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Rising above fear of race and religion – by Zainon

Mon 2012-Apr-2 @ +08 13:22:01 pm

I believe in Malaysia. I believe in multi-racial Malaysia and I think that there is a place for everybody here. If, for instance, all the Indians or the Chinese suddenly decide to leave Malaysia, I think it won’t be Malaysia.
Zainon Ahmad

Racial and religious tolerance in Malaysia and acceptance of each other’s cultures runs through the life of Zainon Ahmad, political editor of The Sun, who feels that indoctrination by the Muslim ulama and Malay pressure groups like Perkasa has frightened off Malaysian Muslims. "These things should be dealt with … nobody is honest enough to come forward … I don’t think Najib (prime minister Najib Tun Razak) feels strong enough to handle this…"

Zainon is featured in the Nut Graph today, in an interview by Jacqueline Ann Surin, his former junior and colleague at the paper. He speaks about his childhood in an estate near Bedong in Kedah, growing up with Tamils, Malays and Chinese, of going to a Catholic school and studying RK (religious knowledge, or bible studies) for the Form 3 exam.

"Pak Non" was news editor and later assistant group editor at the New Straits Times until he was pushed aside in the usual vicious back-stabbing that is part of daily life at Balai Berita. He became "editor-at-large" and wandered all over, going to southern Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, India, Afghanistan and Latin America. “I was really happy! They thought it was a punishment but I thought it was a reward,” Zainon says. After being redesignated as editorial consultant, he was let go in 2001. A year later he joined The Sun as editor-in-chief and since 2008 has been consultant and political editor.

Extracts from the interview:

Growing up with Tamils, Malays, Chinese and Catholics

For a while before going to the Malay school, I was going to the Tamil school attached to a temple. I managed to learn the Tamil alphabet. And then after the Malay school, I was sent to St Theresa School in Sungai Petani. In the estate, there were Chinese, mostly carpenters. Their children would go to the Chinese school in nearby Sungai Lallang. We were all friends. I actually had a very happy childhood. I loved those days, you know

My mother, whenever there was a Hindu wedding, she would be there making kuih and doing the décor and all that. And there was this Chinese shopkeeper who had two beautiful daughters [laughs]. It was a great past time for the estate boys to flirt with them.

…at 9am and 7pm, the estate temple priest or poosari would do the pooja in praise of the deities when he sang and recited words in Sanskrit. So somebody had to ring the bell outside. And if the priest looked around and there was no Hindu around, anybody that passed by would be it. And I always made sure I was there! … the reward was that I would get half a coconut, boiled chickpeas, one or two vadai, and one or two pisang emas. I would give some to my friends and give the half coconut to my mother.

[At St Theresa secondary school, next to a Catholic church, he took religious knowledge as a subject in the LCE.] "I can’t remember if it was an A or a B I got for the paper [chuckles]. Until today, I can still recite the part about “thy prayer has been heard and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a child whom thou shall call John”.

On religious tolerance and understanding

I think the fact that we are all living together here [means] we could have more understanding. I see no reason why we can’t feel free to visit and eat in a non-Muslim’s home. I think it’s the way Islam is taught in this country. Because of so much indoctrination on radio and television, [some Muslims] are scared to go near a temple, much less to go near an idol.

I’m still bothered when they say “bangsa” for the racial boxes we have to fill in. I thought “bangsa” refers to Malaysian. Even on TV, when they announce “bangsa India”, which are they referring to? Indian nationals? Or Indian Malaysians?

These kinds of things should be dealt with. The point is that nobody is honest enough to come forward especially with the likes of Perkasa around. And [I don’t think] Najib feels strong enough to handle this whole thing about race, identity and privilege.

Do the Muslims need further protection when the state is already protecting them? Many Muslims disagree with what is happening but they won’t speak up. I’m speaking up a bit.

Read Zainon’s full interview at the Nut Graph


  1. Mon 2012-Apr-2 @ +08 15:00:00 pm 15:00

    Zainon writes “If, for instance, all the Indians or the Chinese suddenly decide to leave Malaysia, I think it won’t be Malaysia.” Imagine if all Malaysians descended from Indians (South Asians), Chinese (North-East Asians) and West Asians were to leave, what would be left of Malaysia?

    • Very open minded permalink
      Mon 2012-Apr-2 @ +08 19:02:57 pm 19:02

      Then Malaysia will not be dark or yellow. It will be brown.

  2. Prem Das permalink
    Mon 2012-Apr-2 @ +08 16:59:33 pm 16:59

    I know there is all this talk about racial discimination in our country with Malays as being the main offenders. I have yet to experience it.

