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6 Moments In History Where Racial Unity Triumphed

Every one of us must respect each other’s rights and feelings, be tolerant of each other’s religion, customs and habits, for in diversity can we find real unity. – Tunku Abdul Rahman[1]

The visionary Founding Fathers of Malaysia laid the bricks for our nation, fostering unity among diverse ethnic groups and upholding democratic principles. Long before the advent of government slogans such as “One Malaysia” or “Keluarga Malaysia” aimed at binding a nation together in recent years, history has consistently demonstrated that Malaysians set aside our differences for the nation. 

Despite the National Unity Index 2022 findings at a moderate score of 0.629 painting a picture that there’s still room for improvement[2], implying that it has yet to attain unity in the context of its racial and cultural diversity – let these moments and excerpts from the past be a beacon of hope. 

#1: Tales Of Harmony And The Legacy Of An Exemplary Statesman


Hearing firsthand from our elders or those who lived in the pre-Merdeka days, many shared poignant stories of how the racial lines were blurred. Some reminisce about the olden days, fondly recalling a different era. 

Habibah Kader Mastan, a centenarian who has participated in every general election since the country gained independence, except the last one due to her relocation from Perak to Selangor, reminisced about the earlier times when there were lesser racial or religious frictions.

In the early days, we lived like one big family. People back then weren’t driven by greed; they didn’t only think about themselves but always considered the welfare of others. It wasn’t like this in the past. Many Malays used to adopt Chinese and Indian children. Indians, in turn, adopted numerous Chinese babies, and it was common to see Chinese children with a ‘pottu’ on their forehead. Sadly, that’s not something you see these days. Habibah Kader Mastan, a centenarian[3]

The country was led by those who upheld the values of unity rather than treating them merely as an agenda. One such statesman was the exemplary Tunku Abdul Rahman. In the face of dissent among party members in the Malay-majority political party UMNO, who wanted to burn down the Lake Club, labelling it as being too “white”, he defied the prevailing sentiment and became the club’s patron[4]. On another occasion, he sent a note of congratulations to the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on their 50th anniversary[4].

All men of goodwill and peace must fight against poverty … I know that St “Andrew’s Presbyterian Church is doing all it can to spread the message among Malaysians in all corners of this country and I have no doubt it will succeed. May I wish the church in the coming years all success and the blessing of God’. Tunku Abdul Rahman, excerpt from Abiding Times, by Tunku Zain Al’Abidin[4] 

In another instance, when he officially opened the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism seminar, he expressed his wish that the Muslim representative would be part of the discourse[4]

One day I hope that a Muslim religious body might join in, as the object of this organisation is very good and farsighted … it is the duty of each and every one of us, living in this country, to ensure peace for all time.Tunku Abdul Rahman, excerpt from Abiding Times, by Tunku Zain Al’Abidin[4]

#2: Malayans First, Irrespective of Race

Source: Relevan

What better way to reflect on a triumphant moment of unity than the historic fight for independence? Orchestrated by Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, and supported by political leaders like Tun Dato Sri Tan Cheng Lock (MCA) and Tun V. T. Sambanthan, president of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), along with the collaboration of Tun Dr Ismail, walked side-by-side towards a common goal. 

The negotiations with the British in London for Merdeka took place only after successfully achieving unity among the Malay, Indian, and Chinese communities, culminating in an agreement reached on 8 February 1956[5].

It is the firm conviction of the writer that the ideal to be aimed at by every community in Malaya is that they should learn to regard themselves as Malayans first irrespective of their race. This should not only for inter-racial unity and harmony such as has so conspicuously characterized, for instance, Switzerland, but would also contribute to the unity, strength and stability of the Malayan State, which would thereby enabled to raise itself (the country) to the rank of a worthy and important partner in the great British Commonwealth of Nations. – Tun Tan Cheng Lock, On the occasion of drafting a Memorandum On “Self-Government” in 1943[6]

With financial constraints threatening the London mission, Malaya, at the time, rained the delegation with old chains, necklaces, earrings, bangles, bracelets, watches, rings, money, and coins. Together, Malayans, despite race boundaries, showed solidarity in supporting the cause they are championing – to be a self-governing nation[5]

#3: How Tun Sambanthan Came To The Rescue When Lion Dance Was On The Verge Of Being Banned 

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was not the sole consequence of the 1969 riots. Aiming to secure social cohesion moving forward, the government-sponsored a National Culture Congress in 1971. Attended predominantly by Malaysians, this congress played a crucial role in formulating a national culture policy. The primary objective was to shape a Malaysian cultural identity that aligns with both Malay and Islamic values[7].

