Why Britain shouldn't replace the salad bowl with a melting pot

The UK's leaders wrongly believe its multiculturalism project, based on integration, is a failure

Should Boris Johnson step down, he might make way for Rishi Sunak or Priti Patel. PA
Powered by automated translation

Cities across Malaysia will resound all week to fireworks and the thunderous percussion that accompany lion dances as Chinese New Year is celebrated. Half the country’s states had another public holiday a couple of weeks before for the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. Christmas is also a national day off.

Last year on that morning, I cycled past an open-air service at St Mary’s Cathedral, a bijou English country church snugly located just off Kuala Lumpur’s Independence Square, and almost adjacent to the delicately formed, Mughal-inspired Sultan Abdul Samad Jamek Mosque that sits just above the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. This year, the country hopes, we may be able to resume the month-long practice of holding “Hari Raya” open houses for all our friends, of whatever faiths, to mark Eid Al Fitr in May.

Multiculturalism is a way of life in Malaysia, as it is to a degree throughout South-East Asia. In Jakarta over the Lunar New Year a while ago, signs bearing the prosperity wish “Gong Xi Fa Cai” seemed to be everywhere in the Indonesian capital. “Unity in diversity” may be that country’s national motto, but it could be the region’s – the Association of South-East Asian Nations even issued a Declaration on Unity in Cultural Diversity in 2011.

It doesn’t always work perfectly in practice. There will always be irresponsible politicians who seek to garner votes by harping on communal grievances. But there are others who set a better example – such as former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who although a Muslim makes a point of attending Thaipusam festivities every year. He draws on the same wisdom that inspires the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi: that understanding and peaceful coexistence are enhanced by building bridges between faiths and cultures, while preserving the unique character of each.

Likewise, I am glad that when our two boys at school in Kuala Lumpur tell us of the friends they’ve made, their names suggest they are Malaysian Malay, Indian or Chinese, or from further afield: South Asia, China itself, Japan, Australia, or Europe perhaps. The multicultural environment in which they are being educated is normal to them, and does nothing to diminish their own identities or shake their own faith. (Before playdates at friends’ houses, we are used to hearing the words: “They know I don’t eat pork, right?”)

Who could possibly object to multiculturalism, a term that Bhikhu Parekh, the former chair of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, defines as encouraging “dialogue between different cultures” and as “the process of mutual learning… from the treasures of other cultures”?

But Mr Parekh knows the answer to that all too well. For the idea of multiculturalism has been rejected by successive UK governments over the past 20 years. The New Labour figure Trevor Phillips, then head of the Commission for Racial Equality, said in 2004 that it was “out of date and no longer useful, not least because it encouraged ‘separateness’ between communities". In 2011, the Conservative prime minister David Cameron said “state multiculturalism” had “failed” and “allowed the weakening of our collective identity”. This seems strange when one considers that the possible contenders to lead Britain’s Conservative Party, should Boris Johnson stand down as PM, include Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Kwasi Kwarteng. That no one has raised their supposed “foreign-ness” as a reason to rule them out is a remarkable change for the good in the country’s politics. It might suggest an enhancement, not a weakening, of Britain’s collective identity.

As the British-Pakistani academic Tariq Modood has argued, “multiculturalism is not a politics of separatism; on the contrary, it is a politics of diversity and pluralism” and of recognition and inclusion for minorities. “They too – their values, norms and voice – should be part of the structuring of the public space,” he said.

True, multiculturalism is not about putting groups in silos: it’s about breaking down the barriers between them while allowing people to retain and live their own cultures and faiths with dignity. In many countries with deep-rooted racial or religious divides, it is simply a necessity; violence or even civil war can result if the communication and mutual respect inherent in multiculturalism are not practised.

Multiculturalism is a way to build harmonious societies that take pride in the richness of their diversity

This is frequently not an easy option. In 2009, I went to see the work of an inter-faith organisation called CAMP – Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims and Pentecostalists – in western Kenya. Two years before, the presidential election had been followed by a wave of inter-ethnic brutality that included 50 women and children being burned alive in a church not far from the towns I was visiting. One of CAMP’s pastors told me that mobs had threatened to burn his house down five times, and his wife and children had to flee, just because he belonged to one ethnic group and she another.

But, he said to me, “just as this place was the first to have problems, it was also the first to have peace". CAMP brought together not just members of different faiths but all the major ethnic groups. “The initiative began with us,” he added.

That was real multiculturalism in action. It was not assimilation – the process of erasing differences so that everyone conforms to the values and behaviour of the majority group, a model that has been tried and has failed in France. It was a different kind of integration, a recognition that Kenya contains different ethnic groups but that they all belong. As Prof Modood put it: “The multiculturalist concept of integration is not one way… it is about fitting people together so that there is give and take. It recognises that people have collective identities, and not just individual identities, or identities based on citizenship.”

Britain’s leaders should not have given up so easily on the idea. Many other countries know that it is not just a way to preserve the peace, but also to build harmonious societies that take pride in the richness of their diversity. And in that spirit, just as in Malaysia we greet friends and neighbours over both Eids, over Christmas and Easter, Diwali and Thaipusam, may I wish all readers – wherever you are from – a very Happy Chinese New Year.

Published: February 02, 2022, 4:00 AM