The Remarkable Resurgence of Penang’s Hindu Endowment Board

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This one-of-a-kind body improves its finances impressively – and regains its relevance for Penang’s Hindus.

When Pakatan Rakyat took power in Penang in 2008, they inherited an underperforming Hindu Endowment Board (HEB) that was generating a mere RM3,000 a month in income despite owning property worth millions.

According to executive director Ramachandran M. Muthiah, many issues plagued the previous iteration of the HEB, from bad rent collection to a lack of upgrading works in existing properties. Records were not properly kept. Gold bars worth RM300,000 went missing. “They did not even have a manager to manage the properties,” he says. “It was all stagnant.”

Ramachandran had some concerns when he was asked to become the HEB’s first ever executive director in 2011. He had already spent 32 years as HR manager with Isuta International before his retirement, and became an MPSP councillor after the 2008 elections. He knew the problems the HEB was facing, and he also knew fixing them would be far from easy. “It would not be easy to turn (the HEB) around,” he recalls thinking. “A turnaround is not easy; you will get whacked from all corners.”

The more it expands and wields its muscle, the more the HEB will come under scrutiny. “But the board is worth turning around,” he says.

The Role of the HEB

The HEB was first formed in 1906 under the Hindu Endowment Ordinance and tasked with managing endowments placed under its ownership including residential and business properties, temples, and burial grounds, making it an administrative body and not a religious one.

“Many people misunderstand this,” says Ramachandran. “We are not an authority on religion. The money we generate is used to upgrade the properties for the betterment of the Hindu community.”

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng with Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy performing prayers during Ponggal earlier this year.

And only the Hindu community – this is explicit in the ordinance. There used to be other HEBs in Malacca and Singapore. After Singapore achieved independence and Malacca’s HEB disappeared (a common joke among Penang HEB officials is that no one knows where it went), Penang has the only HEB in the country with its own guiding ordinance. Being a colonial ordinance it came under the federal government’s purview after Malaysia’s independence, even though actual administration is handled by the Penang state government.

Upon becoming chairman of the board, Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy was determined to save the board. He ordered a systematic study and valuation of all HEB properties and subsequently raised rents, this time making sure that the HEB collected them as well. Previously, the HEB had received RM50,000 a year from the state government in funding; Ramasamy managed to increase that to more than a million a year. Income generated from property has gone up to RM90,000 a month, with property worth about RM600mil.

Chitra Pournami Festival at the Sri Selva Vinayagar Temple, Perai, in April.

In the midst of all this the HEB attracted its share of controversy, particularly over alleged abuse of power. Previously, the HEB had five Penang Hindu temples under its authority. That number has since expanded to eight, the most controversial of which being the Sri Selva Vinayagar Temple in Perai which the HEB took over in 2015 via legal action. Opponents say that the HEB was overstepping its bounds; the HEB says it was simply following the law after it received complaints from the public about the temple’s mismanagement.

“[The society managing the temple] was deregistered four times by the Registrar of Societies (RoS) and had not submitted accounts for about four years. We tried to resolve it for three years, couldn’t, so we had to enforce the law.”

And this is what makes Penang different from other states in Malaysia: the management of Hindu temples in the state is bound by law. “There is a provision in Section Four of the ordinance,” says Ramachandran, “where if a particular temple is mismanaged, then the board can take over management of the temple.”

And so the HEB did just that, with the consent of the Yang di-Pertua Negeri. It’s a tactic the HEB admits it doesn’t want to use very often; in fact, this was the first and only time the provision was enforced. The takeover of Sri Selva Vinayagar Temple did not go over well – the case ended up in High Court earlier this year, with the court subsequently ruling that the HEB did indeed have the power to do so.

This was not the only court case the HEB has had to go through. The Penang Development Corporation (PDC) decided to hand over control of all temples, cemeteries, schools, and other Hindurelated property standing on PDC-owned land over to the HEB – a move that was also challenged in court. The court also ruled in favour of the HEB. “The law is very clear [about this],” says Ramachandran. “They belong to the board.

“Muslims have accepted a central authority,” says Ramasamy. “This is not the case with the Hindus and Buddhists. They resent central authority. That was one of the criticisms directed at the board when we took over some temples for mismanagement. ‘Oh you cannot do this, you cannot interfere into the private domain of the temples.’ The problem is private temples collect public funds and there is no transparency. We were forced to take over the temple after public complaints.”

Another wrinkle thrown into these legal battles is an RoS ruling that religious societies are not allowed to manage temples; they can only manage religious activities. This ruling applies nationwide, and considering that many temples are indeed run by religious societies, it is a firebomb waiting to go off – something the HEB knows too well, which is why it is reluctant to wield this power “unless we are forced into doing it,” says Ramachandran.

This hasn’t stopped the HEB from enduring bad press, eventually leading to the federal government getting involved. Just before our interview with Ramachandran he had had another meeting with auditors from the Prime Minister’s Department who came with serious questions for the board following multiple news reports alleging abuse of power.

But the meeting, Ramachandran tells me later, went well. “[They] were supposed to spend the whole day here,” he says, “but they left after an hour. We gave them a presentation and our documents, and [they] said they were very happy after seeing our reports.

“If you are certified by the Auditor General as clean,” he adds, “they have nothing else to ask you.”

Serving the Community

When Ramasamy first took over the HEB, he understood its potential beyond simply managing property. The HEB has made education a top priority, giving financial aid to students in need. In 2008, the HEB’s total education aid for the year was a mere RM2,125 but that figure grew very quickly as the HEB’s finances improved; in 2015, the HEB gave RM537,348 in education aid to 280 students. The HEB has also sponsored students to take up training at the Penang Skills Development Centre (PSDC), and provides some medical aid.

“Community work is very important,” says Ramasamy, “especially in reversing some of the socioeconomic problems of the Indian community. The board should not just be concerned with religious issues but also with the larger socioeconomic reality of Indians and Hindus.”

Penang Skills Development Centre (PSDC) education aid in 2014.

Nonetheless, the fight for temples and the hearts of the Hindu community in Penang goes on. Another court case looms, this time over a temple in Batu Kawan. And there’s also a game of tug-of-war between the HEB and the Chettiars over control of the popular Thaipusam festival, though Ramasamy insists a win-win resolution to that conflict will come soon.

“I will say,” Ramachandran tells us, “in the next few years, things are going to be very bright for the board. And that is going to benefit the Hindus in Penang.”



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