12 Jul 2013 11:19

This is the first part of the interview with Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, a former politician and currently a social activist, on Malaysian unity and national integration in the aftermath of the 13th General Election.

KUALA LUMPUR, July 4 (Bernama) -- Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye had served the people for 23 years when he was an active politician and leader of the opposition party DAP.

After leaving the world of politics in 1990, he became involved in social work since people have always been close to his heart.

Bernama recently sought his views over the state of racial unity in the country as the outcome of the recent 13th General Election (GE13) had apparently driven a wedge between the different races that make up Malaysia.

BERNAMA: We achieved independence 56 years ago and the incident of May 13, 1969, happened 44 years ago, but we are still in search of true unity. Is it really that difficult to forge unity?

TAN SRI: This is neither an easy question nor is there an easy answer. It calls for deep reflection and observation. Being a social activist, I know there is nothing greater for Malaysia than achieving satisfactory national integration and unity.

Day by day, the spirit of unity has been waning; we are no longer close to one another as reflected by the racial polarisation that became more obvious after the GE13. However, this does not mean that there is no unity; it only means that the unity has declined sharply.

We have to look back on the spirit of unity that prevailed from 1957 to the 1960s during the days of Malaya's chief minister and father of independence Tunku Abdul Rahman.

At that time, I was a student at the St. Michael’s Institution school in Ipoh, where students of all racesâ€"Malays, Indians, Chinese, Sikhs and othersâ€"studied together. We respected one another and understood one another. Even our parents interacted, transcending racial boundaries.

After completing the Senior Cambridge examination in 1966, I worked at the National Union of Commercial Workers, where the members were close to one another despite coming from different racial backgrounds.

I am comparing the current situation and that of the past to understand where we have gone wrong.

BERNAMA: What do you feel about the situation now, Tan Sri?

TAN SRI: Today, I see the racial polarisation getting worse by the day, no thanks to the racial issues brought to the fore to win votes. When such things happen, unity and integration take a back seat.

Attempts have been made to address problems relating to national unity, including the National Service Training Programme, introduced to address the lack of interaction among students from different racial backgrounds in schools.

Through the programme, trainees of different races, including from Sabah and Sarawak, are placed in a training camp for three months, where they undergo comprehensive training to think and act as Malaysians and not according to their racial or ethnic lines.

The objective here is to forge better understanding and unity among members of different communities.

BERNAMA: But racial polarisation also happens outside schools.

TAN SRI: That is what I too have observed. For example, when I'm in a public place, I observe that our society members of different races fail to mix with one another. Based on my observation, this problem is more evident in the Peninsula than in Sabah and Sarawak.

Sabah and Sarawak are good examples and they portray inter-ethnic unity. I believe that one of the contributing factors for this positive scenario is inter-ethnic marriages that are common in Sabah and Sarawak.

Back in the Peninsula, the scenario is different. Even societies and organisations are registered according to racial lines. Such a scenario will not lead to unity. When members of a particular ethnic group get together, they only look into the problems of their group.

In this respect, I would like to propose to the government, for the sake of national integration, to impose a pre-requisite, where cultural, business or sports based organisations have to open their membership to all races before they are allowed to be registered.

BERNAMA: Tan Sri, is this proposal practical, given the fact that many organisations, including political parties, are race oriented?

TAN SRI: To me, what is important is that there should be efforts to forge integration and unite all the races instead of allowing the current scenario to continue.

My proposal is for organisations that will be registered in the future. Those that have been registered can be exempted.

I'm also of the view that now and in the future, more focus should be given to sports.

This is because sports and related activities serve as a conduit to unite people. In sports, we don't consider one’s racial background; badminton is the best example.

When people watch Datuk Lee Chong Wei play, people of all races show their support. In fact, Chong Wei will be able to play an effective role in uniting Malaysians.

The same goes for Datuk Nichol David. We need icons from numerous fields, not just sports, to unite our society.

Since merdeka, we have been thinking and acting along racial lines, be it in politics or organisations. This is very unhealthy and very sad.

I will give you another example. Once, I passed by an accident scene, and later, when people started contacting me with regard to the accident, I was worried to note that they wanted to know if the victim was a Malay, Chinese or Indian.

After all, they are all humans, regardless of their race. This is really bad. This goes to show that we have failed when it comes to uniting various races. The Malaysian mindset works along racial lines.

This is the biggest hurdle that we have to overcome. How can we get rid of this race-based mindset? Strangely, this does not happen when Malaysians are overseas. There, we see people, regardless of race, as Malaysians. We don't mention the person's race, but upon returning to Malaysia, we think and act in the opposite manner.

BERNAMA: How can we overcome this?

TAN SRI: After GE13, I did propose that the Ministry of Unity be established to focus on forging and strengthening unity in a plural society. In fact, we already have a department for this purposeâ€"Communal Unity and Integration Departmentâ€"and we even had a Minister in charge of unity.

Since the GE13, the racial divide has worsened. Thus, I feel this is the best time for the government to seriously consider establishing the ministry, with a minister in the prime minister's department in charge of the portfolio.

I hope the government will give the proposed Ministry of Unity a serious thought as it will result in focused planning, promotional activities and programmes, and better funding.

The Minister can come from Sabah or Sarawak as both the states are considered exemplary in inter-ethnic relations.

Apart from that, it is time for the government to establish a National Consultative Council for Unity to serve as a forum to discuss issues, proposals and inputs on unity.