Living cautiously in the Year of the Metal Rat

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A more multicultural Lunar New Year celebration provided a ray of hope, but Mustafa K Anuar writes the sense of novelty also shows how far we have gone astray. It is time to change course.

We hope you are keeping well and safe in the wake of the dangerous 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has taken many lives in Wuhan, China and has now spread to a few other countries including Malaysia.

As usual, news of this viral outbreak reaches us through the press, TV and news portals. But it is through social media that we get information much faster.

The problem is, we get all kinds of information, photos, video clips and messages, some hardly verified to the point they spark anxiety and confusion. Certain unscrupulous and irresponsible individuals spread such disinformation or fake news for their own agenda, creating unnecessary panic.

There were claims, for instance, of a few individuals being infected with the virus in certain parts of the country when there was none. And in a society where the politics of race and religion plays a major role, a tinge of racism also colours certain information spread over social media regarding the origin of the virus. Lo and behold, there were even messages proposing various unproven remedies for the coronavirus.

Such is the wild imagination, even irresponsibility, found among certain quarters, which distorts the reality on the ground, increases fear in society and provides false or unproven hope. Hopefully, the experts will be able to contain the ferocity of this virus and find a remedy to save lives.

That said, we should count our blessings that Malaysians celebrated the recent Lunar New Year in no less good cheer. The festivities even seemed more remarkable with the involvement of more non-Chinese individuals, particularly the Malays.

The celebration followed a few controversies that witnessed tension emerging between certain segments of the Chinese and Malay communities eg over the inclusion of Jawi in the vernacular school curriculum.

This may explain why there seemed to be conscious efforts by certain members of both communities to jointly celebrate the festival to foster unity. Indeed, the visit by the deputy prime minister and half a dozen cabinet ministers to the Pusat Bandar Puchong (1) National Secondary School reassured the school – and the public – that there was nothing wrong for the school to put up Lunar New Year decorations. That happy ending may have set the tone for a more inclusive, multicultural celebration.

We certainly witnessed various heart-warming gestures during the festivities. For instance, a New Year celebration at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall saw the participation of the Chinese and their friends of other ethnic backgrounds. In a move to promote inclusiveness and national harmony, there was even a New Year banner inscribed in the Mandarin, Romanised, Jawi and Tamil scripts.

Through social media and WhatsApp, we got to see video clips – some old, some new – of various ethnic communities joining in the Lunar New Year celebrations. For example, a Muslim girl played the drums for a lion dance group. Another Muslim girl sang a New Year song in Mandarin. Muslim children took part in wishing Chinese adults a happy lunar new year. Another video featured a group of musicians from the three main ethnic groups performing a Chinese New Year song. A group of Indian sitarists played familiar Chinese New Year tunes.

Although these joint celebrations were commendable and most welcome, I find it sad that once-normal practices – which no one would bat an eyelid to, in times past – have now become a novelty. By sharing these video clips, it is as if we need to applaud something that was once part of Malaysian life, to reassure ourselves, to rediscover the hope for a more inclusive Malaysia.

It also suggests how far we have gone astray from the path of togetherness and the spirit of nationhood. Race and religion should not be turned into a convenient wedge between the diverse communities in our beloved country.

We should instead celebrate wholeheartedly our rich diversity in all its various forms. 

Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
1 February 2020
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Phua Kai Lit
Phua Kai Lit
2 Feb 2020 9.15pm