One of our neighbours was a Malay teacher. He was single and he lived alone. I used to visit him and he taught me Malay and Jawi. I learned to write Jawi script which is constructed from right to left. It was much later in life that I learnt Hebrew and Arabic at college level, and realized how these languages are inter-related.
My Malay neighbour was very kind to me. Not only did he teach me bahasa he also taught me Malay folk songs and stories, some of which I still remember. Songs like Chan Mali Chan and Ikan Kekek still ring in my ears. My favourite stories were about the kancil which is ‘mouse-deer” in Malay. It serves as a respected noble character in the stories. My teacher-friend told me that the Malay people accord this humble creature the highest esteem due to its intelligence and survival skills. I can still recall stories like Sang Kancil dengan Buaya and Sang Kancil dengan Harimau. “Sang” is used to accord respect to this noble creature.
My other neighbour was an Indian family and they attempted to teach me Tamil. I can still count one to ten in Tamil because I created a song to help me to remember. It is based on the old American children’s song, “Little Indians” which goes “One little, two little Indian…” I inserted the Tamil words ondru, irandu, moondru pillaikal etc and sang it to remember it.
Growing up among people of different races and religion made me “colour blind”. Even today, my best friends are numbered among people of different races and religions. I am very comfortable with them and they with me. I was recently the guest speaker at the Metta Convention organized by the Singapore Buddhist Federation and will be a Guest of Honour at the 2014 Human Values Drama Festival (HVDF) on 4 Aug. It is organized by the Sri Sathya Sai Organisation of Singapore.
Now, if I may say a word about good neighbour makan kecil for which we are looking for connectors to help us: www.kindness.sg/letsmakan. About twenty years ago, I moved back from the United States and moved into an apartment building. Within a few months, I was involved in the management committee. The members of the committee were a microcosm of the Singapore society. We had a Tamil who is Hindu, a Malay Muslim, a Chinese Christian and a Chinese Buddhist. We gathered regularly for meals on a monthly basis. I had moved on for 10 years now and we are still meeting once a year where they gather at my home lohei celebrate the Chinese New Year. We also visit each other during the festive seasons of our respective faiths. Their kids who are now teenagers and adults still remember this old Chinese uncle with fondness!
Recently, I went to an Iftar (breaking fast), as a friend of Dr. Radiah Salim, the founder of Club Heal, a social service center offering assistance to people with mental illness. Prof. Fatimah Lateef was also there as a Guest of Honour. I was asked to share the difference between a Christian fast and an Islamic fast. More than the differences in terms of duration and intensity, is the commonalities, one of which is for spiritual reasons, namely to focus on God and the inner life. I was warmly welcomed and I felt a sense of inclusion even though I am a Christian.
This led me to a series of conversation on my facebook with two Muslim friends whom I shall call Mariam and Nur. I posted it on my facebook and there were many who expressed resonance with it.
Mariam: I am sadden by the oppression in Gaza. When will it stop?
William: I am too. There are Christians among the Palestinians. It is political. It is complex. There are many helpless and powerless on both sides. There is just too much suffering and death.
Nur: It is not about religion. It is about power and greed.
William: Agreed, but some co-religionists can be misled and become oppressive as in Northern Iraq where helpless Christians are being oppressed.
Mariam: I am praying every day for peace.
Nur: We need peace with justice.
William: May God have mercy on us all and may we give His peace and love to one another even as we pray for the oppressed and the helpless everywhere.
This is an abridged version of a conversation that took place. It is similar to a conversation I had with a Muslim cab driver who had an Arabic Script hanging from his rear-view mirror. It read “Allahu akbar” and when I read it aloud, he was very surprised. We started talking about our respective faiths. At the end of the journey, the meter recorded $8.00 plus change. I handed him a $10 note and he gave me back $5. I said, “You gave me back too much” and he replied, “We are friends. It is ok!”
Who says we cannot be friends and talk about religion? It is not religion that divides because religion teaches kindness to all and it should not be divisive. I believe that we can be passionate about our faith and yet be compassionate to all regardless of faith.
In our nation, race and religion often go together. Racial harmony is about the acceptance of our differences. It is about the respect we choose to accord to one another. In this regard, friendship plays a huge role. In the Greek language there are several words for love. One of which is the word “phileo” which refers to the love between friends. It suggests that friends treat each other with affection and kindness. True friendship transcends race and religion. It is respectful of the differences because love is kind.
That is why we need to revive the kampung spirit of friendship. It will help to strengthen the cords of religious harmony.
May I wish all my Muslim friends and their families a blessed Eid Mubarak!