The lion dance, considered foreign at the time, gained prominence in 1974 when performers welcomed Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak after his diplomatic trip to China. Over the following two years, numerous influential Chinese cabinet ministers and politicians voiced their support for the Selangor Federation of Lion Dance Associations. Efforts were in place to officially recognise the lion dance as part of the national culture[8].

In May 1979, Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, the Home Affairs Minister at the time, asserted that foreign elements in the lion dance hindered the formation of a national Malaysian culture.

He proposed transforming the lion dance into a tiger dance and modifying the music to include Malaysian instruments to better reflect Malaysian culture. Subsequently, the dance was disallowed due to concerns about public order, a stance that faced criticism. The specifics of the ban have been muddled, with some historical accounts suggesting that lion dances were prohibited in public performances until the 1990s[8].

Not only are these elements incongruous to the environment here but their propagation is a hindrance to the emergence of a national culture… They are no longer functional in their present context and serve only as emotional crutches for the sentimental few. – Ghazali Shafie, as quoted in “The Shaping of Malaysia“[7]

However, further details have come to light, suggesting that Tun V. T. Sambanthan, the first Unity Minister, engaged in candid discussions with Chinese leaders in the early 1970s. As a result, the ban on the lion dance was lifted – an account that his late widow has confirmed to be true.

This is a cultural expression of the Chinese. They’ve done a lot, they’re part of the country. You cannot take away their culture. Tun V.T Sambanthan as quoted by Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan[9]

Renowned for consistently placing racial unity and harmony at the heart of his political journey, historical accounts are well-documented for Tun Sambanthan’s pivotal role in mediating peace and addressing grievances during the tumultuous period that followed the 1969 riots[10].

#4: The Enduring Impact of Rukun Negara in Malaysian Society

Rukun Negara needs to be appreciated and understood together with the Federal Constitution which is the pillar of unity in ethnic, racial and religious diversity. Appreciating the Rukun Negara will not only instil the spirit of patriotism but also foster unity among multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religion communities.Datuk Aaron Dagang, National Unity Minister[11]

In recent years, the Rukun Negara, the five principles taught to most of us in school, have been hailed as the key to racial unity. These principles were crafted by over 70 members of Majlis Perundingan Negara (MAPEN) or the National Consultative Council.

The committee comprised a diverse range of individuals, including scholars, religious leaders, and politicians, to heal the wounds of a fractured nation and build a more cohesive Malaysia after the events of 1969. Prominent figures among the members included the late Ungku Abdul Aziz, Khoo Kay Kim, Syed Hussein Alatas, and Aishah Ghani, along with James Ongkili, Muhammad Ghazali Shafie, and Bishop Gregory Yong[12].

Under the helmage of Tun Abdul Razak, it sought to find the ingredients to reunite a multiracial society.

When we were made aware of the riots that occurred in 1969, we had to find a formula to reunite the multiracial society in this country. It was how Rukun Negara was created; its existence is crucial to instil a sense of identity in the people of Malaysia and to bring all the races closer and close the gaps between the urban and rural areas. Tan Sri Kamarul Ariffin Mohamed Yassin, member of the Council[12]

Taking the “Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan” or “Belief in God” principle as an example, Tan Sri Kamarul Ariffin Mohamed Yassin, a member of the Council, highlighted the importance of respecting diverse religious beliefs as a means of promoting national unity.

It is important for Malaysians to respect all religions, and this in turn promotes national unity. It should not be only for a moment, it (a show of respect) should be forever. Tan Sri Kamarul Ariffin Mohamed Yassin, member of the Council[12]

#5: Sports As A Great Unifier

Source: The Star

Kita menang sama-sama, kita kalah pun sama-sama. [We win together, we lose together] – Ali, from the film Ola Bola[13]

Whether it’s the nail-biting moments on the edge of our seats, the collective cheers when a goal is scored or the proud singing of the national anthem, sports have become a powerful force for unity as we root for our national athletes. Their loss is our loss too. 

