ON March 9, 1974, prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein spoke about the incident that shook the nation, a grim reminder of intolerance that we can ill afford to forget.
“The May 13 incident was the watershed in our long journey towards political maturity and economic progress. It was an aftermath of the May 13 tragedy that we were prepared to sit together to find ways and means to solve our national problems. We realised it would be of no benefit to anyone to be selfish and to think in terms of personal, factional or communal interests, because in the long run, this will only delay the gradual process of national integration to which we were committed to when we achieved independence 17 years ago.”
There is a lot of truth in the saying: “What we learn is more important than what we set out to do.” What shapes our true character is more likely the misfortunes that happen to us rather than the beautiful moments that we cherish. This particular incident, which is seared into the nation’s memory, has provided us the wisdom we need to keep us moving forward.
As long as we are not fixated with the ghost of the past, especially during times when the past threatens to overwhelm us, we will realise that the way we reexamine our history changes constantly. Robust discussions held with an open mind will help us uncover new meanings that resonate more with our present climate, and realities coloured by a possibly different array of interests, inclinations, and emotions.
In many ways and situations, we often comment about how our younger generations are becoming adults who are lacking in substance and character, and have a strong innate desire for instant gratification. However, what we are not aware of is that the social skills that they have developed in the current digital era has actually helped them see situations of tolerance in a different light. There are the older members of the society who have been dragging this negative baggage from the past. They are, regardless of how mature they claim to be, unable to observe how the world is transforming and how individuals need to keep up with the changes in their surroundings.
Learning to be more socially sensitive is not like learning how to operate a machine or how to cook. It is more about learning how to feel at ease when adapting to changes that society appreciates and the economy rewards. It is a human interaction skill that is shaped by the digital network of the Internet, and nurtured by the communities in social media.
On the Internet, what the older, more traditional generation perceive as superficial, the younger Malaysians find virtual interactions socially important. Only in social media can one share moments of happiness or bad incidents with a wide audience who would actually commiserate.
From the social media platforms, our youngsters are able to transfer this skill of being socially sensitive from the virtual platform to their physical environments.
There is much evidence showing the ability of the younger generation in this country to form more communities of interests of diverse identities, beyond race, ethnicity and religion. With the entrepreneurial mindset, their growing concern with adapting to the changing nature in societal and commercial needs give more meaning to the lives they lead than advocating for equality and justice.
We have seen scores of initiatives by young adults in this country, whose bold ideas have made great impact on communities within our shores and also beyond. It seems plausible that social media can play a significant role in reducing the “blind spots in good people”, where our unconscious cognition on differences in identity is desensitised.
In terms of social tolerance and civility, I strongly believe that our current generation is paving the path towards accomplishing the nation’s aspiration in becoming and sustaining as a strong, united and a happy nation.
Together, across all generations, let us reexamine our nation’s past for new meanings to shape us more definitively as a melting pot.
Tun Razak reminded our nation that the task is clear ahead and that we must, therefore, put all our efforts to realise this and let not history in a decade or 20 years hence judge us and blame us as being irresponsible for not building a united Malaysian nation when we are all in a position to do so.
Selamat Hari Merdeka.
Dewi A. Sapuan is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Universiti Tun Abdul Razak