MUCH has been written about our new King, Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, however, much less has been written or is known about his consort and our new Queen, Raja Zarith Sofiah Sultan Idris Shah.
With the dawning of a new year according to the Chinese lunar calendar, heralding a good year for the dragon symbolising authority, prosperity and good fortune, Malaysians should take comfort in the pivotal balancing role that royalty can play in our society and political life.
Fourteen years ago, readers of the country’s leading newspapers, coupled with a relatively modest social media audience at the time, may have overlooked the news coverage of a significant speech delivered by Her Majesty.
This address took place during the “Voices of Peace, Conscience, and Reason” conference, an event I attended on Nov 16, 2010, in Kuala Lumpur.
The prime mover of the meeting was PCORE, a citizen’s group. This small NGO has been active in sharing its peace paradigm to achieve unity and integration in the country.
Following that meeting, I highlighted that credit must be given to PCORE for bringing together a diverse mix of young and older people from different backgrounds to voice their concerns on current issues and developments in the country.
I also noted that “for me, the real star of the conference was Raja Zarith Sofiah”.
Embracing common identity and humanity
In her keynote address at the event, she characterised the term pendatang, used to describe non-bumiputras, as “hurtful and ignorant”, emphasising the need for more discussions to address and resolve the gulf between ethnic and religious communities.
“Rather than simplify and shy away from sensitive issues, we should fight destructive rhetoric with constructive dialogue. It is shameful when educated and mature individuals use such terms or suggest fellow Malaysians go back to where they came from.”
Describing her ancestral background as a mix of Sumatran and Peranakan Chinese, she said it was important to recognise the diversity of Malaysian society, brought about by centuries of inter- racial and interfaith marriages and communication.
This open acknowledgement of her mixed ancestral background during a public event was unprecedented.
Raja Zarith Sofiah’s speech was more than what was reported in the newspapers.
She also delved into her personal experiences and reflections on religion, and emphasised the importance for Muslims to learn about other cultures, religions and their respective heritages.
She spoke from the heart, without the need for any convoluted intellectual argument or lofty cliches to drive home the significance of cherishing and protecting Malaysia, a nation that belongs to everyone regardless of social status or race – be they brown, yellow, black or white – and regardless of religious beliefs, whether worshipping one God, many Gods or none at all.
Readers may not be fully aware of the wide-ranging accomplishments and interests of our Queen. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Master’s Degree from Oxford University, with her undergraduate studies focused on Chinese Studies.
Besides Malay and English, she is fluent in Mandarin, Italian and French, a true language polyglot that few in the country can match.
She is not only a patron of the arts but also an artist and author who has written children’s books, including Puteri Gunung Ledang, and published a compilation of newspaper columns in a volume titled On Common Ground.
She is also a patron of the Tebrau Rotary Club Foundation in Johor Bahru, vice president of the Johor Women’s Council and president of the Malaysian Girl Guides Association Johor Branch.
We need the type of monarchy she represents to unify the nation and to remind us of our common humanity.
With her and other royalties who share her level of commitment to the country, there is greater hope that the nation can overcome the racial and religious divisions that afflict many Malaysians.
During our lunch conversation, which spanned topics from the impact of smartphones and Skype on our daily lives to the challenges of sleep apnea, our group discovered that she has experienced sleepless nights contemplating the plight of our country and its people, pondering how she can best serve them.
The insomnia that troubles her also afflicts loyal and patriotic Malaysians who are concerned about the future of the country.
In one of her posts on the Royal Johor Facebook page titled “Love knows no colour”, shortly after her 60th birthday, Raja Zarith Sofiah shared her love for her Chinese maternal grandmother.
She also reminded: “Children, if left to their pure and innocent thoughts and their understanding of the world, are oblivious to racial differences. It is us as parents who consciously or unconsciously make them aware of these differences.”
This is good advice for young and adult Malaysians who are continually exposed to a concoction of racial and religious differences, amplified by local peddlers of bigotry and bolstered by foreign counterparts.
Nevertheless, it is not too late for our nation’s leaders to steer us away from the brink of a failed state with principled and decisive action.
Many foresee dire consequences should the flames of racial and religious bigotry remain unchecked.
Lim Teck Ghee’s Another Take is aimed at demystifying social orthodoxy. Comments: email@example.com