HOW TO EXPLAIN THE ugly religious incident in downtown Penang? The economy? Politics? It began when Muslims attending prayers complained about noise from a Hindu shrine nearby and asked them to move. State authorities allocated a new site less than a kilometer away, and in late March Hindu devotees gathered to move the shrine. That's when Muslims began hurling rocks and taunts, according to bystanders. "It was intimidating," says a state assemblyman who spoke to witnesses.
The next evening a group of Muslims prepared to march to the new Hindu site. Police managed to head off a clash and arrested 94 "troublemakers" armed with Molotov cocktails and parangs (knives). Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim, who hails from Penang state, persuaded leaders of both sides to shake hands.
According to a senior official, politics may have played a part. A few months ago the owner of the land asked the city to remove the shrine because it was an illegal structure. The authorities prevaricated. During campaigning for internal division elections for the United Malays National Organization (dominant party in the federal coalition) one of the challengers in a three-way fight reportedly backed the Muslims' complaint. Concluded the state assemblyman: "Some say local leaders took advantage of the situation."
-- Reported by Santha Oorjitham / Kuala Lumpur
(Petaling Jaya, Tuesday): The rioting in Penang last Friday over a mosque-temple dispute was the latest in a series of blows to Malaysia’s international image as a model multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural nation which is peaceful, tolerant, modern and progressive.
The government should take a very serious view of the rioting in Penang last Friday and it should establish an independent commission of inquiry to pin-point the causes of the rioting, the trouble-makers and to prevent any such recurrence.
The independent commission of inquiry should also consider whether the government had adopted a "smart" information policy when it ordered a mass media blackout of the incident for over a week which gave room for all sorts of rumours to circulate both inside Penang and the rest of the country.
The Sun today reported that the Kampong Rawa, Jalan Pattani mosque committee had appealed to all Muslims to remain calm and practise tolerance towards their fellow Malaysians.
Its secretary, Ahmad Johari Hamzah said the rioting last Friday resulted from the ringing of a bell by Hindu devotees at the nearby Sri Raja Raja Muthuraiveeran Temple which affected Muslim worshippers, causing the situation to go "out of control".
This version cannot be correct as the temple concerned had already been relocated by last Friday’s prayers. The question that must be answered by an independent commission of inquiry is why there was a rioting when the mosque-temple issue had already been resolved, with the temple relocated to another site.
Ahmad Johari Hamzah estimated that most of the 5,000 to 7,000 people who gathered at the mosque last Friday, compared to the usual 800, were from Kedah, Perak, Kelantan and Trengganu "because they heard rumours that the mosque had been razed and our people stabbed". He said "Nothing like that had happened".
This raises another question: Those who came from outside Penang to the mosque would have seen with their own eyes that the mosque had not been razed and should have been told that no one had been stabbed. Furthermore, they should have been informed that the mosque-temple issue had been resolved with the relocation of the temple. This makes the rioting after the prayers at the mosque last Friday even more inexcusable, justifying a full and independent inquiry into the whole series of events and the handling of the whole incident.
(Petaling Jaya, Sunday): The statement by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in Jeli yesterday that the government had told PAS and DAP not to politicise the mosque-temple issue in Penang which had resulted in rioting last Friday is most disappointing and offending.
Such a statement implied that the DAP had tried to "politicise" the issue when the DAP had given topmost priority to the preservation of inter-religious calm, peace and harmony, to the extent that DAP had withheld publicly our reservations about the handling of the week-long dispute involving the Sri Raja Raja Mathurai Veeran temple and the Kampung Rawa mosque.
On Friday morning, I telephoned and spoke to the Penang Chief Police Officer, Deputy Commissioner Datuk Abdul Hamid Mustapha, to convey to him the DAP’s grave concern about the tensions caused by the temple-mosque dispute and I was assured that all measures would be taken to ensure that the situation would not get out of hand.
I was therefore most shocked when I disembarked at the Subang International Airport in an afternoon flight from Penang later the same day that riots had broken out in the Sungai Pinang area.
Yesterday, I flew back to Penang and joined a Penang DAP delegation to meet the Penang Chief Police Officer over the issue and we appealed to all people to remain calm and to help restore peace and harmony.
Penang DAP leaders had never tried to "politicise" the mosque-temple issue in the sense of trying to turn it to the DAP’s political advantage, as we were always conscious of the critical importance of handling the dispute sensitively and delicately, in a way which would not disturb inter-religious peace and harmony and give Penang and Malaysia another bad international image after a series of adverse publicities recently.
The government must be bold to admit that there had been a failure in crisis management when it could not prevent rioting on Friday, especially as the temple had already been resited.
For the eight days that the mosque-temple issue simmered in Penang, there was another information deficit as a result of an official media blackout of the dispute, caused by a directive by the Information Ministry to the press.
Malaysians were kept completely in the dark about the dispute as far as the printed and electronic media are concerned, but there was no way in the era of information technology to suppress information that there is a mosque-temple dispute in Penang which is serious enough for news about it to be officially censored by the authorities.
The net result is that it gave a field day for all sorts of rumours to fly around the country which made the mosque-temple dispute even more serious and scarifying.
The government should consider whether proper information about the mosque-temple dispute rather than a total media blackout would have been more conducive to the avoidance of a situation resulting in a rioting on Friday.
The Prime Minister should ensure that he is given a full and proper briefing about sensitive incidents like the mosque-temple dispute so as not to give the public the impression that he is diverting attention from the real problems and issues involved.