This sense of unity was vividly portrayed on the silver screen through the 2016 movie “Ola Bola,” a film loosely based on our nation’s iconic football team during the golden era around 1980. Historically, multiracial sports teams have brought pride to our nation—be it through qualifications for the 1972 and 1980 Olympics or the remarkable performance of the national hockey team, which secured a commendable fourth place in the 1975 World Cup.

Sport is one element which unites the country, which can be attested to by the 1992 Thomas Cup in Kuala Lumpur (won by Malaysia). Not only did the players work together as a team, it also brought the country together. – Datuk James Selvaraj, Former national badminton player[14].

#6: In Times Of Crisis: Pandemic And Floods

But sometimes, we don’t have to look too far into the history books to see how solidarity and racial unity have triumphed. During challenging times, such as the 2020 pandemic and the flood in 2021, doing good transcends the invisible racial lines.

Malaysians were quick to respond to grassroots-driven initiatives, banding together in the #BenderaPutih, #KitaJagaKita, and #RakyatJagaRakyat movements, mobilising and manifesting assistance in various forms, including providing free meals, distributing food baskets, offering free tuition, and lending a listening ear to those grappling with the mental and economic challenges brought about by the prolonged lockdown.

During the flood, the heartwarming display of volunteers from diverse backgrounds, including Malays, Chinese, and Indians, united at the Gurdwara Sahib Petaling Jaya to prepare thousands of vegetarian food packs for flood victims in Shah Alam, Petaling Jaya, and Kuala Lumpur. 

We are very proud that the Malaysian community, the Malays, Chinese and Indians, are all here to help us. This is the spirit of the ‘Malaysian Family. – Awtar Singh, Gurdwara Sahib Petaling Jaya president[15]

The diverse group working seamlessly together to cook, prepare, and serve Langgar (free meals) and the Sikh community’s thoughtful gesture of creating prayer rooms for Muslims at the Gurdwara Sahib reflects that Malaysians are sensitive to each other’s needs. 

Even so, we don’t have to wait for another crisis to see the thread of unity that tied Malaysians. There are examples around us, demonstrating how we, as a community, naturally take care of one another despite the loud voices of extreme values. We only need to step outside and observe the acts of unity that are an integral part of our daily lives.

Explore our sources: 

  1. Lee, L.T. (2020). Remembering Tunku’s unity legacy. New Straits Times. Link 
  2. Bernama. (2023). National Unity Ministry targets IPNas increase to 0.7 by 2025. Link
  3. Kathirasen, A. (2023). The Merdeka spirit: 4 voices. Free Malaysia Today. Link 
  4. Tuanku Mukhriz, T.Z.A. (2010). Keynote Speech, Launch of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. Abiding Times 1: An insight into the minds of Malaysia’s thinking youth. 
  5. Leh, A. (2022). Racial unity paves the way for Merdeka. New Straits Times. Link
  6. Malaysia Chinese Association. (MCA). (2015). Tun Tan Cheng Lock. Link
  7. Kaur, A. & Metcalfe, I. (1999). The Shaping of Malaysia.
  9. Carstens, S.A. (2005). Histories, Cultures, Identities: Studies in Malaysian Chinese Worlds. 
  10. Siew, Z. (2008). The message of Deepavali for Malaysia. The Nut Graph. Link
  11. Borneo Post. (2023). National Day and Malaysia Day 2023 celebration fosters appreciation for Rukun Negara, says minister. Link
  12. Hassan, M.F. (2020). Rukun Negara formulated on the views of all parties. Link 
  13. Kamal, H.A. (2016). What’s with all the buzz on ‘Ola Bola’?. New Straits Times. Link 
  14. Yap, R. (2019). Play the power game of diversity. New Straits Times. Link 
  15. Abdul Latif, Y. (2021). In this Sikh Gurdwara, people of all religions band together to help flood victims. Free Malaysia Today. Link 

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