Flip flops in policies is a never-ending game in Malaysian policies and leadership. Especially, when it concerns race and religion. Racial integration is achieved not by coercion but by co-existence. Interpretations and directives pertaining to the significance of festivals often gets distorted by leaders.
The Islamic Development Department Malaysia (Jakim) and Ministry of Education (MOE) fell hook, line and sinker into the whirlpool of pitfalls this week. What is worse was that a minister noted that a MOE circular in Bahasa Malaysia was poorly written.
Now it appears that the civil service officials have to attend refresher letter writing courses to get their messages rightly communicated. Well, these are officials making policies and setting the direction of the education system, educating the future generation.
Soon after last week’s fiasco by a Muslim NGO on barring Chinese New Year decorations in a Puchong school we are in a ‘sinkhole’ of another kind. This week a circular by the paramount Islamic authority, Jakim, stated that schools should not allow Ponggol (Harvest) celebrations in schools. Ponggal ushers in new dawn as it celebrates a bountiful harvest. Malaysian public are asking why categorise Ponggal as a religious festival? Was the civil service trying to obstruct Malaysians of all races celebrating Ponggal?
The call for unity in Malaysia is always truncated by supremacy, bigotry, irrational thinking and poor leadership. Let’s commit to “something bigger than myself or ourselves.” With confidence and courage, I hope that an attitudinal change will unify Malaysians to understand each other as brothers and sisters. I believe that everything starts with me and self-sacrifice in serving that “something larger than myself”. Unity starts with you, me and us for the greater good of Malaysia.
Following recent incidents, Malaysians will question if there is a ‘deep state’ in the Education Ministry and Jakim? Were they trying to cover up after getting caught trying to make ponggal ‘haram’, as the Education Ministry is now under Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad?
“But the most important question is why was the circular issued. They (MOE) didn’t craft properly. Then suddenly it becomes a problem. Who (is getting the heat) today? Jakim,” Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mujahid Yusof told journalists after attending an event at the Finance Ministry in Putrajaya on Wednesday.
The Education Ministry says its guidance on the Tamil harvest the festival, known as Ponggal, was merely to allay Muslim parents’ concerns, while Jakim said it was only providing advice at the Ministry’s request.
The Ministry said that it was not trying to prevent Ponggal celebration at schools, and realises that schools are a place to inculcate unity among students of different backgrounds.
The whole episode appears that Education Ministry and Jakim are washing their hands over whether Ponggal can be celebrated in schools. A letter by the Ministry has described the Ponggal celebration as a religious the festival, with many comments on social media pointing out that it is actually cultural harvest festival.
Mujahid said the Education Ministry circular on Ponggal was intended to explain how Muslims should conduct themselves during the festival but the failure to properly word it had caused controversy. “There are ethics on how Muslims will attend occasions of other faiths. That’s normal and nothing strange. Jakim has never banned any celebrations… Even in our letter to the Education Ministry, it was clearly stated that there are ways to attend the programme in order to respect multiculturalism. As a Muslim, we are bound by ethics when we go to other people’s occasion, be it a ritual or not.”
Mujahid said the “host” was the Education Ministry, which he said should have been wise in conveying its message. “It was the Education Ministry that asked us (for our views). So the host should then be very wise to tell what we have discussed and when we have given from our point of view. We didn’t ban any festival,” he said.
On January 13, Education Ministry deputy director-general Adzman Talib issued a circular stating that Jakim’s position on Ponggal was that it is haram (forbidden) for Muslims. “It is informed that Jakim’s 100th Syariah experts panel meeting which convened on April 8 and 9, last year, had decided on the ruling on Ponggal festival for Muslims. “Ponggal is a celebration for Hindus. Therefore, Jakim decided that it is haram for Muslims to participate in the festival, particularly in the practice of cooking rice with milk,” Mujahid added.
In the wake of flip flops, the Cabinet on Wednesday (15th January 2020) decided that cultural celebrations should be participated and celebrated by all Malaysians as one united society, said Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (National Unity and Social Wellbeing) P. Waytha Moorthy. He said the decision was made at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad after concerns were raised regarding the participation of Muslims in celebrating well-known cultural festivals of non-Muslims. “Malaysia is well known for its diverse culture, so in the spirit of the Rukun Negara and true unity, we should all celebrate such festivals without prejudice or malice,”
Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo clarified that Ponggal is not a religious event or festival. He said it is an event that marks the celebrations of the harvest season, as well as success or abundance.
Malaysians have been on an endless roller-coaster rides of mistakes and flip flops while a certain race boasts of supremacy. Gone are the days of racist politics which has diminished gradually with the open and transparent Pakatan Harapan Government. Schools should remain neutral ground and not be a place for instilling someone’s religious, racial or political views. Politicians may continue being wrecking balls, but do not destroy the future of our children.
It’s time to celebrate our diversity and differences and get over racial and religious prejudices. Let’s think of us, Malaysians, as one human race. Government policies and directives must be written in a way which does not hurt any other race or religion. Let’ get rid of the vicious and dangerous culture of bigotry and supremacy in Malaysia today. But we cannot and should not depend on the Government alone. It’s all our people’s challenge and responsibility as well.
Let’s break the backbone of racism and racist culture that can strangulate our blessed Malaysian society! Great leaders always treat everyone, young and old, with respect. Some Malaysian leaders fail to listen or even meet the public who voted them into office.
We must have leaders who carry out tasks for the benefit of humankind, hardly thinking of themselves, when praised. Let’s plant the seed of unity in our minds, hearts and souls today. Our King and leaders have called for unity many times.
The King’s call for unity, is a “cause greater than himself” to bring Malaysians together. Like his Majesty, if we can all make self-sacrifice to practice unity which is a grand and meaningful cause then Malaysia will be a united nation. On Wednesday (15th January 2020) the King and Queen led the Ponggal wishes on social media with a post on Istana Negara’s official Instagram page. “Wishing all our friends a very Happy Ponggal. May this festival bring you and your loved one’s blessings and prosperity!” the post read. Even Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad took to Twitter with a 31-sec clip of himself in his office wishing Indians in the country a Happy Ponggal. Speaking in Malay, Dr Mahathir wishes them a year of “abundant prosperity”.
As Malaysians, we have to carefully navigate the minefield of hate, jealousy, mistrust and envy created by leaders and shortsighted civil service. At times, we all have to go through tears of pain and joy to connect the dots in uniting Malaysia. Start in our way to connect the dots for a unified Malaysia, a better place, for a better tomorrow. What is more significant for us as human souls is to strengthen our vision and mission for a united nation. Move away from the pride of, bigotry, race or religion, deep inside us. Such racist feelings will only destroy us from merging and unifying us as one big family of Malaysians.
Malaysians can argue and debate all they want but the bottom line is the importance for the future of our children because we are all responsible for them. Stop all the hatred in schools. Start with love among students. Love ends hate. Unity starts with all of us. A school is a place to inculcate unity among students with different backgrounds. Culture and customs between races must be shared, learnt and respected by all parties, including MOE, Jakim, school management, teachers and students.
M KRISHNAMOORTHY is a media coach, associate professor and a certified Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF) trainer. As a journalist, he has highlighted society’s concerns and has gone undercover as a beggar, security guard, blind man, handicapped, salesman and as a Member of Parliament. He also freelances as a fixer/coordinator for CNN, BBC, German and Australian TV networks and the New York Times.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG