Archive for the ‘Celebrating Diversity’ Category

Understanding right-wing extremism

Sunday, March 17th, 2019
Women embrace near Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 17, 2019. REUTERS

OF all places on earth, peaceful Christchurch in New Zealand has just become the scene of a cold blooded massacre of innocent people in two mosques there. With 49 dead so far and dozens wounded, it is one of the worst terror attacks in the world, this time carried out by white right-wing extremists. Three male and one female suspects are in custody.

In an immediate reaction, the secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Yousef Ahmad Al-Othaimeen, said: “The brutal crime had shocked and hurt the feelings of all Muslims around the world, and served as a further warning on the obvious dangers of hate, intolerance, and Islamophobia.”

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad called on the governments of the world to understand why such terror attacks took place and their modus operandi, which is different from a conventional warfare.

Many people may not understand what right-wing extremism or the far right is all about and its recent resurgence in the West. In simplistic terms, right-wing politics is about preserving certain often oppressive social orders and hierarchies as inevitable and even desirable. Right-wing people tend to react to progress and change, hence they are also called “reactionaries”.

Extreme right-wing politics is associated with ultra-nationalism, fascism and racism or race supremacy, which is often used as justification to oppress and repress others. The most classic example of right-wing extremism is Nazism (oppressing Jews and others) and more recently, Zionism (oppressing Palestinian people) and the extreme right-wing politics used by President Donald Trump in many instances to secure and stay in power.

The far right has also been sweeping Europe, mostly singling out innocent Muslim refugees there, who are merely escaping from the horrors of wars in Syria and the region. These vulnerable refugees become easy targets for xenophobia, hate and outright racism.

Donald Trump used right-wing politics to get himself elected in 2016 and he is also playing the same right-wing politics to stay in power. Many of the Far Right in the West today are inspired by and see President Trump as their poster child. He has certainly done a lot to instill Islamophobia and hatred against the Muslims by his various actions such as his anti-Muslim statements, very pro-Zionist stance and the ban on Muslims from at least seven countries to visit the USA.

President Trump may have sent his “condolences and warmest sympathy” to the people of New Zealand on the terror incident. But he is seen by many to be culpable or at least partially responsible for creating an atmosphere of hatred and racism against

Muslims and promoting xenophobia with his Border Wall idea with Mexico.

The purpose of Trump’s Islamophobia or racism is to distract, confuse and divide & rule in order to stave off serious challenges to his presidency including allegations on his abuse of power, obstruction to justice and on the possible outcome of Russia investigation which may include impeachment.

I have written many press articles on why we should not take peace for granted, the importance of mutual-racial respect and the need to recognise the cultural diversity of Asia, with Malaysia as a mini-Asia, as a strength for our survival and progress and never as a weakness or liability. We must never allow our cultural diversity to be exploited by extremists of any shades to create conflict, wars and terror like what has happened in New Zealand.

Most people take peace for granted. We were shaken and shocked when our own MH17 was cruelly shot down in 2014 in a war fought more than 8,000 kilometres away.

There have also been numerous terror attacks in our neighbouring countries recently. Recent police arrests of suspected terrorists in Malaysia should send alarm bells ringing to the authorities concerned. We must never sit back and assume our multi-racial country is immune from such acts of terror.

There is hardly any populated place on earth that is safe from the extremists of all

shades who are motivated to be mass-murderers based on their extreme right-wing political or religious ideologies which would include the misinterpretations of religious teachings.

More needs to be done to analyse and understand the real causes of extremism and to promote sustainable peace and multi-cultural understanding.

By K.K.Tan .

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Fostering togetherness in celebration

Monday, February 18th, 2019
The school organises its annual gathering so pupils can learn from each other.

The school organises its annual gathering so pupils can learn from each other.

EVERY year, SJK (C) Tun Tan Cheng Lock organises its Chinese New Year celebrations ahead of the week-long festive break.

The celebration is held to raise awareness on Chinese culture among pupils from different races. It helps them to learn from each other.

The school’s board of directors chairman Datuk Lee Hwa Beng and Parent-Teacher Association chairman Eason Phan Yoke Seng invited Selangor deputy education department director Muhamad Radzi Abdullah, Petaling Perdana education officer Abdul Ghaffar Bakar and previous principals from Sekolah Wawasan to celebrate Chinese New Year together.

The atmosphere in the school grounds was electric as the “lion” leapt high into the air. There was also calligraphy writing to kick off the celebration at the school.


At the same event, school principla Ngann Sook Wei also paid tribute to the students who received awards during the Sixth Hong Kong International Students’ Innovation Competition that was held in Hong Kong last December led by vice princial Ong Chun Hor.

The award recipients are Christine Ng Ruixi from 6K, Elyse Wong Zhye Lin from 6H and Zoey Wong Zhye Xuan from 4M.

Their masterpiece, “Tornado Dust-Buster” won five awards including second place, International Innovation Award, Special Award in Korea, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Muhamad Radzi praised the students for their achievements.

Teachers and pupils received angpow and tangerines from the school.

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New emojis are coming

Sunday, February 10th, 2019
The new emojis emphasise inclusivity.

INTERRACIAL couples. A guide dog for blind people. A person using a wheelchair. These were among the new emojis announced last week by Unicode Consortium, the non-profit that provides standards for text on the Internet and oversees emojis.

The list — which includes 59 new emojis, as well as variants for a total of 230 options — emphasises inclusivity. People will soon be able to create a “holding hands” emoji to reflect their own relationship, selecting for the skin colour and gender identity of each individual. Other options include emojis showing a hearing aid, prosthetic limbs, sign language, a cane or a wheelchair.

A host of other new symbols include an otter, a sloth, a waffle, falafel, a yawning face, a white heart, a sari and a contentious one-piece bathing suit.

In a world where people use emojis to represent everything from weddings to poop, the announcement naturally led to much discussion, with an image of a drop of blood becoming a new way to talk about menstruation and a pinching symbol leading to jokes about a certain
male body part being very, very small

But don’t expect to see the latest offering on your keyboard just yet. That will most likely happen later this year.

The Unicode Consortium sets the standards for emoji compatibility, allowing the symbols to translate across the Internet. Then companies like Apple and Google have to design emojis and incorporate the code into their operating systems, Greg Welch, a board member for Unicode, said. New emojis typically come to cellphones in September or October, Unicode said in the announcement.

Last Wednesday, a representative for Apple pointed to its proposal for Unicode to create accessibility emojis, which said that the new emojis would “foster a diverse culture that is inclusive of disability” and help people express themselves, as well as show support for loved ones.

A representative for Google said that it hoped to release the new emoji designs soon.

The latest update continues a trend toward greater emoji diversity, which began in earnest a few years ago when a range of skin tones was introduced. In 2017, a hijab emoji was introduced.

“You see people are asking for curly hair or skin tone and bald and hijab,” said Jennifer Lee, who serves on Unicode’s emoji subcommittee and helped found Emojination, a grassroots effort to make emojis more inclusive.

Tinder, the online dating app, had campaigned for Unicode to better represent couples of different races and genders in the “universal language of the digital age”.

“Love is universal,” Tinder said on its website. “And it’s time for interracial couples to be represented in our universal language.”

“It’s huge and historic,” said Ken Tanabe, the founder of Loving Day, an organisation that encourages people to celebrate the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that legalised interracial marriage.

“You are talking about marriages and starting families,” he said, adding that he had heard from people who could not find a wedding cake topper that reflected their relationship and chose to use black and white chess pieces instead.

“Having an emoji that’s already there, it feels like, hey, we are part of the conversation,” he said. “We are part of the community. We are represented in the most personal part of our lives.”

Apple had advocated adding emojis to represent people with disabilities. In a statement, Howard A. Rosenblum, the chief executive of the National Association of the Deaf, a civil rights organisation for the deaf and hard of hearing people, said it worked with Apple to help create the deaf emoji and hoped it would help “raise awareness throughout the world about deaf culture and the many sign languages that exist”.

One of the new emojis — a guide dog for people who are blind and visually impaired — offers a fun way for people to represent their identity and honour their dogs in texts and emails, said Becky Davidson, who works at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an organisation that provides trained dogs for people who are blind or visually impaired.

By Sarah Mervosh.

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Celebrating lunar new year and the diversity of the world’s calendars

Thursday, February 7th, 2019
The Gregorian calendar has only been used as a global standard for about a century, and is ‘very much a reflection of European commerce and colonialism’. It has now been built into computer architecture, but that doesn’t mean another calendar couldn’t one day become dominant. FILE PIC

THE Lunar New Year kicked off on Tuesday as one of the most important holidays in Vietnam, South Korea, China and other Asian countries. Typically, it starts on the second new moon after winter solstice.

On the Gregorian calendar, the civil calendar used in most countries, including the United States, the Lunar New Year changes every year, as do the dates of holidays like Rosh Hashana, Deepavali and Ramadan.

It can be easy to think of a calendar as a scientific given, or a reflection of the laws of the universe. In fact, as these holidays remind us, there are as many ways to track time as there are cultures and languages. Each calendar reveals something about how the people who created it relate to the world around them while also preserving rich cultural identities and memories.

Most timekeeping traditions track the movement of the sun, moon and stars. Others consider seasonal events, like the autumnal swarming of sea worms, used to orient each year in the Trobriand Islands off New Guinea, or the flowering of immortelle trees into hundreds of tiny vermilion flames, which marks the start of the dry season in Trinidad.

With any calendar, the basic question is which of thousands, if not millions, of cycles in the world to follow, says Kevin Birth, an anthropology professor at Queens College. Calendars “always come down to this cultural choice”, he says, so using one system over another is ultimately a social contract, regardless of how scientifically accurate or sophisticated a calendar is.

A solar year — the time it takes Earth to orbit the sun — lasts around 365 days, while a lunar year, or 12 full cycles of the moon, is roughly 354 days. Because of this discrepancy, a purely lunar calendar — like the Islamic, or Hijri, calendar — doesn’t stay aligned with the seasons. Islam’s holy month of Ramadan may fall in summer one year, and winter a number of years later.

To correct for seasonal drift, the Chinese, Hindu, Jewish and many other calendars are lunisolar. In these calendars, a month is still defined by the moon, but an extra month is added periodically to stay close to the solar year.

A solar calendar is useful for farming, fishing and foraging societies that need to plan ahead for particular times of the year. But a purely solar calendar, like the Gregorian, tells you nothing about the phases of the moon.

The traditional Hijri calendar requires an observation of the early crescent moon to start a new month, and thus encourages paying attention to the cosmos. The Gregorian calendar can’t be tracked in the sky, which might be why many Westerners have less awareness of the moon and other natural phenomena.

Holidays also structure personal and historical narratives. Some secular holidays in the United States centre on legacies of war, which fits “when you think that the United States also has the largest military budget in the world”, Birth says.

Chinese holidays usually emphasise family union and honouring ancestors, Yuan said, which aligns with the importance of filial piety.

Many ancient calendars, like the Chinese and Mesoamerican ones, build in fortunetelling, with prescriptions for when to build a house, get married, have a funeral and other life events. Similar calendars provide structure and comfort to people today.

Britt Hart, an astrologer based in Philadelphia, says she thinks people can be drawn to horoscope-based calendars because they’re seeking a grander sense of time and order in the universe.

In the context of history, staying connected to an alternative calendar can also be a form of resisting the mainstream, or maintaining an identity outside of it. When a calendar is imposed on a society, it usually has to do with politics and power. The ability “to say when the year will start, or decide that a religious festival should be celebrated at a particular time, can be quite useful for a politician,” Stern said.

The Gregorian calendar has only been used as a global standard for about a century, and is “very much a reflection of European commerce and colonialism,” Birth said. It has now been built into computer architecture, but that doesn’t mean another calendar couldn’t one day become dominant.


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Family time more important to mark CNY.

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019

KOTA KINABALU: Red decorations such as lanterns, Chinese calligraphy scrolls and pictures or ornaments relating to the Chinese zodiac are often must-haves for many of those celebrating Chinese New Year.

Spring cleaning, which goes hand-in-hand with decorating houses, has been a tradition passed down for generations but in recent years, many families opt to do away with these traditions, citing “wastage”, and time constraints as the main reasons.

Many think that their time spent with families, close friends and loved ones is more important and significant than decorations to mark Chinese New Year.

Make-up artist and mother of one, Tan Siew Wei, 31, said she did not decorate her house for Chinese New Year because she just did not have the time.

“In between these duties, I have to make sure meals are served at home and to think of going out to get decorations, hanging them and then having to take them all down again after the Lunar New Year is just a lot of hassle for me,” she said.

She said instead of wasting so much time, effort and money on such decorations, she feels that it would make more sense to focus more on visiting family, welcoming guests and spending quality time with her loved ones.

Rebecca Chong, a mother of three, said her busy schedule as a property agent and part-time tuition teacher did not allow her the extra time to go decoration shopping.

“I just could not bring myself to go and find the right decorations, and then put them up,” said the 31-year-old.

She said her parents still do the decorations at their house but she herself only makes sure her house is clean and presentable.

“Maybe this is something the younger generation prefer to do away with (spring cleaning), unless they really have the time and strength to clean the whole house inside out, and then decorate it,” she said.

Mother-of-one Chong Lee Kian, meanwhile, finds it lucky that she has time to do some spring cleaning as last minute preparation.

“Few more days to Chinese New Year and I have just started cleaning the house, we will be decorating a bit after this, not much, but at least we want to see some decorations,” she said.

She said she and her husband work together to clean their house but their three-year-old son messes things up again.

“Our son  is happy to take the broom, sweep around, pick up a cloth and wipe the tables but actually, he is making things messier but it’s fine, as long as he feels that he is helping and is happy,” Lee Kian said.

She said celebrations such as this actually helps bring the family together, though it is tiring.

“For us, Chinese New Year means spending more time with our family, even though it comes in the form of cleaning our house and making our backs ache in the process,” she said.

By Stephanie Lee
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A tale of three democracies

Sunday, January 20th, 2019
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir speaking at an Oxford Union event in London yesterday. Pic courtesy of the Malaysian High Commission in London.

Most of the questions put to the prime minister during the Oxford Union event yesterday were anticipated.

Some took the form of recycled perennials pumped with new eloquence.

It is true that conversations on tree cover, anti-Semitism, Internal Security Act arrests and affirmative action might still spark haughty headlines. “Haughty” in the estimation of the delicate mind of a former colony.

The thunder of a question Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was asked, as it turned out, concerned history.

Intriguingly so as it coincided with Malaysia and Singapore navigating fresh issues.

Now that we are into history; when Malaya gained independence in 1957, Singapore, which may or may not have been on some kind of a “loan” arrangement, was not “returned” to the motherland in the manner Hong Kong reunited with China in 1997. Dr Mahathir alluded to this at Oxford.

By 1959, Singapore had endured a fractious election that established the Left as a political force.

The late Tan Sri A. Samad Ismail was one of the founders of Parti Tindakan Rakyat, or the People’s Action Party (PAP), which won the 1959 election that coincidentally installed Lee Kuan Yew as chief minister.

This reporter had let his profession down for failing to do an audio recording of Samad Ismail singing in his later years, on impassioned request, Chinese patriotic songs. Samad Ismail was regarded as an organiser of Singapore’s Chinese-educated in the post-war years.

