Monday, December 6, 2010

Royalty Extraordinaire, that is Raja Zarith Sofia Sultan Idris Shah

This account was written by Dr Lim Teck Ghee of the Centre for Policy Initiatives.

With their front page headlines highlighting developments on the massive Sime loss, readers of the country's two main English papers may not have noticed the news report of the speech by Raja Zarith Sofiah Sultan Idris Shah, the consort of the Sultan of Johor, which was buried in the inner pages.

The occasion of the speech was a conference on 'Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason' held on Nov 16 in Kuala Lumpur. The prime mover of the meeting in which I participated as a panelist was PCORE, a group that is representative of Malaysians who embrace and share the notion of peace as the way forward to achieve unity and integration.

Credit must go to the PCORE leadership for bringing together a diverse mix of young and older people from different backgrounds to voice their frank concerns on current issues and developments in the country.

For me the real star of the conference was Raja Zarith Sofiah. Readers who missed the news item may be interested in the excerpt from the news report of her speech.

"In her keynote address at the Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason conference, she described the use of 'pendatang' to describe non-Bumiputeras as "hurtful and ignorant", and that more discussions were needed 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 apparently educated and mature individuals use such terms or suggest fellow Malaysians go back to where they came from.

Describing her own ancestral background as a mix between Sumatran and Peranakan Chinese, she said it was important to recognise the diversity of Malaysian society, brought about by centuries of interracial and interfaith marriages and communication." (New Straits Times, Nov 17, 2010)

This open and proud acknowledgment of her mixed ancestral background is quite unprecedented. It puts to shame the way in which many of our leaders who have a similar mixed ancestry either try to hide or suppress the inconvenient truth, or engage in flaunting or agitating a mono-ethnic or religious stance as if this has been part of their, and the country's DNA from time immemorial.

Raja Zarith Sofiah's speech was much more than what was reported in the newspapers. It also covered her personal experience and thinking on religions and the importance for Muslims to learn about other cultures and religions and their heritage.

She spoke from the heart, simply and without the need for any convoluted intellectual argument or high sounding clich├ęs to drive home the importance of cherishing and protecting the country that belongs to all of us -- highly or lowly born; brown, yellow or black; and worshipping one, many or no god.

Readers may not be aware of the wide ranging accomplishments and interests of Raja Zarith Sofiah. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Master's Degree from Oxford University (her BA is in Chinese Studies). Besides Malay and English, she is able to communicate in Mandarin, Italian and French. She is a patron of the arts, an artist and author who has written children's books including Puteri Gunung Ledang. She is also the columnist of The Star's 'Mind Matters' column, and let out that her articles are being put together in book form soon.

Although I am a republican at heart, logic tells me that we may need the type of monarchy she personifies more than ever to hold the country together and to remind us of our common humanity. With her and other royalty who care for the country in the way she does, there is greater hope that the nation can overcome the racial and religious demons that torment us.

Finally, I should point out that I was privileged to sit at her table where I and others -- during the lunch chit-chat on topics ranging from how the handphone and Skype have transformed our lives to the inconvenience of sleep apnea - learnt that she has sleepless nights thinking about the predicament of our country and our people, and wondering how best she can be of service. The insomnia that troubles her, I am sure, also afflicts all of us concerned about the way ahead for the country.

[Source: CPI]

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