It’s very difficult to get people to agree to be interviewed in Malaysia. This likely applies in most Asian countries. But it continues to surprise me how some of the most difficult stories to set up are the ones that are least political. It took a good week before I could find a pensioner for a story on the Malaysian government raising the retirement age. I went through my entire phone list of contacts begging and pleading. Most people didn’t think that their stories were very interesting, but others were too embarrassed to be talking about their problems on camera, which is understandable.
Then there are the politically sensitive stories related to race and religion. It’s not impossible to find people to talk, but there is a time limit and you need a lot of luck. The most difficult story I have had to set up so far had to be a feature on the tensions between Muslims and Christians. The latest row was sparked by the so-called “church raid” incident. Church organizers didn’t want to talk. Muslims who attended the charity dinner refused to be interviewed. The Islamic police, who were accused of violating the sanctity of the church premise, also declined to talk.
I managed to find one Christian who was there when this “raid” happened but they not only asked me to hide their identity, they also requested that their voice be altered when the story was broadcast. I was quite surprised by this request because the night before, I had seen a feature on Syrian activists who wanted their identities to remain anonymous, but only hid their faces and changed their names.
It’s surprising then that someone living in such a peaceful country felt the need for added protection when speaking about Christian-Muslim relations. After all, Malaysian authorities love to boast about its ethnic and religious harmony.
But Jahabar Sadiq with the Malaysian Insider, one of the most influential alternative media sites in the country, tells me that the words “multi-ethnic” and “multi-religious” is merely advertising copy for tourism.
“It’s a concept we are trying to sell to rest of the world but we ourselves do not buy that concept,” he says.
The reality is that Malaysia’s ethnic Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous groups all live very separate but parallel lives. Tensions between these communities remain largely non-violent because people have learned to stop speaking out.