Penang, ‘Pearl of the Orient’
Government Pakatan Rakyat (since March 2008)
Governor Tun Dato’ Seri Haji Abdul Rahman Haji Abbas
Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng
Statistics (Malaysia Statistics Dept. 2007 etc.)
Population 1,518,500 (est.): Malay 41%, Other Bumiputera 0.4%, Chinese 42%, Indian 10%, Others 0.4%, non-citizens 6.2%
Religious breakdown (2000) Islam 44.2%, Buddhism 33.7%, Taoism/Confucianism 8.8%, Hinduism 8.7%, Christianity 3.6%, Others 0.3%, No Religion 0.4%, Unknown 0.3%
Incidence of Poverty (2004) 0.3%
Although Penang is the second smallest state after Perlis, it has the highest population density in Malaysia.
In 1786, Penang became the first British outpost in the then Malaya and Southeast Asia (SEA). The first newspaper – the Prince of Wales Island Gazette – was published here in 1805. The present legal system is said to have its origin in the 1807 Charter of Justice introduced by Francis Light. The oldest bank in the country – Standard Chartered Bank – opened its doors in 1875. Chung Hwa Confusion School, founded in 1904, marked the first immigrant school in Malaya. The oldest Chinese newspaper, Kwong Wah Daily which is still in circulation today, was founded in 1910 by Dr Sun Yat-Sen in Penang.
In 1957, George Town became the first town to be granted a city status by Her majesty Queen Elizabeth 11.
The then Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon said that the state had set its goals on becoming a developed state by 2010. The state’s per capita income is currently ranked 2nd after Kuala Lumpur (NST, 24/10/07).
History in Brief
In 1786, the Sultan of Kedah offered Penang to the British East India Company in exchange for protection from Siam and Burma. On 11 Aug, Captain Francis Light arrived and renamed it Prince of Wales Island. Light, who was only interested in securing a safe port for trading purposes, reneged on the deal. The Sultan tried to retake Penang but failed. A treaty was signed in 1791 and Penang was handed over to the British for an annual honorarium of 6,000 Spanish dollars. There was however no guarantee of protection.
Seberang Perai (Province Wellesley) was added to Penang in 1800.
In 1805, British Residency was established with the arrival of Stamford Raffles as the Deputy Secretary to the Governor of Penang. In 1826, Penang, along with Melaka and Singapore became part of the Straits Settlements under British administration in India until 1867 when the direct British colonial rule began.
Penang island was declared a free port (until 1969) to attract traders. The colonial state thrived economically and drew people from different cultures, making it extremely cosmopolitan.
Penang became part of the Malayan Union in 1946 and a state of the Federation of Malaya in 1948.
Gerakan – an opposition party before joining Barisan Nasional in early 1970s – has been in control of Penang since the 1969 general elections. The position of chief minister is the only one in the country held by a Chinese since independence.
The result of the general elections in March 2008 came as blow to Gerakan. DAP, with its ally Parti Keadilan Rakyat, won most of the state seats and managed to form the state government. The new Chief Minister is Lim Guan Eng from DAP. Dr. Ramasamy, a political scientist, is the first ethnic Indian to hold the Deputy Chief Minister post.
Religious Freedom & Extremism
Penang does not have provisions on the procedure and punishment for apostasy. It has not enacted the Control and Restriction Bill to prevent other faiths from spreading their beliefs among Muslims. Nonetheless, the state religious authorities are no less zealous than their counterparts in other states.
In Feb 2007, an elderly couple and their 10 children in Nibong Tebal were in a dilemma over their religious status because of their Muslim names. The couple, married for more than 40 years but did not register their marriage, claimed that they had been practising Hindus since birth. Eventually, the case was resolved with the couple returning to Islamic faith and the children remaining Hindus. "The council has built a house for them in Kebun Baru and are living separately from their children," said the religious council chairman Shabudin Yahaya.
Siti Fatimah Tan (Tan Ean Huang), a Chinese woman who married an Iranian Muslim in 2004 (who subsequently left her), wants the state Islamic Religious Council to declare that she is no longer a Muslim. She also wants the Syariah court to change the religious status on her identity card from Muslim to Buddhist. Finally in May 2008, the Penang Syariah High Court decided to allow her to renounce Islam and return to Buddhism (NST, 10/5/08).
In October, there was a legal battle in relation to an insurance payout. A Hindu woman, whose son died, claims to be the rightful beneficiary. Koperasi Angkatan Tentera however doubts if she is still “the beneficiary to the deceased’s estate under Syariah law” since the deceased had embraced Islam. The payout was handed to Amanah Raya Bhd. The woman’s lawyer argues that Syariah law has no jurisdiction over the matter because insurance was purchased before the conversion (theSun). Court ruling has yet to be made at the time of this report.
In November, forty-five people, including the wife of the banned Al-Arqam movement's former leader Ashaari Muhammad, were brought before the Syariah Court. They are charged with various religious offences (Star Online) for practicing deviant teaching. Court decision has yet to be heard.
The first recorded case of deviationism in Malaysia was the Taslim, founded in the 19th century in Seberang Perai, by Ahmad Matahari.
Some reports from the past years in relation to religious overzealousness:
- In 2003, teachers and students in several mission schools were forced to recite Islamic prayers every morning, according to a state opposition leader.
- In 2006, the netball team of Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Abdullah Munshi was ordered by the principal to quit a tournament because some students removed their tudung during the match.
- In May 2006, Muslim mobs broke up a forum being held on Penang Island to discuss religious pluralism and constitutional protection for minority religious rights.
Racial Tension & Inter-Religious Conflicts
Numerous religious sites express the religiosity of the people in Penang. For the most part relationship among the different people groups has been harmonious. Nevertheless, the state recorded the highest number of cases involving conflicts in 2006, ranging from social and interpersonal disputes to religious matters. The underlying tension and the lack of trust for one another are a reality.
A minor accident between two motorcyclists during the New Year’s Eve sparked off a serious row between two groups in front of a temple in Kampung Manis, Perai. Rumours of racial tension were subsequently spread until the police had to issue a stern warning against it (NST, 3/1/08)
In 2006, the call by the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce – to put an end to the 30% bumiputera quota in housing and commercial projects – was labeled a racial statement. The Penang Umno Youth cautioned the chamber not to “play with fire,” accusing it of going against the government’s efforts to raise the economic standard of the Malays. At any rate, the socio-economic status of Malays was a hot issue as several Umno leaders claimed that the state administration under Tan Sri Dr Koh was marginalising the community. There were calls to rotate the post of chief minister among the BN component parties.
In the same year, the Chinese community was angered by the demolition of Tou Mo Kong Taoist Temple in Bukit Mertajam. The then state Deputy Chief Minister and a local Umno Youth leader were implicated. Subsequently, a new mechanism to handle cases involving places of worships was introduced, denying local authorities the power to act on its own.
In retrospect, the above events are not surprising as many past and recent incidents tell us that the subject of race and religion is touchy and vulnerable to political manipulation.
The infamous 1957 Chingay riot (rising from the minor clashes between small groups of Chinese and Malays) shut down Penang for days. The British almost did not grant Malaya independence for fear of major bloodshed if they were to retreat.
When the Straits dollar devaluated in 1967, an economic boycott was called. The strike turned violent and subsequently assumed racial overtones with politicians expressing grievances and some calling for more violence. Penang was on a 24-hour curfew.
In May 1969, another communal violence erupted when the ruling Alliance Party suffered a major setback in the general elections, losing Penang to Gerakan (then opposition) and Kelantan to PAS with Perak and Selangor on the verge of falling into the opposition’s hands. Despite holding a two-third majority, Gerakan decided to share its state power with the Alliance in February 1972 in return for federal support.
In March 1998, Malay Muslims and Indian Hindus in Kampung Rawa engaged in street brawls, following a dispute over the construction of a temple. The police had to use tear-gas to break up the fights.
Most recently, the state government comes under criticism when it proposed to shift Poh Tey Secondary Girls School from its present location. The move has been seen as denying the Chinese community education opportunity.
Other interesting historical facts
- The 1st Anglican church in SEA: St. George’s Church, established in 1816,
- The first and oldest English School in SEA: Penang Free School, founded by Reverend Sparke Hutchings in 1816.
- The oldest girls’ school in SEA: the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, established by a French Sisters’ Mission in 1852.
- The first Freemason lodge in Malaysia was established in Penang: Lodge Neptune, of which Francis Light was a member, closed down a few years later. The lodge Royal Prince of Wales, established in 1875, still remains.
- One of the oldest Chinese temples in Penang: the Kuan Yin Teng or the Goddess of Mercy Temple was built in 1800 by early immigrant settlers from China.
- The largest Buddhist temple in SEA: the Temple of Supreme Bliss, popularly known as Kek Lok Si.
- The first Sikh temple was set up in 1881.
- First international Chinese school is expected to be set up (Star, 10/9/07)
- The people of the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ may experience spiritual breakthrough and find ‘key’ to the Kingdom of God.
- State governments and local councils
- Consist of men and women of integrity and character;
- Prudent in spending and wisdom in managing state funds;
- Effective and competent in implementing policies;
- Prioritize public interests.
- Wisdom and vigilance of the police force in combating rising crime.
- Against the spirits of religious overzealousness and extremism.
- Those who incite racial and religious hatred for political gain: “Let the lying lips be mute, which speak arrogantly against the righteous with pride and contempt” (Ps 31:18).
- Authorities and public to uphold religious freedom and respect individual rights to choose and practice a religion of one’s choice.
- Local churches:
- Return to their First Love and the Word of God.
- Unity in vision, fervent in prayer, commitment in networking, willingness to share resources, humility to serve one another.
- Against the sense of self-sufficiency, materialism & inward-looking mindset.
- Kingdom agenda/mentality over individual church agenda
- Wisdom and boldness in evangelism
- Youth: Passion & fire rekindled for Christ; good role models among the older generation.
- Effective marketplace ministries & youth outreaches.