KUALA LUMPUR – Some Malaysian businesses are skirting around or playing down the portrayal of canines in Chinese New Year decorations this year, wary of offending the country’s Muslim majority in the Year of the Dog.
Dogs are considered “unclean” under Islamic tradition and Muslims are required to carry out a ritual of washing themselves if they are in contact with the animal.
Multicultural Malaysia has seen an increasing intolerance toward activities considered insulting to Islam, reflected in protests in recent years of beer festivals and concerts.
While Muslim Malays are the biggest ethnic group among Malaysia’s 32 million people, Chinese make up the second-biggest group with 23 percent of the population.
One shopping mall in the popular Kuala Lumpur tourist area of Bukit Bintang did not depict dogs in its decorations ahead of the new year in February, focusing instead on the 10th anniversary theme of the center, Pavilion Kuala Lumpur.
Director of Marketing Kung Suan Ai said religious and cultural sensitivities were a determining factor in conceptualizing decorations. The mall attracts three million people of various backgrounds each month, she said.
“One of the considerations we take in when we work on decoration concepts for Pavilion KL is to create something highly experiential… and also to be socially accepting (for) all,” she said.
Twelve animals, including a dog and a pig, another animal Muslims consider as unclean, make up the traditional Chinese zodiac.
Malaysian Muslim leaders have been vocal about events that involve dogs before. After the 2014 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow, when athletes paraded with a Scottish terrier donning their country’s name, local politicians aired their disproval, calling the stunt “disrespectful”.
In 2016, religious authorities asked popular pretzel chain Auntie Anne’s to change the name of its “Pretzel Dog” to “Pretzel Sausage”.
At MyTOWN, another Kuala Lumpur shopping center where half the visitors are Muslim, the mall downplayed the depiction of dogs in its decorations.
“We have the dogs but it’s in how we (display) them. They are not the main object. They are life size and placed as ambient decorations,” said Head of Marketing Christopher Koh, so that the canine would not appear like an idol.
“It’s the same with the pig (for the Year of the Boar), Malaysian retailers won’t usually put up a giant pig as a centerpiece.”
Alex Chow, who runs a company supplying packaging materials, said corporate clients have stuck to generic illustrations for their packaging designs this year.
Chinese Malaysian Wong Wei-Shen, who has several dogs as pets, said businesses were being “ridiculous”.
“It’s a shame because Malaysia is a multicultural country. To dismiss the fact that the Chinese have a dog as one of the zodiac animals is unfair,” said Wong.
“Every zodiac animal has its good attributes, and the dog represents a guide, a best friend, a comforter and loyal friend.” said Wong.