The National Unity Consultative Council’s (NUCC) first-ever dialogue titled “Voice of the Grassroots”, which began yesterday, has called for a stop to race-based politics and stressed the importance of education for national integration.

More than 150 people, including members of non-governmental organisation (NGOs), community leaders and ordinary Malaysians, gathered at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to air their views on national unity as well as offer suggestions to the council on what can be done to restore unity.

The feedback from the public will then be collected and factored into the making of the National Unity Blueprint, which the council has been tasked to do.

Moderator Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, who is also NUCC deputy chairman, said more than 30 people gave their opinions and views during the inaugural session.

Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI) Vice-President Ng Yeen Seen was one of the first to voice the need to move away from race-based politics.

“We are a divided nation. Particularly so after the last two general electios,” she said, adding that there was a need to immediately end racial politics and begin a new political composition so that Malaysians can reach a common ground to “move ahead together”.

Echoing her sentiments was Jerald Joseph, an NGO activist, who acknowledged that Malaysia had probably needed race-based politics when it first achieved its independence more than 50 years ago.

“But things have changed now. We have matured and we have reached adulthood. More people are beginning to choose leaders according to their strengths and not according to race. The time has come for us to leave race-based politics behind.”

A large number of the public also agreed that there was a need to look into the education system in schools which they said was instrumental in building an integrated community.

“During the 1960s up till the 1980s, everything was in English. Everyone spoke English and everyone understood it,” said Saifullah Abdullah, a student.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Joseph Kurup says Malaysia should take a major step towards creating a single national identity by removing the ‘race’ category from all official forms.

“But now we have schools with different mediums and because of that, children learn from a very young age the different languages according to their own community. The interaction between the Chinese, Indian and Malay students from young is not there.”

There were also those who called for the Internal Security Act (ISA) to be brought back so that people would be more careful in what they talk about.

“Because it was repealed, there are certain people who have become emboldened to speak about Malay rights, royalty and other religious matters,” said a participant who declined to be named.

Meanwhile, NUCC chairman Tan Sri Samsuddin Osman said it was important for the council to listen to the grassroots and he was excited that a lot of people came up to speak.

“The intention is to hear from the grassroots — unorchestrated, unstructured and whatever that comes to the mind. This is what we wanted. I only hope there will be more ordinary Malaysians coming up to speak at the next dialogue sessions.”

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Joseph Kurup said Malaysia should take a major step towards creating a single national identity by removing the “race” category from all official forms.

He said it was sad that Malaysians were still divided by racial and religious identities.

“Maybe it’s time we removed the need to state our race on any form in the country. But it is up to the council members who are more learned to suggest this to the government,” he said when launching the dialogue here yesterday.

Kurup, who is the minister in charge of national unity, said the issue was when Malaysians would start seeing themselves as Malaysians. He highlighted the debate over the country’s history as it was interpreted differently in the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak.

“Another irony of our nationhood is that, after more than 50 years, we are still debating on a very basic historical question. For those in peninsula, history starts from Tanah Melayu to Malaya to Malaysia. But to those from Sabah and Sarawak, it was Sabah or Sarawak to Malaysia. Which is more important, Aug 31 or Sept 16 ?”

Yesterday’s session saw representatives from 30 non-governmental organisations discussing various issues pertaining to national unity. Among the issues discussed were the national language, racial politics, migrant workers, the role of National Civics Bureau and the Orang Asli’s plight.

The NUCC’s 18 dialogue sessions will cover all states and the last session will be held again in Kuala Lumpur again on March 30.