Penang has become the first state in the country to establish a state executive council portfolio to handle religious matters relating to the non-Islamic religions like Buddhisms, Christianity, Sikhism, Taoism and Hinduism.
The high-profile Exco Non-Islamic Religious Affairs Committee is headed by Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng himself, with Deputy Chief Minister (II) Prof Dr P. Ramasamy as the deputy chairman.
The proposal for the committee was tabled by Ramasamy at the recent weekly state executive council meeting and approved.
The establishment of the exco committee marks the high point in the state's celebration of the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week this week.
According to Guan Eng, the exco portfolio seeks to promote diversity and positive human interaction on cultural, religious and social spheres, matters which are consistent with George Town as a UNESCO World Heritage city.
"Despite our differences, we are united by our common aspirations for good practices and universal moral values of peace, justice, moderation and harmony. Co-operation not confrontation, mutual respect not tolerance, and understanding not ignorance will be the governing creed of this new Penang exco portfolio," Guan Eng said.
As a demonstration of his sincere and pragmatic approach to the matter of racial and religious harmony, Guan Eng has offered to co-operate and work with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to prevent any extremist or militant groups from threatening the unity and security of the country.
Najib had expressed similar hopes when he addressed the United Nations 65th general assembly last year.
Guan Eng said that the Penang state government is concerned at the existence of extremist groups which seek to racialise every event for their own selfish interests.
He pointed out that the Pakatan Rakyat-controlled Penang state government has been under siege with constant unwarranted attacks of being anti-Malay even if a simple and small matter involves merely 10% Malays or one Malay out of 10 affected parties.
Guan Eng urged the people to embrace the future by embracing every Malay, Indian, Chinese, Kadazan and Iban, as Malaysian brothers and sisters, Malaysian sons and daughters, so that "we grow together, learn together and enjoy the success together".
Guan Eng must be given full support for dealing with the inter-faith issue sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than mere rhetorical and theoretical considerations.
The setting-up of the high-profile Exco Non-Islamic Religious Affairs Committee in Penang is certainly a very positive practical first step in dealing with and managing the most highly sensitive inter-racial and inter-religious potency in our pluralistic multi-faceted society.
In every human society throughout the world and throughout history, the various religions and their theologies, ethics, and traditions influence everything else, shaping socio-economic and political ideas and ideals, attitudes and institutions. Religious teachings and traditions shape how people respond to each other in their daily social inter-course and interaction in the community at large.
Most of us jealously preserve and protect our own religious beliefs and traditions as generally they symbolize our essential identities, theologically, historically, culturally, socially, and even politically. Ultimately, our religious faiths symbolize for us as communities and individuals our dignity as persons and our very souls.
Hence, in our multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-idelogical society, the only way for us to live in peace and hormony is for us to live in peaceful co-existence, recognizing, understanding, accepting, respecting, and even enduring patiently and lovingly with each other.
Obviously, there are some of us who believe that we must "share our faith" with those whom we consider "lost", and will go all out to convert people of the other faiths.
Of course, such motivation to bring about redemption for those whom we believe are doomed may not be bad or wrong, but the way we "share our faith" or propagate our religious beliefs must take into consideration the fundamental human and divine rights of others to believe and practise their particular faiths.
In the preocess of seeking to evangelise or seeking to win others to our own faith, we must not run down, denounce or condemn the religious systems of others. About the only legitimate way we can share our faith is just to tell and explain our faith to those who are willing to hear, period. It is certainly not at all right and proper to deprecate and desecrate the religious beliefs of others.
Hence, I believe the most vital tool in the promotion of religious harmony among people of various faiths and belief systems is dialogue.
Guan Eng's Exco Non-Islamic Religious Affairs Committee should perhaps consider holding regular roundtable dialogues for the leaders of the various religious groups in the state as a mean to promote understanding and fellowship.
The issues to be discussed should be those of common universal ethical values and matters of common interests in the socio-economic and political fields.
Such a roundtable dialogue could be held whenever there are some socio-religious issues that cause confusion and controversy among the people. For example, the recent controversy over the Valentine's Day celebration could easily have been resolved following a declaration by a roundtable consensus.
Actually, the Valentine's Day controvery was not a real issue but exploited by some silly brainless people to gain public attention and promote their narrow political-religious agenda. The storm in the Valentine tea cup stirred up by the not-so-intelligent and not-so-informed smart alexes could have simply be dismissed as a petty trivial matter.
One significant way for a plural society like Malaysia to cultivate, promote and develop interfaith harmony is through education. Much of the confusion and conflicts concerning religion is caused by the lack of understanding and appreciation of the real teachings and practices of each other's religion.
Hence, I believe that have religious studies as a compusory subject in school could help promote understanding, appreciation and acceptance of each other's faith.
Currently, only the Muslim students have the privilege to attend lessons on their faith from primary to secondary school level. It is time to make the study of comperative religions a subject for all students, so that our young people will grow up with a balanced atttitude towards people of other faith. And to ensure there is no accusations or charges of deceptive presentation of the various religions, the textbooks for the various faiths should be written and recommended by the religious authorities of the faiths concerned.
There are several things that Guan Eng's Exco Non-Islamic Religious Affairs Committee should initially do.
First, it should draft a code of interfaith relationship, listing out the various areas where religious leaders can jointly work together, and the sensitivities of each religious faiths.
Secondly, it should appoint a panel of religious experts to monitor the state of interfaith relationship in Penang.
Thirdly, it should hold an annual interfaith conference over one weekend, inviting respected world religious leaders to share and talk on issues of common universal religious-moral values and practices.
Finally, it should embark of an information cum education campaign among the people by publishing a weekly state government newspaper to let them know what the state government is doing. The mainstream media have not been fair to the Pakatan Rakyat-controlled states, and have been ignoring important messages by the elected leaders of the state. For example, Guan Eng's Chinese New Year was not given any coverage in the mainstream newspapers.
Guan Eng's Exco Non-Islamic Religious Affairs Committee deserves the support of all the people, especially the religious authorities of the various faiths. Our plural Malaysian society is currently in a frail state, with fragile grip on the racial-religious reality we are in. Hence, we must support Guan Eng's very noble effort at seeking to bring together the people of all faiths to live and co-exist in peace and harmony.