Thursday, December 29, 2011

All I want for Christmas: Goodwill and Compassion Among Malaysians

by Mariam Mokhtar

The spirit of Christmas lives on in Malaysia, regardless of race or religion. I know of several non-Christians who have not forgotten the joy of giving and thinking of others before themselves. Some find solace in singing carols in a group. Others delight in thinking about what to get for friends, family or colleagues.

A few join in the season of goodwill by the simple act of volunteering, while others help relieve Christian colleagues who want the day off to celebrate Christmas. Perhaps, there is something about the magic of Christmas, which even diehard Muslim extremists will never destroy.

When I was in primary school, Lembaga Letrik Negara (LLN), the pre-cursor of Tenaga National Bhd, used to hold Christmas parties for children, principally of its employees. It was an event that every child looked forward to eagerly. As Christmas fell during the school holidays, it was another happy occasion that children and parents found welcoming.

It did not matter if the child was Malay, Chinese, Indian or Eurasian. No one bothered if the child who went was Christian or not. It wasn't just the children who were excited. The accompanying parents enjoyed the get-together, which was always held at the Kilat Kelab.

Every child looked forward to receiving a present from Father Christmas. Newcomers would feel intimidated at first, but their shyness would melt away once they were told that Santa was approaching. His noisy arrival was not by reindeer and sled. LLN's Santa came in a bright red "cherry picker", garlanded with tinsel.

The cherry picker would be lowered and Santa would exit with his big sack of goodies. The children would crowd around Santa before rushing off to open their presents.

I believe those care-free days are gone now. A young relative whose birthday falls on Christmas day always persuades her parents to buy a Christmas tree to place her gifts under it. It is all harmless fun but the vitriol she received from social network sites when she proudly showed her decorations online last week, has caused her to question why people can be so nasty, to accuse her of "going against Islamic teachings".

Similarly, a Malay friend who tweeted to his Christian friend "Merry Christmas" received abusive and threatening responses from others who charged him with deviating from Islam.

I'll not be cowed by bigots

Once, when I played Handel's carols on the piano at a friend's house, I received a telling off for playing "Christian" music. I carried on regardless, I refuse to be cowed by a narrow minded bigot.

Although many of my Malay friends and family happily go about celebrating Christmas with our Christian friends, it is alarming to find that in 21st century Malaysia, there are many insecure Muslims. Do they believe that a Muslim who enjoys singing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful", who relishes turkey and stuffing, or the child who delights in decorating Christmas trees, has all but embraced Christianity?

If Muslims who choose to celebrate Christmas with their friends are given a hard time, the Christians in Malaysia must be going through a trying period. They have suffered "persecution" in one form or another, despite Article 11 of the Constitution which guarantees religious freedom for all Malaysians (bar Muslims).

Greetings from a Very Enlightened Muslim

Earlier this year, a furore erupted when Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak attended the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur Murphy Xavier Pakiam's Christmas (2010) tea party. Prior to the PM's arrival, church officials had to remove crucifixes and other religious symbols, and told not to sing hymns or pray, in Najib's presence.

In the following months, two consignments of 5,100 and 35,000 copies of the Bible, which were confiscated at Port Klang and Kuching, respectively, in 2009 were released after much wrangling and publicity.

Although Najib ordered Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein to release the copies of the Bible, the Holy Books were defaced, to satisfy two conditions set by the government.

Had the boot been on the other foot...If the boot had been on the other foot, would the Muslim backlash have been as controlled as the one from the Malaysian Christian community? Would Perkasa have run amuck?

There have been other incidents directed against the Christian community, such as the ban on the word "Allah" and the torching of churches.

In this year's Christmas message, Najib reminded Malaysians to "spread goodwill and cheer, just in time to usher in the New Year and make a fresh start" and added that "We could all use a little reminder...." He told Malaysians to "seize every opportunity to forge better understanding between Malaysians of different cultures and faith".

Describing his courtesy visit in July to Pope Benedict XVI at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, Najib hoped that the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican City and Malaysia, would forge "closer links and inter-faith dialogue".

Najib's Christmas message further described his commitment to "strengthen the interaction that has long exists (sic) with the Christian community. I have always made a special effort to meet with people of all faith (sic). I look forward to continue this practice to seek your ideas and hear your thoughts for the betterment of our society."

The PM said that Malaysia's celebrations were "specific to cultural and religious communities" such as the "gift-giving custom commonly practised during Christmas". He described his fascination with how "the nation's multi-cultural.... multi-religious practices blend into the society".

Najib encouraged fellow Malaysians to understand one another better, and to "appreciate them for the diversity and strength they contribute to our beloved nation".

Perhaps Najib's new attitude in the Christmas message is the result of a blessing from the Pope? Despite all the trials that Malaysian Christians have undergone in recent times, what they do not lack is the spirit of forgiveness.

Events in Malaysia have tested the patience of the rakyat. The faith and trust that we placed in the leaders has been abused and lost.

The bond among the races is strong despite the attempts of the UMNO-BN politicians to break it. But like the message of goodwill, we have not lost the hope that a better Malaysia will evolve.

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