Rising above fear of race and religion – by Zainon
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.