Our diversity, our gain

No confusion here: The shrine at Armenian Park is located at an obsure corner and left to the care of believers.

Being Malaysian is all about being surrounded by those who are different from us in terms of colour, creed and upbringing. And this is something we are proud of.

IT won’t be wrong to say that most Muslims who have lived near the heritage area of Armenian Street in Penang have never become religiously confused over the presence of a Chinese tokong shrine in the vicinity’s park.

After all, it has been there for the last 70 years, tucked inauspiciously at a far end of the park. But going by what Penang Opposition Leader Jahara Hamid had said, this shrine must be right in the middle of the park to generate such controversy.

Speaking at the Penang State Assembly meeting recently, the Umno state legislator reportedly said she was sure that Muslims would not pray there but “some Muslims may be confused.”

Oh, please! Most Penangites believe that our Muslim brothers and sisters have solid faith in their religion and for sure, they won’t be confused. The only one who seems confused is Jahara herself.

Muslims in Penang are the most exposed to other cultures and faiths, I dare say, unlike those from other states that are less ethnically mixed than Penang. It is also by far the most cosmopolitan state historically.

It is bizarre that Jahara raised the subject as no other state under the Barisan Nasional, or specifically Umno, has taken a hard stance on the presence of such shrines which can be found all over the country. Quite frankly, it made her appear to be insensitive to the diversity of the people in this land.

It is for sure not representative of Umno and it won’t be wrong to say that Jahara was speaking for herself. In fact, the other Umno assemblymen did not express support for her ludicrous remarks, which have also put her fellow Barisan component members in an awkward position.

There is no shortage of issues in Penang that she could have picked up to score points. These are issues which affect all Penangites regardless of race and religion.

The only “Tokong” she has to pick on is Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, as he is cynically called for what appears to be his dictating ways, and certainly not the tokong shrine.

Most non-Muslims, especially Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus and Christians, do not have any issue with such shrines. They understand that these shrines often spring up at construction sites and near office blocks or hotels to placate the spirits nearby.

Look, you may not believe it but no one is going to argue with anyone who wants to believe something. These little shrines are often located in some obscure corner and left to the care of the believers.

It’s a case of live and let live. It has been like this for a long time. These shrines have been around before independence – for sure, even before Jahara was born.

It is peculiar only to Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Indonesia, particularly Semarang, which has a large Chinese community.

The local guardian spirits are called Datuk Kong, with strong Malay influence, and some shrines are revered because they are set up near unusual rock formations, huge ant hills, a snake’s nesting ground, or a huge banyan tree. Some shrines also include deities, usually when the believers are from the Taoist background.

In fact, there is a huge shrine in Klang town which even has a big dome-shaped roof and crescent moon motifs. It is painted yellow, which is regarded as the royal colour.

There are plenty of academic studies on this subject by local scholars and no one has raised a ruckus, as far as I can recall, because it is well entrenched that such practices are forbidden in Islam. It is very clear and no one is confused.

It is confined only to the Chinese who took up this practice, a fusion of their Confucianist-Taoist beliefs and their respect for Malay figures and early beliefs, which led to the creation of such shrines all over the country when they arrived as immigrants.

As a child growing up in Kampung Melayu in Penang, I would be reminded by my mother to put my hands together, as in prayer, when I had to urinate at the nearby river and bushes. My mum, a nyonya, burned kemenyan (incense) most evenings. For sure, it kept the mosquitoes away.

I have had my share of experiences visiting shrines which had words written in jawi all over them and listening to stories of purported powerful datuks – and we made sure we refrained from consuming pork when we, as Boy Scouts, visited some islands where these guardians are said to roam. Of course, we respected the belief.

This has made Malaysia interesting. Of course, we can live with these mystical stories, especially when we are on jungle or sea trips. In the end, it is actually more about respecting nature.

As Penangites, we are proud that religious tolerance is alive here. In fact, we detest bigoted politicians who think they can play the racial or religious card to score political points. It is simply unacceptable.

Instead of spewing racist remarks, politicians should organise walks to places of worship, especially down Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, commonly known as Harmony Street because of its four ancient houses of worship, ancestral halls and shrines. That’s what the moderates have done.

There is the St George’s Church, Goddess of Mercy Temple, Kapitan Keling Mosque and Sri Maha Mariamman temple.

Apart from Penang, there is also Jalan Tun Sambanthan in Brickfields and Jalan Tokong Besi in Malacca where temples, churches and mosques share the same street.

Thanks to some incredibly stupid politicians and preachers, including foreigners, some of us have been made to believe that one can be instantly converted if they walk into a place of worship other than those of their own faith.

So, the idea of studying and understanding other religions is frowned upon as prejudice grows more deeply rooted and interaction with people of other faiths becomes limited. That’s how religious extremism grows and if we are not careful, we could end up walking the wrong way.

I continue to tell people that I benefitted from taking the compulsory Islamic Studies course as a student in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. It gave me a good understanding of Islam and I have continued to add more books on Islam to my library. As a Christian, I have certainly not become confused despite reading many books on Islam.

Likewise, no one should be worried about reading books of other faiths. Let’s focus on the commonalities and goodness of all religions, and stop harping on how our faith is more superior than others.

Just be mindful that we want to be a better person who is God-fearing, compassionate and tolerant. It’s the heart and mind that matter the most. We don’t have to show or declare to the world how religious and pious we are.

Malaysians must be brave enough to tell off such political and religious figures. Keeping silent is not an option.

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