PETALING JAYA, 19 Nov 2008: The Penang Education Department (JPNPP) remains reluctant to support social integration programmes aimed at improving students’ understanding of cultural differences, despite strong urgings from successive state governments and various organisations.
In May 2006 and July 2008, head of the JPNPP’s religious education sector, Ustaz Umar Aziz, signed directives to public schools, restricting student participation in programmes that included guided walking tours of Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.
The thoroughfare is informally known as “Harmony Street” because it accommodates the places of worship of four major religions – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity.
When contacted, Umar told The Nut Graph he was merely following orders. “I only signed the circulars,” he said.
Asked whether the JPNPP would support future programmes, he said it was up to the current department director.
Numerous attempts to reach the director, Ibrahim Mohamad, for comment on the department’s stand for future social integration programmes were unsuccessful.
The Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) and Arts-ED developed the World Religions Walk and introduced it on 8 Feb 2006 as a guided walking tour of Harmony Street. The aim was to show young Penang-ites “the ethical principles held in common by the major world religions”, and the island’s “history of peaceful religious co-existence and cultural exchange”.
This walk was part of the Penang Global Ethic Project, an initiative spearheaded by the Malaysian Interfaith Network, Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation and Universiti Sains Malaysia.
However, a JPNPP circular issued in May 2006 informed school heads that the project had not received its approval and cautioned against participating in it.
By that date, some 400 students from 13 different schools had already taken part in the project.
The then Gerakan-led state government reprimanded the department for this decision. Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon, who chaired the State Education Committee at that time, summoned then JPNPP director Ahmad Husain to explain the department’s rejection of the programme.
In a New Straits Times report on 19 May 2006, Toh was quoted as saying, “I asked him to explain the department’s rejection of the programme. It was aimed at promoting mutual respect and awareness among students about the different religions and cultures in our country.”
“I am very disappointed. The programme was supposed to have been a good and educational one. It ought to be encouraged,” he added.
On 25 July 2008, the Harmony Street Walk, a guided tour similar to the 2006 walk, was held in conjunction with celebrations of George Town’s confirmation as a Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisations) World Heritage Site. Participants of the walk included dignitaries and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.
According to Arts-ED programme officer Chen Yoke Pin, in its application to the JPNPP, the community-based arts and heritage collective had requested permission for public school students to take part in the walk.
It is learnt that in a circular on 24 July 2008, the JPNPP only allowed 10 students from each school to attend the event’s opening ceremony, because it did not want students spending so much of their school hours on non-school programmes.
“For sure we don’t agree with this decision,” Komtar state assemblyperson Ng Wei Aik told The Nut Graph. However, he said, the state government did not have any authority over the JPNPP, which is a body that functions under the purview of the federal Education Ministry.
PHT president Dr Choong Sim Poey believed that the state government was not entirely uninfluential in this matter. “If you are a state government and you make a strong stand, then the issue is going to be negotiated,” he said.
Arts-ED chairperson Janet Pillai confirmed that Arts-ED plans to hold Harmony Street Walks in 2009. “We might try to adjust the walks to accommodate sensitivities as well as create our own informal dialogues with stakeholders to share perceptions, before we offer the walks again,” she said.