Khoo Kay Kim - The 'lonely bridge builder'

By Wan Hamidi Hamid (From New Sunday Times Online of February 19, 2006)

Datuk Khoo Kay Kim, one of the architects of the Rukun Negara after the riots of May 13, 1969, is clearly unhappy with the fabric of racial unity today. The historian tells WAN HAMIDI HAMID that race relations between Malaysians are at their most fragile in nearly 40 years.

HE is one of the few who can lay claim to being an active member of the prospective, but elusive, Bangsa Malaysia.
Coming from rural Teluk Intan, he is fluent in Bahasa Malaysia, loves P. Ramlee songs, is married to an Indian lady, and has three sons who share his love for culture, the arts and people.
Yet, Khoo is unhappy. He believes that he may be one of just a few in this seemingly exclusive club in a nation that appears to be generally pulling in opposite communal directions after 49 years of independence.
The Professor Emeritus at Universiti Malaya's History Department has just cause to sound depressed after nearly a lifetime of championing racial unity.
He points to lacklustre achievements in racial unity as proof that communal ties are at their most delicate in nearly four decades.
The root of the problem, as he sees it, lies in:

  • a national school system that has become more communal despite its supposed non-ethnic and non-religious status;
  • the participation of political parties in national unity committees; and,
  • Malaysians ignoring the fifth tenet of Rukun Negara: good behaviour and morality.
He blames the education system which has become more communal despite its supposed non-ethnic and non-religious status for the growing division between the races.
Khoo, 69, says politicians planned their strategies according to the actual situation and hence fed on the problem.
"They feel that if they strengthen the position of the Malays, the Malays will think as one, and then they will always get votes from the Malays," he said.
This takes him to the second reason behind the problem: politicians who worsen the situation through their participation in national unity panels.
"Each political representative always feels he must fight for his own party.
"Since we have mostly ethnic parties, they are fighting for their own ethnic groups. It is very difficult to achieve any kind of consensus.
"For ethnic champions to survive, society must always be in a state of flux.
"If you don't do anything positive, things will get worse and worse. You have to address the problem."
Khoo understands that for a politician to get mass support, he must be seen as a champion of his ethnic group.
However, Khoo, who yearns for a day when Malaysians will share a single identity, warns that racial unity would continue to elude the nation if politicians persisted in harping on racial lines.
Khoo, a Human Rights Commissioner, is more than qualified to speak about racial unity.
He was called upon to help mend differences between the races as the nation lay smouldering after the May 13 race riots.
Khoo did not hesitate when the National Action Council asked him to sit on the committee to find ways to prevent the clashes from recurring.
The council, chaired by Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, was the governing body during the 1969 emergency.
"Prior to May 13, I was deeply disturbed by the kind of political campaigning that was going on. It was very ethnic; one ethnic group attacking another."
Headed by Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, the committee's membership comprised prominent Malaysians such as the late Tan Sri Zain Azraai and Tan Sri C. Selvarajah.
During the emergency, Parliament was suspended and the committee met at Parliament to discuss issues.
Among other things, they formulated the Rukun Negara, based on Indonesia's Pancasila. It was not a state ideology as in Indonesia, but more a guideline for citizens to live by.
They formulated the principles of Rukun Negara in such a way that common people would understand, as it would express the tenets of nationhood.
"For example, the first principle of belief in God does not mean we have to have a faith but since the majority of Malaysians are religious believers, it was only fair to make it the main tenet of the Rukun Negara," he said.
Khoo feels that a third reason for diminishing racial ties is the general disregard among Malaysians for the fifth tenet of the Rukun Negara: good behaviour and morality.
He feels that the races would be pulling together if more Malaysians practised the fifth tenet.
The affable academic, who has also helped shape the National Culture Policy has been through two racial disturbances.
He was eight years old when he witnessed his first race riot.
It was 1945 and the mostly-Chinese Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) were exacting revenge on Japanese collaborators in the aftermath of World War II.
The CPM and its military wing, the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army, had no mercy for Chinese miners and traders, and some Malays, seen as "enemies of the people" for helping the Japanese during the Occupation.
It was a matter of time before the Malays retaliated.
Khoo still remembers the violent clashes in Teluk Intan which had a profound effect on him.
"I always see myself as a bridge builder rather than a champion of any ethnic group.
"If I were very much a champion of the Chinese, how could I get across to the Malays? What we need today are more bridge builders, not ethnic champions."
His schooldays, to a large extent, shaped the way he saw society.
"During my schooldays, the most important thing in our football team was that we must win.
"We didn't care if the players were Malays, Chinese or Indians. If you're the best player, you're in the team."
Is there a way out of the ethnic quagmire?
"Teach cultural history," says the man who has been teaching history for a good 40 years.
Khoo believes the teaching of history in Malaysia is too political, preventing children from learning more about other cultures.
"Of course I don't like the idea of interfering with history. But if you teach cultural history, you don't have to shape it to what you want. You can expose the children to cultural reality."
For example, many Malaysians do not know the difference between a Punjabi and a Bengali.
Some have strange ideas about the religions of their friends and neighbours. All this is due to ignorance.
How does he feel that almost 37 years after he helped formulate the Rukun Negara and other basic principles of national unity, Malaysians are still polarised?
"What we have tried to do, unfortunately, never got through to the people. We were fighting against obstacles which were more potent.
"We called for national unity, understanding and tolerance, but at the ground level, we did not promote this idea.
"We didn't teach the children in such a way that they can begin to know one another's culture."
Is he satisfied with what he has achieved?
"I always feel that I have achieved very little. My conclusion is that when you're a true Malaysian, you're a very lonely person.
"It is because we're all divided by cliques. And when you're not with one, you're left out."

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