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Jakarta post

by Jennie S. Bev

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that multiculturalism in Europe has failed. Prior to that, Thilo Sarrazin, the author of Germany Does Away with Itself stated that Germany failed due to too many “unfavorable” immigrants. Those are strong statements.

Compared with the United States and Australia, which are countries built by immigrants, European countries are struggling with the notion of multiculturalism.

Despite a few hiccups of violent events throughout its colorful and colored history, in the USA, minorities and “minorities within minorities” so far have been able to enjoy relative peace.

From slavery to the Civil Rights Movement inspired by Rosa Parks in Alabama in 1955 to the struggle of today’s first African-American president. From the first Filipino immigrants settling in Louisiana in 1750 and the first Chinese settlers in 1848 during the California Gold Rush, to the violent death of Vincent Chin in 1982 in Detroit due to car manufacturing workers’ anger toward Japanese cars and the 1992 riots in Los Angeles where nine Korean grocers were killed. And of course, it’s hard to forget the recent heated debate about the building of an Islamic Center near the 9/11 Ground Zero in New York City.

On the discourse level, Charles Taylor and John Rawls, for instance, set theoretical frameworks on fairness and justice in a complex multicultural society, where a culture is recognized as an irreducibly social and intrinsic good.

On the political level, policies have been changing to adapt with the growing trends in immigration regulations and creating legal frameworks on issues like discrimination and persecution.

On the everyday level, laws and policies might be influential but people’s mindsets matter more, as living in a harmonious coexistence requires more than philosophy and rules.

As an example, in Germany and other European countries, the socialist welfare system provides a strong safety net accessible to all including newly arrived immigrants. In the USA, the welfare system is reserved for those who have exhausted other means, such as unemployment and disability benefits that are based on an individual’s paid taxes and insurance premiums.

In the USA, only those with long-term disability and of 62 years old minimum can receive Social Security benefits. And for those who were born after 1960, they can only obtain full Social Security retirement benefits when they hit 67 years old.

In short, the requirements to receive any kind of benefits are more complicated in the USA than in many countries with socialist welfare system.

Such differences in welfare implementation are examples of how the notion of safety net differs from one country to another, which eventually results in a multitude of results and reactions among individuals and groups in weaving the fabric of a multicultural society.

In the USA, such a system has been contributing to more industriousness among new immigrants yielding in upward mobility. While it’s on a case-by-case basis, prior to the current foreclosure crisis, it’s not uncommon for an immigrant family to purchase their first house after a few years of settlement without any or with a limited assistance from the government.

Success stories of immigrants and immigrant families are plentiful. And some even climb up the political ladder to represent the multicultural Americans.

Bobby Jindal, the current governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the running candidate for governor of South Carolina, are both Indo-Americans. “Indo” here refers to South Asians, particularly from Indian descent, who only make up 1 percent of the US population.

Both are Republicans and both reside in southern states, which were notorious for past slavery. Their achievements are remarkable and mind boggling: born of immigrant parents, conservatives and residing in southern states.

Perhaps that’s why America is so enticing, even in this bad economy.

Such an interesting phenomenon might be an American Dream comes true, because apparently even the most conservative of American conservatives are proven to be open-minded and accepting of differences.

If Jindal can make it as a governor, Haley as a gubernatorial candidate, and Obama as a US president, then America arguably has been doing something right about multiculturalism and in rewarding their people to equal upward mobility.

So, what can Indonesia learn from the so-called “success stories” of US-style multiculturalism?

First, a good system can create a favorable “default” state of healthy mobility and competition among people with different backgrounds, thus delivering an equal starting point. Second, cultivate a culture of meritocracy — not aristocracy — in which merits speak louder than any race, ethnicity, or religion. Third, cultivate awareness that a leader may belong to either the majority or the minority group, as majority-minority is a polarization oftentimes created to be politicized.

Indonesia has its own unique identity and problems, yet we should realize that the world is becoming borderless. It’s time to embrace multiculturalism and pluralism with sincerity.[]

The Jakarta Post, December 6, 2010

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