One nation, many colours Malaysians have warmly welcomed the slogan ‘Together in unity, a nation in harmony. One Malaysia’, which was unveiled in 2009 Image Credit: Bernama

Nasir looked at the large poster in a corridor in the news agency Bernama office and a mixture of hope and pain rushed to his face.

The veteran editor has been long enough in the media to know that caution is always the key word, particularly when it comes to big news where emotions are overwhelmingly powerful.

Dozens of people have signed up the poster, leaving messages of hope in a multitude of languages, as well as some drawings, to convey their feelings about Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 that vanished on March 8, 2014 as the Boeing 777 aircraft was making its journey from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers.

The loss of the aircraft was one of the major tragedies to strike Malaysia in modern times. However, as is often in the cases of catastrophes, the people, regardless of their backgrounds, came together to cry and stand together in a collective emotional reaction that transcended all cultures and religions.

Following news about the discovery of airline debris on Reunion, an Indian Ocean island, on July 29, Malaysian Airlines urged people to keep calm and wait for the investigation results.

The eagerness to find out what exactly happened to the flight has become a national drive in Malaysia. It is for the sake of the afflicted families, as well as for the sake of the proud nation that is invariably keen on moving forward in all areas despite the difficulties.

“Challenges and adversity are certain in life, but cherish the moments and always look ahead towards a better tomorrow,” a short film prepared by Malaysian Airlines on Eid Al Fitr said.

“Follow Yassin as he learns to be grateful for life’s trials, for it is through them that we should reflect on our existence this Aidilfitri,” the ad for the film said.

It was a riveting reflection of the positive mindset of a nation that has invariably persisted to change crippling disadvantages into motivating advantages.

And challenges Malaysia did have — particularly the multitude of races and religions, often ominous sources of bias and mistrust and formidable obstacles to social cohesion and national unity.

However, Malaysians succeeded to meld a nation in which citizens were proud of who they were, but insisted on being Malaysians first and foremost. The challenges have been successfully turned into opportunities.

Mohammad Lotfy has always been fascinated by this aspect of the Malaysian society.

“People often talk about the economic success of Malaysia and how it succeeded in becoming one of the most advanced countries in the Muslim world,” the UAE-based marketing executive said. “It is so easy to talk about the economic miracle and the gross domestic product and other figures. To me what really mattered is how all these people from a spectrum of races and religions have built a unified nation to which everybody feels they strongly belong and where sectarianism, intolerance, and bigotry have no room despite attempts by some radicals to impose them. Citizens are not at risk and foreigners do not feel threatened or unwelcome.”

Malaysians have become so keen on preserving the national trait that they do not hesitate to sound the alarm in case they feel their solidarity could be fissured in any way.

In a column for the “Daily Star”, Tan Yi Liang wrote: “I do believe we’re put on this Earth with a unique set of privileges and challenges as well as strengths and weaknesses so we learn to come together in a mutual web of cooperation and support.”

“Where we are strong and privileged, we can reach out to help those who were not blessed with our strengths and privileges. I call it the Great Web. It binds and links us all, if only we can open ourselves to it.”

In their Hari Raya messages, the country’s politicians said Malaysians should continue to move forward and to dismiss any attempts to provoke fractures, division or racism.

Aware of the growing threats emanating from social media, they insisted the people should act responsibly to preserve the country’s peace and harmony.

“Political parties, especially the leaders, must advise their followers and cyber troopers not to play the race card,” Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said.

Abdul Rahman Dahlan, Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister said Malaysians must be smart when using the social media.

“The Government has given us the democratic space to share our views, so be responsible. This is our home and it is all we have,” he said.

In his historical account of what happened in Malaysia after its independence in 1957, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, said independent Malaysia recognised the citizenship rights of the non-Malay and granted them freely.

“This is unlike many countries in the region where strict conditions were imposed. In fact, some immigrants were actually expelled. The hope for independence was that the non-Malays would accept a single national language and a single national identity. But it became clear very quickly that the Chinese and the Indians wanted to retain their identities, their mother tongues and cultures. They did not want to be solely Malaysians, certainly not Malay,” he said.

