When I was a student in Rome, I used to be tickled at the fact that many Westerners were amazed (and sometime confused) as to what a typical Malaysian would look like. Whenever Malaysian students met for special occasions, an ‘outsider’ would be quick to notice that our physical features were so diverse and the colour of our skin was even more mind boggling. We were like a potpourri of flower petals. To add to this confusion, we had different cultural expressions and there were things that we did differently. The beauty of this diversity was that it never bothered any one of us and neither did we see each other differently – we are Malaysians.

However, the events in recent years have made many people look at each other differently. We call ourselves Malaysians (probably because we hold a Malaysian passport) but our diversity has been made into an issue to divide us all. Many would readily admit that this has been caused by a political agenda and I am sure there is much truth in this. But the sad part is that the disagreeing majority remain silent – for whatever reason.

Unaware to many, this silent majority can become a source of transformation. I am sure that most if not all of you would have at one point in your life had the opportunity of crossing a bridge. It could have been a concrete bridge, a steel bridge or even an old wooden bridge, often found in the villages. The type of bridge was not important. What was important is that we were able to cross from one point to another.

In the days of old, bridges were also a symbolism of friendship. Castles were built with a drawbridge across the moat. And when friends approached, the drawbridge would be let down so that they could come into the castle. It was a gesture of welcome and friendship. However when word came that enemies were approaching, the drawbridge would be raised up, thus denying them entry.

There are many connotations that can be applied to ‘bridges’ – both positive and negative. In today’s modern world and especially applying it in the context of the multi-religious country that we live in, we can perceive bridges as that which will build up trust, strengthen friendships and create a connection between people of different faiths.

Time and time again, we have been reminded of the importance of understanding and respecting one another’s religion. Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly said that if we want peace in a multi-religious society, each of us must develop an appreciative understanding of the others’ religions. Interfaith understanding isn’t just a nice idea or slogan; it is, in Gandhi’s words, “a sacred duty”.

The first step towards building bridges is to make friends. But in order to make friends we must learn to trust one another. The root to many problems in society is that we do not trust each other – the lack of trust could have been either implanted by an external source or by certain prejudices that we carry in each one of us.

Is there a way out? We would be gravely mistaken to think that the solution to this problem lies with politicians or in the hands of committees. The way forward seem to be that each one of us commits to making friends at the grassroots irrespective of race or religion, we begin to build bridges. Bridges are built when we direct out energy to looking at our commonalities rather than our differences. In the process of building these bridges of friendship, we become less insecure since insecurity is the breeding ground for extreme prejudice and bigotry.