Focus: Are Traditions Unwritten Rules? -- by Carolyn Khor

Focus: Are Traditions Unwritten Rules? -- by Carolyn Khor

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In a society steeped in culture and tradition, Penang is no stranger to superstitions, old wives' tales and supernatural beliefs. Rituals are performed and held steadfastly through the generations even though sometimes, its original meaning and intentions are lost.

Some traditions were absorbed into religions and have since been assimilated into religious events.Traditional practices like sacrificial offerings, burning of large joss sticks, 'hell notes' and effigies are difficult to part with as it has become a habitual practice where questions posed are bound to be met with stiff opposition.

While all religions respect and develop a protective attitude towards the environment, there is a need for deeper understanding of how the ecological system works. Consequently, more efforts should be directed to further promote awareness and outreach programmes in order to reinforce the importance of conserving and improving our natural surroundings.

"We should not stop anyone from expressing their freedom of religious expression and everyone should be free to carry on with their religious practice," said Pastor Sam Surendran, head of the northern chapter for the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship.

Religious freedom and its practices are enshrined in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia under Article 11, which states that:

(1) Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and, subject to Clause (4), to propagate it;

(4) State law and in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan, federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the
religion of Islam.

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The only way to accommodate traditional practices, according to Phee Boon Poh is through advice, awareness and education. Being the State Executive Councillor for Environment, Health and Public Welfare, Phee is aware that open burnings are being carried out at two levels - commercial and traditional.

"Straws from the paddy after harvesting or leftovers from areas that are cleared out can be used to make biodegradable products or decomposed for use as topsoil," he said.

Citing the example of the 'No Free Plastic Bags Everyday', Phee revealed that this programme is 99% successful even though there were some objections in the beginning.

In March 1998 Singapore introduced control measures for religious offerings by providing each HDB (Housing Development Board) flats with burning pits and containers.

The National Environment Agency of Singapore also recommends that the public should clean up the place after making offerings. Large joss sticks which are more than 2 metres in length and 75mm in diametres should not be burnt within 30 metres of any buildings and not more than six may be burnt at any one time.

By contrast, the mindsets of our society are not ready to accept such changes, especially if through harsh and heavy-handed methods. Such changes require determination and a flattering amount of encouragement to withstand collision with deeply-rooted beliefs.

Youngsters nowadays are however much more environmentally aware. Eyes On You is a Girl Guides' Go Green initiation to encourage her 11,000 members to submit photographs for a contest which will run from now till January 2013. Girl Guides who are interested may visit this website for more details:

Of course, the six designated 'No Smoking' zones in Penang is another good and comfortable start.