Empathy and Myopia: How Malaysians No Longer Understand One Another

By Farish A. Noor

Malaysia is once again landed with yet another predictable mini-controversy (as there are too many controversies at the moment, this one has been relegated somewhat) involving a report that was purported written by two Muslims for the magazine al-Islam. The report was written by the two Muslims who claimed that their intention was to investigate the allegations that Muslims were being converted to Christianity in the country, but the cause of the controversy lies in the fact that the two writers chose to pretend to be Christians and took part in Christian rituals of worship in the Church. For many Christians the most offensive aspect of the investigation lay in the claim that the writers took part in the rituals without revealing who they were, and that they consumed the holy wafer/bread of Christ, then spat it out, and photographed the remnants of what they had consumed later.

Now of course this begs the obvious question: How would Muslims had reacted if some non-Muslim journalists had done the equivalent; to enter a mosque, take part in rituals, photographed them, and then published the report in some journal?

In response to the clamour of complaints that have been issued, the authorities now claim that the two writers will be investigated, and if found guilty of carrying out acts detrimental to public order may even be imprisoned. This would not, however, address the key issue which is this: Have levels of emphathy and understanding in Malaysian society dropped to such an extent that someone could even contemplate doing such a thing without considering its wider impact on society and the consequences to others and themselves? Could the writers of the article not even consider the potential offence that they might have caused by assuming a fake identity only to take part in rituals they did not believe in; and did they not realise that this might have been seen as outrageous by others?

Empathy – the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another, no matter how different that other person is – and to share the pain, joy, hopes and aspirations of others is one of the variable factors that hold societies together. An alienated society that does not communicate with the various streams that flow within the broader mainstream is a society that is in danger of losing tough with itself and growing more fragmented and alienated in time. That is the juncture that we have reached in Malaysia, despite talks of national unity and one-ness.

Here again we need to look back to the structural and institutional factors that may account for this lack of empathy among Malaysians.
For a start, a quick look at our urban landscape will tell us that the shared public spaces that ought to mark out the contours of our public domain are rapidly deminishing. Our public parks and playgrounds are being replaced by shopping malls and condomeniums, and the shared spaces where young Malaysians may meet, interract and form lasting childhood friendships are being lost and eroded in time.

To compound matters further, our manifold multi-streamed educational system that still allows for different vernacular streams has also eroded the shared public domain where young Malaysians can meet and interact across the divide of ethnicity and language. Is it a surprise that some Muslims can walk into a Church to write a report as was done by the two writers today? After all, when we look at the social landscape of Malaysia at the moment there is precious little in terms of space where genuine inter-ethnic communication (and by this I mean meaningful communication, not ordering a pizza) can take place. The absence of a national educational system for all means that young Malaysians are growing up in not one but several Malaysias that are growing apart. I would not be surprised if the two writers were themselves from such a background, and had had little contact with non-Muslims in their lives.

This absence of a shared public domain where there is the recognition of different subjectivities is one of the factors that is compounding the problem of nation-building and that is why we as a nation remain fragmented and unable to empathise with one another. And in case Malaysia’s Christians are so offended by the article that was written for al-Islam (which it was, in this writer’s opinion) then they should spare a thought for the Muslim minorities who live among us too, such as the Shias and Ahmadis who have for decades now been branded apostates, deviants, heretics and outsiders within. I was informed recently that in our school exams today Malaysian Muslim children are even asked to identify the groups that are considered devaints/apostates, in a systematic and institutionalised manner of generating a sense of alienation and radical difference with others.

If this is the sort of social and educational landscape that we now inhabit and have to work with/in, how can there be the sort of empathy that is required for citizens to recognise the common humanity they share with others? Worse still in the present-day context of Malaysia, such strategies of deliberate Othering and alienation have become institutionalised by and through the educational process, as in the case of the exam questions for Muslim kids who are told to identify other Muslims as outsiders and deviants against the norm.

This, then, is the root of our problem today and the revelation of the report in al-Islam is just the tip of the iceberg. If we are worried about the impact that such reports may have on inter-religious understanding in the country, we ought to be more worried about the social environment that produced such reporting in the first place, and which sustains the readership of such divisive material. We are, in short, in a mess.

  1. #1 by SpeakUp on Wednesday, 15 July 2009 - 6:02 pm

    I wonder what PAS will say about all this? Also read this article in Malaysia Today:


    What will PAS say now? Are they 1 with the people or want to be 1People only?

  2. #2 by Loh on Wednesday, 15 July 2009 - 7:02 pm

    ///To compound matters further, our manifold multi-streamed educational system that still allows for different vernacular streams has also eroded the shared public domain where young Malaysians can meet and interact across the divide of ethnicity and language./// — Farish A, Noor

    The Vernacular schools have been unfairly blamed for preventing the students from meeting across the divide of ethnicity and language. Malaysians have no problems in terms of language in communicating. Students in vernacular schools learn the national language, Bahasa Malaysia, and English too. It is the language that they need to understand one another, not the speaker of the language.

