Muhammad Haziq Mohd Tarmizi was 17 years old. He had lived for the last year and a half in New Zealand with his family. He was a Year 12 student at Burnside High School.
Haziq’s death, and that of the others in the Christchurch shootings, is still fresh in our minds. Malaysians are still numb with shock. There are no words to describe the pain, grief and loss felt by us all.
This is not the first mass shooting the world has seen. There have been others in other countries. We find ourselves asking: what can normal, decent human beings do in the face of such unrelenting, violent evil and madness?
For New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, this question was not a rhetorical one. Fighting back tears, Ardern’s response was decisive, strong and swift. On the same morning Haziq was identified, Ardern made a firm commitment to ban all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles. When Ardern visited families of the victims, she did so with a headscarf, as a mark of respect.
The first session of the New Zealand Parliament after the massacre opened with a recitation by Imam Nizam ul Haq Thanvi from the Quran. Ardern then began her speech with “Assalamualaikum”. Ardern has made a conscious effort to show the world that New Zealand’s commitment to nurturing a diverse society in which all cultures are welcome has not been deterred in the least by the shootings. On the contrary, it has been strengthened.
From the moment of its birth, Malaysia has wrestled with similar questions of diversity and the relations between the different races and religions, and between majorities and minorities. We have been blessed by being free of any mass killings since 1969, but we find ourselves increasingly in a world where it takes only a few to do so much carnage, and a region in which terrorism is not as uncommon as it once was.
What then can we do?
There are practical steps for protecting ourselves that we must not lose sight of. Strict gun laws in Malaysia have served us well, and should continue to do so. The pros and cons of allowing radicalised Malaysians who have fought for organisations like Islamic State to return home should perhaps be debated more and scrutinised.
Perhaps more importantly, we must work vigilantly to ensure that the basic needs of all Malaysians are met, to avoid the disenfranchisement that almost invariably precedes extremism. In other words, no Malaysian must be left behind.
Next, Malaysia has a role to play in stemming the tide of intolerance, hatred and division that is spreading across the globe — the same tide that brought the gunman to the doors of those two mosques in Christchurch. Malaysia has more experience than most countries concerning the coexistence of different cultures, ethnicities and religions.
We haven’t always navigated these differences as well as we could, but whatever our shortcomings, we still stand together today as a multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious nation. Coexisting in peace is no longer something we can take for granted, but a goal that requires constant renewed effort.
In this crisis, however, there is also opportunity — an opportunity for Malaysia to show the rest of the world how bigotry and hatred borne of ignorance can be overcome, and replaced by unity borne of understanding and embracing diversity.
Malaysians have to step out of their comfort zones, and abandon the siege mentality nurtured by decades of racialised politics. If the prime minister of New Zealand can introduce Islamic elements into the august hall, for example, why should we, the non-Muslims fear them?
A situation where minorities are only fighting for minorities, or majority fighting for the majority, locks us into a cycle of mistrust and conflict.
This is indeed a meaningful opportunity for non-Muslims in Malaysia to demonstrate empathy that cuts across religious and ethnic lines. The long-term challenge facing us is to identify common values and principles that can form the basis of genuine national unity — values that can unite Malaysians of different races and religions.
Malaysia can be a beacon of hope for the rest of the world — a model nation that serves as proof that immigrants of different cultures or religion need not be feared, and can be integrated positively. Of course, this is easier said than done. The enduring question is how badly do we want to realise this goal, and the sacrifices we have to make. No matter what our background or aspirations are, it is not likely that all of us will get everything we want in this era of new Malaysia.
But we can hope to get enough of the things that matter — a universal respect for fundamental human rights, dignity and freedoms; a fair opportunity to make a decent living; and a nation where we can uphold the things most important to us, without infringing on anyone else.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch killings, we are reminded of how difficult it is to live in times where such violence seems to be around every corner. Perhaps the famous movie filmed in New Zealand, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has some words of advice:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Haziq was given too little time. But with the time given to us, we should decide how best we plan to use it to build a worthy Malaysia in the eyes of the world, and to honour Haziq and the others.
The writer is director of media and communications at EMIR Research (www.emirresearch.com), a think tank focused on data-driven policy research, centred on principles of Engagement, Moderation, Innovation and Rigour.
Published in: New Straits Times, Wednesday 27 March 2019