Speech by Chief Minister of Penang
At The Launching of Jawi Peranakan Stories 2017
"The Making of a Nation : Rise of Peranakan Muslim Civil Society”
22 April 2017, E&O Hotel, Grand Ballroom, Penang. 1pm
I would like to thank the Penang Jawi Peranakan Heritage Society for inviting me to present the Keynote Address, and to Officiate the Symposium on ‘The Making of a Nation: Rise of Peranakan Muslim Civil Society’.
The Jawi Peranakan, Jawi Pekan, and Arab Peranakan communities have multicultural origins from India, the Middle East and Levant, but all have been well assimilated in urban Malay society. Penang’s vibrant multiculturalism and living heritage, which was recognised in George Town’s inscription, with Melaka, as a UNECO World Heritage Site in 2008, has always been the most notable character of our city.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription is a highly challenging status to achieve, but what is spectacular about George Town is the meeting of great civilisations, with a living heritage where descendants of the founders of the city continue to live within their own ethnic enclaves, but sharing the espirit de corps, acceptance and goodwill that is difficult to find elsewhere in the world.
In addition to our architectural excellence, George Town and Melaka were recognised for our Outstanding Universal Values because our two cities met UNESCO’s criteria of having “an important interchange of human values”, as well as “bear a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition of a civilisation which is living”.
George Town’s streets are constantly festive. The Boria was once a street festival with processions along Chulia Street, Love Lane and Penang Road, ending up at the Wembley. The Muslim community has shown great acceptance of non-Muslim street festivals, night operas and processions, notably during the month of the Hungry Ghosts, Chap Goh Meh, Thaipusam and Wesak Day. The non-Muslim communities have conversely accepted the calls of the azan daily, and wheel through the weekly Friday traffic for the compulsory Friday Jemaah prayers.
We have lived together for so long, and we have learnt to adjust and adapt to the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of our diverse ethnic communities, respecting taboos of religion, gender and culture.
Unlike other minorities in neighbouring Southeast Asia, where family names are changed and cultural origins made to fit into a mould of national identity based on the majority, Malaysia has instead practised cultural and ethnic pluralism, without sanctioning differences of language, culture, faith and ideology. In Penang and Melaka, it is this unique living heritage which is cited as one of our Outstanding Universal Values of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our secular Malaysian laws also co-exist with Syariah law serving the Muslim community. Nonetheless, when different faiths come together, in marriage, divorce, or child custody and conversion, that there arise issues of fair representation. For this reason, it is important to ensure that our Courts are impartial and just, in situations of conflict and contestations among and between different parties.
Again for this reason, we cannot afford to embrace the tide of neo-conservatism sweeping through advanced democratic liberal nations, calling for the conformity and assimilation of cultural minorities into main-stream society, acceptable to the majority. Minority rights count in a modern liberal democracy, and we celebrate heterogeneity of ethnicity and faith.
We do not support extremism or radicalisation from any faith or system of politics. These ideologies can only lead to divisive systems of anarchy and chaos. But we support plural systems of moderation, creativity and progress.
The government of Penang has always been supportive of Muslim heritage in the city and we have good representation from all sectors of the Muslim community. We understand the pressing concerns of the people of Penang - the evolving socio-demographic dynamics of the traditional communities, the changing status of property ownership, as well as pressures of modern traffic and transportation needs.
Most of these Penang properties are privately owned, and in an open free market system, we cannot limit commercial transactions conducted through the city. But we have strict laws of tenancy, restoration and use of adaptive space in commercialised heritage premises.
The Penang State government strictly adheres to UNESCO’s guidelines, and we have not moved away from this. We are fully committed to sustain the status of World Heritage Site by managing and safeguarding our cultural heritage in sustainable manner. Therefore, we certainly agree that the multicultural, living and intangible cultural heritage of George Town needs to be properly managed and conserved.
To this end, we seek to work even more closely with the Jawi Peranakan Heritage Society, trustees of mosques, kongsis, temples and shrines, religious groups, as well as representatives of the Thai and Burmese communities, to see how we can improve our adaptive spaces in the World Heritage Site, as well as the rest of Penang. Please collaborate with us on how we can better share and preserve the communal and living spaces of our heritage.
The Penang State Government has worked closely with the Agha Khan Foundation, as well as with the Malaysian Federal Government through Think City. We welcome this kind of international technical and financial cooperation between the Federal and State governments and globally acclaimed heritage foundations, and seek new ways to expand on such collaborations.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Sometimes, it takes a shipwreck for us to pause and reflect how we have been united over centuries of trade and commerce, from the ancient silk route across land and sea, from the Middle East via Southeast Asia to China. Global attention has been given to the Belitung Shipwreck, discovered off the Belitung Island, Indonesia, in 1998. The Arabian ship, a dhow, sailed from Oman to China during the 9th Century AD, using the Maritime Silk Route through Southeast Asia. However, in its return journey, it sank before it could reach its destination in the Middle East, possibly via Hadramaut, an important port in the Middle East. Most of the Arab Peranakan communities in Penang, Melaka and Singapore are descendants of these ancient merchants from Hadramaut.
The Belitung Shipwreck remains the most important discovery of the ancient Maritime Silk Route. It transported 60,000 pieces of ceramic Changsha ware from the Tang Dynasty for Arabian markets. From the Levant and the Middle East, it brought Persian and Syrian gold and silver cups for the Chinese market. We know that this global trade, between Muslims of the Abbasid Caliphate and Chinese of the Tang Dynasty, marked the Golden Age of Islam, Buddhism and Daosim during the third Caliphate from 762AD. The Caliphate shifted its capital from Damascus to Baghdad, where an even more cosmopolitan multicultural Islam was born.
According to Simon Worall writing for the National Geographic, the Tang Dynasty, was extremely prosperous because it was cosmopolitan, opening its borders to as far as Persia, and mastering world trade routes while outsourcing its defence with Turkish allies. These great civilisational centres welcomed cultural diversity. The dynasties were economic powerhouses which remain unrivalled for centuries.
This is a remarkable beginning to economic globalisation and the borderless world, where multilateral trade and commerce, science, mathematics, metallurgy, technology, culture and religion could survive through friendship; and diplomatic exchanges bring wealth to millions of people of diverse ethnicities and faith. It is no wonder that the Peranakan Muslims, of Persian, Hadrami, Arab, Turkish, India and Southeast Asian origins, built up the entrepôt cities of the Straits of Malacca and the islands of the Malay Archipelago; from the 11th century in East Sumatra, 15th century in Melaka, to the 18th century in George Town, Penang.
With this kind of history shared amongst Muslim, Buddhist, Daoist and Hindu communities around the world, George Town in Penang can claim to be an 18th century centre of the known world, like Damascus, Baghdad and Xian once were. Today, sad to say, these cities have been destroyed or overrun by civil wars, sectarianism and interventionist foreign policies.
Penang however, continues to uphold its vibrant, cosmopolitan, metropolis character. Lebuh Acheh, in George Town’s heritage enclave, formerly referred to as ‘Malay Town’ in Popham’s 1798 map was known as Serambi Mekkah, the ‘Gateway to Mecca’. Pilgrims from the whole of Southeast Asia, including Borneo and South India gathered here to make the long journey by steamer ships to Jeddah and overland to Mekkah.
The faith of Baghdad and Damascus, where pilgrims used to journey across to Mekkah, now hangs on a fragile thread as Muslim nations are challenged by militancy. As these nation-states are overrun, local populations displaced, ancient heritage cities reduced to rubble, and heritage artefacts looted, indigenous communities can no longer shape their unique identities or support the civil societies which once brought vibrancy, peace and stability to the region.
We cannot afford to allow this to happen to Malaysia, a democratic nation which has always taken pride in its cultural diversity. Diversity and multiculturalism, with each ethnic community contributing in different ways to the growth of its economy has marked the remarkable progress of Malaysia.
Malaysian politics is divisive but is no different from any other democratic nation. However, it poses challenges to constructive engagement in change and transformation from within.
We should find strength in these differences rather than weakness. We should nurture heterogeneity rather than force an artificial homogeneity by imposing psychological barriers and surreal walls to fan hostilities from within. Our plural laws have to accommodate all ethnic populations, and our economic engine churned towards a share of global wealth through solid investments and multilateral trade agreements.
