5 February 2023

Tolerance is essential, but it must go with understanding

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By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nahrizul Adib Kadri

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I have always accustomed to hearing “Kong Hey Fat Choy” being exchanged among my Chinese neighbours in the leading up to, and during, the Chinese New Year. And in all my naivety, I have always thought the celebratory words mean something along the lines of “Happy New Year”, in the same veins of “Selamat Hari Raya”, “Merry Christmas”, or “Happy Deepavali” being wished to each other during the respective celebrations.

And towards the end of the 1990s and the start of 2000s, the words “Gong Xi Fa Cai” are becoming more ubiquitous; and again, in my Mandarin-challenged mind, I have always thought, “Oh, there is a modern way of wishing Happy Chinese New Year now.”

The world at that time was a changing landscape in so many fronts: the internet is starting to become useful with ‘Google’, ‘Apple’ is no longer just the name of a fruit, and we can now grow a sheep using just its mother’s (?) cells. Assuming “Gong Xi Fa Cai” as a modern way of wishing “Kong Hey Fat Choy” during the Lunar Chinese New Year seems so fitting with the times.

How was I wrong in so many fronts.

Although “Kong Hey Fat Choy” and “Gong Xi Fa Cai” do mean the same thing, but it did not refer to the expression being modernised! The former is in Cantonese, and the latter in Mandarin. And the literal meaning is not even close to “Happy New Year”, it is “Congratulations and may you be prosperous!”.

And to my dismay, I found out quite recently, that “Gong Xi Fa Cai” is actually better used in combination with another expression: “Xin Nian Kuai Le”, which literally means “New Year Happiness.”

Why am I disappointed with myself? Let me digress.

Living in a multicultural society since birth, having Chinese and Indian friends at school, I innocently thought that I knew enough about their culture to be able to live harmoniously and work together in building the country towards a better future. But as I have shown in the above scenario, I do not actually even understand the commonly uttered celebratory expressions of the Lunar New Year.

Perhaps tolerance alone is not enough to flourish in a multicultural society like ours. We need an additional ‘secret’ ingredient. Can we perhaps look at old civilizations for clues? Surely Malaysia is not the only multicultural country in the whole history of mankind, right?

A quick internet research showed that the Mughal Empire, which existed in India from the 16th to the 19th century, was a diverse and multicultural society. The empire was ruled by Muslim emperors, but the population was made up of a mix of Hindus, Muslims, and other groups, such as Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. The Mughals were known for their tolerance of different cultures and religions, and made efforts to incorporate elements of different cultures into their own.

For example, the Mughal emperors patronized the arts and architecture, which resulted in the blending of Islamic, Indian, and Persian styles. The Mughal courts were cosmopolitan, with people from different backgrounds and cultures serving in important positions. They also allowed different religious communities to practice their faith and live according to their own customs.

However, it is important to note that the Mughal Empire was not a perfect society and there were also instances of religious and cultural discrimination. For example, Hindus were sometimes viewed as second-class citizens and there were restrictions placed on their religious practices. Also, in some cases, the emperors imposed taxes on non-Muslims. While the Mughals made efforts to be inclusive and tolerant, there were also instances of religious and cultural discrimination.

And this is where understanding must come in. Understanding and respecting each other’s cultures and backgrounds can certainly be an important step towards creating a harmonious multicultural society. When people understand and appreciate the diversity around them, it can lead to greater acceptance and less mistrust between different groups.

Efforts can be made to promote cultural understanding through education, such as incorporating the history and culture of different groups into the curriculum, and encouraging students to learn about and appreciate different cultures. (Quick trivia: did you know that we celebrated the biggest Thaipusam outside of India?)

Interactions and exchange programs between different cultural groups can also help to break down stereotypes and build understanding. Also, having leaders and politicians who represent different cultural groups and actively promote diversity and inclusiveness can be important in promoting a harmonious multicultural society.

It is important to note that tolerance alone is not enough to ensure a harmonious multicultural society, but it is a necessary ingredient. Tolerance means that people are able to accept and respect different cultures and beliefs even if they do not agree with them, but it does not mean that people are actively trying to understand and appreciate them. A society that is truly inclusive and harmonious requires both tolerance and a genuine effort to understand and appreciate different cultures.

So to all my Chinese friends and acquaintances: 恭喜发财,新年快乐!

The author is the Director of Corporate Communications Centre, Universiti Malaya. He may be reached at nahrizuladib@um.edu.my