Singapore-born Samad Ismail ultimately was made Tokoh Wartawan Negara (Malaysia) and for spells, editorial adviser of this newspaper, because the island-state became part of an expanded Malaysia in 1963.

Two years later, Singapore was handed a rare red-card. Tunku Abdul Rahman, then prime minister, told Singapore to leave!

Was this the right decision? In 1965, Dr Mahathir was the member of parliament for Kota Star Selatan.

Some 54 years later, he is asked this question at the Oxford Union, something that would stir the interest of many students of history and politics.

Dr Mahathir described the Tunku’s call as “wise”.

“That happened a long time ago — we cannot do anything about it.

“But the fact is that Singapore was a part of Malaysia before. It was our country. Normally, when a country decides to decolonise, the land goes back to the owner of that land, to the country which owns that land like Hong Kong, Macau.

“With Malaysia and Singapore, we find that we are not compatible. We have different viewpoints and ideas on how the country should be ruled. For that reason, they were asked to leave Malaysia. And I think it was a wise decision at that time.”

Malaysia and Singapore feature at a high-profile event in Oxford at a time when Britain is grappling with the protracted question of Brexit.

It is a tale of three countries, of three democracies that for centuries were one. Policy thinking during British Malaya was directed from Whitehall. How have the three democracies fared since? Dr Mahathir is accustomed to being grilled whenever he appears on BBC’s Hard Talk or any other interviews.

The same questions get asked repeatedly. On ISA arrests, Tun Hanif Omar, who was a high-profile inspector-general of police, had argued that the high-profile arrests in his time were made on the recommendations of the police. A major documentary or paper on those spate of arrests may prove useful for posterity. A nation need not apologise for its actions, especially when the ISA is a legacy of the British. Still, when the same issue is tossed in our direction endlessly, we may have to deliver a clincher content.

As for Singapore, we will do well to sell treated water to it. Details of the water deal should also be made known to families and children in order to build the collective self-esteem.

As for the democratic process, Malaysia has opened a new chapter with the victory in the May 9, 2018 general election of a new coalition. Singapore has remained loyal to the PAP.

Britain on its part has been ambivalent about Europe for decades, forcing the previous prime minister David Cameron to promise a referendum that eventually took place in June 2016. The Leave campaign won 52 per cent to 48 per cent partly due to the clarity of the strategies conceived by key campaigners such as Boris Johnson.

Theresa May succeeded Cameron who campaigned for Remain. Ahead of the March 29 deadline for Britain to leave the European Union, the House of Commons has yet to agree on a deal. The one presented to MPs on Tuesday was defeated by a majority of 230, the most devastating loss since the setback suffered by the minority Labour government in 1924. May subsequently survived a motion of no-confidence against her government. Various scenarios have been put forth, including a one-year extension. A no-deal Brexit is likened to a disaster. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has pointedly demanded that May rule out a no-deal Brexit before he agrees to enter into a discussion with her and leaders of other parties.

In the absence of the usual 3.40am (Malaysian time) European football kick-off or Monday night of English Premier League matches, some of us Malaysians have been watching, at times, with admiration, trepidation and undeniably doses of glee the scenes in the House of Commons. The British MPs, many of whom being the products of Oxford and Cambridge, argue with such poise and polish.

The issue at hand has not gone away. This newspaper is not about to offer any suggestions. If we are pressed to come up with an idea, maybe we shall say this — go for a second referendum. A majority of MPs are Remainers. Instead of trying to convert fellow MPs who have held the same views for a generation, convince the British voters that Remain is the better option. Businesses and jobs are at stake.

Meanwhile, do visit us more often. We are big admirers. London is virtually a must-visit destination. The well-heeled seek to send their children to be bestowed with a world-class education in Britain. Some despatch their young kids to attend schooling in Britain.

By Rashid Yusof

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Nothing sinister about Malaysia’s Social Contract

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018
(Stock image for illustration purposes) Malaysia’s national identity components on religion, language and socioeconomic matters are incorporated in the Federal Constitution. The incorporation of these components is not to portray the supremacy of the Malays/Bumiputeras.

SOCIETAL security in a plural state is the most delicate sector to manage. Before, this vulnerability was only politicised internally. Today, it is also internationalised, both by domestic and external actors.

European scholars conducted extensive studies on national identity and societal security since the beginning of the post-Cold War era, after the horrific ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia. But national identity and societal issues have always been regarded as one of the major causes of ethnic and religious conflicts in many plural states.

For example, the “Hindu-Muslim riots in India in 1947 killed between 100,000 and 200,000 people and generated about 10 million refugees” (Stuart J. Kaufman [2008] in Ethnic Conflict).

The most recent threat to Malaysia’s societal security was the incident at a Hindu temple in Seafield, Selangor. Fortunately, our police were very efficient. Otherwise, unscrupulous elements might exploit it to become an identity crisis. This incident gained an international dimension when a Hindu politician in India submitted a memorandum to the Malaysian consulate in Chennai, alleging that the Malaysian government “was biased against Hindus in Malaysia”.

