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Christmas is a special time of year for many Malaysians.

For Christians, Christmas is, of course, much more than coloured lights and tinsel; it is about remembering and commemorating the birth of Jesus the Messiah, the cornerstone of faith. It is both a sacred and secular occasion. For others, it is a non-religious festive occasion, a time to enjoy the festivities, the decorations and shopping bargains.

Whatever one’s take on Christmas, however, in Malaysia it is also an opportunity to celebrate our diversity and reaffirm our commitment to a nation of many peoples, cultures and religions all bound by common citizenship. It is what makes us unique.

Hate

But Christmas invariably brings out the bigots as well. In times past, they have complained that there were too many Christmas lights, too many Christmas trees, too much Christmas carolling. To them, every little coloured light is an affront to their faith, a provocation. Thankfully, there was none of that this year.

True to form, however, the PAS youth chief (and the son of the PAS president Hadi Awang) insisted that Muslims should not only refrain from participating in the Christmas festivities, they shouldn’t even extend Christmas greeting to Christians. Going by his comments, Christmas itself is apparently haram.

While the son was spewing divisiveness and discord at home, the father was doing likewise in the UK. At a dialogue session in London, Hadi rallied against local council elections saying that it might result in non-Malay mayors who might “make alcohol and gambling permissible” and result in another May 13th. It’s nonsense, of course, but that is the kind of rabid racism we have come to expect from Hadi and his ilk.

Hope

What makes this year – the year of Malaysia Baru – special, however, was that the voices of hate were overwhelmingly drowned out by the voices of hope, tolerance and respect.

In keeping with tradition, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad wished “all Malaysians a joyous and blissful Christmas,” while Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah wished “every single one of you celebrating Christmas this year a wonderful and joyful celebration.”

The Sultan of Johor, always an outlier on such matters, went a step further by issuing his own Christmas card via Facebook wishing all his subjects celebrating Christmas “love, joy & peace and a wonderful time with families and friends.”

And then there were a number of state muftis and Islamic religious groups who, in effect, rubbished claims that wishing Christians was somehow haram. The Mufti of Penang even called for a fatwa to put an end to the nonsense about greeting others on their festive occasions. Even PAS secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan ignored his youth chief’s warning and wished Malaysians a Merry Christmas.

A particularly welcome development was a video of police officers at a police station in Kota Kinabalu singing Christmas carols against the backdrop of a Christmas tree. It may or may not be recent but it was widely circulated and brought much cheer to Christians. Given all the past reports of police officers demonizing Christians at closed-door seminars, it was particularly heartwarming to see them honouring Christians this way. For many Christians, that one single act did more to inculcate and foster national unity than all the political speeches on the subject combined.

Simple gestures speak volumes

The Pakatan government must now build upon these expressions of hope and do more to break the cycle of mistrust and disunity that has plagued our country for so long.

Some years ago, we had national-level celebrations for all the main religious and cultural festivals. There were national-level open house events for Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Gawai, Deepavali, and Christmas. There was even a national Christmas tree. And no less than His Majesty the Agong and the entire cabinet were present at these functions. Tens of thousands of Malaysians responded to these events.

Restoring that practice will be a major step forward. After all, in their Christmas messages, all our political leaders emphasised that coming together to celebrate each other’s holiday festivals is a manifestation of mutual respect for our unique diversity.  It will speak powerfully to all Malaysians to see our leaders themselves demonstrate this respect for diversity by hosting national and state-level celebrations on festive occasions and yes, by lighting a national Christmas tree in Putrajaya. It would certainly set the tone for the rest of the country and silence the voices of bigotry and divisiveness.

In the end, it is the simple gestures that express respect, tolerance and inclusivity that do more to enhance national unity than anything else. Let’s hope that in Malaysia Baru the voices of moderation, tolerance and respect will grow louder and louder. And that the message of Christmas – peace and goodwill to all – will become a permanent feature of our Malaysia Baru.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 27th December 2018]

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