On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Embracing the ties that bind

There are a multitude of reasons that bring us together as Malaysians, yet there are those who spend inordinate amounts of time finding divisive ones to separate us instead.

IT’S preposterous that a school that has put up Chinese New Year decorations has found itself in a controversy because of a complaint from a fledging political party.

The protest came from Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia (Putra) vice-president and lawyer Mohd Khairul Azam Abdul Aziz, who threatened to report a public school in Puchong recently over its supposedly “religious” Chinese New Year decorations.

The lawyer, in his own warped interpretation of the law, said the decorations were “unconstitutional” and claimed that Muslim parents had complained against what they saw as an attempt to propagate a non-Islam religion to students in SMK Pusat Bandar Puchong 1 in Pusat Bandar Puchong.

“The complaints we’ve received show unease at the excessive Chinese New Year 2020 decorations in your school. Some parents say the school looks like a Chinese-owned market with religious elements on display that are other than Islam.

“This is distressing for the Muslim students and is also against Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution, ” Mohd Khairul said in a letter sent to the school’s principal Rohani Mohd Noor, while also sharing it on his Twitter account.

Mohd Khairul is the same person who had challenged the constitutionality of vernacular schools in the country, though the Federal Court dismissed the application. He had claimed that the existence of such schools was against Article 152(1) of the Federal Constitution, because they don’t use the national language as their medium of instruction.

It’s clear where he stands. His hard-line approach seems to be based on unfounded prejudice and ignorance. It’s unacceptable that the school principal had to be intimidated and bullied into having to remove the decorations.

We are told that such practices – celebrating all major festivals – have been a tradition in the school. Principal Rohani should be commended rather than pressured for her efforts to instil such a Malay-sian sense of togetherness among her students.

We hope that Rohani and the school will not be discouraged by the views of one unelected politician and even one or two implicated teachers.

No one should let the bigoted minority force their views on us because most rational and moderate Malaysians want to keep our country the way it is.

We must never allow them to take charge of the agenda and narrative, and it’s heartening that leaders from both sides of the divide swiftly slid into action to defend the school.

Moral support from the majority is essential in thwarting such offensive threats.

The Chinese New Year is celebrated by ethnic Chinese from all faiths, and like in most countries, including Malaysia, it is celebrated by everyone.

It’s a gazetted national public holiday and accorded prominence by the government, with national-level events attended by our leaders. Our Rulers have also made it a point to join in the festival when needed.

Chinese Muslims also celebrate this spring festival, which began 4,000 years ago to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

I am a Christian and I celebrate Chinese New Year with similar decorations put up at that school. My Chinese Muslim relatives do likewise.

In 2017, Datuk Dr Zulkifli Mohamad explained that CNY celebrations held in this country were allowed under Islam. The Federal Territories mufti said the celebrations didn’t infringe on Islamic principles since they were meant to preserve cordial ties within Malaysian society.

“We find that the Chinese New Year celebration held by most ethnic Chinese leaders and participated by Muslim national or state leaders, are still within the prescribed space allowed by Islam.

“This is because they are meant to take care and preserve societal ties and are more towards living in a celebrated social contract without auctioning religious principles, ” he said in a statement.

Last year, Dr Zulkifli even donated cakes to his Chinese neighbours during CNY and said that “living religiously is beautiful and easy if we understand the religion” and that “the life of Prophet Muhammad Himself showed that the walls of race and religion can be cast aside through politeness and moral values.”

Then there is veteran journalist Datuk Kadir Jasin, who has made it a point to host CNY open house celebrations since he gained a Chinese daughter-in-law. It’s highly commendable of him to do so, truth be told.

Moderation advocate Anas Zubedy, who speaks excellent Hokkien, puts up full page ads in newspapers to celebrate major festivals and explain their significance.

And publisher Hussamuddin Yaacub, who campaigned incessantly against extremism in this country.

We don’t believe this is beyond Mohd Khairul’s knowledge, but the bottom line is, no one should attempt to stir racial and religious matters unnecessarily, and certainly, Malaysia doesn’t need such toxic controversy at this time. It’s certainly disturbing to most of us as race and religion should not be used for political mileage.

The festivals of all major ethnic groups are eagerly anticipated by all Malaysians, and in a unique Malaysian practice, many of us open our doors to friends during such auspicious occasions.

This is unlike Western practices, where most celebrations tend to be more private and involves only family members, and often only lasts a day.

But festivals in Malaysia, such as Hari Raya and Chinese New Year, can be month-long affairs.

In fact, all schools must be allowed to put up decorations for all festivals.

It’s crucial that all sides take a step back because the racial mercury is steadily rising. This is the time to hold back on any and all forms of hurtful remarks or actions which benefit no one.

This is not a zero-sum game. Malaysia has been successful in managing race relations. More than ever, much compromise is needed now. Let the voices of moderation, reason, acceptance and good grace prevail.

Ironically, extremism has no prejudice – it afflicts all races and religions here, let’s be clear about this. Ultimately, it’s best for the media to ignore these fringe figures, and better still to starve them of publicity as it’s akin to pouring fuel on the fire for their pathetic stunts.

So, let’s not allow one or two disrespectful people spoil the CNY festival. This may be the Year of the Rat, but we shouldn’t let political rodents ruin this occasion.