We admit these are difficult times as the rising tide of neo-conservatism and economic nationalism engulfs Europe and the U.S., signalled by Brexit and ‘Trumpnomics’. We simply cannot afford a domino process to take place in Southeast Asia, and shape the societal and economic reality of Malaysia.
We are borderless and our strength has been in the contributions of indigenous people and migrants, shaping the past, present and future of this vibrant economy. Our destiny is shared and our national wealth can only be determined by ourselves, how we stand firm to share our resources fairly, and strive to end mismanagement of national resources, cronyism and corruption. We are an independent democratic nation-state, with an indispensable role in ASEAN, APEC and the UN. We must stand firm and overcome our political and cultural differences to continue our national prosperity.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Penang is a buzz word in social media and global tourism. Everyone wants to have a ‘bit’ of Penang and in the case of some foreign investors, a ‘bigger bite’ than others, since they have millions to invest in our heritage. Most heritage cities develop the international dynamics of demographic change and ownership after a few years of inscription as UNESCO World Heritage Site. We request property-owning Penangites to resist temptations of property speculation. On our part, we urge the Federal Government to establish a National Heritage Trust where buildings, parks and natural resources of intrinsic heritage value are acquired by the Trust, and where grants are made available for locals to restore their premises.
We recognise and acknowledge the contributions of the Jawi Peranakans, Orang Tanjung, Malays, Indian Muslims, Chinese and Hindu communities in working to restore and revitalise their premises in George Town and Penang. Penang’s Malay heritage villages, such as Batu Uban and Tanjong Tokong, can be improved further through restoration efforts, written histories, publications, signage and pedestrian walkaways. We urge the Federal government to realise their heritage value, and to bring in the funds.
We also acknowledge the history of George Town’s old kampungs in the Core Zone of the World Heritage Site - amongst them; Kampung Che Long, now referred to as ‘Armenian Street Park’; Kampung Tuan Guru, now the location of the Youth Centre at Lebuh Acheh; Kampung Kolam, the site of the original homestead of Kapitan Kader Maidin Merican, the leader of the Chulias who initiated the building of Masjid Kaptan Keling; and Kampung Kaka, the village of the Malabar Muslims.
On the part of the Penang Government, George Town World Heritage Incorporated, as the State Agency for Heritage, has improved the cultural content of these areas through signage, brochures on heritage trials, and other documentation. Notable amongst these are the comprehensive Muslim Heritage trail and publications researched and documented by Professor Dato’ Datin Wazir Jahan Karim. There are also the Lebuh Armenian-Lebuh Cannon-Lebuh Acheh (LACALA) Heritage trail and publications researched and documented by our City Councillor, Ms Khoo Salma Nasutin. The Penang State Government is proud to have the support of such distinguished members of the Muslim community. We are delighted to note that the publications, produced in both Bahasa Malaysia and English, have been very well received by the local community and visitors.
The Penang State Government also seeks to promote the Boria, Bangsawan, Ghazal Party and other unique institutions of the Peranakan Muslim performing arts to the level of “State theatre”. However, veterans, artists, activists and anthropologists must work with us to upgrade these to the next level of excellence.
Every year, George Town World Heritage Incorporated through the George Town Festival, seeks closer collaborations with Muslim local performing arts groups, with the goal of raising standards of performances, and to provide the competitive edge to reach the next level of par excellence in order to take these Muslim performances to the international arena.
In conclusion, I am happy to be informed that the Penang Jawi Peranakan Heritage Society is making its mark in the State as a multicultural voluntary entity. I urge other heritage societies to follow the Penang Jawi Peranakan Heritage Society’s lead, and to assume a more plural and progressive character in projects and activities.
Societies, institutions and agencies which began with a multicultural agenda should take strength from this, rather than devolve into a homogenous concern of a particular ethnic or sub-ethnic entity. We should share our resources, collaborate better, and hold more joint activities and cultural exchanges. In this way, we can preserve the essence of George Town, as a living-multicultural UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as a top global destination for travellers.
On this note, I declare the Symposium open.