OVER time, societies’ attitudes shift in what is considered to be normal, acceptable, or preferable. These changes can have different drivers, ranging from developments in technology, economic and geopolitical conditions, to evolving domestic social, religious or political attitudes that impact institutions and people. Many of these phenomena are linked to and feed off each other: the prevalence of social media, for example, necessitates a certain technological infrastructure, but simultaneously requires and encourages a demand to share and acquire information; whether that be serious news or one’s #ootd.
An oft-mentioned transformation is in the fashion of Malay women, in particular the prevalence of the tudung. Growing up, I never saw (and was certainly never taught to see) any correlation between how a woman dressed and how pious they were, and old group photographs of girls’ schools or even the women’s wing of the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party (PAS) had only a smattering of the loose selendang. But today it is easy to see strong assumptions being made on social media, which makes me wonder what they make of their own grandmothers’ sartorial choices. And conversely, popular culture of that generation shows that it is Malay men who have headgear: P Ramlee’s characters wore the songkok even in bars and nightclubs.
The way we celebrate major religious festivals has changed, too: I’ve written about the many consistent components of Hari Raya over the decades, but few are aware of the once widespread practice of Mandi Safar, comprising public bathing at the beach or river in the last week of the (supposedly unlucky) Muslim month of Safar, to seek purification. A generation before that, it would be normal for Malays to seek blessings from saints at shrines that most Malaysians associate with Hindu practices today.
Whether due to official sanction or social pressure, there are many other examples of once popular practices that are now considered odd or controversial, seen in reactions towards coconuts being used to find missing airplanes, politicians using black magic to cast doom on their opponents, or friends swearing by doctors who remove ailments using incantations and their bare hands.
Sensitivities about images of pigs this Chinese New Year has been a reminder that the impacts go beyond the Malay community. Twelve and 13 years ago, there were no issues about the depiction of pigs and dogs in public by (and for) those celebrating. But this time there is a conspicuous absence of porcine imagery amidst both warnings to ‘not offend us’ and advice to ‘be sensitive to the feelings of others’.
Whatever diplomatic language is used to create such exceptions, the inevitable conclusion to this slippery slope is that more people will ‘take offence’, and similarly more people will feel pressure to not ‘cause offence’. This, at best, is a minimum form of tolerance, rather than an embracing form of acceptance.
Thankfully, there are authorities who are trying to stem the tide. A recent Friday sermon or khutbah used in Negeri Sembilan (for the state only uses its own) stated that ‘Islam has never prevented believers from celebrating the festivities of others’. And last year, the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) did say that the usage of images of dogs should be respected by all according to the concept of fiqh taa’yush and in line with the wasatiyyah approach. (They might have also referred to the 1912 flag of the Sultanate of Kelantan suggesting a canine.)
A different argument came up on WhatsApp this year, triggered by a picture greeting that, before downloading, appears to show two capitalised words forming a highly derogatory slur against the Chinese community. But upon downloading, the clear image shows the two words surrounded by words in a smaller font to read: ‘Selamat Tahun Baru CINA 2019 Tahun BABI’.
I understood the message (apparently created by a Chinese) as intending to poke fun at other people’s racism. However, some people were distinctly unamused. Humour is one of those things that can completely fail across cultural boundaries.
Today it is all too easy to find people who relish in being ‘afraid’ or taking ‘offence’ – in being labelled a victim so as to claim recompense or special protection – and even worse, there are politicians who ride on such sentiments. And so more fear is stoked, and more offence is taken, even if in the past there was none.
Unfortunately, we have reached a stage where it will take much more than telling people to lighten up to address this. Rather, it will require a much more holistic shift in our schools and institutions that teaches all young Malaysians that all citizens have their cultural practices and that they must all be respected and cherished.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.