Internationalisation of Malaysia’s societal and national identity issues also took place in 2007, when a group of activists sent a memorandum pertaining to alleged discrimination against Malaysian Indians to the British prime minister. They also filed a petition at the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice in London, and launched an e-petition whose “main demand is for Putrajaya to repeal Article 153 of the Federal Constitution, which an activist claimed was the ‘mother’ of all Malaysian racist policies for the past 54 years”.

It is the reality. “Societal security concerns the sustainability of traditional patterns of language, culture, religion, national identity and customs” (Barry Buzan [1991] in People, State & Fear). It is also the truth. “State security concerns are about threats to its sovereignty, whilst societal security is about the threats to a society’s identity” (Waever, Buzan, Kelstrup & Lemaitre [1993] in Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe).

The fact is such because societal security is about threats to the national identity of a state. Malaysia’s national identity components on religion, language and socioeconomic matters are incorporated in the Federal Constitution. The incorporation of these components is not to portray the supremacy of the Malays/Bumiputeras. These components already existed in several agreements and treaties between Malay rulers and the British government.

For example, Article 153. “The special position of the Malays was recognised in the original treaties made by His Majesty in previous years, and Her Majesty Queen Victoria and others with the Malay States” (Alan Lennox-Boyd, Secretary of State for the Colonies, in British Parliamentary Hansard, Volume 573,12 July 1957).

“It was reaffirmed when these treaties were revised. It was confirmed in the 1948 Agreement, and reference was expressly made to it in the terms of reference of the Reid Commission.”

The incorporation of components of Malaysia’s national identity into the Federal Constitution was also carried out with careful balancing to protect the legitimate rights of all Malaysian citizens. Hence contents of the Federal Constitution were extracted from the results of 31 town-hall meetings conducted by the Reid Commission.

Additionally, they were derived from 131 proposals submitted to the commission by various ethnic, religious, political and business groups representing the Malays, Chinese, Indians and others.

The draft constitution was vetted by Umno, MCA, MIC and representatives of the Alliance, Malay rulers, Malayan Legislative Council, state assemblies, British government and British parliament.

One particular point to be noted here, are statements by Lord Ogmore who debated the Malaya Independence Bill in the House of Lords on July 29, 1957:

“We must remember that in this Constitution the Malays are making far greater concessions to people of other races than is normally the practice in other countries — I personally appeal to all the races and to all the peoples in the Federation of Malaya, to help wholeheartedly in the working of the Constitution.”

The concessions were granted to the other races after Tunku Abdul Rahman as Umno leader, made a gentle request to leaders of MCA and MIC. Tan Cheng Lock of MCA and V.T. Sambanthan of MIC agreed to the request. Hence, a social contract was sealed.

As such, there is nothing sinister about Malaysia’s social contract. “It refers to the painstaking compromises between the ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians on their bargains with the Malay Rulers for the creation of a democratic, monarchical, federal and non-theocratic systems of government” (Shad Saleem Faruqi [2012] in the Bedrock of Our Nation: Our Constitution.

By Datuk Dr Ruhanie Ahmad.

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Intercultural experience can leave life-changing impressions among the young

Thursday, November 15th, 2018
(File pix) The experience of living abroad opens up the mind to many things.

IN today’s interconnected world, communication with another person is just a mouse-click or a tap of a screen away. But yet there is a lack of peace and harmony among citizens and nations across the globe, resulting in friction and conflict in the form of xenophobia, stereotypes and exclusions.

Yayasan AFS Antarabudaya Malaysia (AFS Malaysia) chairman Khalilah Mohd Talha said lack of understanding of traditions and values of other people is a major cause.

“We connect but we do not engage. We acknowledge the existence of different cultures, but we do not understand them. There is a ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and it subtly becomes a pervasive form of society bias, which prevents diversity and inclusion,” said Khalilah.

She added it is crucial to promote intercultural exchange, whether virtual or physical, among the young in today’s world.

In its 60 years of existence since 1958, AFS Malaysia continues to bridge cultures through intercultural learning and provides a platform for Malaysians to gain global experience. Over its six decades of operations, AFS Malaysia has sent 4,000 students on exchange programmes abroad and hosted 3,000 foreign students here in Malaysia.

“Intercultural learning makes students more sensitive to different ways of life, traditions, customs and worldviews. It is our hope to produce active global citizens and make them more globally competent to face a more challenging world.”

global citizenship education is a transformative, lifelong pursuit that involves both formal learning and practical experience.

“The student, who has had experience abroad, is more confident in public speaking, has global competency and understanding of issues. They understand themselves better. So when they carve out their career path after university, they usually have an edge over their peers.

“Exposure to intercultural learning leads to volunteer work. They are more compassionate, caring and concerned about their fellow citizens.”

It is AFS Malaysia’s vision to mould future leaders through intercultural learning and understanding, and its mission is to “engage Malaysians to embrace our differences and celebrate our commonalities through committed volunteerism for a united Malaysia”.

Experiences you absorb at the age of 16 or 17 are the ones that will stay with you the longest. “The intercultural international exchange programmes AFS Malaysia offers are generally for those in that particular age group—who are neither too matured nor too young to retain the memories longer than any age group,” said AFS Malaysia chairperson Khalilah Mohd Talha.

AFS Malaysia offers three categories: the Year Programme, Semester Programme and Intensive Programme.

