Here we are, welcoming another Chinese New Year. Kong Hee Fatt Choy, Xin Nian Kuai Le, Selamat Tahun Baru Cina etc etc.
Welcome the Year of the Rabbit, an animal in Chinese mythology known for its intelligence, speed, but also for pride and arrogance. It was supposed to have been the first animal in the Chinese zodiac because of its fleet-footedness, but its pride and arrogance caused it to come in fourth place instead.
All of these attributes seem to qualify the rabbit as a smart but proud and lazy Malaysian politician. The rabbit is also well known for lechery and fertility (“breed like rabbits”) – more proof that it probably is a Malaysian politician!
But rabbits also seem highly qualified to be Malaysia’s national animal too, including that part about being-fourth-instead-of-first; I’m tempted to start a campaign to make the rabbit our national animal rather than the endangered Malayan tiger, but some politicians may take offence.
It’s quite ironic, entering the Year of the Rabbit with China experiencing a shrinking population for the first time in decades. I’m sure China’s demographers and economic planners would be wishing the rabbit’s legendary breeding prowess would reverse the trend.
I wish China much prosperity in the coming year, and also much fecundity.
When CNY meant a lot of ‘nothing’
I remember Chinese New Year celebrations for a lot of nothings when I was a kid. Back then, Chinese New Year celebrations meant that pretty much nothing moved, sometimes for weeks. We’d literally stock up groceries from the local sundry shop before the doors were shut for the New Year, or we’d have nothing to eat.
In the multiracial kampung in Penang where I grew up, however, any communal celebration also meant lots of food for all. We were lucky to have Chinese neighbours who loaded us with food and oranges, which helped to stave off famine (and scurvy) in the weeks ahead.
Another sign of the multiracial nature of our kampung was the number of people who’d find some secluded spot in the bushes to gamble during the New Year. The occasional police raid would send some scrambling through the backyards, adding to the spectacle and fun. Most of those running away would be Chinese, but not all.
The Chinese New Year, in common with the Muslim Eid celebrations, is based on the lunar calendar. Much of the world now uses the calendar based on solar cycles, with others on the lunar cycles, but the Chinese calendar is a lunisolar one, combining both the phases of the sun and the moon, perhaps a sign of how pragmatic the Chinese are.
The Chinese New Year falls roughly on the second new moon after the winter solstice, which occurs near Christmas, giving merchants just enough time to put away their Christmas marketing collateral (and the lone Deepavali banner) to bring out the CNY ones.
Such celebrations have indeed become massively important dates in the calendars, lunar or solar, of merchants everywhere.
The great rush back ‘home’
A Malaysian celebration wouldn’t be complete if it doesn’t involve a lemming-like rush to “balik kampung” to ancestral hometowns. We haven’t had much of that during the Covid lockdowns, and this time could be the first after many years of absence for many.
Actually, the balik kampung rush has also become “balik” to somebody else’s kampungs, given that ties to hometowns have become more tenuous over the years. You wouldn’t want to be in Penang at festive periods, as the place is swarming with people clearly from some other kampungs, causing traffic jams and bringing forth price gouging of legendary proportions.
KL once used to be quiet and almost empty during new year celebrations but it isn’t so quiet or empty any more. Many KLites choose to stay rather than go elsewhere: KL is now the kampung for many, while many actually from the kampungs have decided this is the best time to visit KL.
Back in those days, people wouldn’t dream of doing anything else but being with their family during the new year. Being elsewhere, especially being busy with work instead of celebrating, would’ve been unthinkable. But in today’s always-on, always-stressed digital world, that’s become more common, and not a good thing either in my mind.
Dawn of hope, or down the slope?
The year 2023, including the Year of the Rabbit, is a funny year for Malaysia. While many believe it’s the beginning of a fresh chapter of hope, others feel it’s the beginning of a slide down a slippery slope. In today’s highly partisan environment, especially one driven by race and religion, it’s difficult not to feel uneasy about the future.
Partisanship is a global social and political phenomenon – witness basically any country you care to name – but is especially dangerous in Malaysia because it’s not driven by class or political beliefs, but by one of the most primal of all forces – tribalism. And when tribes, meaning races, are also associated with religions, the mix is especially incendiary.
Many fail to realise the many celebrations of our diverse culture are actually a strength and not a weakness. Sure, politicians of all stripes would say the obligatory nice things during them, but you know many don’t really mean it. Even after over a century, the different cocoons we Malaysians live in still seem unchanged, if not actually getting worse.
Preaching the need to be more tolerant of each other is easy, just as it’s also hopeless. Many of our fellow citizens behave in ways which drive others away, usually into similarly entrenched, if opposite, positions. Politicians are always blamed, but they’re as much the effect as the cause of what’s happening.
Break out of the ghetto
There’s no easy answer except that we, ordinary Malaysians, must push harder against the toxic racial currents to reach out to each other. We must penetrate the two ghettos – the one occupied by those who consider themselves the have-nots (and besieged), as well as the one occupied by those who consider themselves the haves (but also besieged), with both seeing themselves as victims and endangered.
The peace and prosperity called for by the Chinese New Year, as well as the forgiveness and the celebrations of the victory of the forces of good over evil called for by other celebrations, can only happen if each of us, in our own small way, makes an effort to re-introduce ourselves to fellow Malaysians and offer them a perspective different from what leaders of bad faith have been offering.
Perhaps then we can truly enjoy and celebrate each other’s important dates and events, without having to be judgmental or apologetic.
The Chinese New Year, a social and cultural celebration, and not a religious one, should be a time for all of us to chill out and reach out, whether to family or to each other.
So here I am reaching out to you: have a Happy, Prosperous Chinese New Year of the Rabbit, light up the firecrackers and fill out the angpows. And, oh, pass me the oranges.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.