THE community of university students is a microcosm of society at large. Their behaviour generally reflects the behaviour of society.
A unique feature of this community is the temporal collectiveness lasting three to five years, depending on the courses they are taking.
Thus their relationship with each other is relatively fragile and they tend to gravitate towards the comfort zone.
In the context of Malaysia, the comfort zone for human relationship is usually ethnic, gender and age-based. The political parties are one attestation of the phenomenon.
Snapshots of their behaviour and their interpretation have to take into cognisance this sociological context.
An example of such a snapshot is the first-hand account of the perceived lack of inter-racial mixing on campus reported in the New Straits Times on Jan 26, 2007.
The journalists made their conclusion based on a few hours observation of students in the canteens, cafeterias and bus stops as well as interviews with a few of them.
Based on those few hours, is it fair and valid to single out the university as a place of racial polarisation, just because they are not mixing in the canteens and bus stops?
Supposing the journalists had snooped around the canteens of schools, private higher education institutions, government offices and other eating places, would they not find people of the same race eating together as well?
If they had picked one or two people at any bus stop and asked them about racial polarisation, would their answers be any different from the answers given by the university students who were interviewed?
Talking about the construction of images in his seminal book, Ways of Seeing (London, BBC 1972), John Berger said: "We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach - though not necessarily within arm's reach."
Even in the most beautiful woman, if we are determined to find some flaws, we can always make a convincing case of the small blemishes under the make-up, the faint wrinkles around the eyes or the fat deposits in the thighs.
In the NST report, the journalists were asked to find out whether it is "true that there is lack of inter-racial mixing on campus".
It seems like a deliberate "choice" was made to look for the invisible wall that separates us by ethnicity.
A picture accompanies the written words to construct an image that conjures up or strengthens the representation of racial polarity on the campuses of public universities - a self-fulfilling prophesy.
What if the journalists were sent out to look for unity? Would the story have been the same? What if the journalists had been more scientific in their approach and not taken snapshots which are not representative at all? An episode in a movie does not tell the whole story. Certainly there is more to a student's life than snippets in a canteen.
Why not talk to members of the Students' Representative Council of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), for example?
Find out from them how they take great pains to involve all races in their activities, be it sports, culture, literary, welfare and other co-curricular activities.
Find out how they ensure that all races are represented in the committees of the residential colleges.
Ask them to relate how the non-Muslim students help to serve food at the breaking of the fast during Ramadan in the residential colleges.
Find out who had the innovative idea of creating Chinese music using traditional Malay instruments.
Ask them whether their lecturers had composed multi-racial student groups to work together on the various academic assignments. Why not talk to the university administration about their plans for better inter-ethnic relations? In UKM, for example, a Chair and Centre for Ethnic Relations are being established. Student adoption programmes aimed at helping students understand how families of different cultures live are being organised with the National Council of Women's Organisations. Such spirited enthusiasm for national unity can never be captured by snapshots of limited scope. Let us stop looking for invisible walls. Even if we think that one exists do we need to blare it out to the whole world?
Why not concentrate on breaking it down?
The situation in the university is far from ideal. Of course, we will have some polarisation. How can we not have some polarisation when we inherit students who come from different school systems?
Instead of harping on polarisation, let us focus on the efforts the Ministry of Higher Education together with other ministries, the universities and society at large are putting in to realise the national agenda of unity and integration. The Minister of Higher Education should be congratulated for announcing the ethnic relations module on Jan 25.
After much consultation and scrutiny by the Cabinet, the module was welcomed by most quarters and the universities look forward to using it.
In UKM, the module will be supplemented and reinforced by various activities planned within a unity framework. A small step, perhaps, but a step in the right direction nevertheless. Society needs to hear more of such steps to sustain the momentum on unity.
Everyone has a role to play in forging unity.
Instead of playing up the negative, the media, in particular, has a heavy responsibility to propagate and ingrain in the minds and hearts of the people ideas about unity rather than polarity.
Our students are trying very hard indeed to realise the opportunity. Unity is also their agenda. Give them time to work out their similarities and differences, experiences and feelings. Let us not negate their efforts and disappoint them with sloppy snapshots. Let us stop shouting polarisation and work with them for unity. As Rabindranath Tagore once said: "I have become my own version of an optimist. If I can't make it through one door, I'll go through another door - or I'll make a door. Something terrific will come, no matter how dark the present."
by Prof. Dato’Dr. Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan ShahabudinPublished in New Sunday Times, January 28, 2007