    It is not true that students in Malaysia are not given the opportunity to be in the same campus, except UiTM which caters only almost entirely to Malays. It has been observed that more than 95% of the students in universities in Malaysia stick together only with friends from the same community groups. They are doing so not because they came from different medium of instructions, but because they are sensitized to speak only the correct words. How would non-Malay from families who have to borrow to send them to the university feels when they see the Malay classmates of similar economic and academic background being provided with scholarships? To them the less they are reminded of the inequality in society caused by the government, the better they would be to concentrate on his study. The divide is not cause by the language, it is by the government that choose to government through clear division of ethnicity.

  3. #3 by Woof on Wednesday, 15 July 2009 - 8:09 pm

    What do you expect from leaders who took refuge in a relatively unknown provision in the constitution to deny freedom of religion from 60% of the country’s population?

  4. #4 by Woof on Wednesday, 15 July 2009 - 8:15 pm

    “Empathy – the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another, no matter how different that other person is – and to share the pain, joy, hopes and aspirations of others is one of the variable factors that hold societies together.” Farish A. Noor

    It is not about empathy. It is about respect.

  5. #5 by Joshua on Wednesday, 15 July 2009 - 8:32 pm

    Quote: “and that they consumed the holy wafer/bread of Christ, then spat it out, and photographed the remnants of what they had consumed later.”

    It is quite a feat to have it spat out and then photographed within the church as the wafer would soon be soluble inside the mouth within one minute. If that was done it would be seen by other worshippers who should have reacted then rather than wait for the article in Al Islam.

    So was the article with an agenda so common done by some Muslims with intention only known to themselves possibly to stir up something.

    This bring us to a case in the Sembulan State Mosque in Kota Kinabalu in March 1986 where a converted Muslim Malik Chua made some six red crosses on the concrete entrance board of the mosque hoping that the Christians would get the backlash by an overreaction of the Muslims reacting in like manner for desicration of the Islamic place.

    Christians never did that as nobody would go near there as there were few hundred Islamists in demonstration heigthened mood inside the mosque compound for a few days against the PBS’s state government.

    The fact is the red markings (feature symbols) are still to be seen despite many times of erasing by whatever materials over those red marks.

    The church is open to all especially sinners as welcome by God.

    pw: dady picknickers

  6. #6 by sheriff singh on Wednesday, 15 July 2009 - 10:09 pm

    I am told that before the communion, announcements will be made that only baptised and practising Catholics and no others can participate in the communion. Yet these two Muslims went forward to participate in the communion.

    The host, to Catholics, IS the body of Jesus Christ so it is very holy and not to be taken lightly. Catholics treat the blessed host with utmost respect and reverence.

    The priest and his assistants will say “The Body of Christ” to each and every one when they hand out the host during communion. Yet these two Muslims treated it with disrespect, whether knowingly or unknowingly. They have had advance notice of this solemn ritual.

    Yet they received “The Body of Christ” (they called it “roti”) into their mouths and later spat it out, photographed it and published it in their magazine. A disrespect of the highest order. How have they treated this “Body of Christ”? Where is it now? No wonder the Catholics are incensed!! But they, the Catholics, have chosen to remain calm and are trying to resolve this peacefully. If it had happened in another country of another religion, there might have already been demonstrations and the like.

    The next issue is that the two muslims have ACCEPTED the Body of Christ after they have been made aware of it. Does this now make them muslim apostates for accepting the Body of Christ? The Sharia Court should haul them up and question them whether they are still Muslims. Perhaps even make them go through a purifying process.

    These two “muslims” should immediately return the “Body of Christ” back to a Catholic Church and personally seek forgiveness from the Catholic Church.

  7. #7 by ktteokt on Wednesday, 15 July 2009 - 10:39 pm

    Do not unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you!

  8. #8 by negarawan on Wednesday, 15 July 2009 - 10:47 pm

    I would like to see how Najib handles this issue under his so-called 1Malaysia banner.

  9. #9 by OrangRojak on Thursday, 16 July 2009 - 12:46 am

    by sheriff singh No wonder the Catholics are incensed!!
    ROFL – oh wait, maybe you didn’t mean that to be funny.

    Catholicism is in a difficult place with respect to idolatry, isn’t it? I think a lot of Christian churches view some of the Catholic rites as idolatrous. I don’t know how Islam is with regards to idolatry, although I recall they weren’t too keen on cartoons.

    It’s easy to rise up on the side of the Catholic Church in this matter, but to the two journalists, some Catholic practices might be indistinguishable from the worst kinds of sin (in their tradition). Some branches of Christianity view many aspects of Catholicism as idolatry – against the Second Commandment (is it 2nd? I’m a bit rusty). Since the Middle Eastern religions share so much in common, I’d imagine Islam might be quite anti-idolatry too.

    I realise this is Malaysia, where numbers and how you make your tea can be politicised, but I think the Church could have easily taken this one in its stride. I think “turn the other cheek” and “love one another” would serve them better in the long run. It’s religion, – one group believe one thing very strongly, another believes a different thing very strongly. What scope is there for respect when one group considers the other idol-worshippers who in turn view their competitors in the faith market as “inhumane”?

    There’s no scope for empathy between fiercely religious people without also compromising their beliefs. I suspect in a golden age or location – where there’s greater empathy between people of different faiths – that there’s actually less commitment to faith. Views on whether that’s a good or bad thing will vary.

    For the people directly involved in the case of the religious disrespect, it’s no doubt upsetting. For the whole of Malaysia, I think there are more immediate and worse things to deal with. I don’t think this case is, in itself, a sign of a terrible lack of empathy between Malaysians. It’s more of an interesting marker at one extreme of the empathy spectrum.

    I’ve had a few nights out near here where empathy seems to be as good as any place I’ve ever been to. All flavours of Malaysian seem to be represented, with no discernible cultural distance between them. Maybe places of worship aren’t the ideal place for Malaysian unity to be forged?

  10. #10 by Onlooker Politics on Thursday, 16 July 2009 - 1:29 am

    We all should leave all matters pertaining to God only to the jurisdiction of God. Why must a Muslim who believes in Islam get himself involved with the preaching activities of another lawful religion like Catholicism if the sermon of Catholicism has been given by a Catholic preacher within the limited compound of a legitmate place of preaching like in a Catholic Church?

    Only the religious fanatics will attempt to interefere in the legally-permitted preaching activities of another lawful religion!

  11. #11 by Lee HS on Thursday, 16 July 2009 - 1:36 am

    Religion teaches one to be enlihgtened and wise.

    If one claims that his religion is the best in the world then one sees no enlightenment and wisdom.

    One is just a pseudo believer!

    This pseudo believer will cause chaos with this religious prejudice.

    What is the use of this “best” and “true” religion if it cannot even bring harmony and peace into this world?

  12. #12 by frankyapp on Thursday, 16 July 2009 - 2:48 am

    The two muslim guys have shown great disrespect to the catholic church,the priests ,the catholics and most of all disrespect God Almighty.Let us not critize the accused,instead we critize the intention and purpose of the two accused. They attempted and succeeded to fulfil their purpose. They exposed it to the public through an islamic magazine Al-Islam and now find themselves in a kind of a controverial trouble. As a catholic,I think if someone is caught in any wrongdoing,we are spritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit,watching out for ourselves,so that we won’t be tempted aslo. Remember Paul’s letter to the Galatians 6:6-10. “Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked.For whatever a man sows he will also reap,because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh,but the one who sows to the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit.So we must not get tired of doing good,for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up.Therefore,as we have opportunity,we must work for the good of all.especially for those who belong to the household of faith.This are the reasons why catholic always remain calm and restrain when certain outrageous act against them.I hope and pray others too can join us(catholic) to be able to remain non critical and non violence.

  13. #13 by johnnypok on Thursday, 16 July 2009 - 3:12 am

    The two idiots have unsound mind, and they will definitely suffer from all kind of bad luck for the rest of their lives. Don’t ever play play with any kind of religion, for you will will surely end up in the mental hospital.

  14. #14 by HJ Angus on Thursday, 16 July 2009 - 6:57 am

    That is what happens when we don’t teach religious tolerance and respect in schools.
    If you observe carefully, all the programs on religion shown on government media only show one religion as if the other religions only deserve a one minute coverage only during major festivals.
    I would say that these 2 misguided persons have committed a grave offence and I am sure ALLAH is the best power to decide their fate in this world or the hereafter.

  15. #15 by pohsoonTan on Thursday, 16 July 2009 - 12:53 pm

    The writer had correctly pointed out that the diminishing of open space had make it difficult for people from all walk of life to interact with each other.

    However, the highlight of vernacular school ONLY is unfair. The following are some of the reason:

    1. Vernacular school is not exclusively for chinese only. Malay, Indian or any other races can also attend it. The fact is there are quite a number of Malay attended vernacular school each year.

    2. Vernacular school have the same curiculum as any sekolah kebangsaan, which also teach its student to be patriotic and such. Malay language also being teach in the school. On top of it, there are various inter school events that allowed student from such school to interact with student from other sekolah kebangsaan as well

    If the above reason can’t convinced the writer, then to be fair, the writer should not only pin point the vernacular school, but should also at least pin point the following:

    1. madrasah
    2. MARA

  16. #16 by ebcheong on Thursday, 16 July 2009 - 5:13 pm

    this is not a new things. it happen almost everyday. too tired of it, right? but what can we do, the problem will never change if their mentality never change.

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