A LITTLE more than a decade ago, all the churches in a parliamentary constituency where I had been serving as a priest received a greeting card from our MP just before Christmas.
I remember opening my card and the first thing that caught my eye were the words “Season’s Greetings”.
I was quite surprised that this MP – who probably has been abroad numerous times and possibly studied there too – would have known the difference between wishing the Christian churches “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas”.
Some months later, it was general election time and as always, the honourable MP paid me a visit during one of the walkabout sessions.
In our one-to-one conversation, I said: “YB, thank you for sending me the card in December last year. I hope you know there is no meaning in wishing someone who celebrates Christmas ‘Season’s Greetings’.
“I am not celebrating any season like winter, spring, summer or fall. It would have been nice if the greeting had been more precise and reflective of the true meaning of Christmas.”
To which the MP’s response was: “Oh is it? But you know how it is here!”
There are two universal adjectives that are synonymous with the celebration of Christmas: they are “peace” and “love”.
However, it is simply ironic how the word “Christmas” has become politicised and a source of lame controversy, yet again, in our own country.
The word that is to have evoked sentiments of joy, happiness, goodwill, peace and love is now seen as something to be disdained and even alleged to possess power to corrupt another person’s faith.
The recent controversy of putting the words Merry Christmas on a cake is not something that sprang on us overnight.
This Christmas, I made an effort to turn on the radio each time I got into my car wanting to find out if there would be any Christmas carols played on air.
To my disappointment, there were hardly any. Even if there were, they were about reindeers, Santa Claus, bells, or a mother who secretly kissed Santa Claus – all of which have zero correlation to the real meaning of Christmas.
Growing up in the mid-seventies, I still recall listening to Christmas carols like Silent Night and Joy to the World over the radio that gave us the true meaning of Christmas.
This “controversy” has been in circulation for more than a decade now in various ways and forms, and from time to time it comes to light in a controversial way.
The spirit of Christmas that we enjoyed as Malaysians in the past is now something of a remote past.
Some may conclude that all this rhetoric is nonsensical, perhaps even trivial and it’s likely not a view held by the majority of society.
Nevertheless, what is worrying is that there are groups of people, irrespective of the numbers, who subscribe to the ideology of not wishing others during their festivities, perhaps even my honourable MP more than 10 years ago.
This is indeed worrying for a country like Malaysia, which for decades has celebrated its religious diversity and cultural plurality.
Situations like these are not helped when leaders in positions of authority, who have the power to set things right, choose to either remain silent with hope that these issues naturally disappear or those who add fuel to the fire for political expediency.
Today, rapid developments in communication and media channels have given us unprecedented access in viewing events and practices that unfold in other parts of the world.
It is more apparent than ever before how we seem to live in a primitive bubble and allow ourselves to become a laughingstock.
Perhaps we have become accustomed to being hostile to the different faiths that being ridiculed does not perturb us anymore.
What a sad state of affairs that we have become intolerant of each other.
Is it all doom and gloom as we step into a new year?
Perhaps not, for there are still signs of hope like this. A few days ago, a childless widow in her 70s shared with me of what happened to her this Christmas.
In pre-pandemic times, rain or shine, despite her limited mobility, she went to church without fail every Sunday.
However, since March this year, she had not been able to go due to the restrictions. Though many of the church services were available online, she neither had the technical know-how nor the riches to afford a smartphone with ample data to allow her to follow them.
A few days before Christmas, from the low-cost housing unit where she resides, she expressed her heart’s woes to her Muslim neighbour of many years about her sadness of not being able to go to church at Christmas for the first time in her entire life.
The children of that household were privy to the conversation between this widow and their mother and made it a point to ask questions about when and how other Christians would celebrate.
On Christmas Day, two of the neighbour’s daughters came over an hour before the Christmas prayer service to set up their computer for this elderly widow so she could for the first time virtually participate.
Once everything was ready, they gently left saying: “Aunty, let us know when you are finished, and we will come back to collect the computer”.
This is humanity at its best – responding to the needs of the others, irrespective of religion and ethnicity.
Straight from the heart – honest and sincere. There is indeed hope for the next generation.
At a time when the world is fighting a pandemic and looking to each other for a vaccine to return to some sense of normalcy, what Malaysia needs more than ever is a “vaccine” against religious hypocrisy and bigotry, something certainly not in the pipeline or subject for research in the labs of Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Moderna.
That which is required for this “vaccine” to flourish is some good-grounded sense of basic respect for others and leaders with the political will to set things right for the common good of all.
How I wish that the vaccine that we are waiting for with bated breath is able to offer double protection, both against Covid-19, and elimination of religious derision and division.
Even though it is scientifically impossible for the latter, in this season of hope, we can wish and pray for what most level-headed Malaysians desire deep within their hearts.
What Malaysia truly needs for a better future is a “vaccine” that can imbibe our thoughts, words and actions towards a truly one and united Malaysia for all her diverse citizens.
With this, along with the much-awaited Covid-19 vaccine, we can most definitely look forward to a better year of peace and love. Happy New Year 2021 everyone.
* Dr Clarence Devadass is a Catholic priest and director of the Catholic Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.