Malaysia is akin to a growing child. Almost 60 years of independence would compare us to being just about a teenager, or a youth struggling to find its place and identity in the world. Slowly, but surely, we are hoping that we achieve adulthood without any mistakes. But that does not make us bulletproof to the mistakes. Having such codified reinforcement of the multi-ethnicity of Malaysians in itself, through the recognition of races and ethnicity and religion in this country makes things even harder. We might take longer to grow up and become an adult.

My school days were interesting, the diversity following exposures that I got from it would always be my fondest memory of growing up in Malaysia.

My first few years of my primary education were spent in a private school. Most of my classmates were Malays that spoke English. I was then put into a government school where I had my first experience of socio-cultural and economic differences when I was nine.

My Indian friend had carried a plastic bag bearing a logo of a club that my family and I spent time in every weekend. I approached her and asked when she would go there, thinking that we could meet up and play in the playground together. She responded by saying her father merely worked as a cleaner there on a part-time basis and she was deprived of the privileges meant for the paying members.

It was to my shock to know that because of the income disparity in Malaysia, despite the close proximity, her life was different from mine despite our school being less than 10km from our respective homes. The income disparity between people despite the close proximity shocked me as we had all lived in KL, but it was a lesson that I learnt early on: the urban poor.

I then went on to a private school filled with non-Malays and non-Muslims. I was a minority, then. I did not understand Mandarin, nor did I have a good grasp of the Chinese culture. I would walk past by the school hallways not being able to communicate or laugh with my friends who were more comfortable speaking in Mandarin or Cantonese than English, which I felt most comfortable with.

However, five years living as a minority taught me that people were beyond their skin colors or main languages. I made friends and traveled the world with them. We went on cultural exchanges with foreign countries such as Japan. Throughout the five years, and the seven years since graduating from my secondary school, we still celebrated Christmas, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Hari Raya Aidilfitri together.

My schooling experience in Malaysia made bigotry and polarization difficult to understand. So, I’d attribute and say the best way to curb the growth of them would be by making them more understandable.

We only fear things that we cannot understand, I learnt that early on when I was a minority in school. I would not deny the cultural friction that existed between two people of different culture in primacy school, where I was treated in a hostile manner by some individuals who had harbored animosity towards my name a title.

But as the months went by where I confronted, approached, and asked her why my schoolmate had picked on me, I tried to understand her as much as she had tried to understand me. I am proud to say that we became friends afterwards and sat to have lunch together.

I would think of this as an experience of the socio-economic differences that exist between different sects of the society that we unfortunately, do not pay close enough attention to. However, with a thorough understanding and openness, we might be able to pass through the judgments or silence the fear that comes from being ignorant in our thinking. And only through that can we actually curb the growth of bigotry and polarization, because there would not be a problem as the society would understand things better and not encourage the actions and statements of certain individuals.

We must not forget the role and power posited in the culture and society –- we are the main movers and shapers of the government and prominent individuals that decorate our newspapers today. Without us giving them attention, them and their actions and words would cease to exist in our society.

The royal houses would play a big role today. And nothing would be more of an example or making a statement that the actions of the royal houses. The Royal House of Johor is the perfect example of what, and how the royal houses would be able to contribute to improve the polarization issue in Malaysia.

His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince of Johor himself has expressed Christmas greetings would be the perfect example to follow as it defies racial polarization. Johor, in itself, being a state so diverse and populated by different culture and ethnicity, would be the perfect example.

The Royal Houses are representatives and protectors of the society. History tells us that, and in the modern world today, they serve as the protectors of people by ensuring that check and balances are kept between the partisan individuals.

From my experience in Kelantan too, I have witnessed people of different race, ethnicity and nationality pass through the doors of the Kelantan palace. During Raya Aidilfitri open houses, the palace is open for all to attend.

Being in a state in the northern part of the country and bordering southern Thailand, I would not deny the presence of the Thais, the Orang Aslis as well as Myanmar refugees. And the best part would be the ability to distinguish them from the average Kelantanese from their clothing, which is representative of their culture and ethnic identity. A sense of pride and satisfaction comes from witnessing them not being forced to adopt a foreign culture through their dressing, but instead pursue their culture and traditional clothes comfortably.

Being a state that adheres strongly to a certain religion, too, does not mean the exclusion of a certain race. Events such as ‘Qiam with Me’ in Kelantan by the current Agong, His Majesty The Yang di-Pertuan Agong XV Sultan Muhammad V witnesses the inclusion of everyone –- including people of different nationality such as African Muslims.

Some royal houses have taken a more vocal position. And I think being in the 21st century, where connectivity is never assumed as a problem, it would prove to be beneficial.

The role of the monarchs in essence, following the founding of Malaysia had always been to provide for a check and balance for the country. Sadly, during the crisis in the 1980s, we witnessed the deprivation of what was a balance that my grandfather, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman had envisioned. The powers of the monarchs were reduced as the Bills would no longer require the Agong’s signature and approval in lawmaking.

And now, you witness the value and impact of monarchs as the opinion shapers of today’s modern society. The heaviness of politics and Machiavellian ways of some politicians too, make it easier for the public to invest in the monarchs, as their statements would convey less of an ulterior motive seeing as the royals houses do not have an interest or need to consolidate their positions or campaign for an election.

My hope and wish for Malaysia in 2017 is just as how I have hoped it was in the previous years: peace and stability. But seeing as Malaysia would celebrate 60 years of independence (or rather, the beginning of Independence seeing as West Malaysia joined in 1963) next year, it would be a year of milestones. There would be celebrations and litmus tests to the previous decades, no doubt.
However, most importantly, in the global arena, I hope Malaysia would ensure stability.

We are witnessing a turn of a century, as the Western world slowly takes in a new shape and size, and Asia in itself would witness the spotlight turning to have Asia shine. 2017 would be, and should be another chance for Malaysia to shine bright and advance like our East Asian friends.

Malaysia would also be setting examples of curbing the polarization and be an example of a tolerant society as we witness bigotry emerging in the Western world. Despite our continuous racial friction flooding our Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds, we cannot deny the tolerance and peace that we have achieved despite the codified segregation through some Malaysian policies.

Going back to using the analogy of an individual, Malaysia in 2017 is probably what one would expect of a young adult. We have made developmental plans and predict a growing and developing 2017. However, we should not set such high expectations -– sometimes nature would intervene and have a young individual fall ill and not be able to perform in his or her entrance exam, and I think that’s exactly how it might be. However, it does not mean that we should not try to avoid it from happening. As a whole, however, here is hoping that this young adult grows and becomes much better and mature in 2017. Happy 2017!

WRITER: Tengku Nur Qistina is the granddaughter of the late Tunku Abdul Rahman and the daughter of Tengku Temenggong of Kelantan. She fell in love with the Malaysian history, culture, heritage and the uniqueness of Malaysia while studying abroad, and looks to feed from her legally-trained curious mind and soul with Malaysians. She hopes to share her discoveries and love of Malaysia.

– Mysinchew