Chinese New Year or the Lunar New Year has become a worldwide event. This is mainly due to many including the Chinese diaspora celebrating it across the world from Beijing to Jakarta, London to Singapore.
Everyone usually gets engrossed about their Zodiac signs around this time of the year. Finding out about horoscope predictions of one’s career and relationship goals have become important. Though, perhaps given too much emphasis as they can sometimes be self-fulfilling prophecies.
If you hadn’t known this already, this year’s Zodiac animal is the dog. It is often said that those born in the year of the dog is one who is hardworking, honest and loyal. Nothing much about this would scream of controversy, unless you’re in Malaysia.
Battle of ‘respect’ during Chinese New Year
Whilst more than 7 million ethnic Chinese will be going back to their hometowns to celebrate this auspicious occasion, some have been embroiled in controversies over the use of dog images in public places and even clothes.
One of the many booming shopping malls in the Klang Valley, Sunway Pyramid chose to not depict dogs in its Chinese New year decorations. The management decided on this as they wanted to be respectful to what they perceived as Muslim sensitivities.
Dogs have conventionally been considered as ritually impure in Islam. It is also preached to Muslims to not have contact with dogs – often justified as haram or forbidden by Islamic law.
In a Giant hypermarket, a T-shirt was released to celebrate the year of the dog – without the dog. The T-shirt represented the 12 Chinese Zodiac animals, except for the dog and pig. They were represented by Chinese words instead. Pigs, of course, are considered haram in Islam.
While both Sunway and Giant were trying to be respectful to the Muslim majority in the country, a number of people especially the Chinese were furious. They believe this to be ‘disrespectful’ to the Chinese community despite everyone being part of a multiracial country.
These are just some of the latest incidents to have ignited public debates over cultural and religious intolerance. Some also believe this to be yet another symptom of creeping Islamization in Malaysia.
Professor Jocelyn Chey of the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture at Western Sydney University said that the dog and pig zodiac signs did not hold any religious significance. While today most people think that Islam and dogs don’t mix, academic Alan Mikhail provides a different narrative from an Islamic context.
According to the Professor of History at Yale University, “Prophet Muhammad himself prayed in the presence of dogs. Many of his cousins and companions… raised young puppies.”
Dogs also played a crucial role in keeping Muslim cities clean as urban authorities supported dog populations. However, this history of positive interactions between Muslims and dogs were turned sour due to diseases.
As governments collected and pushed garbage outside city walls, dogs were also removed. Dogs were later seen as a threat to public hygiene. This led to a change in attitude and later, the eradication of dogs in Middle Eastern cities. Hence, it explains the more recent approach of Islam towards dogs.
For fear of being reprimanded, many businesses especially with large Muslim consumer bases have chosen self-censure. They took an approach that seemed “socially-acceptable” in the context of religious sensitivities. In return, however, it drew the ire of the Chinese community.
Many worry about the eroding secularism in a country where politicians have taken turns to affirm that Malaysia is an Islamic state. They have also used religion to highlight their leadership credentials for political mileage. All this, without realizing that they have now emboldened religious authorities to be overzealous in their mandate or lack thereof.
Where do we go from here?
In the spirit of reunion for Chinese New Year, society needs to come together and discuss where it wants to be in a racially and religiously-diverse country. The government needs to facilitate this public discourse taking into account sensitivities that may come into play. This includes reigning in government officials from taking actions that jeopardizes communal unity.
However, this is easier said than done in an election year where religion will inevitably feature as political propaganda. As such, it necessitates communities to take the first step in shaping discourse on religious sensitivities.
The growing civil society space provides an opportunity for NGOs and individuals to voice out their concerns and solutions. The drawback on this is that they have to be cautious of inciting any form of hatred whilst conducting such discourse. Social media ‘discussions’ have often somehow descended into personal attacks and verbal fistfights. Nevertheless, this discourse must take place organically – a sign of a maturing democracy.
This Chinese New Year has already been subjected to some controversies. Next year could be worse as it will be the Year of the Pig or Boar. Hence, government action and civil society dialogues will be crucial in shaping how Malaysians view each other’s heritage and sensitivities moving forward.
On behalf of everyone at the ASEAN Economic Forum, we would like to wish a Happy Chinese New Year and Tet to all Aseanites in Southeast Asia and beyond. May the New Year of the Dog bring great joy, health and prosperity.
Ryan Chua is the Chief Operating Officer of the ASEAN Economic Forum.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.