AN 800m-long street in the heart of Penang’s George Town may well hold the secret to achieving racial and religious harmony, the increasingly elusive goal of multi-racial Malaysia.
The "Street of Harmony" starts with the commanding St George's Church at the start of Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, and ends at Acheen Street Mosque at the end at the junction of Lebuh Cannon and Lebuh Acheh.
Between the Anglican church and the Lebuh Acheh mosque are other 19th century houses of worship – the Taoist Goddess of Mercy Temple, the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, and the Taoist Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple.
Settled right in their midst are the ancestral homes of the early 20th century influential Chinese clans, the Khoo Kongsi and Yap Kongsi.
A place of trade and refuge
Think City chairman Dr Anwar Fazal, who suggested the harmony branding for the heritage street years ago, said Penang had a great asset that told amazing stories of how people of different races and religions came together to build new lives.
Thai Catholics, Indian Muslims traders, Chinese migrant workers and traders, and Armenians seeking refuge from war all arrived in Penang looking for safe haven, business opportunities and a better future.
Anwar, a Penang Heritage Trust trustee, said the state was a meeting point of different cultures, religions and beliefs.
"Penang had a place for everyone. The city gave its residents and visitors a sense of security, universality and connection with their brethren," he said.
The different communities built their houses of worship and lives along and around Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, formerly known as Pitt Street. It was the main street in colonial George Town, where businesses flourished and people lived in peace.
"Each ethnicity and faith had multiple variations. The Muslims came from India, China, the Middle East and Indonesia; the Indians from different parts of India.
"The Chinese came with their Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and with various dialects. You can find every expression of Buddhism and Hinduism in Penang," he said of the melting pot of cultures and beliefs that existed in the state.
Although the people were so different, they had intra- and inter-ethnic, religious and business cooperations since the beginning, as well as intermarriages.
"There was very little, compared to today’s standards, of any kind of ethnic conflict. The ocean of Penang was always multicultural and multi-religious with happy engagements among the different communities," said Anwar.
It was the colonial powers that institutionalised racism, he said, citing how the famous Dr Wu Lien-The, the first medical student of Chinese descent to study at Cambridge University, could not serve as a doctor simply because he was not European.
"The people were not racist. With the differences even within their own families, communities and faiths, the people had built-in respect for diversity," said Anwar, who also chairs the Malaysian Interfaith Network.
Great City of Harmony
Anwar, 76, grew up in that very diversity, living on the top floor of his father's textile shop at the corner of Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling and Lebuh Chulia.
"What we still see today is natural to us, but it is rare because elsewhere in the world, something like this would have been obliterated after some time.
"You still hear church and temple bells, prayer calls from the mosques, and smell the burning joss sticks and incense at the temples. You see street processions and celebrations by the different communities at festivals.
"Even our food have adapted with each others' cuisines to create flavours unique to Penang, like the Penang laksa."
Anwar said it was this rare and rich diversity that helped earn George Town its Unesco world heritage recognition in July 2008. The city also greatly impressed the late Indian president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who toured the Street of Harmony in August that year.
"At the St George's Church, he recited a poem of peace by Saint Francis of Assisi at the pulpit. At the Goddess of Mercy temple, he placed joss sticks into the incense burner and read out the Chinese analects.
"At the end of the visit, he said he never had such an experience. He said we have a real school of humanity for the world in Penang, and it should be celebrated," Anwar recalled from the tour he guided.
Following his visit, Dr Kalam penned the poem "The Great City of Harmony", paying tribute to George Town, which he praised as an integrated spiritual centre.
Celebrate diversity and humanity to fight bigotry
Anwar, a well-known activist who won the 1982 Right Livelihood Award (popularly called the Alternative Nobel Prize) for promoting and protecting public interest, said when people fought for common causes, they created a spirit of humanity that transcended race, religion and other differences.
"All over the world and in every major religion, there is bigotry and racism; manipulations by people with political intentions, domineering personalities, and a sense of egomania.
"As a Muslim, the best things are the examples by Prophet Muhammad, who taught us the universal core values of peace, compassion, justice and treating others properly."
Anwar’s comments came in contrast to recent reports where a group of Muslim protesters threatened to demonstrate against Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng for breaking fast with other Muslims during Ramadan.
Jalan Mengkuan PAS branch chief Azmil Jaafar said Lim had no business breaking fast with Muslims when he did not fast himself.
In response, Anwar urged Malaysians to return to the spirit of the Rukunegara, a declaration of national philosophy instituted by royal proclamation on Merdeka Day in 1970, a year after the May 13 racial riots.
The first part of the declaration touches on unity in society, a democratic way of life, a just society where prosperity is fairly enjoyed, guaranteeing a liberal approach towards Malaysia's rich and varied cultural traditions, and building a progressive society.
The second part is about believing in God, being loyal to king and country, upholding the constitution, the rule of law and having good behaviour and morality.
"Many don't read the complete document. They just take the second half.
“But the first five about celebrating diversity, harmony, justice and caring for each other must not be forgotten.”
Anwar said that Penang’s unique spirit that truly celebrated diversity was a rare gem, and one to protect at all cost.
"You can experience the celebratory feeling for the vibrancy and diversity of Penang,” he said.
“We must realise what a great thing we have, and not take it for granted."