The Year Programme is open to Form Five students who want an opportunity to live and study in another country for a period of up to 11 months. This programme is suited for someone who wants to learn a new language and feel a part of a local community.

Also open to Form Five students, the Semester Programme Offers an opportunity to live and study in another country for six months. It allows the participant to learn a new language, embrace the local lifestyle and be exposed to intercultural learning.

The Intensive programme is open to students from Form Three to Form Five, giving a chance to live and study in another country, with minimum interruption to their education. It is the perfect way to improve language skills before the final years of study at secondary or high school.


For Tan Sri Hamidon Ali, his exposure as an AFS exchange student in the United States 50 years ago was a key influence in shaping his career in foreign affairs.

A diplomat on multiple Malaysian missions and the former Permanent Representative of Malaysia to the United Nations, Hamidon had his first taste of intercultural experience and international exposure in a Midwest town called Fosston in Minnesota, near the Canadian border.

“It was extremely cold in the winter but extremely exciting in other ways. This small community was very close because they were descendants of Scandinavians. I was placed in a family where the father was a preacher at the Baptist church.

“I was reluctant to go to church with the family at first but after a while I decided to join them except for attending Sunday school. Then I began to understand that the values of this particular group of Christians had a lot of similarities to Islam,” he said.

“My experience opened up my mind to many things — we have to accept people and accept them as different, learn from the differences, and use the differences for the betterment of societies, countries and global community.

“We need to bridge the gap to know each other better and not be segregated. We need to find common values. I spent 40 years in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, I met people from all over the world—when your mind is open, you are receptive. You don’t have to compromise your beliefs.

“The experience made me stronger, it strengthened my faith. When you understand we have the same roots, we can then smoothen the edges.”


Suraya Zainudin, 30, from Shah Alam in Selangor went to Japan on the six-month AFS exchange programme from March 2005 till February 2006, when she was 16.

“I was hosted in Handa City, Aichi Prefecture and lived with the Hibi family. There were three of them — Okaa-san (host mum),Otou-san (host dad) and Asami-chan (then nine-year-old host sister). Their extended family also lived nearby, so I had an Obaa-chan (host grandmother) and Ojii-chan (host grandfather).

“I was their first hosted student, and we got along really well and keep in touch until now. I consider them my second family. Both my host parents work in print publication, while my host sister has just finished university and plans to be a teacher,” she said.

Suraya went to Handa Koukou (Handa High School), with a reputation for being an academically good institution. She often get “undeserved” compliments for being a former student at the school.

She rode the bicycle to school —around trip of 40 minutes to an hour. “I joined the kyuudo bu (archery club), sadou bu (tea ceremony club), koto bu (koto club; koto is a Japanese musical instrument) and sometimes attend the eigo bu (English club).”

The AFS experience taught her that kindness and goodwill foster more of the same. “My host parents didn’t have to take on a stranger, but they did, and out of their own pocket too. So did countless other strangers who helped for the sake of helping. It made me realise that good people are truly everywhere.”

Suraya learnt to overcome challenges. “I was very shy back then, and the experience made me realise that I will miss out on many life experiences due to shyness. I forced myself to overcome my shyness to make the most out of the experience.”

She feels that her AFS experience has made her a more empathetic and curious person.

“Perhaps that is why I chose communications as my major and career — I love knowing how and why people are different, as well as how they reveal their personalities and values through words and actions.”

Entertainment journalist and host Shafiq Najib, 25, works for Los Angeles publications and networks such as US Weekly and E! News. He has also worked in London, covering various entertainment events and credits his career to his AFS experience.

“My AFS experience has taught me to be more compassionate to others and to always think outside the box. Since then I had gone on to pursue my passion to become a journalist. I want to help to make a difference in the world by telling stories that will inspire people to love and be kind to one another.

“I gained life skills that have been very useful to my career and life in general. I learnt to adapt to a foreign environment, communicate with people from all walks of life and accept people for who they are, without judgement. I am very appreciative of these experiences and will never trade them for the world,” he added.

Shafiq, who is from Kluang, Johor, joined AFS in 2011 under the YES (Youth Exchange and Study) programme funded by the US Department of State. He was 17 and was hosted in Los Angeles, California for six months with a Jewish American family with four sons. He attended Culver City High School as a senior student.

“I joined the programme to broaden my horizons with first-hand experiences of living in a foreign environment with a different culture and lifestyle. At the same time, as a proud Malaysian, I wanted to introduce my culture and identity to people from the other side of world that had probably never heard of us,” he said.

“I went with an open mind and ended up having the most amazing experience of a lifetime and built such beautiful relationships with people that I never thought I would ever be able to have a connection with in my life. I learnt that regardless of religion, race and culture, we are all equal as human beings.”


AFS Malaysia plans include expanding international exposure for students as well as providing intercultural learning within Malaysia for Malaysians.

Its latest initiative is a domestic exchange programme in the country which allows local students to experience the different cultures of the races among our communities. Five students were selected to participate in the pioneer programme during the recent Deepavali celebration. The programme aims to enhance awareness and knowledge of other cultures as well as deepen the understanding, appreciation and respect for the multiracial people of our own homeland.

