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    Make empathetic living a lifestyle

    NOT long ago we could still remember how our neighbours, regardless of race and religion, would step up to help look after the children next door if their parents had errands.

    It is a great memory how dishes were exchanged during festivals and the amazing seamless comradeship that existed between everyone.

    The glue of care and concern people had created the concept of a caring society then.

    The sharp eyes of the elders were like CCTV cameras back then, that would painstakingly watch children grow up in the neighbourhood and out of respect and love, youngsters would ensure that their moral standing did not get compromised in any way.

    However, technology-driven social media shrunk the world to the point that everyone is aware of everything.

    The paradox is that it has also pushed people further into isolated cocoons resulting in a communication breakdown.

    This has led to families and societies experiencing an increase in fragmentation and separation.

    This disconnectivity has been attributed as the leading cause of the drop in levels of empathy.

    A study by the University of Michigan found that college students today are showing 40% less empathy than in previous decades.

    In Malaysia, as in other parts of the world, there is an increase in the number of incidences of people experiencing loneliness.

    Hence, there has never been a greater need for people to make empathy a pervasive integral part of their lifestyles.

    Putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes is usually how empathy can be experienced.

    However, this implies a need to sufficiently grow enough confidence to step out of our comfort zone from the get-go.

    One of the first things our 10th Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim did was to call for an emergency meeting on the first Sunday after his official appointment with all key officials to discuss how the cost of commodities could be made affordable.

    The painful challenge of meeting rising costs does burden the B40 communities and it is his sheer empathy that provoked the focus to be directed at this.

    In fact, the committee assigned to look into this would have gained a better emotional understanding of the proposal if they had visited the randomly selected homes of members of the B40 communities of all races and heard first-hand the dilemma they are facing.

    Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence would have had a better opportunity to kick in so that the proposal being worked on would have had a firmer ground to be based upon as opposed to gathering scattered information from third parties.

    It is this empathetic connection that could have propelled Anwar to visit the opposition-led flood-stricken states and extend financial assistance.

    The homes devasted by the rising waters drenched hope and security, and whatever help was extended to the people of Kelantan and Terengganu would not have been sufficient.

    The presence of government leaders would have provided a healing balm and some relief.

    The poor hawkers who get up in the wee hours of the morning, sweat and struggle to make their food items, and stand the whole day just to make a meagre sale only to sadly part a good part of their earnings to the middleman who arranged the space assigned for them to sell.

    It is empathy again when the prime minister asked to remove the services of the middleman in order to increase the sales profit for them.

    These are exemplary leadership traits shown by the unity government that we have inherited now and we should continue practising empathy on the basis of fostering goodwill among people from all political divides.

    The two-thirds majority in Parliament supporting the prime minister provides clear evidence that the runaway has been clear for the long overdue flight to take off.

    Dr Robbin Banerjee, Head of Psychology at the University of Sussex states that if you are interested in how you can foster children’s well-being and resilience, there is good evidence that empathy should be a key priority.

    Perhaps the Youth and Sports Ministry in collaboration with the National Unity Ministry and Education Ministry should organise a National Empathy Week (NEW) to create a NEW breed of emphatic Malaysians.

    Empathy should start from school with simple activities such as how to care for your friends, learning how friends celebrate their festivals, appreciating why people do what they do and understanding the cultural differences but appreciating the values behind each of the varied practices.

    This can lay the foundation for a better country that will insulate itself from possible extremism and fanaticism.

    Public speaking competitions on topics such as “The joy of living with other races”, “The advantages of living in a multi-cultural society” and “Celebrating diversities” can be good subjects for the young to explore and research.

    If a person from one particular race can boldly highlight the contribution made by other races toward nation-building then this will be a stepping stone to infusing empathy and strengthening a consciousness for unity.

    Pockets of activities of this nature in schools, universities and even community centres can create tiny ripples which could eventually grow into a tidal wave of love for all that can sweep the nation.

    The hardship caused by poverty traps is painful and as Anwar states his focus is not on building mega buildings but to take care of the welfare of the people.

    An empathy-driven government can bridge the expectations of people and this will surely bring the desired connectivity with all Malaysians.

    The government should make NEW a pervasive celebration of experiencing diversities.

    Corporate offices should have bosses who vocalise appreciation for staff and recognise contributions however small.

    It is also an opportunity for staff to express their gratitude for having been given the opportunity to work in such an environment.

    They can also convey their true feelings of gratitude to their superiors.

    Such mutual exchange will foster a better working environment that can promote better teamwork.

    It is the same at school, where children should express their appreciation for their teachers and feel the challenges that their teachers have to put up with.

    Likewise, teachers also can express their sentiments to children.

    Even in politics, race-based parties should speak in their forums on how they can help other races.

    The problem facing one race should be equally shouldered by others as well.

    It might be considered idealistic but when a natural disaster happens, everybody extends help regardless of race and religion.

    Maybe that is why it is called a natural disaster as it brings us back to our own nature.

    There is a need to get into other people’s shoes. Feel their discomfort, fuel your passion to serve and fulfil their needs.

    These are the 3Fs that can empower empathy.

    If this empathetic culture can be re-emphasised, we will strengthen the concept of the previously lived “caring society”.

    Our empathetic living style should become so synonymous that someone, somewhere in the world might say “as empathic as a Malaysian”.

    Prof Dr Suresh Govind FASc is an honorary professor at the University of Malaya, chairman of the board of trustees for Yayasan Perpaduaan Malaysia, director of the Sathya Sai Academy for Human Values and coordinator for Friendship Group for Inter-religious Service. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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