Open houses, closed minds, silent press

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The practice of having open houses during religious festivals has become so much a part of Malaysian life and culture that it is almost unthinkable for many Malaysians not to have them. Although such social interaction may not necessarily be the solution to the problems surrounding ethnic relations and national solidarity in the country, as it is often touted as such by government leaders, it certainly provides a golden opportunity for Malaysians of various ethnic, cultural and religious stripes to mingle with one another and, perhaps, learn a thing or two about those from different backgrounds.

 

It is therefore understandable if many concerned Malaysians expressed shock, horror or a tinge of indignation upon learning that the National Fatwa Committee had issued a statement that called for a review of this popular practice as “it could erode Muslims’ faith and lead to blasphemy”. 

This religious pronouncement has obviously serious implications for inter-ethnic communication and ethnic relations. It also raises a number of fundamental questions that require answers urgently. Is the religious conviction of the faithful so brittle that the rubbing of shoulders amongst ordinary Malaysians can actually trigger off spiritual confusion? Can a religion be really so exclusive that it demands conscious segregation of members of different religious traditions in many contexts or occasions?

Right-thinking Malaysians would of course have expected that this issue be reported and discussed extensively in the mainstream media. 

In fact, some Malaysians would even have expected certain newspapers to take a clear stand on this issue. It is in this context that one needs to commend theSun for having published on 15 June 2006 a page two commentary by its political editor, Zainon Ahmad, on this important issue under the headline, “Ulama cannot be allowed to decide”. And as if reinforcing its ideological position on this issue, the paper ties this commentary with a news report on Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Dr Rais Yatim who expressed regret over the religious pronouncement of the National Fatwa Committee.  In the face of creeping religious and cultural conservatism today, such an editorial stand is indeed noteworthy. It is quite unlike the usual kind of commentaries that you would find in most dailies that unthinkingly echo the opinions of the powers-that-be.  

Compare this with how the self-styled 'People’s Paper', The Star, covered the issue. The thick daily sheepishly placed a report on this issue on page 12 with a headline, “Back up claims, ulamas told”. This is a response from Rais Yatim to the religious declaration. Accompanying this report is a commentary penned not by its own writer or commentator, but by a presumably guest columnist, headlined, “Kongsi raya and open houses have little to do with religion”. The piece essentially reminisces on the good ol' days when social mixing among various ethnic groups was less of a problem.
 
If the mainstream newspapers need reminding, to be silent on important issues such as this one is not really (to use a popular buzzword these days) 'elegant'. In fact, to put it mildly, silence can be morally indecent. 

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