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Religion must not separate us from our cultural or national identity
UNMISTAKABLY CHINESE: But the community is also uniquely Malaysian
MUCH has been said about the diversity of Malaysian society, but many often overlook the fact that even individual ethnic groups are not homogenous.
The Chinese are a good example of such heterogeneity. As I have illustrated from my study of the Chinese in Malaysia, the community can be broken down by language -- the Chinese-speaking, the English-speaking and those who straddle both.
Religion is also a source of great diversity among the Chinese. Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are just among the few religions that many Chinese belong to.
With such pluralism, one would expect the community to be the richer for it, as they can bring justness and morality to each other's lives while sharing their common heritage. But tension can arise when trying to reconcile religious principles with traditional cultural beliefs.
Chinese culture is filled with beliefs, practices, taboos and superstitions that range from the mundane to the extremely colourful and ritualistic, many of which are seemingly at odds with Abrahamic religions like Chris-tianity and Islam.
"Much of our Chinese culture and heritage is so inextricably intertwined with Chinese religious philosophies and beliefs that we Christians are to have nothing to do with it," wrote Daniel Tong in his book A Biblical Approach to Chinese Traditions and Beliefs.
Tong, an Anglican priest in Singapore, wrote the book to provide a "Biblical perspective" of how Chinese Christians should view these rites and rituals, which range from festivals to ancestor worship and traditional medicine.
Questions like whether Chinese Christians should hold joss sticks, whether a bridal couple can use the Chinese almanac to choose an auspicious wedding date, or even whether Christians should practise qi gong are among the topics raised in the book.
Tong rightly acknowledged that many of the traditional practices revolve around human and family ties. Yet, his book seeks to displace these very practices on the basis that they would weaken the Christian faith.
But where does it end? Will there come a day when Chinese Christians cannot go for Chinese New Year reunion dinners or partake in wedding tea ceremonies?
Chinese Muslims also struggle to navigate this minefield, which can be far more challenging than what is faced by the Christians.
"Being Chinese is an ethnic and cultural characterisation, being Muslim is a religious identification; yet somehow, these two identities are thought of as being conflicting," said Rosey Ma, who has written about the dilemma she faces in being Chinese and Muslim in Malaysia.
If the religious viewpoint becomes overly dominant, the Chinese will find themselves gradually losing their heritage. The greatest loss will not come from the sacrifice of the practices themselves, but from losing their history and meaning.
A good example is the Wangkang (Royal Barge) festival which took place in Malacca in February. This festival was brought to Malacca by Hokkien migrants from China during the Qing or Manchu Dynasty.
Today, Malaysia can boast of being the only country outside China that commemorates this festival, contributing to its historical preservation.
Traditional beliefs espouse many good values, like filial piety, loyalty, respect and honour, which transcend religious differences. Traditional customs like these are also one of the few aspects that can bring all Chinese together, regardless of language.
While the Chinese community is split in its struggle to find a Malaysian-Chinese identity, there are those waiting to polarise the community by exploiting its vulnerabilities.
This is already happening between different religions and ethnic groups -- earlier this year, certain parties tried to vilify Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak for visiting Batu Caves during Thaipusam, accusing him of "sacrificing his faith".
There must be logic in the way we practise our faith. Religion cannot separate us from our cultural or national identity. It is the last thing that should be used to divide a society already so fragmented or to perpetuate prejudices.
The Chinese in this country are unmistakably Chinese and uniquely Malaysian and they should not lose sight of this -- regardless of their religious beliefs.