Pluralism is not a bad thing!
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 09 Nov 2012
Last month, my partner and I checked out our friends’ ongoing community arts project, Have a Holy-Day! in Brickfields. Like first class busybodies, we hung around for about an hour or so and snapped some pictures as proof that we were there.
Have a Holy-Day! was a self-guided walking tour to the various places of worships in Brickfields. Organized by Projek Rumah Ibadat Kita, a non-profit community mapping project to promote the understanding of different faiths in Malaysia, the tour was the result of a three-month effort by volunteer-participants who researched, photographed, videoed and mapped the places of worship scattered around Brickfields during a series of workshops. A booklet detailing the history and short ‘fun facts’ of each religious institution was designed and produced, as well as a map of where they are located in Brickfields.
Apart from Nagas, blind masseuse and my mother’s optometrist, I’m ashamed to admit that I know little of Brickfields. So I was delighted to have had a taste of the walking tour and got to know about the various different places of worship through the booklet (okay, so I cheated). I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the Madrasathul Gouthiyyah caters to the Hanafi followers. Amidst the increasing spew of Islamic fundamentalism, it is refreshing to know that one can find a mosque that opens its doors to other schools of thought right here in Kuala Lumpur.
Some time ago, I had passed a shrine near Jaya One with a deity holding a keris. I thought, wait a minute, how does a Chinese deity come to hold a keris – a visible symbol for the Malay? I was elated with this find! Curious, I asked my Buddhist colleague and she told me that the deity is known as ‘Na Tuk Kong’- a local guardian spirit. The origin of Na Tuk Kong is obscured but it is unique only to Malaysia as there is evidence of an inter-dependent relationship between Chinese and Malay. Seng Hong Temple in Brickfields houses one Na Tuk Kong named Dato’ Haji Hassan and also houses Lord Ganesha and Sri Maha Kaliamman - Hindu deities. The temple caretaker, Mr. Teoh beamed that the temple represents 1Malaysia!
Since the Arab Spring, we are constantly exposed to the Syrian Uprising that has spun out of control. Right here in Kuala Lumpur, we have an Orthodox Syrian Church and the only one at that. The church was established in the late 1920s by Syrian Christians holding services out of a rented hall in YMCA and later moved to their own church when it was built in 1956. The church conducts services in Malayalam, English and Syriac – a dialect of Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ.
Alas, a great effort does not come without criticism. I never thought I’d live to see the day that ‘gejala’ – a word so widely used to describe social ills can ever be put next to pluralism, a word that celebrates diversity and co-existence. The Malaysia Muslim Solidarity (ISMA) responded to the project as “...satu gejala pluralisme” (a symptom of pluralism). I’ve got to hand it to my kind though; we’re frontrunners when it comes to absurdity. I have no answer to why we fear pluralism when we have lived with it for centuries, and I don’t wish to relegate it to years of sustained race-based politics as the ultimate reason because the issue is so deeply entrenched in our country that looking at it from a political point of view merely scrape the surface.
It’s disheartening that Malaysia has gotten more polarised than ever before, to the extent that, if you search racial polarisation on Wikipedia, Malaysia is up there with, wait for it, Bermuda. For a country to have a history of close interaction and exchange; where cultural and lingual adoption and adaptation took place and is still taking place, yet still retains her multiple identities is truly a unique setting and exceptional only to Malaysia (insofar to what I have seen in my travels). But ugly Malaysia is showing her face more and more. Institutionalised racism is what we all grew up with, from all ends, but to have a Malaysia that is so perverse as to dare taint religious institutions or to breed bigots who forcefully submit people from other faiths to comply with their own were unheard of in the past.
Have we stooped that low?
But I think, there is a panacea to our situation and that is through exposure, education and exchange. That’s exactly what the kids at Projek Rumah Ibadat Kita are trying to do. ‘Kita’ itself is already inclusive (although when the project travels to Tuaran, Sabah this month, they will find that ‘Kita’ is colloquially used for ‘you’, the second-person pronoun), and using cultural mapping as a tool allows for personal discovery for the participants as they embark on this insider-outsider journey and the output from their learning is then shared with the rest of us. There is nothing lose but lots to gain by just opening ourselves up to other cultures and faiths. They may be a bit strange, but they are not strangers to us.
Visit rumahibadatkita.com to learn more about the project and to follow their progress!