willing to initiate or be responsive to opportunities to not just talk with those who at first glance are really different from us, but to genuinely listen to those we consider as the “others". Of course, after initial contact we might find we are in reality on the same side on many areas. We may also find we will be uncompromising on others. As we move beyond understanding and respect, where it includes genuine differences as well, there can then be real openings to envision a future together. We must never underestimate the long term potential our small efforts can do. It’s hard work. Someone has got to do it.
Sometimes we stumble on doing it without even realizing it. But to keep on in the same direction, it would take a real commitment to not just talking and listening but true friendship as well. It sounds really simple in the midst of so much complexity, but seriously, we need to start moving beyond tolerating each other, being suspicious of each other, distrusting each other to actually being friends. We don’t have to give up who we are, and we don’t become less of who we are, but we sure can grow and become more than who we would otherwise be.
I am looking forward to my next cup of tea with my “friend". We’ll have much to talk about ranging from the mundane bread and butter concerns to the media driven issues of Malaysia’s unpredictable dramatic political episodes. We won’t be in the papers where people will say, “Look who’s talking with the other side?". We are small fries. But then if the Butterfly theory works in the real world of socio-political change, at least we can be small butterflies where even when no one is looking, and our talking can make a difference.