Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad mingles with Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) staff after launching Kompleks Balai Islam Tenaga Nasional Bhd in Kuala Lumpur. -Bernama

KUALA LUMPUR: Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has called on Malaysians to respect all religions.

His call comes in light of recent controversy surrounding a circular by the Education Ministry banning Muslims from celebrating the Ponggal festival.

Dr Mahathir said everyone has a right to practise their faith freely and should not compete with one another.

“There are many religions here (in Malaysia). The people have a right to practise their faith, but we must not try to compete with each other... like who is taller, who is bigger and all that,” he said after launching Kompleks Balai Islam Tenaga Nasional Bhd, here, today.

Dr Mahathir is currently the acting Education Minister after Dr Maszlee Malik resigned from the post on Jan 2.

Yesterday, the Education Ministry said it did not prevent the Ponggal festival from being held in schools.

In reference to its letter dated Jan 13, the ministry said it was issued to alleviate concerns of Muslim parents over their children’s involvement in the said celebration.

"The statement took into account the stance and guidelines issued by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim)," the ministry said in a statement.

Ponggal is celebrated by Indians after the first harvest as a mark of gratitude for the produce. Many Tamils consider it as the New Year.

The ministry added that it recognised schools were a place to foster unity among the multicultural community in Malaysia.

In another statement, Jakim said the views expressed were in response to the ministry's request for guidelines for Muslims involved in the celebration.

The department said it only gave its views on the matter and had never prevented the festival from being held.

Its Shariah Expert Panel, it added, was also of the opinion that Muslims could wish their friends and neighbours for their celebrations without the intention of recognising their religion.

Also, Jakim said Muslims were prohibited from ridiculing and insulting Gods worshipped by other faiths.