George Town’s Diversity Safeguards its Religious Harmony


In his notes from a recent field trip, a renowned scholar identifies some unique qualities behind the inter-faith goodwill found in Penang.

All cities are arenas of contestation. The “harmonious city” is both a distant ideal and a contradiction in terms of a situation where residents jockey for influence, resources and security amid changing demographic, political and economic dynamics.

In general, conflicts in cities are resolved through mediation and political processes which allow an uneasy equilibrium to prevail, but when these mechanisms break down, a city will unravel into discrete parts (ghettos), and ultimately, in the case of violent conflict, result in being partitioned. In some cities, urban conflicts are exacerbated by religious diversity as access to or control over holy sites becomes both the foci of struggles over territory and symbols of the power of the different communities. Jerusalem, Mostar and Sarajevo in the Balkans, Benares, and Lhasa are cities where holy sites are at the forefront of urban contestations.

George Town is a city of great religious diversity and rapidly changing dynamics and, yet, it seems to have escaped the violent conflict that often accompanies cities with similar diversity. In what ways, then, is George Town different, and does it offer a “model” for managing and resolving conflicts in urban settings?

Furnished with a Leverhulme Trust grant, I have been researching religious conflicts in cities for several years. In June 2017 I visited George Town and conducted 28 interviews drawn from religious and political leaders, community and NGO activists, public and private sector employees, academics and journalists, and carried out a range of observations of religious rituals.

I came away with the conclusion that while the particular situation of George Town is quite unique, there are key features which suggest options for other cities in their struggle to manage conflicts emanating from religious diversity. At the same time, I also became aware that while the tradition of accommodating diversity has been a success in George Town, it is, nonetheless, a fragile flower which will need greater nurturing and defending in the future if it is to navigate the regional and national challenges that are emerging.

The potential for religious conflict in George Town is quite high for a number of reasons. Firstly, the sheer diversity of religious communities provides many occasions for possible friction; for example, many of the central and more important religious sites are located close together, which, in times of ethnic and religious tension, can lead to conflict over access or over the timing of religious rituals and festivities.

Secondly, the privileging of Malay-Muslim interests over those of other communities in the Malaysian Constitution and in federal government policies could spill over into religious conflicts over places and practices which are more intractable, more long-term and more difficult to mediate. When this factor is placed in the context of the fact that in George Town the Chinese and Malay communities have approximate demographic parity, the result is an uneasy equilibrium which can be disrupted by federal level interventions.

A minaret of the Kapitan Keling Mosque.

Nevertheless, despite this potential, the fact remains that religious tension is, and has been for some time, minimal in George Town. Even during the 1969 inter-ethnic disturbances, despite some deaths in the city, George Town remained relatively free of the widespread Malay-Chinese rioting which took place in KL. What can explain this difference and does my focus on religious conflicts offer some insights?

A key factor is the degree of religiosity. Despite the richness and diversity of religious life in George Town, it is not a “holy City” like Mecca, Jerusalem, Rome, Kyoto and etc. None of the large number of religious sites in George Town is central to any of the major faiths. Threats to these sites do not constitute, therefore, an existential threat to that faith. For example, George Town may be a traditional departure point for haj pilgrims, or the location of the oldest church in South-East Asia, or host to the largest reclining Buddha outside India – and these are important to members of the religious communities in Penang – but they are not on a par with, say, Jerusalem as the most important site in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or with Benares as the city of Shiva. In a “Holy Cities League”, George Town is probably not even in Division One. This relatively peripheral characteristic of the religious sites in George Town ensures that any disputes regarding religious sites do not resonate much beyond the island itself and therefore can be addressed by local religious leaders and politicians without outside intervention.

Indeed, one result of this peripheral characteristic is that it allows the flourishing of the long-standing culture of accommodation and mutual respect in George Town. This came out very clearly in the overwhelming majority of my interviews. Shaped by historical precedents and embedded in both the elite level interactions and in daily life, there is a widespread recognition that peaceful coexistence is to the mutual advantage of all religious and ethnic communities. Personal links between religious leaders have been established for dispute resolution and ad hoc processes seem to be more effective than formal mechanisms.

This culture of accommodation seems to flow from an unwritten social compact: that the non-Muslim religious communities will recognise the primacy of Islam and the privileging of Malay-Muslim civil and religious rights in exchange for the non-intervention of the federal state in the affairs of the non-Muslim religious communities.

Songkran Festival at Wat Chayamangkalaram, Pulau Tikus, where the largest reclining Buddha outside India is housed.

The peripheral characteristic of religious life in George Town also leads to another important factor: George Town is spared the presence of a powerful cadre of religious priests acting as a political force. In other cities, the presence of more central religious sites has led to the establishment of ancient and large clerical bureaucracies, lucrative revenues in the form of endowments and donations, and millions of pilgrims which create an international and influential network of devotees and supporters. Combined together, these features allow the clerical bureaucracy to carve out a degree of political and financial autonomy from the state within which they operate.

While it is clear that in George Town, certain temples, churches and mosques are well-endowed and have wealthy supporters, they are not a dominating presence in this sense. The only clerical hierarchy that could possibly act in a similar way is the Muslim hierarchy, but it is both fragmented by ethnicity and has been absorbed into the federal and state government structures to the extent that it does not act independently of the state.

