Cutting across cultures

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 19 Aug 2012

Spreading cheer: While the Chinese use fireworks and sparklers to scare off evil spirits, the Malays use them to add to the merriment of the festive season.

It does not matter if the duit raya packet is Chinese style or the muruku snack is Indian. When Malaysians celebrate their festivals, it's an all Malaysian affair.

THE Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Eid) celebrations will not be complete without the duit raya just ask any child.

Following an age-old tradition that is based on the Muslim custom of sadaqah (charity), families have always put aside some amount of money to be given out as token gifts to the young, as well as some of the older, visitors to their house.

It is only recently, however, that the gifts of money are being handed out in green and yellow packets.

“Like many of her generation, my mother used to keep coins in a bowl so that she could hand them out to the village kids who visited our home,” retired teacher Maimunah Ahmad remembers fondly.

Although it is more convenient to have the packets, Maimunah feels that the bowl was more exciting.

“Some people will dip in and just give whatever they could grab. Then there were those who would hold out the bowl of coins, like the Halloween candy bowl that you see on TV, and we kids would try to take as many as we could. Of course that would be met with disapproving looks, so you would naturally take only a few,” she relates with a laugh.

It became difficult when the amount of token money started to rise, she notes.

“When it became more common to give out RM1 notes, people would just slip the money into your hand. That was a bit awkward, so it was only a matter of time that people started to use the packets,” she recalls.

Of course, it is widely acknowledged that using the green packet is adapted from the Chinese angpow custom, but now it has become a must for Hari Raya.

As Maimunah sees it, when you have a good idea, why not? “As long as it is not against the religion, it's fine.”

Another Hari Raya custom that could very well come from the Chinese is playing with fireworks. While for the Chinese it is intended to scare off evil spirits, for the Malays, it is to add to the merriment. In fact, fireworks and sparklers have become a must for many during other festive celebrations too, including Deepavali and Christmas. Everyone loves fireworks, after all.

Living in a country as diverse as Malaysia, it is common for the different cultures to adopt each other's practices. This, as noted, is something that has been observed not only in the Hari Raya celebrations, but also in the other festive celebrations.

Historian Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim believes this interchange is good for the country's unity.

“I think it is a useful move to try to incorporate aspects of the country's different cultures so that in the not too distant future, there will be less divisive elements in the lives of the people,” he says.

He laments that currently ethnic sentiments seem to be stronger than nationalism among the people.

“As far back as early 1949, someone did a thesis on this country based on the claim that there was unity in diversity' but he came to the conclusion that the diversity is there but where is the unity?' Unfortunately, if another study is done today, the conclusion will probably be the same,” Khoo says.

True, in the last few years, even the “open house” culture, which is practised across cultures during all the local festivals, had received some criticism from those who think that it is eroding the Malay traditional culture of “ziarah-menziarahi” (visiting) during Hari Raya.

As they argued, Muslims' houses are supposed to be open to all during the whole day on Hari Raya, not at specific times.

One does not need an invitation to go visiting on the auspicious day, they say. Even if strangers or your enemy show up at your doorstep, you are supposed to accommodate them.

Perhaps the detractors should take a leaf out of Malay culture expert Dr Noriah Mohamed's book. As the Selangor Malay Tradition and Heritage Corporation (Padat) member had urged in a local Malay daily, people should not pick on the small things but instead look at it from a progressive point of view.

“It is all right as long as the open house trend does not stop Muslims from visiting their family and relatives. It is convenient in today's world as it allows people to prepare in advance so that there will be no shortage of food,” she had said.

More importantly, she was quoted, the practice is not against Islam and it can be a uniting factor in the country as almost all cultures have open houses during their own festive celebrations.

Khoo concurs, saying that it is important for our leaders to defend these uniting values, especially against cultural purists or conservatives.

“It is up to the leaders of the country to decide whether they want progress or they are willing to abide by the conservatism of the cultural purists. I cannot say whether the progressive elements in our society now outnumber the conservative elements. But if we are to wait for the progressive elements to be clearly in the majority, I cannot say whether in another 25 years, the situation can be arrived at,” he notes.

Here are some of the Hari Raya customs that cut across cultures:

Oil lantern

Putting up oil lanterns or panjut during the last 10 days of Ramadan is one of the old Hari Raya customs that is purportedly “imported” from another culture.

While some say it is influenced by Hindu culture, there are those who say it was started by villagers in the olden days to light up the paths towards the mosque and encourage people to perform the Terawih prayers.

For those in doubt, they can take heed of the opinion of the religious department in Perak that once issued a fatwa on the annual lantern festival, Pesta Panjut Kuala Kangsar.

As they later explained, the fatwa was not against the lantern tradition but against the festival, which could detract people from their Terawih prayers. The debates notwithstanding, many now have simply given up the oil lanterns for the more convenient electric coloured lights.


Over the years, many Muslims have tried innovating the traditional baju kurung with borrowed elements from the cheongsam, Punjabi suit and, in recent years, the Vietnamese traditional dress ao dai. It has to be acknowledged that the evergreen kebaya is an Indonesian traditional costume and, in Malaysia, it is more associated with the Chinese Baba Nyonya community. Currently, the Arab-influenced jubah or long dress (abaya or hijab) is trendy.


This is the one area where the different Malaysian cultures have blended like no other. Go to any house during Hari Raya and you will notice pineapple jam tarts as part of the traditional kuih raya served. While the Malacca Nyonya community are famous for their pineapple jam tarts, many in the Malaccan Portuguese community have claimed it as their own. Now, no decent Hari Raya spread will be without those little fruity delights.

Over the years, the Chinese New Year staples “love letters” and mini popiah, as well as the Deepavali specialty, muruku, have become Hari Raya must-haves.

Related Stories: Marking Eid around the world in unique ways Taste of Raya from the east

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