THE first gift hamper I received for the Chinese New Year came from an old friend, Kalimullah Hassan, while another friend, Mohamed Abid, came to my office with home-cooked food including a bottle of chilli sauce.
It was a touching gesture. Abid knew I enjoyed his wife's cooking from the meals I had in his house.
The chilli sauce went well with the steamed chicken my mother cooked for the family during our reunion dinner.
Syed Anuar Syed Ali, another friend, not only sent a box of oranges and a greeting card but also bought a feng shui plant for my office, wishing me well for the year.
These were some of the most treasured gifts I received from friends and contacts this festive season.
My Malay friends, who call regularly or meet over meals in the true tradition of Malaysian harmony, hold moderate views. They believe passionately that extremism should not be allowed to rear its ugly head in Malaysia.
Shortly before Chinese New Year, I read a report quoting political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda as saying “I find the Malay community not as open as it used to be” and that “there is greater intolerance among Malays.”
This came in the heels of a report in the New Straits Times that extremists, especially religious teachers, were imposing their views on students in national schools.
One ustazah advised her student not to send greeting cards in celebration of non-Islamic festivals, saying it was un-Islamic.
Another student complained that the chess club teacher ordered the pieces resembling crosses on the kings to be sawn off.
A Malay student was scolded by her teacher because she was overheard talking about the Backstreet Boys, a popular boy-band.
In another case, a 15-year-old girl said an ustazah ordered her to stop playing with Barbie dolls because the name sounded too much like babi (pig), “so it was as if I was playing with pigs.”
An Indian student lost her best friend, a Malay, in school after the ustazah advised the Malay not to mix with “infidels.”
These were the numerous instances cited by the newspaper in its report on religious bigots in schools.
Many of us, with Malay and Indian friends, would be appalled by the actions of these teachers who are supposed to mould the minds of our children.
The majority of our Muslim friends are certainly not like those quoted in the report but it cannot be denied that we have begun to hear of such cases.
In local universities, many of us have had personal experiences dealing with bureaucrats with racist tendencies.
They place obstacles for students who wish to organise religious and cultural activities, not realising that these are within their constitutional rights as citizens. More importantly, their actions do not reflect government policy.
On a personal note, I would offer my hand to bersalam with Muslim friends, including women, but now I am not so sure. Some may point out that, even by western standards, the man should wait for the woman to offer her hand.
But some Muslim women, I am told, now find it offensive to shake the hands of a man. There have been awkward moments, as a result.
I have no intention of going into a debate as to what is morally right and wrong. I merely wish to point out what has become a subject of discussion among many Malaysians.
The NST report has put into perspective what many Malaysians have heard about our school system but I am inclined to believe that the majority of Malaysians, including Muslim women who wear the tudung, are rational and moderate. In all fairness, sometimes those we perceive to be liberals are actually racists.
Many of us believe that the majority of Malaysians value the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural aspects of Malaysia.
The country’s leadership has proven itself to be moderate and tolerant by allowing all races to practise their own religion and culture without restrictions.
We must appreciate the Government’s decision to hold national-level celebrations of our various festivities as it reflects the official endorsement of these festivals.
It was good to hear Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohamed Khir Toyo on RTM on Thursday urging Malaysians to attend last night's national Chinese New Year open house in Petaling Jaya, saying Muslims should join non-Muslims in their festivals.
Federal Territory Umno chief Datuk Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor must be commended for directing its members to put up banners expressing Chinese New Year greetings all over Kuala Lumpur.
Some of us may be reluctant or even be afraid to speak up against those who impose their political and religious views on us in the name of religion.
That should not happen because they are not only misguided but pose a danger to Malaysia in the long run.
o Wong Chun Wai can be reached at email@example.com