It was announced on 16 February 2011 that the Penang State Government has set up a new executive council (exco) to manages non-Muslim religious issues. The Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng himself heads this council that is governed by "co-operation not confrontation, mutual respect not tolerance, and understanding not ignorance."
He emphasized that, "Unlike the federal government’s Committee for the Promotion of Inter-religious Understanding and Harmony, this [new council] is not a committee but a full exco portfolio and reflects the state government’s genuine concerns on all religious matters."
The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) was encouraged by the initiative, while PKR and PAS had no issue with it.
Thomas Lee Seng Hock welcomed the initiative and wisely recommended four areas that the new exco should look into:
1) "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."
2) "Should appoint a panel of religious experts to monitor the state of interfaith relationship in Penang."
3) "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."
4) "Should embark on 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."
As expected, the Federal Government (BN-UMNO) officials reacted in most unreasonable ways.
For example, the former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said that the initiative is not necessary. Come think about it, what exactly does he know about what is necessary or not given his disappointing track record in handling religious matters.
The former Chief Minister of Penang Dr Koh Tsu Koon remarked that the initiative is a publicity stunt, while Mukhriz Mahathir said that it is an insult to Islam in Malaysia despite the fact that the BN-UMNO led Perak has the same initiative.
Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has since responded to all of them.
My take is that such initiative is a positive sign that the State Government is taking religious communities seriously. Not only that, more importantly, this shows that the State take 'religion' seriously.
It is expected that the new exco will raise a few questions for themselves in order to get it functioning. Some of them I hope will include the following:
1) What is the perimeter that the new exco should have? To be more specific, what kind of issues are under the exco's purview? Only those of which their subject matters are related to ritual such as the question of environmental ethics in relation to burning hell-money in the public, the question of interfaith ethic in relation to offering prayer to people from other faith in the public space, and etc?
Should issues related to communal practices be located within the perimeter of the exco? If yes, then the exco would need to take into consideration of the various communal practices that involve the public facility such as holding proselytization event at a commercial (eg. convention hall) and government building (eg. schools, university, colleges).
Should also issues involving religious and non-religious party be handled? How would the exco sees those who do not profess any religious faith? What place does this group have among the religious ones? This is important in cases where the faithful and the faithless clashes with one another, for eg. the construction of a religious building may cause some changes to a neighborhood to which the latter find offensive.
2) How much and what kind of power should the exco has? Should it acts only as a verbal moderator among the religious communities? Or should the exco plays also the role of legal moderator where it has the authority to adjudicate between different religious groups? And in the context of Malaysia, there is this issue of Islam. How should this new exco deal with the Islamic institution in the Penang State in cases like cross-religion conversion?
As I see it, this new exco plays a significant part in relating the religious communities with the secular yet religion-friendly government (contrast other secular governments that are hostile to religion). This initiative will bring both groups closer together. And so the religious communities need to learn the secular language in order to communicate with the government. While the secular government needs to learn religious language to communicate with the faithful. And I think it is the responsibility of the exco to formulate and facilitate two-way communication not only between the government and the religious, but also between the religious with the religious.
All these questions, in my view, command the very prospect of the exco.