Tan Yi Liang




WHAT is a phobia? I checked a couple of dictionaries and I kept getting the same answer – an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

And looking at what’s been splashed all over the headlines lately, plenty of that “extreme or irrational fear” has been going around this blue marble of ours.

Let’s start with what happened in the United States last Thursday, when 14-year old Ahmed Mohamed brought a home-made clock to school as a project to impress his new classmates and teachers.

However, this all blew up in Ahmed’s face, when teachers and school administrators accused Ahmed of bringing a hoax bomb to school – an accusation that ultimately led to Ahmed being taken away from his Dallas-area school in handcuffs.

And although it all worked out great in the end for Ahmed – who has been invited to a White House astronomy night – the Council on American-Islamic Relations hit the nail right smack on the head when they said that Ahmed was singled out because is Muslim and the case serves as an example of religious bigotry.

This is a textbook case of Islamophobia. An extreme or irrational fear of Muslims, which in this case led to a school treating a young innovator in a downright ugly, biased and unfair way.

And in thinking about these phobias in general,  it would seem that there are groups in Malaysia who live with phobias of their own, with the Himpun 16 rally standing out as an example of a group of Malaysians reacting in a rather irrational manner. A phobia of their own.

It’s obviously not Islamophobia, but judging from the hate spewed at my friends who went down to the ground to cover the Himpun 16 rally – especially those who covered what happened at Petaling Street –  there was a different phobia on the ground.

I’m no expert, but I think what happened there was an example of xenophobia, an irrational reaction from the crowd on the ground that emerged out of a hatred for other races.

These two incidents, Himpun 16 and Ahmed’s persecution reminded me of a saying that explained how fear is the path to the dark side in us all.

Basically fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate – and ultimately, hate leads to suffering. And we’ve certainly seen a lot of that lately.

We definitely need to put a stop to this and start trying to build healthier relationships with each other, because to quote constitutional lawyer and activist Syahredzan Johan, racism and bigotry must not be left unchecked as they are threats to the already unhealthy state of national unity.

Syahredzan is spot on when he says that unity does not mean we disregard our own distinct identities – our diverse cultural, ethnic and linguistic identities.

Indeed, unity ultimately means that we learn to evolve past our phobias and develop a climate of mutual respect, understanding and appreciation for our different cultural and ethnic heritages.

And this is something I feel we can and should do now, instead of waiting for some government campaign or effort to nurture national interracial and inter-religious unity.

The time has come for us to get out there to sit down and really work hard to get rid of these “phobias”, and the most effective way we can do that is to replace our apprehension with knowledge and understanding for other cultures, religions and ways of life.

This is something that can come easily for all of us, regardless of whether we’re Malaysian, American – any nationality, really.

We just have to take the initiative and make the first steps ourselves to learn how to show everyone some respect and courtesy, regardless of the ethnic background they identify with, regardless of the religion they choose to practice, indeed regardless of whether they practice and profess a religion.

Because at the end of the day, everyone walking out there is a person with feelings, hopes, dreams and aspirations – just like you and I.

So with that, how can we approach people and build bonds that reach out to those who practice a different culture or way of life from us?

One way to start can be by picking up a book on the do’s and don’ts of different cultures, religions and ways of life, or even Googling up reliable websites to learn those do’s and dont’s to build a foundation for our interaction with people from different cultures, religions and ways of life.

We can then build on this by making sincere efforts to get to know our colleagues, classmates, or even neighbors of different races and religions, and a good way to do that is to celebrate their festivals with them, and to invite them to celebrate our festivals with us, as cliched as that might sound.

And we can also help in the process by being approachable and knowledgeable in our own culture, religion or way of life, as we can build bridges by being open to questions and giving reasoned, informed answers to those questions.

The time has come for us to begin learning how to cherish the beauty of infinite diversity in infinite combinations. So, let us lose our phobias and if need be, our red shirts if we’re to truly live long and prosper as people.


Originally published on The Star on Wednesday September 23, 2015 MYT 9:08:00 AM