    Everywhere I go, from the market , to the post offices, from the toll gate operators to shops and malls, the nicest people, the most helpful and the most polite are the Malays.

    It worries me with newspaper reports of adversarial atitudes being adopted by different races but everytime I come home, I come home reassured.

    The main stream media ought to be ashamed.

    • John Santiago permalink
      Tue 2012-Apr-3 @ +08 11:06:40 am 11:06

      I fully agree with you. Rogues are found in every race. It is wrong to link one particular race with racial discrimination.

      During my school days, some of my best friends were Malays. We visit each other’s house as if we are going to our own house. We are so welcome at each other’s house by each other’s family members.

      At one stage of my adult age, I lived in Taman Selayang where my neighbours were all Malays. And, when my neighbour’s daughter, who was only 13 died of some mysterious illness I cried together with rest of my family members as if we lost our own sister. Deepavali, Hari Raya and Christmas were open home occasions.

      So, why there is so much talk about racial discrimination, biasness and hatred for one another these days? The people are not the culprits here. It’s the politicians wanting to advance their own agenda and interests who are dividing the Malaysians into racial and religious compartments and ceaselessly promoting division and bitterness and prejudice amongst us.

  3. Mon 2012-Apr-2 @ +08 18:39:44 pm 18:39

    Prem Das,

    Obviously you have not been in Malaysia long enough to express the above or may be you should go and visit the government departments. The market is hardly a place when anyone therein wanted was to take whatever money you had off you and as a consequent you would meet the people that appeared to be nice. The time you spent at the post offices and the toll gate are so short for you to make any judgement.
    In short your time in Malaysia hardly qualifies you to pass any judgement especially when you are comparing your short experiences with the average Malaysians. Just look at the only 4% non Malays employ to serve the people, when the country’s population of the non Malays are over 40%. Why the discrepancy ? not to mention the marginalization that you had not the experienced to apply for a government job as a non Malay. All these policies are from the Malays themselves and proud of them.
    And before you make any comments further get a chance to deal with the lazy and corrupted officials from the transport, immigration or the custom departments. I live and deal with these officers almost everyday of my adult life and can assure you the experiences I have are just the opposite of what you had. I can also assure you that my friends and country men who have the same experiences can verify my remarks and opinions. Why am I still living in this country inspire of the above but what else can one do when you are condemned to spend the rest of your life in a country that is supposedly owned by the Orang Asli.

  4. pmcpm permalink
    Mon 2012-Apr-9 @ +08 13:01:05 pm 13:01

    I had many malay friends from childhood friends to play with, go to school together, to even have malay friends who stay overnight at my house and handwash uniforms for the next day, whose parents knowing I am coming over for raya, will go look for daun palas to make special triangle pulut for me and even had a crush on one or 2 malay boys. It all ended after form 5.

    The special programmes for my malay friends be it mara colleges, itm or rmc woke me up. I have to get a few of my siblings to sponsor my course at an institution. Working life thought me reality in malaysia. I was still close to some malay friends in the office. But they too were slowly slipping away, perhaps due to peer pressure. But all ended when ustazas came to give closed door ceramahs in our office during lunch breaks. Day by day we see them change. Religion did not make them better people but more nasty and secretive. Immediately, after one of these ceramahs, clerks were opening their office desk drawers and emptying their food stuffs especially various biscuit brands into the dustbins. We asked why? They replied that the sheen on biscuits and crackers were sprays of pig oil. SHOCKED! It could have been palm oil spray !! The non malays said then why not give it to us, why throw tins of biscuits into the dustbins? Isn’t wastage of food a sin in any religion?

    I do not think malaysians will ever go back to what it was once. It will be in the cerita dongeng category or some BABA’s Curry Powder tv add. A malay cooking in an indian kitchen. They do not even step into non-malay homes these days mr. baba!!

    The only way it might is for the malay to re-think. But will they?

    My malay neighbour (who got her house from a discounted rate – bumi price) in our road is the only neighbour who lavishly renovates her house every year for several years. How is she affording this? We stinge on electricity, water, healthcare, maid services, no tuition to make ends meet. To think they have no shame whatsoever to live in a same house under discounted prices and then do unnecessary excessive renovation year in and year out. The malays will never learn.

  5. Johnson A. rajahser permalink
    Thu 2012-Apr-19 @ +08 05:47:53 am 05:47

    great reading about encik Zainon Ahmad. I too am from an estate nr. bedong, kedah. Also studied from std 1 to form 5 in st.theresa,s sungei Patani . I left st.theresa in 1967. I just want to get to know you. do we have any old boys association?? Hope to hear from you.

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