I GREW up in a town house in Seang Teik Road, Penang, soon after the Second World War. The neighbourhood comprised Malay families, Indians, Eurasians and mostly Chinese.
Many of my friends were Chinese who could speak English. I picked up Hokkien.
The doors of the neighbouring homes were unlocked during the day, so I would enter and exit my friends’ houses through the front or back doors.
The mothers of my Chinese friends would ask whether I had eaten or was thirsty; my family would do the same for my friends who dropped by.
My adopted mother, bless her soul, took in and looked after a blind Chinese lady who I called MakNya. Despite her blindness, she was independent. MakNya later converted to Islam and died at age 86.
In the early 60s, I joined the armed forces and later served in other ministries both locally and overseas.
My Penang-born wife, who is of Arab descent from Kampung Syed (aka Kampung Arab), would often tell me stories about her Nyonya neighbours in Pulau Tikus, Burma Road.
Her family would exchange dishes and cakes with the Nyonya families. They lived side by side even after their parents passed away.
One Nyonya “auntie” was expert at sewing kebaya. She would visit Indonesia to buy batik sarong and bring back as gifts or to sell. Those were the pre-1969 days of close Chinese-Malay relationship.
To me, the scenario had changed when I returned in July 1977 after serving a few years at the Malaysian High Commission in Canberra, Australia.
I found that polarisation had started to creep into Malaysian society, and there was politicking in how we mixed with each other. That was the time of the al-Arqam movement throughout the country.
Whether we like it or not, this is a country of sultans and governors. The people are led by politicians who are of different races and creed.
Our leaders manage the country through power-sharing, as agreed upon before independence under the Constitution.
This (May 5, 2013) general election has shown greater divisiveness in our society. Voting was done with a racial bias.
Many countries envy us. There are those who want to use Malaysia for political gains, thus their attempts at using proxies to weaken us through racial polarisation. They have managed to do so to a certain extent because the Malays are divided.
Let us do something concrete to bring the people together before it is too late. Discard mistrust, come to an understanding as Malaysians. We need something substantive, perhaps a consideration for a Kementerian Perpaduan headed by a powerful minister who is tasked with drawing up racial integration programmes and tackling sensitive religious issues.
This ministry could then work with others on educational and business opportunities for all Malaysians.
We have achieved a lot since independence. Do we want to throw away our future and what we have built?
Ours is a beautiful and prosperous country that is for all Malaysians to share. We are looked upon as a role model and envied. So let us rise up from GE13 and do better.
By the way, why is it when asked about our nationality by a foreigner overseas we quickly reply “we are Malaysians”, but at home we identify ourselves by race?
We are all Malaysians. Saya anak Malaysia.
Dato Syed Jaafar
Chairman of MCPF Liaison Committee, Penang