This leads to another related factor: the legitimacy of the Malaysian state is not contested by any of the religious communities. In cities where the legitimacy of the state is contested, religious and other community leaders take on the role of political representation and function as power brokers in the allocation of resources. In these circumstances, religious sites become both symbols of community strength and community assets that need to be protected. This is not happening in George Town where, for all its faults, the political process remains based on the negotiations between political parties.

What is possibly unique to George Town is the positive aspect of religious diversity. It was suggested earlier in this article that religious diversity provides ample scope for multiple points of friction. However, in George Town the contrary seems to be true: religious diversity dilutes the flammability of those frictions. Not only are there numerous ethnic communities, there are also numerous religious communities that both straddle ethnic communities and divide them. Thus, the Chinese community may be partially united by a common language; it is also fragmented into different religions, clan groups, socio-economic classes and political parties. The Malay community may be the most cohesive but its ability to act collectively is fragmented by a rural-urban divide as well as being constrained by its close connections with non-Malay Muslims and its relations to the national ruling elite. In effect, there are no major binaries along ethnic or religious lines in George Town (in contrast to, say, Jerusalem) that would assist political mobilisation around religious sites. Instead, there is a weak “Us” and a weak “Them”.

Such diversity appears to have also had an ameliorating impact on another feature of religious conflicts in cities: land and property ownership. In Jerusalem, for example, much of the land and property of the city is owned by religious foundations of the three faiths and by the Israeli state which, by its own statutes, can only lease land to Israeli Jews. This form of communal-based landownership has created segregated residential areas with nationalist and sectarian overtones. In George Town, property ownership appears to be highly fragmented: state-owned land is on the periphery and not associated with any religious sites; the majority of properties in George Town may be owned by large Chinese families and businesses and by Kongsis, but there is little appearance of segregation resulting from this; there appears to be no major religious foundations holding land in order to promote sectarian interests. The only exception to this is Muslim wakaf property (endowment land) but its holdings are not extensive. In George Town, therefore, the correlation between landownership and residential segregation is weak.

A final characteristic which differentiates George Town from other religiously diverse cities is the degree of international intervention. In some cities with religious conflicts, the interventions of external actors are usually negative in that they exacerbate tensions that can be resolved locally. The presence of the UN and of large cohorts of media and diplomatic personnel place an unwelcome spotlight on what are often minor disputes over access and behaviour around religious sites. While George Town is striving to position itself as a regional city of some importance, the kinds of interventions from external actors it is receiving are unlikely to contribute to any religious conflicts in the city – for the time being at least.

Nevertheless, some regional trends are of concern. For example, while the influence of the Salafi ideology of the Arab Gulf States on the Malay-Muslim community is not as great in Penang as it is on the mainland, the defeat and dispersal of the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East may encourage the existing radicalism already present in some sections of the Malay-Muslim community. Similarly, while the growing influence of China in South-East Asia is focussed on fostering good relations with the Malaysian ruling elite at the federal level, some recent actions by the Chinese government have the potential of emboldening the Chinese community in Penang. If this continues, it may lead to a more assertive Chinese pushback against the Islamisation policies of the federal government.

In conclusion, from my brief exploratory visit to Penang, my impression is that religious diversity and the control over religious sites in George Town are not a cause of tension in the city. Instead, the coexistence and equilibrium between the communities act as leverage for greater tourism, immigration and investment.

The dilution of ethnic identities through religious diversity and the “peripherality” of the city, not only in its relation to the major power centres of the state but in the way the religious sites figure in the different faiths, combine very effectively to support the ethnic and religious equilibrium and culture of accommodation that has emerged. The question remains: how robust or fragile is this situation?

At this stage of my study I would argue that while the equilibrium and culture of accommodation is an important adhesive that allows the different communities to live alongside each other, it is also contingent on continued economic prosperity as a lubricant and a supplier of resources that can be shared out. The fragility lies in the fact that weak checks in the Constitution may erode the social compact between the Malays and Chinese in George Town, and this will be eroded further if the economy declines. In addition, the weak mechanisms for formal dispute resolution have resulted in a reliance on strong local religious leadership to confront challenges to the equilibrium. Currently, that leadership is being exercised George Town, but it may not always be forthcoming. In this context, changes and the pursuit of broader agendas on the national and regional level may lead national and regional actors to exploit local religious issues to their advantage in ways that the local leadership cannot control.

Mick Dumper is Professor in Middle East Politics, University of Exeter, UK. His research is primarily on the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially future options for Palestinian refugees and for Jerusalem, and the politics of archaeology and conservation in the urban Middle East. His books include Jerusalem Unbound: Geography, History and the Future of the Holy City (2014); The Future of the Palestinian Refugees: Towards Equity and Peace (2007); The Politics of Sacred Space: The Old City of Jerusalem and the Middle East Conflict, 1967-2000 (2001); The Politics of Jerusalem Since 1967 (1997); and he is the editor of Palestinian Refugee Repatriation: Global Perspectives (2006).

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