Netusha Naidu

Reflections on Winter 2016 Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative/Study of the U.S. Institute on Religious Pluralism

When one grows accustomed to an environment that isn't as friendly to free speech, it often internalizes into expression of self-censorship. Attending this academic fellowship with the Dialogue Institute liberated me from this notion. As much as it felt uncomfortable yet relieving simultaneously, the entire course of the program was a breath of fresh air to me as it challenged a lot of boundaries that have been in place, growing up in Malaysiaespecially when it concerns religion. I learned to not only engage in productive and intellectually stimulating dialogue, but also how to create an environment in which dialogue can flourish. Being educated on the diversity of religions affected me on a personal as well as professional level. Having always been a more a-religious person, my strongly rooted passion for freethinking allowed me to appreciate the collective spiritual essence that all religions inherently share, which improved my knowledge and understanding to embrace inclusivity. Due to my scholarly interests, learning about religious pluralism further deepened my curiosity to indulge in this area much further. Through this, I hope I will be able to contribute positively to the political religious discourse in my country in a manner that is propagating humanistic values of peace, justice and egalitarianism.

Prior to YSEALI, I was involved in a six-month intensive program under Universiti Kaki Lima, or in English, "Sidewalk University". It was an initiative that was started by two Malaysian social scientists who wanted to cultivate research culture beyond the walls of our education institutions. During this time, I had equipped myself with knowledge of theory and methodology and had even been supervised to pursue writing my own academic paper. Since religion has often been a subject of heated debate not just in Malaysia, but all over the world, I was interested to look into spirituality as a binding force for a community, perhaps the entire nation, regardless of what color, class and creed they belong to. 

My supervisors were slightly skeptical regarding this topic due to the sheer complexity that might make all attempts to bring a conclusive, all-encompassing definition to a futile end. I could understand where they were coming from, but I remained optimistic that my hypothesis might have some weight with more investigation. Halfway through the course and after presenting my literature review, I had been encouraged to apply for an academic fellowship on religious pluralism. The content that was shared intrigued me very much and it seemed like a very exciting experience, given that I have never traveled so far, especially to the United States of America!

Netusha making her country presentation during the YSEALI/SUSI program.

Netusha making her country presentation during the YSEALI/SUSI program.

The five weeks spent in the United States was an extremely rewarding experience. It even felt like a dream of a lifetime! I had the opportunity to meet many interesting people and to listen to their insights on a variety of topics, from social and political issues to theoretical knowledge. There were many occasions where my personal beliefs and opinions were challenged, but it made me become more articulate and refined in my understanding because it propelled the incentive to learn more about a certain subject matter. When matters of the hearts such as religion and our identity come into play, nothing is simply what it seems to be.

The real contemplation began when I returned home from the program. A friend, and research fellow at the Malaysian think-tank, Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), and I decided to come together to start an alternative history project called Imagined Malaysia, where we aim to make marginalized and oppressed narratives of our history more popular, as well as promote historical literacy among the youth of Malaysia.

Most of what made this entire project possible were the lessons I learned during my time with the Dialogue Institute. I had learned to draw inspiration from America's long history of liberty. We were exposed to the beginning of the nation's story, from its Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, to the fight for civil rights. While the important lesson here was that we need to revise our history to create an egalitarian society, there was an emphasis to cultivate a culture of appreciation for national history, that acts as a binding force of the people. Being an aspiring historian, this observation inspired me into wanting to build a strong collective that promotes historical literacy.

Moreover, thanks to the Dialogue Institute, we had the chance to not only study different religions but to also experience them through participating in services at the respected edifices. This was crucial as it ensured we had a complete picture of the principles that govern these religions, as well as a review of their rituals, history and politics. This became the basic foundation for each one of us to acknowledge diversity in religion as part and parcel of society. It served as a reminder that the politics of anxiety that we have today is simply inhibiting us from co-existing without conflict, as the more we learn about each other, the more we will understand and accept each other.

In order for us to combat ills such as racial and religious discrimination, we need to address the misconceptions and stereotypes that are deeply entrenched in the minds of the public. The first step as taught to us was to create an environment for dialogue. We went through numerous and vigorous workshops that addressed issues regarding identity and our ways of dealing with "the Other" in our own contexts. We were encouraged to stick to the guidelines set that ensured all our group discussions would happen in a very healthy and productive manner. It is because I realized that such an attitude promotes a fair and just platform to gather different opinions that I hope to bring such notions back to Malaysia, where the discourse is often divisive and exclusive in its own means to feed the motives of political elites.

If there is a final thought that I could share in regards to all that I was exposed to in the course of this journey, it would be that the truth of religion that ignites unity and empathy among us is in the very essence, a sole idea, the realization that we all share a certain contingency in the mystery of God. 

It is with great optimism and utmost gratitude that I revitalize the lessons I have learned during this fruitful experience, and contribute to Malaysia's intellectual space especially in these very uncertain times. I hope that through these guidelines and dedication to learning, my project will find a way to re-introduce the forgotten sense of belonging we have had in this country, especially when it comes to our culture and promise in faith. 

Click here to read an article Netusha wrote during her first week in the program and featured in Hakamthe national human rights society of Malaysia that was founded by the "father of independence," Tunku Abdul Rahman. Click here to read another article, also published in Hakam, which she wrote just prior to her SUSI/YSEALI experience.