Malaysia’s longest-running theatre production, Mud: The Story of Kuala Lumpur is coming to an end on 30 April 2017. The musical staged at Panggung Bandaraya in Kuala Lumpur for three years underscores the empathy that binds three characters from three communities as they live their lives through the vagaries and vicissitudes of an emerging multi-ethnic society in 19th century colonial Malaya. Backed by a young multi-ethnic cast, Mud, produced by Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina, has received positive reviews from Malaysians.
Malaysians have also heaped accolades upon a recent film which again brings forth a message of inter-ethnic empathy. Adiwiraku is a true story about a rural school in Kedah where largely poor Malay students are coached by a dedicated English language teacher of Indian origin to participate in a choral speaking contest at the district-level. The struggles and the sufferings of the students and the pivotal role of the teacher played by Sangeeta Krishnasamy in motivating and inspiring them demonstrates how sincerity and understanding can bring people together regardless of their religious and cultural affiliation.
There have been films with a similar thrust in the past. The late Yasmin Ahmad through her riveting tales of inter-ethnic relationships made a deep impression upon a huge segment of Malaysian society. In an earlier era, the versatile P. Ramlee struck a chord among Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds with the films that he directed and acted in which often revolved around human passions and propensities that everyone could identify with.
Song and music is yet another artistic medium that has forged ties across ethnic boundaries. The late Sudirman Arshad was one of those artists who sought to promote inter-ethnic harmony through his music. Today, there is a whole range of singers — Yuna, Elizabeth Tan and Jaclyn Victor — whose appeal transcends ethnicity.
There are also visual or graphic artists who have consciously attempted to build bridges between the communities. Lat, Malaysia’s most famous cartoonist would be foremost among them. The late Ismail Hashim was a photographer whose works often reflected the quest for unity and empathy.
Among writers committed to national unity, the late poet and playwright Usman Awang would stand tall. Lim Swee Tin is a contemporary poet who has succeeded in using his talent to develop a positive attitude towards the Malay language as a literary tool for fostering inter-ethnic understanding. Among distinguished novelists of the past, the late Samad Ismail stood out as a champion of inter-ethnic integration. For decades, from the sixties to the nineties, Adibah Amin through her writings in both Malay and English endeavoured to break down ethnic barriers.
Of course, there are writers just as there are other artists who have chosen to be exclusive rather than inclusive in their approach to ethnic questions. This is to be expected in any multi-ethnic society. What is important is how society as a whole responds to the two groups, the exclusive and the inclusive.
The inclusive — in spite of the forebodings about the future of the nation expressed in some quarters — have an audience which includes a lot of young people. Those who are nonchalant about what is happening around them especially among the educated should be coaxed and cajoled into supporting the films and musicals, the writings and the paintings of the inclusive. They should understand that given global trends in technology and communication the inclusive represent the future.
The inclusive artist for her part should strive to become more representative of the nation. Specifically, those who are on the Peninsula should include more themes related to Sabah and Sarawak in their works and vice versa. At the same time, they should garner those elements in their own culture or religion which will enhance inter-ethnic understanding and empathy. For instance, the long house culture in Sarawak with its emphasis upon giving and sharing, it appears, has been a major influence upon the norms and mores of the entire society and may be a crucial explanation for the high degree of inter-ethnic empathy that prevails in the state. By the same token, the film-maker or poet should be more critical of the flaws and foibles within his own community that impact adversely upon ethnic relations. An artist’s critique of such shortcomings will go a long way towards changing a community’s perspective on the other for the better.