“At the beginning some prominent people tried multiracial politics but this was rejected by the ordinary Malays, Chinese and Indians. In the end we settled for a compromise — retain your racial identity but cooperate with each other in a coalition of racial parties.”

However, the formula collapsed when English schools were abolished and the Malays, Chinese and Indian children went to their own schools rather than to the national schools where the teaching was in the national language.

“The hope for true national integration faded. After this, even the attempt to put the schools from the three language streams in one campus was rejected by the Chinese ... The lower-ranking leaders, the ordinary members of political parties and the people as a whole had shown no sign of forgetting their racial identities. There may be few liberal-minded ones who reject race but some who do this do so because they believe their own race would gain by it.

“Then came the resurgence of Islam worldwide. The Malaysian Malays began to adopt Islamic conservativeness, especially with the dress code. This tended to push them further apart from the non-Muslims who saw this as an attempt to differentiate Muslim Malaysians from non-Muslim Malaysians ... The behaviour of some extremist exponents of Islamic separateness did not help. And so the races drifted further and further apart.”

Mahathir then said what needed to be done to foster national unity.

“If we still want Malaysian unity we need to be willing to make sacrifices regarding what we consider to be our racial rights. Everyone has to do this. The leaders must be given some mandate to discuss these matters in private and to make concessions.

“After each step the lower rung leaders of each race must be given full briefing as to why the concessions have to be made. It would be useless if they don’t agree,” he said. “Provided we can roll back the present unhealthy trends and redirect them towards more positive non-racial objectives, provided we do this slowly by small steps, we may be able to create a truly Malaysian identity where race would gradually become less important. It will take time but with sincerity we may reverse the present trends and move towards increasing cooperation and integration.”

In 2009, Malaysians warmly welcomed the slogan “Together in unity, a nation in harmony. One Malaysia”.

“We strongly believe in this vision and should work together to achieve it,” Charlie, a taxi driver, said. Coming from a Chinese, the support was significant. “‘One Malaysia’ concept is laudable. Malaysian society needs to recognise differences,” he said.

Against the backdrop of political Islam’s rise to a higher profile in a country where parties are fighting for mileage, the call for unity ran the risk of being seen as electoral manoeuvring.

However, a Malaysian analyst said the objective of “One Malaysia” was “noble”. “Except for a minority bent on promoting racial and religious discord, everyone wants national unity and to overcome barriers to promote better understanding,” he said.

Not everybody appreciated the significance of the concept and many said they were confused mainly because of the earlier concept of “Malaysian Malaysia”, the catchphrase for a multiracial Malaysia launched in the 1960s.

But over the years, Malaysians understood the significance of the concepts.

Racial peace has prevailed since 1969 after dozens of people were killed in riots sparked by Malay frustration over the economic clout of the ethnic Chinese. The violent protests spurred the launch of programmes that gave Malays privileges in government jobs, contracts and education.

A rare street demonstration occurred in 2007 when ethnic Indians clashed with the police during a rally to support a $4-trillion (Dh14.7 trillion) lawsuit filed in London by the Hindu Rights Action Force, a group seeking compensation from Britain for bringing their Indian ancestors to the country as “indentured labourers” and exploiting them.

Two years later, the unifying theme “One Malaysia” was launched to help overcome racial tension and bolster national unity.

“What is happening now in 2015 is the continuation of the application of the slogan launched in 2009,” Amir, a Malaysian guide, said. “We are moving forward, and as you can see in such a troubled world, Malaysia continues to be a peaceful, secure and safe country. We do have some issues, but we are working on overcoming them. Ours is a vibrant society,” he said.

Farhana, a Malaysian, said she was confident her country could overcome modern challenges by successfully managing and building on diversity.

“I can mention for instance the Eid Al Fitr tradition of open houses,” she said. “Hari Raya open houses are a wonderful tribute to the great harmony characterising our nation. We all adhere to it and we are so proud of it, regardless of our religious and social backgrounds,” she said.

On Eid Al Fitr, hundreds of thousands of Malaysians attend open houses hosted by sultans, officials and common people in a dedicated commitment to the spirit of unity and sharing that is rarely attained in other countries.