Speaking at the recent AFS Malaysia 60th anniversary gala dinner, Khalilah Talha said: “As Malaysia has a diverse cultural landscape, it’s time to help in strengthening the cultural understanding of the people in our homeland and eventually help in the nation-building agenda. It is also our hope to be able to share our expertise and 60 years of intercultural experiences to bridge the gap and connect Malaysian communities.

“The (new) programme tailor-made for our local communities is our attempt to introduce inter-racial exchanges in the country and offers local students a first-hand experience of Malaysia’s multi-cultural forms and practices.”

AFS Malaysia is drafting a programme for university students on a gap year that will immerse them in community projects abroad involving the underprivileged and the differently abled, for example.

“We have been hosting programmes for overseas students under this gap year type of programme but we want local university students to go overseas for the experience too.

“We also want to hold educators’ programmes so that they can pass on the message of embracing differences and celebrating commonalities to their students.”

AFS Intercultural Programmes began as the American Ambulance Field Service, a volunteer ambulance corps created in April 1915 by A. Patt Andrew. Under the leadership of Andrew in World War I and Stephen Galatti in World War II, AFS was transformed from a wartime humanitarian aid organisation into a groundbreaking international secondary school exchange, volunteer and intercultural learning organisation with a noble vision: help build a more peaceful world by promoting understanding among cultures.

AFS Intercultural Programmes provide intercultural learning opportunities to help people develop the knowledge, skills and understanding needed to create a more just and peaceful world. By linking its “learning to live together” philosophy to the defining global issues of the 21st century, AFS is dedicated to building an inclusive community of global citizens determined to build bridges among cultures.

(File pix) Malaysian AFS alumnus Vimal Raj Vivekanandah (second from left) with friends he made in Houston, Texas.


VIMAL Raj Vivekanandah, 21; Umi Nabila Mat Yusuf, 19; and Chow Shenn Kuan, 22, have two things in common.

All three have participated in an AFS intercultural exchange programme and have gone on to volunteer in various projects on campus.

Fresh graduate Chow, who pursued the Bachelor of Science (Honours) Business Studies of the Lancaster University-affiliated programme at Sunway University, joined the 10-day student exchange programme Kizuna Project 2012 in Japan which promoted better understanding of its revitalisation and reconstruction after the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

A Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Bachelor of Social Science in Psychology final-year student, Vimal joined the AFS Exchange programme 2015 for six months in Houston, Texas funded by a British Petroleum scholarship.

Umi Nabila, a Universiti Teknologi Mara Shah Alam Bachelor of Science (Honours) Biomolecular Science first year student, also had a six-month experience in Dallas, Texas under the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study programme last year.

Chow said: “Today, I am an advocate for student exchange programmes or learning abroad. During my undergraduate years at Sunway University, I received a scholarship for an exchange programme to Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, and a travel grant for a visit to Harvard University in the United States.

“Truly grateful for the opportunities offered by Sunway University, my form of giving back to my education institution was to be an active student leader. Since my first year at Sunway University, I have been hosting visiting students to Malaysia from the United Kingdom, US and Hong Kong, for example.”

Vimal is a student buddy for international students in Malaysia. He has also developed an interest to participate in conferences and summits including those organised by the United Nations.

“Recently, I represented Guinea as its delegate for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4: Zero Hunger and was awarded Honourable Mention at Global Goals Model United Nations 2018.

“I just attended Asia Youth International Model United Nations 2018 as part of the committee team in Bangkok, Thailand.

“I am a development committee member at Hunger Hurts Malaysia with a focus on helping homeless children at People’s Housing Projects and eradicating urban poverty.

“I also an ambassador at Institut Onn Jaafar Volunteer Centre in Chow Kit where we help the homeless,” he said.


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A meaningful hijrah

Monday, September 10th, 2018

MUSLIMS welcome another new year in the Islamic calendar tomorrow. It was 1440 years ago that Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) and the early Muslims migrated from Makkah to Madinah, which marked the first year of the Hijrah calendar.

For many Makkah Muslims then, the decision to migrate was done with a heavy heart as they had to leave their homeland to a new place. But their faith and love for Islam soothed their doubts and worries.

The Hijrah has significance not just to the Islamic world but also to world civilisation. It did not merely signify a final destination for Makkah Muslims, but was also the beginning of a continuous effort to establish a strong and resilient ummah.

While many Muslims prefer to discuss the Hijrah from the perspective of personal transformations, it is also important to put into context the other impacts from the migration. These include the reshaping of the political, economic and social aspects of the Muslim community, which became the central foundation for Islamic civilisation. This all-encompassing impact of Prophet Muhammad and his followers’ migration from Makkah strengthened the viewpoint of Islam as a comprehensive religion and a complete system of life for its adherents.

It was during this period that an Islamic civilisation was built, gained prominence and lasted for centuries.

The strength of the nation was not measured by the number of weapons, soldiers and wealth, instead, the foundation of the religion, that is the framework of tawhid (oneness of God) and the prophethood of Muhammad as the final Messenger of God cemented the whole life system. This was epitomised through the characters of Muslims in their political, economic and social affairs. Muslims today must therefore emulate the will, courage and strong conviction of the muhajjirin(the emigrants) to bring about changes and improvements to oneself and the ummah.

The Hijrah also offers important lessons in leadership. When Makkah Muslims migrated to Madinah, they were welcomed by Madinah Muslims.

