penang roaming

It is a favourite question. No one has ever given me the right answer.

What is the only country in the world where the four global religions (Islam-Buddhism-Hinduism-Christianity) are each represented by at least 10% of the population? Yes, I know the official statistics suggest a different story (this happens in many countries, for good reason), but I've had trusted local leaders tell me this is true. Even if it isn't true, it is so close to being true that it is worth persisting. Plus I cannot think of another country that even comes close to sharing this characteristic. So I ask again...

What is the only country in the world where the four global religions (Islam-Buddhism-Hinduism-Christianity) are each represented by at least 10% of the population?

Malaysia. 50:25:15:10, or something close to this ratio. Go to 'Harmony Street' in George Town (Penang) and you can feel this reality as you throw the proverbial blanket over a church, a mosque, together with Buddhist and Hindu temples, all within metres of each other.

St George's, on 'Harmony Street' - reputed to be the oldest church in SE Asia

The locals are rightly proud of this heritage of peaceful coexistence. However, there can still be some serious censoring going on - like when we watched the Ben-Hur movie, only to find the lead character's encounter with the crucified Christ, near the end, deleted. It made for a sudden, awkward transition. Ben-Hur went from wanting to destroy Messala in the chariot race to hugging him, without any explanation of how this transformation takes place.

A 10 minute walk from Harmony Street is the Protestant Cemetery. I love a good cemetery. One of the first posts I ever wrote was on funeral spirituality because I find funerals - like cemeteries - to be vehicles God uses to help realign my life to the things that matter. We struck the one day of the week with a guided tour. It is an unusual cemetery in that the graves all appear to be crowded in the middle, but this is because Japanese bombs landed at either end of the cemetery in WW2, creating the two grassy 'un-graved' spaces we have today.

The grave of an early Chinese Christian from the 19th century.

The guide took us through the different communities represented in the cemetery. Chinese. Armenian. German. British. American. Even a cluster of missionary graves. The sadness stands out. So many early deaths. So many multiple deaths, often caused by 'jungle fever', or malaria. At one point the guide exclaimed, "I bet they wished they'd never come!" But this misses the motivation for the missionaries especially. The power of the gospel and the call of God into the mission of God drew them into a life of sacrifice. The guide needs to draw closer to one gravestone in particular (with someone making the font more legible!) and meditate on one verse in particular. Revelation 12.11.

Revelation 12.11: invisible in print, but visible in life.

Any visit to an old cemetery in this part of the world wakes you up to the reality of colonialism. The mingling of colonial powers and indigenous peoples is a great fascination. Places like Sri Lanka had the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, followed by the British - with the remains of each still visible. Goa is another case study - as is Kochi and now Penang, where the story goes back to Francis Light and the arrival of the British in the mid-18th century to create a new outpost for the East India Company.

In deference to the evils of colonialism, here is Francis Light's back - and not his front!

The Eastern & Oriental (sic) Hotel, the fruit of an Armenian entrepreneurial spirit.

Colonialism is seen as the great evil today. I read Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace during the week and was reminded again of this evil in the way the British built an army out of its subject peoples (for example, Indians) to fight their wars for them. Shocking! But the "colonial peoples are all bad; indigenous peoples are all good" narrative is a bit sloppy. Scholars should do better. It needs more nuance. As the Czech Havel and the Russian Solzhenitsyn reminded us in the build-up to the break-up of the Soviet Union, the line of evil runs through every individual heart - including the hearts of indigenous peoples, I might add. It is so easy to be self-righteous in our critique of colonialism. With your evil heart, with my evil heart, are we so sure on what side of the fence we'd have been, if we had lived back then?! You won't be able to convince me of your inherent goodness. While hearts need to be educated, what they really need is to be transformed and that is one reason why I am a Christian. I believe the gospel is the key to this transformation, with people becoming the most authentic version of themselves, even culturally, as they encounter Christ. This may have happened more frequently with both colonial and indigenous peoples than we are led to believe...

After a demanding year thus far, Barby and I were taking a few days holiday.

We enjoyed the steep fast trip, by train, up Penang Hill (800m) and then the steep slow trip, by walking, down the 5km motor road - so steep that my knees couldn't cope and I walked much of the last kilometre backwards in order to get some relief.

We enjoyed George Town's famous 'street-art', inspired by a Lithuanian artist, Zacharevic.

 We enjoyed the architecture, watching the newer, global towering over the older, local.

We enjoyed the beautifully restored Cheong Fatt Tze, or Blue, Mansion:

We struck the one day when one of the owners - who restored the building - gave the tour.
There is no substitute for informed, passionate oral communication.

We enjoyed the Batu Ferringhi beach - and the coastline around George Town.

We enjoyed the mature trees - and the Tropical Spice Garden (but no photos to show for it!).

We enjoyed the people, always so beautiful...

We struck out a bit with the famed Penang cuisine, but did delight (more than once) in a local, non-alcoholic (just in case my friends are wondering) nutmeg drink!

nice chatting


PS. Botanist Barby even managed to name a new plant, the FIFA Fern:


Tim Bulkeley said…
I had to check the stats to be sure that Sri Lanka does not come close, but I guess under 8% (for Christians) isn't really close. I was also surprised that there are so few Hindus in Singapore, given the number of people of Indian or Sri Lankan Tamil origin that there seem to be there.
Paul Windsor said…
Good spotting, Tim. I think that Sri Lanka is the next one to come close to meeting the criteria. I almost mentioned it because, as you observe, it is closer than people realise. I know you've been there a few times. When you have the four global religions in their present mingling with the three colonial powers (almost 100 years each!) from their past in such a small country, it makes for a fascinating place and people - doesn't it? best wishes, Paul
Tim Bulkeley said…
Indeed it does make a delightful and fascinating mix, we will be back at CTS again in September (both doing a course) and having a bit of holiday between the teaching blocks. It's partly the natural beauty, partly the great mix of students at CTS, partly the delicious food, and partly the (sort of) family connection. The big question is whether/how well the country can get past the echoes of the civil war and really build afresh. Since Christians though only 8% or so come from all the main ethnic groups they may have a special role to play in helping facilitate that future...

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