Uproar in Malaysia after education ministry says Tamil harvest celebration Pongal is a religious festival

Many say that the Pongal festival has nothing to do with religion and is instead a Tamil celebration for an upcoming harvest festival. PHOTO: REUTERS

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A letter from Malaysia's education ministry describing Pongal as a religious festival based on guidelines from the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) has caused an uproar in the Muslim-majority country.

The education ministry said its guidance on the Tamil harvest festival was merely to allay Muslim parents' concerns, while Jakim said it was only providing advice at the ministry's request.

The incident comes after a government school in Selangor was forced to remove some of its Chinese New Year decorations earlier this month, prompting federal ministers to step in to say such festive items are normal in schools.

The Monday (Jan 13) letter from the ministry, which was signed by by Institute of Teacher Education deputy chief registrar Adzman Talib, who is also the Education Ministry deputy director-general (school operation sector), states that the "Pongal festival is a celebration for Hindu worshippers".

The letter went viral on social media, with many saying that the festival has nothing to do with religion and is instead a Tamil celebration for an upcoming harvest festival.

Following the uproar, the ministry said in a statement on Wednesday (Jan 15) that the letter was issued to lessen Muslim parents' concerns about their children's involvement in the celebration.

"The statement in the circular also takes into the consideration the position and guidelines issued by Jakim and the state mufti department.

"The ministry also reminded schools to follow all current regulations if they intend to hold the celebration at school," it said.

In defending its position, the ministry said it was not trying to prevent Pongal celebration at schools, and realises that schools are a place to inculcate unity among students of different backgrounds.

"Culture and customs between races must be known, learnt and respected by all parties, including the school management, teachers, and students," it added.

In a separate statement, Jakim said that its position was made known after a request from the education ministry.

"Jakim only provided its views from the Islamic perspective and did not prohibit the celebrations in any way. Even the Jakim syariah expert panel's opinion is that it is permissible for Muslims to wish friends and neighbours who are celebrating without the intention of acknowledging their religion, and for Muslims not to belittle, demean, or insult their gods," it said.

Pongal is celebrated for four days beginning from the first day of the month of "Thai" in the Tamil calendar, as a form of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest.

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