We are concerned that in the aftermath of the mosque-temple dispute and the rioting last Friday, the fabric of inter-racial peace and harmony should be swiftly and fully restored and we are prepared to lend our fullest help and co-operation to defuse racial and religious sensitivities but we do not need gratuitous as well as baseless advice such as asking the DAP not to "politicise" the mosque-temple dispute in Penang - when our words and deed are proof of our highest sense of national responsibility on the matter.
(Petaling Jaya, Saturday): A Penang DAP delegation, comprising DAP National Deputy Chairman and MP for Jelutong, Karpal Singh, Penang DAP State Chairman, Teoh Teik Huat, Penang DAP State Secretary, Chow Kuan Yeow, Penang State Assemblywoman for Bukit Lancang, Chong Eng, the Penang DAP Political Education Director N. Balasundram and myself, met the Penang Chief Police Officer, Deputy Commissioner Datuk Abdul Hamid Mustapha at the Penang Police Hqrs this morning for a briefing on the latest situation in Penang after the rioting yesterday.
Datuk Abdul Hamid said that the situation was under control. After the briefing, we visited the former and present site of the Sri Raja Raja Mathurai Veeran temple. The dispute arising from the Sri Raja Raja Mathurai Veeran temple and the nearby Kampung Rawa mosque for over a week was the cause of religious sentiments and the rioting yesterday.
The first priority is the restoration of calm, peace and harmony and I call on all concerned to help the authorities to bring about the return of such normalcy in the Penang state.
The police should give assurance to everyone that they would give protection so that no persons need fear for their safety or those of their loved ones.
Although the restoration of calm, peace and harmony should be the priority objective at the moment, there is a need to review what had happened for the past week as to whether there could have been a better handling of the dispute between the mosque and the temple, particularly in providing information to the public, so as to defuse it and prevent a rioting from taking place. A
The authorities should also seriously examine why a rioting could not have been averted yesterday when the temple was already relocated to a new site about half a mile away on Thursday night.
*Lim Kit Siang - Malaysian Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Democratic Action Party Secretary-General &
From: Utusan Express 28 March 98
PENANG March 27 - Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has warned parties trying to harp on the issue of temple-next-to-mosque in Kampung Rawa here that they would face stern government action.
''The issue is considered closed,'' he said.
The government, he said, will not hesitate to take action against people whom he branded as opportunists trying to capitalise on the issue. Speaking to reporters here, Anwar said it was actually a small issue but was blown out of proportion by certain parties.
''I therefore would like to strongly urge the local community not to entertain rumours, irresponsible and unfounded, and give a very stern, clear, stark warning that we will not tolerate any attempts to further aggravate the situation,'' Anwar said.
Anwar rushed here from Kulim, where he opened the Padang Serai Umno division delegates' meeting, upon being informed of a fight between a group from the mosque and another from the Raja-Raja Maduraiveeran temple. Both places of worship stand next to each other in Jalan Petani here. Anwar acknowledged there was tension and fighting between Malay and
''The matter has been settled wisely. Rumours have it that there was a major clash, there were fires,'' he said.
He categorically denied rumours of mosques and temples in Penang being burnt or of high death toll and large casualties.
Members of the Press who were at the scene saw police firing tear gas and using water cannons to disperse a group of youths who gathered in front of the mosque after Friday prayers. The youths turned violent and began throwing stones and missiles at the police. Police later detained several youths for questioning. ''The matter has been settled by the state government and the police who acted fast and firmly to prevent the incident from spreading,'' he said. Anwar said before rushing here he had discussed with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad full disclosure of the incident leaving no room for misinterpretation. The deputy prime minister also asked for cooperation from the opposition DAP and PAS not to politicise the incident. He said this is a security issue and Malaysia has to preserve her record of racial peace and harmony. ''We will try our level best and take great pride in ensuring that there is continued peace and harmony and tolerance among the various communities and religions in this country.
''We should take great pride in that and do not allow any force, inside or outside, to provoke or to incite,'' said Anwar.
He said it is unfortunate that the problem was exaggerated and ''forces outside this area had come in and continue to provoke and allowed the situation to aggravate with rumours of mosques being burnt and temples demolished.''
''Both these claims are wrong. I also learnt that the foreign media had made out the situation as beyond control and that there were serious casualties,'' he said. As for the background to the incident, Anwar said, what caused the problem was the proximity of the temple to the mosque but the parties involved have already agreed to relocate the temple.
''I'm very pleased and record my thanks and appreciation to both the mosque committee of Kampung Rawa and the temple committee representing the Hindu community that they have decided to solve this problem amicably with the assistance of the state government and police,'' he said.
The deputy prime minister said four of the youths involved in the fight were reportedly injured. Those detained by the police - several Malay and Indian youths - are being questioned, he said. ''I believe they will be released soon. They are being questioned to prevent the spreading of lies and rumours,'' he said. A Penang Hospital spokesman said two persons have been warded there for treatment.
Meanwhile in KUALA LUMPUR, MIC president Datuk Seri S.Samy Vellu thanked Anwar for taking the initiative to settle the problem. Samy Vellu, who is Works Minister, said he is happy that Anwar's intervention has brought about an amicable solution to Kampung Rawa residents.
It was unfortunate that such an incident occurred, tarnishing the country's record of continuous religious harmony and racial
Samy Vellu also thanked Penang Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon for his part in defusing the tension arising from the issue.
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