Guests from all religious and racial backgrounds simply walk in palaces, mansions and common houses, greet the hosts and help themselves to a wide spread of local cuisine, fruits and beverages.

More than 10,000 were at Istana Pasir Pelangi, the palace of Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, the Sultan of Johor, within hours of the open house.

Some of the guests said it was an annual tradition they never wanted to miss and invariably made plans to be there as early as 9am to enjoy the carnival-like atmosphere.

M. Asojan, Bukit Gambir state assemblyman, said the air of festivity at open houses reflected the racial solidarity among the people.

“This is the spirit and uniqueness we have in our country, when all the communities gather to celebrate together,” he said.

Even the homeless had a chance to share the festive spirit and be merry at open houses. On the street.

Several NGOs worked together to provide food for the homeless around Chow Kit, Kota Raya and Masjid India on the first night of Hari Raya.

Lee, a taxi driver, said Malaysia had no real problems with racial or religious issues.

“I am originally from China but I have never been to China and do not see why I should go there, especially because the trip is expensive. I am a Malaysian and my father was also born here,” he said.

According to Lee, relations with fellow Malaysians simply cannot be based on race or religion.

“For example, all my Muslim friends celebrate Eid Al Fitr. I invariably draw up plans to visit them and spend the day hopping from one house to the other, enjoying the company and particularly the food they offer in their open houses. I have always done that and not a single one told me that the celebrations were confined to Muslims. That is the spirit,” he said.

Palatable food and friendly smiles in fact start with the national carrier, Malaysian Airlines.

The personalised welcome is complemented with the memorable gastronomical experience of a delicious local menu that includes the “very yummy satay”, the seasoned, skewered and grilled meat.

The Malaysian delicacy is served with a traditional crushed peanut sauce that is gently cooked for hours to achieve the right consistency and flavour.

“Perfectly marinated and grilled to perfection, the chicken or beef satay is good on its own, and it tastes even better with the thick kuah kacang peanut sauce,” Mohammad Lotfy said. “I have tasted satay in several locations, but the perfect one is served by Malaysian Airlines,” he said.

No wonder the company has perfected satay as it has been serving it on board since 1972.

Almost 20,000 sticks of satay are served on Malaysia Airlines flights around the world every day, officials said.

Hospitality is a major feature of the local culture.

The vivacious capital Kuala Lumpur, in Malacca, a city steeped in history, culture and tradition, and in Johor Bahru, the southernmost city majestically overlooking the Strait of Johor, oozed with gracious hospitality and graceful charm.

Around 27.4 million tourists visited Malaysia in 2014 and in a new bid to attract more visitors, Ministry of Tourism and Culture Secretary General Dr Ong Hong Peng in June opened the 1Malaysia Mega Sale Carnival, the country’s biggest shopping extravaganza with its big bargains, huge discounts and fun-filled promotional activities put together by malls, retail stalls and other participating trades.

The extravaganza, running until August 31, is one of three nationwide shopping campaigns that pulsate with excitement, lending a dynamic fusion of colours to the local shopping scene.

The other two are the 1Malaysia Grand Prix Sale that took place in March and the 1Malaysia Year-End Sale to be held from November 14 to January 3 next year.

Organised by Tourism Malaysia through its shopping promotion arm, Secretariat Shopping Malaysia, the three sales events have helped bring benefits to the local retail sector and boost tourist expenditure in the country.

Tourist receipts for 2014 were 72 billion ringgit (Dh62 billion), an increase of 10 per cent over 65.4 billion ringgit in 2013.

Malaysia’s shopping sector is a major contributor to the country’s tourist receipts, amounting to 21.6 billion ringgit or 30 per cent of the total receipts of 72 billion ringgit in 2014, an increase of 9.3 per cent over 19.8 billion ringgit in 2013.

MyFest 2015 is expected to help Malaysia achieve the targeted 29.4 million tourist arrivals and 89 billion ringgit in tourist receipts for 2015.

These figures will help achieve the target of 36 million tourist arrivals with 168 billion ringgit in tourist receipts by 2020 under the Malaysia Tourism Transformation Plan.