Malaysia is inhabited by a rich collection of cultures and diverse religions and prides itself on being a multi-racial nation.
Although the majority of Malaysia’s population are Malays who follow the Islamic religion (around 61 per cent), many ethnic groups follow different religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Sikhism. In fact the constitution dictates religious freedom for people of many faiths.
Promoting religious harmony is a priority for the Government and relations between various religious groups among the general population are harmonious. Christmas, Chinese New Year and Deepavali have all been declared national holidays alongside Islamic holidays.
Subsequently there are many important places of worship such as temples and churches, mosques found in close proximity to each other and can be visited by those taking a trip to Malaysia.
Christianity is practiced by about nine percent of Malaysians. Early international trade played a crucial role in bringing this religion to Malaysia and churches began being built with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1511, the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1786.
One of the most religious places in Malaysia for Christians is St George’s Church in George Town, Penang. Located on Lubuh Farquar, this church is the oldest Anglican Church in Southeast Asia.
This notable church was completed in 1818 at the request of the Colonial Chaplain, Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings, a well-known educationist. Robert Smith, an engineer and landscape artist was also heavily involved in its conceptualization. It was then consecrated in 11 May 1819 by the Bishop of Calcutta, Thomas Fanshawe Middleton.
Under the guidance of Rev. Hutchings, the church congregation was first made up of members of the British Colonialists but soon word spread and locals started attending services as well.
The church’s architecture was the brainchild of Captain Robert N. Smith of Madras Engineers. The most impressive element is the imposing Grecian columns which line the front entrance which were designed to inspire visitors of other classical Greek structures such as the Pantheon and the Temple to Athene. The pavilion which lies in the lawn also enhances the Grecian ambiance.
The brick structure has a solid plastered stone base. When the architect realized that the originally intended Madras-style roof was not suitable for Penang’s climate, a gable shaped roof was built instead. The octagonal shaped steeple forms the apex of the roof and can be seen from afar making it a focal point for the city.
During World War II and the Japanese occupation, church services were suspended until church leaders transferred them to Mission Church and then to Wesley Church.
Once the Japanese Empire fell, services were resumed much to the elation of the congregation. Today services are held twice every Sunday; at 8:30am and 10.30am. Unfortunately after the war, looters removed many of the plaques and furnishings and 24 life-sized marble figures were destroyed.
A grove of Mahogany trees that provide shady shelter to visitors were planted in 1885 and were grown from seedlings from India. The ones that remain today are survivors from the damage caused during the war.
In line with Malaysia’s commitment to conserving and protecting its heritage buildings and important places of worship, the church was declared one of 50 National Treasures in 2007. It then underwent a full restoration in 2009 to help the church regain it former glory although it had weathered time rather well.
If you are planning a visit to Malaysia, a heritage walking tour around Penang to see its historical quarter is an absolute must-do. The location of St George Church is in a convenient location, within close walking distance to the Goddess of Mercy Temple and the Kapitan Keling Mosque, alluding to the harmonious balance that the various religious places of worship in Malaysia live by.