On Merdeka Day today, let us begin by imagining a more inclusive, kind and forgiving Malaysia. A Malaysia that embraces any and all.

A year before Malaya gained her independence, the idea to build a Buddhist temple close to Kuala Lumpur was mooted. The temple was to “reflect the status of Buddhism as one of the major religions in the country, and also serve as a symbol of the long standing close relationship that existed between Thailand and Malaya”, said a commemorative publication in 2007, marking the 50th anniversary of the Thai Buddhist Chetawan Temple on Jalan Pantai, Kuala Lumpur.

The idea was put forward – by a Thai monk, Phra Kru Palat Vieng – in 1956, a proposal was submitted in 1957, and the subsequent year saw the Selangor state government allocating almost 1ha (2 acres) of land for the temple. Through donations, the temple grounds were extended to 1.8ha (4.5 acres) and additional structures were built.

Today, apart from the ubosot (prayer and ordination hall), the temple complex consists of a meditation hall where a Sleeping Buddha resides, a bell tower to announce the commencement of ceremonies, the monks’ kuti (living quarters), the sala (a rest area), Brahma and the Kuan Yin pavilions and a columbarium.

Two trees that are significant in Buddhist doctrine were also planted on the grounds – the bodhi tree, which is associated with providing shelter, and the sala tree, associated with the Buddha’s birth and death.

Designed by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand and built by Thai craftsmen and local builders, the Chetawan temple was opened by Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej on June 26, 1962, with the raising of the chor fah (roof decoration).

Before construction began, though, a fundraising rally was initiated and received widespread support not just from Buddhists, but also the Government of Malaya, which – through Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj – contributed a grant of RM100,000. A further RM45,000 was contributed by T.H. Tan (later Tan Sri), then secretary-general of the Umno-MCA-MIC Alliance Party.

The Chetawan temple as well as the many other Buddhist temples in Malaysia do indeed “reflect the status of Buddhism as one of the major religions in the country” and, arguably, also reflect the status of the largely Buddhist Chinese community here. We are accustomed, in fact, to the emphasis on Malaysia’s three main ethnicities in the national rhetoric, propagated further by the Alis, Ah Chongs and Muthus of our school textbooks. But Malaysia is a country of immigrants and demographics change over time.

The immigrants of early Malaya have been integrated into mainstream society and helped to give birth to the new nation we call Malaysia. They helped form the uniquely multicultural, cross-cultural fabric of this country.

In recent years, we have begun to see an even more diverse social fabric as immigrants came to work in Malaysia. But we hardly ever pay them any mind, do we? Not even Sarawakians, Sabahans and the indigenous peoples get much play within the national rhetoric what more other communities who have made Malaysia their home.

An acquaintance of mine once took us to a Burmese café in the heart of KL. We were the only non-Burmese there and felt like a group of tourists! It was hectic and lively, albeit a bit too smoky as it was indoors. It was kind of like a mamak stall but on the third or fourth floor. There were also mini marts selling all kinds of Burmese goods; spices, sauces, pastes, everyday items and essential goods.

Take a walk on the weekend in KL where two rivers – Sungai Klang and Sungai Gombak – meet and you will find that it has a life of its own, a different vibe altogether. Nepali and Burmese DIY posters are plastered on lamp posts. People speak in languages foreign to my ears. This is where the young men and women who come to the city to earn a living congregate and enjoy their day out, just like any one of us would on a weekend.

The scene today is perhaps similar to what it was like in the 1800s, when young Chinese men came to work the mines of Malaya. Where the two rivers meet, that was the meeting point, the centre of activity, the birth of a city. Fast forward to today, and where the two rivers meet is still the meeting point – yet the demographic has completely changed, as has the nature of immigration.

Unlike those long ago Chinese and Indians, however, these small new communities are not integrating into mainstream local society. They exist in a bubble, because we Malaysians of the mainstream have not built any infrastructure to include these new communities into the mainstream.

Often, these workers earn a dismal wage, forcing them to concentrate on merely surviving. Their work permits usually only last five years and they are prohibited from marrying locals (unlike that other immigrant, the expat) and hence are unable to secure any kind of permanence in Malaysia. We expect them to work (and die) for our country yet we discard them after the work is completed.

For a country that grew with immigration, I feel that our attitude towards modern-day immigrants is despicable.

We moaned when minimum wage was implemented, with businesses citing that it would put pressure on them. We unleash RELA to curb illegal immigrants, sometimes at the expense of legal ones who get harassed.

A report released by Suaram (Suara Rakyat Malaysia) in 2006 said there were an estimated 1.8 million documented foreign workers and an almost equivalent number of undocumented ones in Malaysia. I’m sure these figures have climbed since then. Many of these workers are part of the fringe community in KL, and because some are denied the right to work or earn decent wages, they are among the city’s poorest.

These are 1.8 million, or more, potential Malaysians. Why not? Imagine: Burmese Malaysian, Nepali Malaysian, Rohingya Malaysian, Bangladeshi Malaysian….

Malaysia has never been unchanging, and, in fact, should never remain static. Like any living thing, it is always changing (it just depends on how fast or slowly) and there can be no lessons learned or benefits reaped in trying to deny this change.

Today, being our 57th year of Merdeka, let us begin by imagining a more inclusive Malaysia, a more kind and forgiving Malaysia, a Malaysia that embraces any and all. Let us all be tourists in our own country, exploring and going to places we never knew existed under our very noses. Why travel far when there are many surprises right at your doorstep?

> Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society(ies).