Prophet Muhammad’s leadership was able to unite two Muslim communities with different sects and religious beliefs just on the basis of faith. His position as the leader in Madinah stemmed from the essence of power bestowed on him by society and also through divine authority.

The Prophet took the position of leadership as a trust from the people of Madinah and also from Allah. Therefore, a lesson to be learnt from this is the importance of upholding amanah (trust) andadl (justice) among leaders.

Other lessons from hijrah: the Prophet brought together different tribes, cultures and religions. The people of Madinah were taught to be more kind, compassionate and giving towards one another.

The kinship formed between Makkah Muslims and Madinah Muslims, the end of intertribal conflicts between the tribes of Aws and Khazraj, and the acceptance of other religious communities as part of Madinah society, paved the way for the establishment of a strong and stable nation under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad.

For a multiracial and multireligious country like Malaysia, there is so much to learn from this historical episode.


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Haj shows me what Islam is

Monday, September 10th, 2018
The sight of the Kaabah within the Grand Mosque, and the undulating sea of people circling it, is mesmerising, almost hypnotic.

THE haj season this year officially closed two weeks ago. It was, gratefully, a smooth and successful season with several historic feats achieved for Malaysian pilgrims, among them, fast-track immigration pre-clearance and air-conditioned tents in Arafah.

Since returning after covering the pilgrimage as a journalist and performing the haj at the same time, I’ve been trying to put my thoughts in order. It’s challenging as it feels like an entire lifetime passed in the reasonably short period of 55 days I was in the Holy Land.

Arriving at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport just a few seconds to our National Day, and back on familiar ground in the days thereafter, it felt as if nothing has changed, but so much, in effect, has

Haj, it has been said, is a powerful experience, and a catalyst for change like no other. And it is.

There was much I learnt being part of a global community of more than two million people. We trekked under the scorching heat of the desert sun, and waded through the crush of people together, sharing not just succulent Ajwa dates and refreshment, but tears and laughter

I saw how it’s possible for people of different colour, backgrounds, and stations in life to co-exist as one. No one is on a pedestal higher than the other, or more important. Everyone looks the same and is clothed in similar garments, free of all their worldly trappings. We may not know the different languages spoken, but everyone understands each other completely when reciting the talbiah, takbir and verses from the Quran.

This incredible diversity of people who journeyed from all corners of the globe for a singular purpose is indeed a sight to behold and you will be made acutely aware how small you are amid this ocean of humanity

If only this spirit, as well as sense of community, charity and brotherhood can be replicated at all other times, and in all places.

I also learnt that the haj is not to be feared. Some are reluctant to fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam and put it off until they are in their twilight years not because of financial constraints but because of a sense of unworthiness or unpreparedness. I felt the same too and these thoughts were swirling in my head: am I ready? There is still so much I don’t know. What if I embarrass myself by doing something wrong?

I will, therefore, always be grateful for this advice: “Don’t wait. Go when you are invited. As long as you go with sincerity and an open heart, InsyaAllah, all will be well.”

In Makkah, I met elderly pilgrims who regretted making the journey so late in their lives as obstacles are more difficult to surmount when the body is frail and weak.

Indeed, much has been said about how physically demanding the haj is. It can be arduous, especially now in the summer months, when temperatures soar above 40°C.

This is hot enough to cause mobile phones to overheat and shut down.

Thus, it is crucial to be prepared. There will be discomfort, inconveniences, long waits and even longer walks during Masyair, when pilgrims move from Makkah to Arafah, Muzdalifah and Mina to perform the haj rituals. Even religious guides from Tabung Haji (TH), Malaysia’s pilgrims fund, advise people not to neglect physical preparations — exercising and eating nutritiously — before departing for the Holy Land. Spiritual preparations alone do not suffice as a certain level of fitness is required for all the walking.

And just how long are the walks? At Mina alone, it is at least 7km daily under the blazing sun from the tent site to the multi-storey Jamarat Complex for the stoning ritual, and back.

Thankfully, when it seemed like my legs were turning to jelly, I would see determined senior citizens charging ahead with their walking sticks, and come across Saudi volunteers with water sprays shouting, “Five more minutes!”, and feel re-energised.

For women, it is also important to be armed with knowledge, especially with regards menstruation, as ignorance can have serious consequences.

Ask a religious guide if unsure. Nothing is too embarrassing when it comes to something as important as the haj, which most people have an opportunity to perform only once in their lifetime.

As it is, the highest number of inquiries received by TH guides are from women concerned about menstruating during the haj, a situation brought about by the increasingly younger age of pilgrims.

But what I learnt most of all from my journey is what Islam is. Not how it is often portrayed. Not unforgiving, judgmental or eager to punish. Not about hate, anger or retribution, and not about brimstone and hellfire.

Throughout the haj journey for me, there is a sense of Islam as it is in its truest form. One can feel it when in the holy cities.

This feeling of love, mercy, and compassion; it permeates the air at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, which was once the home of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

The sight of the Kaabah within the Grand Mosque, and the undulating sea of people circling it is mesmerising, almost hypnotic.

This is where Muslims face five times every day in prayer, no matter where they are in the world.

By Sofea Chok Suat Ling.

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