Display religious maturity and tolerance (Posted on 08.28pm Nov 20, 2002 )

Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzil has asked Singaporeans to "attack Malaysia with their money!", an exhortation to them to come shop in Johor during the various festivities.

The Johor state government and the ministry is promoting a mammoth sales carnival to be officiated by Abdul Kadir on Nov 23 to target Singaporeans and indirectly, other visiting foreigners to the island.

However, the icy blasts by two groups attacking the shopping complexes in the state for putting up more Christmas than Hari Raya (falls on first week of December) decor will work against these promotional efforts.

Their attacks will only help to fuel bad press abroad for Malaysia at a time when the country needs all the foreign visitors and tourist revenue it can gather as it braces itself for a possible drop in international visitors and revenue in the next 18 months.

The crude comments by Johor state's tourism and environment committee chairperson, Dr Chua Soi Lek’s will only give Malaysia "bad press abroad". An experienced politician — and what more a tourism leader — like Chua should know better than to hurl accusations at the shopping complex proprietors for being unduly influenced by western culture.

His statement "that proprietors did not need to adopt the western practice like in London or Hong Kong where they were enthusiastic about Christmas promotions" was certainly inappropriate, unfortunate and extremely unbecoming.

I agree that the Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations should not be sidelined but there could have been an oversight or for commercial reasons that these shopping complexes gave more prominence to the Christmas display.

There is no reason why the learned politician could not have exhorted joint decorations and buntings be put up instead, as was done for the joint Chinese New Year and Hari Raya "Kongsi-Raya celebrations" previously. He chose instead to politicise the matter and create unwarranted controversy by instructing the proprietors to bring down Christmas buntings and decorations!

As such, I cannot but concur that some of our politicians and certain vernacular media just do not have the sensitivities to practise good public relations. The comments made by a well-known senior editor of a vernacular newspaper that shall remain unnamed was also unfortunate and in bad taste.

Malaysians have — fortunately or unfortunately — become too familiar with such comments made by politically ambitious and self-serving politicians and played up in vernacular newspapers to exploit the racial and religious insecurities of certain quarters.

These irresponsible politicians and others find a sensitive spot and work on it, declaring themselves the wira (heroes) defending the maruah (honour) of their respective bangsa (race).

This is certainly a quick way into the political mainstream and thus access to the economic resources that total political control affords. It is an old trick, performed many times over by politicians.

But all should remember, as strongly pointed out by none other than Jordan’s Queen Noor, a devout Muslim, in an exclusive interview with CNN's Larry King recently that Christianity and Christmas is not a "Western religion or Western celebration" — a fact rather conveniently ignored by our "religious bigots and extremists" — and Jesus Christ was not born in London, New York or Washington, but in Bethlehem in Palestine.

Damage has been done and we must hope that such unfortunate comments, coming soon after so many recent race and religion related controversies will not further dent Malaysia's image in the international community and hamper tourist arrivals to our nation. These have included Umno Youth’s call to close down all Chinese and Tamil schools in the country, racial polarisation, the deterioration of racial and religious tolerance, the demolition of several temples, burning of two churches and the allegations that Malaysia is a transit point for international terrorist groups.

One must also remember that this is the holy month of Ramadhan where peace, harmony, tolerance and a forgiving spirit must prevail in all Malaysians.

Dr. Jacob George
Subang Jaya
Tel: 012-3664444
Dr Jacob George is president and legal adviser to the Consumers Association of Subang and Shah Alam (Cassa) and chairman of the MIC Subang Jaya Town Centre (MICSJTC).

This opinion piece has also been published in Malaysiakini, February 11, 2003