YB. Dato Wong Kam Hong,
Deputy Minister for Culture,
Arts, and Heritage
Y.Bhg Dato Dr Adi Taha,
Director General of the Department of Museums and Antiquities
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to be present at this official opening of the Lunar New Year Exhibition of the National Museum.
Malaysians of Chinese origin will soon celebrate the Lunar New Year. This will be a time of great festivities and joy as families hold reunion gatherings. It is also an occasion when Malaysians of all ethnic background join in the celebration. Malaysian Chinese will open their homes to relatives, friends and neighbors, and there will be sharing of food and refreshments in an atmosphere of friendship and relaxed merriment.
Such practices of Open House take place not only during the Lunar New Year but also during Hari Raya, Deepavali and Christmas. Indeed, the practice of Open House is uniquely Malaysian and you do not see this happening on a country-wide scale anywhere else in the world. It is an expression of the hospitality and friendliness of all Malaysians. It is above all a reflection of the inter-ethnic character and harmony of our nation. This coming Lunar New Year will, in particular, have special significance for us here in Malaysia. This year will mark fifty years of our independence and of nation-building. It is also Visit Malaysia Year when we expect a great influx of tourists into the country.
All these events therefore provide us with much cause for celebration. Indeed, here in Malaysia is to be found a most exciting and successful experience in political and cultural cooperation of a multi-ethnic society. In very few places in the world are there to be found in one nation such diversities of very vibrant cultures: Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan and Iban. And in few countries is there a dynamic microcosm of the great civilizations in the world: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. This multi-cultural character of Malaysia is an enduring legacy of our heritage and represents a great strength of our open, democratic political system. It reflects the commitment and capacity of its leaders to allow all cultures to be practiced and developed. Indeed, so many of the different traditions are widely observed here. And so numerous are the associations and institutions actively engaged in cultural activities.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The cultures of the people of Malaysia have evolved over hundreds or even thousands of years. They embody past material, spiritual, and intellectual achievements. These have been handed down to us and serve as foundations of our tradition. They ensure the maintenance of cohesion, harmony, and solidarity within a particular community or society. They provide us also with a sense of collective identity.
Yet, cultures are not static or unchanging. Traditional cultures make adaptations over time and in different settings. This is true of all traditional cultures in Malaysia. It is especially so in the case of the culture of the Chinese in this country. Chinese society here has evolved and changed in the last hundred years or so. Arriving as immigrants, the early Chinese regarded themselves as temporary settlers. They brought with them their way of life and their belief system. Many of these continue to be evident in the community today such as the lion dance that was performed just now to welcome us to the Museum.
But this transient community eventually became a settled, permanent society and which integrated into the larger national life. While remaining distinctively Chinese, Malaysian Chinese absorbed local elements into their culture and these distinguish them from Chinese elsewhere. The raw fish dish or Yee Sang which is served during the Chinese New Year is, for example, particularly Malaysian Chinese. It is said that those who partake of this dish during the festive season will enjoy much prosperity and success in the succeeding months of the year.
The Peranakan communities in Melaka and Penang are also examples of adaptation. The Peranakan have their distinctive Lunar New Year cuisine and fashion that are strongly influenced by local environment. And in early years, young nyonya ladies, who were seldom allowed out of the house, were driven on the last day of the New Year to the beach to throw mandarin oranges into the sea in the hope of securing a good husband. This night is known as Chap Goh Meh or the night of the 15th day. The Peranakan Chinese, nevertheless, observes many customs shared by other Chinese.
There are also differences among dialect groups in the way they celebrate the Lunar New Year. For instance, on the eighth night of the New Year, the
Hokkiens pray to the God of Heaven (bai tian gong). They believe that on that night, many centuries past, the Hokkiens were saved from being massacred by the Sung army when they hid amongst sugarcane plants. Thus, sugarcane became a part of the Hokkien thanksgiving offerings. And so within all traditional cultures, there are dominant
elements of continuity but there are also perceptible or noticeable changes. The culture of the Chinese, in turn, has left some mark upon indigenous societies. Other aspects such as the lion dance which ushers in the Chinese New Year is now very much accepted within our broader society.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Lunar New Year celebration is a major festival of not only the Chinese in Malaysia but also of Chinese elsewhere. It is also celebrated by the Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese. In all these societies, the Lunar New Year marks the start of Spring and of a new year. In early times in these mainly agrarian societies, it was the beginning of the planting season. For us today, there is a touch of newness in the air and the Lunar New Year is seen as offering opportunities and challenges in the coming months. There is also a sense of hope and of expectation that the new year will bring better times for every body. And so rituals and customs are strictly observed to ensure good fortune and happiness.
Indeed, I am extremely delighted that the National Museum has organized this Exhibition of the Lunar New Year. The exhibition will showcase the history and the cultural background of how the Lunar New Year came to be celebrated. The exhibits will highlight the practices and customs of the Chinese community.
Through the exhibition, Malaysians of other ethnic groups as well as foreign visitors to the Museum will come to know more about the Lunar New Year. They would gain an appreciation of the customs, beliefs, and practices of Malaysian Chinese. The Museum’s efforts will go towards better inter-ethnic relations and advance harmony in our society. The Museum has consistently over the years shown a very strong commitment to the promotion of cultural activities. This commitment arises out of recognition that such activities are essential towards defining a community and a nation. For culture is an expression of community and national life.
I believe many Malaysians of Chinese origin, especially those of the younger generation, will also learn much from this exhibition about the Lunar New Year and its many cultural features. The origin and sources of the various practices of Lunar New Year may, with the passage of time, be lost. Today, culture just as in economics and in politics, is global in reach and in content. Largely through new communication technology such as satellite television, the cultures and way of life of overseas societies are beamed into our living room. These developments pose a serious threat to our distinctive cultures.
We in Malaysia therefore see ourselves as part of an effort to safeguard our traditional cultures while evolving a national identity, one where there is diversity in unity. We want an identity that enhances unity and stability in our country. It is one that allows our people the freedom to choose and practice their culture in an environment of harmony, mutual respect, and acceptance of responsible creativity.
Indeed the theme used by the National Museum in this exhibition of Harmony and Prosperity is most appropriate. Certainly, this coming Chinese New Year should usher in prosperity and development. It would be a year of peace and harmony in this nation of ours. In turn we must work together as a united people to ensure development and progress.
I am very impressed by the efforts of the National Museum in assembling so many remarkable artefacts, exhibits and exciting presentation. Some of what we will see in the exhibition may be familiar but there is much that will be new. It is an exhibition that will interest and benefit the public especially school and college students. A lot of effort and thought have gone in planning and organizing the exhibition and I must congratulate all the staff involved. They, as much as anyone else, are in the forefront in preserving and promoting our national heritage.
It is my pleasant responsibility therefore to declare this Exhibition open.