Religion is not a competition, Dr M tells Malaysians as communal friction persists

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad attends the opening ceremony of Tenaga Nasional Berhad's Balai Islam Complex in Kuala Lumpur January 16, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad attends the opening ceremony of Tenaga Nasional Berhad's Balai Islam Complex in Kuala Lumpur January 16, 2020. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 16 — Malaysians should not seek to outdo one another in matters of religion, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said today.

The prime minister’s remarks follow recent controversies over cultural events such as the Ponggal harvest festival and Chinese New Year, which some communities claimed to be religious in nature.

“People have the right to have their own religion, but we mustn’t try to compete with each other, who is taller, who is bigger and all that,” he told reporters after officiating Tenaga Nasional Berhad’s Balai Islam Complex here.

A recent circular released by the Education Ministry but originating from the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) that described Ponggal as a “religious festival” went viral on social media, triggering public uproar.

Ponggal is actually the Tamil harvest festival celebrated with offerings of sweet rice milk as thanksgiving.

Jakim later claimed it had been asked to issue the advisory for the parents of Muslim students on the proper response to the celebration.

Several ministers subsequently issued statements clarifying that Ponggal was a cultural and not a religious festival.

It was the second cultural controversy this month after a Muslim Malay lawyer took issue with a Puchong school’s red lantern decorations to mark the upcoming Chinese New Year, calling it a religious celebration and insisting it was unconstitutional and an attempt to propagate a non-Muslim religion to Muslims.

Malaysia has strict laws that restrict the propagation of religions other than Islam. Those found guilty of proselytising any religion other than Islam to a Muslim face penalties that include jail time and a fine.

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