Celebrating unity


Muhibbah spirit: Malaysians of various ethnicities joining in the Chinese New Year festivities. — CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

Learning institutions must foster deeper appreciation of what it means to be Malaysian

WE are very fortunate in Malaysia. It is only February and we have celebrated Pongal, a Hindu harvest festival; Thaipusam, a festival of penance and thanksgiving; and Chinese New Year.

Soon, it will be Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and abstinence.

The country, with its melting pot of diverse cultures and ethnicities, celebrates each festivity with both enthusiasm and solemnity, reflecting the unity and beauty of Malaysia’s multicultural fabric.

This reflects the very ideals of community, respect, inclusivity, peace and harmony, and the fostering of good health and well-being.

For the Chinese, this is the Year of the Dragon. Ascribed to be powerful and benevolent, the dragon is the only mythical creature among the 12 Chinese zodiac animals.

Enter the dragon

In mythology and folklore, the dragon is depicted as strong and powerful yet it ranks fifth in the Chinese zodiac calendar.

Legend tells the story of a great race set by the Jade Emperor to determine the order of the 12 zodiac animals to mark the changing of time.

All animals in the kingdom were invited to participate in the race which involved the challenge of crossing a great river.

The first to arrive was the rat, followed by the ox, the tiger and the rabbit.

Despite being able to fly, the dragon was the fifth to reach because it had stopped to provide rain for a village which was experiencing drought.

The dragon was further delayed because it had helped to blow the rabbit’s log across the river.

The dragon, though competing in a race, found time to assist those in need and be supportive of others.

As we enter into a new year, let us strive to emulate the compassion, benevolence and kindness of the dragon.

The dragon’s emblematic presence in decorations, especially during this lunar celebration, should be understood as a wish for hope and optimism for all, regardless of ethnic background or nationality.

Let it epitomise our country’s dynamic spirit and journey towards greater unity and understanding. It’s not about who came first or who is greater. Everyone of us is significant and we must celebrate each another.

A festival for all

Chinese New Year is celebrated as a Malaysian festival here. It’s a time for rejoicing, respect and understanding. It’s a time when our streets come alive with red lanterns and giant banners adorned with auspicious greetings.

In the muhibbah spirit, Malaysians of various ethnicities take part in the festivities, attending open houses, tossing yee sang, exchanging mandarin oranges and blessings of ang pow as the sound of drums and cymbals echo through the malls.

I have also been told by friends who work in childcare and post-natal care that couples of all races are excited to have dragon babies this year.

To some, it is auspicious while others just think it’s “cool” to have a dragon baby. There is a spirit of collectiveness in the air.

Respecting differences

Respect for cultural differences lies at the very heart of our society. During Chinese New Year, this respect is beautifully displayed through inclusive celebrations.

It is important for schools and higher education institutions to highlight cultural performances, art and crafts, not only for Chinese New Year, but during all festivals which emphasise the history behind our respective cultures and traditions. This is necessary to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of what it means to be Malaysian.

These days, I am happy to note that Chinese New Year events are more inclusive. Take for example the multiethnic lion dance troupes. I have always encouraged our varsity’s 24 seasoned drummers to include the kompang and tabla in true muhibbah style.

However, celebrating Chinese New Year in a multiracial country like Malaysia is not without its challenges. Issues such as cultural appropriation and the risk of commercialising the festival are present. Addressing these require ongoing dialogue, education, and a sensible and sensitive approach to cultural representation.

It is all about celebrating with respect and authenticity, ensuring that the essence of the festival is honoured while embracing the diversity of the country. Our celebration of Chinese New Year is a testament to the country’s commitment to multiculturalism.

In the Year of the Dragon, let us embrace the strength, compassion and benevolence it symbolises, carrying these values forward in our continuous journey towards a more harmonious and inclusive Malaysia.

To all readers of The Star, I wish you all good health, abundance and happiness.

Prof Datuk Dr Elizabeth Lee is the group chief executive officer at Sunway Education. A veteran in the field of private higher education, Prof Lee is also an advocate for women in leadership. She has been recognised both locally and internationally for her contributions to the field of education. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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