Japanese chopsticks and the caricature controversy

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Earlier, when the issue over the Danish caricatures exploded in various parts of the world, I was comforted by and proud to hear our leaders saying that Islam actually promotes peace, practices compassion and forgiveness, hence appealing to the local Muslims not to overreact.

I was soon confused and very much bewildered that for some events that I still cannot understand, some local newspapers got into trouble with the authority on issues related to the caricatures. Supposedly on the grounds of being offensive, insensitive, lacking in understanding, deemed mocking and many other expressed or implied allegations from aspiring and even retired politicians. Publication was suspended; editors and staff lost their jobs.

When I was in University Malaya many years ago, I innocently addressed a lecturer as 'awak' during a tutorial; he was offended. Few days later, in the lecture hall with 300 over other students, he severely ridiculed my 'lack of understanding' of the language and insensitivity on the need to respect him. I never attended his lectures after that.

Many times in my life, while dealing with others, both local and foreign, my incomplete or inferior knowledge of their languages, customs, cultures and even religious faiths, could have caused me to be easily taken as being offensive, insensitive or lacking in understanding.

However, I did not get severely ridiculed or punished as I did in that lecture hall that day. I suspect the main reason being that the people with whom I were dealing with in those situations were understanding enough to not want to pick a quarrel over my offence and insensitivity, and most probably they must have chosen to forgive as they were confident and gracious people who did not deem my intention was to mock.

Allow me to elaborate.

Once, many years ago, when I was dinning with some Japanese in Tokyo, I rested my chopsticks pointing towards my hosts in front of me. I did not know that this is offensive according to Japanese customs. My hosts explained their table manners to me with humour and anecdotes; they skillfully explained something which is offensive according to their custom, at the same time, ensuring that I was not embarrassed. We laughed and exchanged many more tips on unique table manners and customs. I became more interested in and respectful of Japanese culture since then and we remain good friends till now.

Last year, I was entertaining my prospective tenant who was a senior diplomat from a certain high commission. In the course of the meal, since the table was small and I had over-ordered, I placed an empty bowl on top of another to create more space. The wife explained gently and gracefully that according to their custom, placing a bowl on top of another means future deprivation of food. I apologised profusely, but they laughed and comforted me about my ignorance. They did not get offended over my 'lacking in the understanding' of their customs.

The family has since become my happy tenant and we have also developed deeper friendship as we find it very easy to respect each other.

Over the years, I also have had several similar kinds of encounters involving my ignorance on religion of different faiths. But none got me into difficulty where I had to be punished, prosecuted, lose my job or business.

I may have been lucky. But the point is, should we punish and prosecute simply because we are offended, because the other party was ignorant or lacking in understanding or even truly insensitive? What does 'deemed mocking' mean? Does it mean unilateral interpretation without giving the so-called offending party the opportunity to explain the intent?

I believe that if we truly want others to understand and respect us, we must be confident in ourselves to be graceful and forgiving even though genuine offence has been committed against us.

A show of power to punish and prosecute is no more superior to a demonstration of confidence, strength and character to contain and forgive. Any responsible government which chooses to deal with the issue otherwise stands the risk of being viewed as politically motivated to mislead the masses.

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