Penang's melting pot image under attack

PENANG - The gates of the Church of the Assumption remain unlocked late at night and its shrine open for prayers two weeks after two Molotov cocktails were hurled into its compound.

Apart from a burn mark, the Jan 27 incident did not cause any major damage to the church – but it has tarred Penang’s famed image as a multiracial melting pot. 

It was the latest in a string of similar attacks that has hit Penang since the start of the year. No arrests have been made. 

While tourists continue to visit George Town’s picturesque old quarter and life goes on as normal, many locals are dismayed at what they believe to be politically motivated acts.

The incidents, they say, were aimed at stoking racial tension.

Mr Joe Sidek, the director of the annual George Town Festival, said: “I would consider it to be staged racial tension. I don’t feel any racial tension among the people, do you?”

He added: “It’s being stoked by certain people. I don’t know who they are.”

Datuk Gary Nair, a social activist, believes these incidents were motivated by political gain, and have very little traction with the local people.

“It’s the work of a few mischievous people,” he said, adding that most Penang people are aware of it. He noted that protest groups with an overtly racial agenda never get much of a turnout.

George Town is a tourist draw not just for its picturesque beauty but also for its unique culture forged over a long history of welcoming different peoples to its shores.

This is evident from its town planning where Armenian Street sits next to Acheh Street, and close to Malay Street and China Street.

Mosques sit a stone’s throw from temples, and its long colonial history has left Penang with some of the most beautiful old churches around.

But this melting pot harmony has come under threat since the 2008 general election handed Penang to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance.

Divisive racial politics became the order of the day as race and religion were used to drive a wedge between the people, and draw support away from the PR.

The Penang government, led by the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, became the target of protests and was accused of discriminating against the Malays, despite its persistent denials.

In a way, the politics in Penang mirrors that in the rest of Malaysia where racial and religious issues have become so contentious that both Prime Minister Najib Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim have called for national reconciliation. However, neither side has come up with any concrete proposals.

The situation in Penang is perhaps in sharper focus because the number of Malays and Chinese is about equal.

About three weeks ago, assemblyman Lee Khai Loon from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), a PR component party, was accused of being anti-Malay after he led a protest over rising inflation. Several Malay groups protested at his office.

Several days later, banners proclaiming “Jesus is the son of Allah” appeared outside a few Penang churches, which denied putting them up. The Molotov cocktails were thrown less than 24 hours later.

On Jan 28, a crowd gathered at the Bayan Baru Mosque after it allegedly received threats to burn it down.

PKR’s MP for Bayan Baru Sim Tze Tzin said Penang is an easy target because its Chief Minister is Chinese.

“We believe it’s the same group of people with a political motive who are trying to cause racial divisions,” Mr Sim said.

He said the government hopes to deracialise issues by ensuring a multi-ethnic turnout at its events, including a planned walk for peace being organised by non- governmental organisations.

“This will hopefully help reduce tension,” he said.

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