Eating our way to Social Cohesion

Many of us are overzealous in thinking that national unity promises a pledge of peace and harmony while living in a society. However, we tend to neglect the most important stepping stone in accomplishing national unity: social cohesion.

The notion of social cohesion is defined by way of a continuing process of rising a society of shared values, shared challenges, and bonded relationship which is grounded on trust and reciprocity (Strategic Research and Analysis Directorate, 1997). This concept dwells on a steadfast relationship, willingness to participate among the members of the society, and a sense of belonging to a group. The question that may arise is how do we manage our ethnic, religious, language and cultural differences in creating a cohesive society?

A cohesive society is constructed based on three fundamental pillars; firstly the absence of social exclusion among the members of the society. Secondly, a cohesive society must have the type of interaction and connection that binds them. Thirdly, there must be shared values among the members of society even though they are from diverse language, religious, and ethnic backgrounds.

At the micro level, eating which is the basic necessity for human beings is a common standpoint to observe the level of social cohesion within a community. Technically, some religions and belief systems have their own dietary guidelines. For instance, Muslims need to adhere to the concept of halal in food consumption while non-Muslims do not have to. Do the different dietary practices separate or unite us?

From my point of view, the concept of halal in the social cohesion context could be viewed from two different stances; positive or negative. In certain instances, differences in dietary practices can either bind or break us. For instance, if the members of the society take these differences positively and with respect, the dining experience could be a platform for achieving social cohesion.

Many of us feel respected and appreciated if others take into consideration our dietary requirement while dining together. This applies to the various types of dietary requirements such as vegans, Seventh-day Adventist diet, Hindus and Buddhists practitioners. It is crucial then in a multi-cultural society for one to respect the differences especially when it comes to the types of food intake.

On the contrary, a cohesive and well united society will remain as a flitting dream if people take their differences as a barrier to blend with others in a society. To elucidate, one would feel offended if his or her dietary requirement is not considered or respected during a dining together occasion. Furthermore, it could also be a point of contention if one’s dietary requirement becomes the brunt a joke of the other party.  

Therefore, valuing each other’s differences can be observed not only by being considerate of what one cannot eat but also by acknowledging what one can eat. Indeed, halal could also be a platform of social cohesion, where the members of the society can build their relationship through halal dining together and at the same time respect others’ dietary requirement too.

To be a cohesive society, it is not about being the same in all aspects of life and having the same belief or principles, but members of the society should be equipped to appreciate, embrace and respect each other’s differences and diversity.

Dining together among different races and religious believers has always been a stimulating topic that is discussed during the Ethnic Relations class, a Malaysian General Studies subject offered at the Monash University, Malaysia. This is in line with Monash’s dedication in upholding cultural diversity and maintaining an inclusive academic environment, free from racism and discrimination.

At Monash University Malaysia, the Malaysian General Studies is delivered in a fun approach through student-centered learning and supported by technology. Furthermore, far from traditional teaching, the learning activities for the Malaysian General Studies are designed in such a way to prepare the Monash graduates to be critical, creative, responsible and effective global citizens.

By Dr Aiedah Binti Khalek, Lecturer, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia