It is very rare for a church to organize any public event that even hints at a political theme. Indeed the very idea of organizing a public talk that centred around educating Christians on the political challenges that confront the Christian community would probably not go farther than being discussed among the leadership of the local church. So imagine my surprise when I received an e-mail from a friend a week ago informing me that the Sungai-Way Subang Methodist Church (SSMC) was organizing such a seminar. To be honest, I thought that SSMC would post an announcement on its website stating the seminar would be “postponed” until an appropriate time.

On the said date (18/7/2010), I check SSMC’s website and was pleasantly surprised to discover no such announcement was made. What was more surprising – yes, it was a day of surprises for me – was the large number of Christians, around three hundred of them, turned up for the event. Indeed a few years back, one would be happy if twenty Christians turn up to hear a public talk on Christians and politics. I take my hat off to SSMC.

I digress. The seminar was entitled “Christians and Citizenship” which focused on the twin topics of the political challenges facing Malaysian churches in Peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak as well as on the relationship between Christians and the media. Both issues were interesting and informative. However my own interest in attending the seminar was on the former topic which boasted of two knowledgeable insiders in the person of Rev. Sivin Kit (Bangsar Lutheran Church) and Rev. Jerry Dusing (President of SIB Sabah) as speakers. Both raised pertinent points on this topic.

Two points in particular caught my attention and I want to add my own personal thoughts on them. Given the weightiness of the topic at hand, my discussion will be in the form of a two-part series.

a) On the East-West “Divide”

Geographically speaking, the Peninsula is separated from Sabah and Sarawak by the South China Sea. This separation is not only physical but also historical as well as cultural. Indeed, we can observe a similar divide within the Malaysia Church as well.

Churches in the Peninsula tend to concentrate in urban areas where English is the primary language of local churches followed by Chinese and Tamil. On the other hand, the majority of the churches in Sabah and Sarawak are found in rural areas with Bahasa Malaysia being the language of choice in these churches.

Generally speaking, Christians in the Peninsula tend to be better educated and economically well-off compared to that of Sabah and Sarawak. According to the 9th Malaysian Plan, the non-Malay Bumiputeras of Sabah and Sarawak recorded the highest incidence of poverty as can be observed in table 1.

Table 1:

Mean Monthly Household Income and Incidence of Poverty by State, 1999 and 2004

Region

Mean Monthly Household Income (in RM)

Incidence of Poverty(in percentages)
1999 2004 1999 2004
Northern Region
Kedah 1,612 2,126 14.2 7.0
Perak 1,743 2,207 6.8 4.9
Perlis 1,431 2,046 13.6 6.3
Pulau Pinang 3,128 3,531 0.7 0.3
Central Region
Melaka 2,260 2,792 2.9 1.8
Negeri Sembilan 2,335 2,886 4.1 1.4
Selangor1 3,702 5,175 1.9 1.0
W.P.  K. Lumpur 4,105 5,011 0.4 1.5
Southern Region
Johor 2,646 3,076 3.1 2.0
Eastern Region
Kelantan 1,314 1,829 25.2 10.6
Pahang 1,482 2,410 9.8 4.0
Terengganu 1,599 1,984 22.7 15.4
Sabah2 1,905 2,487 23.4 23.0
Sarawak 2,276 2,725 10.9 7.5

Note: 1 includes W.P. Putrajaya

2 includes W.P. Labuan

(Source: 9th Malaysian Plan, 2006: 356)

I find it interesting that when Christians in the Peninsula talk about the religious demographics, they tend to say that Christians form 9% of the population making them the third largest religious community in the country after Islam and Buddhism  (see table 2).

Table 2:

Distribution of Population by Religion, 1980-20001

Religion 1980 1990 2000
Number (‘000)
Islam 6,918.3 10,257.2 14,049.4
Buddhism 2,265.5 3,222.1 4,467.5
Confucianism/Taoism/Others 1,518.7 928.0 615.1
Hinduism 920.4 1,112.3 1,457.9
Christianity 843.0 1,412.3 2,126.2
Tribal/Folk Religion 259.5 206.0 195.8
Others 69.8 82.6 88.4
No Religion 275.3 253.5 194.4
Unknown 24.2 80.0
Total 13,070.5 17,498.2 23,274.7

Percentage distribution

Islam 53.0 58.6 60.4
Buddhism 17.3 18.4 19.2
Confucianism/Taoism/Others 11.6 5.3 2.6
Hinduism 7.0 6.4 6.3
Christianity 6.5 8.1 9.1
Tribal/Folk Religion 2.0 1.2 0.8
Others 0.5 0.5 0.4
No Religion 2.1 1.4 0.9
Unknown 0.1 0.3
Total 100 100 100

Note: 1 include citizens and non-citizens

(Source: Saw, 2006: 19)

However, Christians in the Peninsula do not realise the fact that the largest number of Christians are to be found among the non-Malay Bumiputeras of Sabah and Sarawak (see table 3).

Table 3:

Christians in Malaysia by Ethnic Group, 2000

Ethnic Group Number (‘000) Percentage
Other Bumiputera 1,275.9 64.4
Chinese 539.6 27.2
Indian 130.4 6.6
Others 35.5 1.8
Total 1,981.4 100

(Source: Loh, n.d.: 9)

The data which I presented here simply tells us that the majority of Christians are to be found in Sabah and Sarawak with Bahasa Malaysia being the preferred language of the Malaysian Church. In addition, they are not economically well-off as compared with their Peninsula counter-parts.

Perhaps the simplest way to demonstrate the disparate economic situation between those in the Peninsula with that of Sabah and Sarawak is by observing our church buildings. Church buildings in the Peninsula are better maintained with some undergoing renovation or even constructing new buildings. Some can even boast of facilities that can rival commercial buildings! The same cannot be said of the rural church buildings located in Sabah and Sarawak. At best, such buildings would be constructed of cement and wood with basic amenities. However, most are nothing more than run-down buildings that have seen better times.

b) Political implications of the “divide”

Although Sabahan and Sarawakian Christians form the majority, yet their voices and concerns tend to take second place to that of Peninsula Christians. Take for example, the organisational set-up of any national bodies that represent the Christian communities, e.g. the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), the Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM) and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) Malaysia. The headquarters of all these bodies are to be found in Kuala Lumpur rather than Kota Kinabalu or Kuching. In addition, most of the activities organised by these bodies tend to be centred in the Klang Valley with English being the language of choice.

To take another example … how many of us (and by that I include myself as a Peninsula Christian) take the time to understand the “Allah” controversy? Why are our brothers and sisters who use Bahasa adamant about not giving up this word in their liturgy? Are we aware of the implications of this controversy to our brother and sisters – as well as to ourselves as members of the body of Christ – who uses Bahasa Malaysia? Why are some of us trying to persuade our brothers and sisters to just substitute the word with “Tuhan” as an expedient solution to a potentially explosive political issue?

What is the point that I am trying to make here? Simply this, the relationship between “East and West” is tilted towards the minority Peninsula Christians. Unless steps are taken to redress this imbalance, I fear that there may come a time when our brothers and sisters in Sabah and Sarawak may view us with resentment just as people in both states are upset with the imbalance in the federal-state relationship. May the Lord forbid this from happening!

c) No, it is not my intention …

In writing this piece, I want to say that it is not my intention here to berate Christians in the Peninsula for what has happened but rather to bring to attention the cultural and economic divide that separates Christians in Malaysia. As the Apostles’ Creed puts it, “I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints” … amen.

The church as a whole must take steps to address this divide. For me, some of the practical steps would need to include:

  1. Helping our economically poorer brothers and sisters towards a better future. I would add the caveat that such help must never turn into a situation of dependency but independence and respect.
  2. Giving more voice to Christians in both states by having more Christian Bumiputeras at the highest decision-making level of CFM, CCM and NECF so as to ensure their concerns are highlighted at the national level.

One of the major tragedies that befell global Christianity was the great schism of 1054 when the Church divide itself between Eastern and Western Christianity because of cultural, theological and political differences. The Church has yet to recover from this schism. Let us pray that such a tragedy does not befall on us.

Reference:

  1. Saw Swee-Hock (2006), “Population Trends and Patterns in Multiracial Malaysia” in Saw Swee-Hock & K. Kesavapany, eds. Malaysia: recent trends and challenges. Singapore: ISEAS, pp. 1-26.
  2. Loh, Francis, K.W., n.d. Christians in Malaysia: Understanding their Socio-Economic Context. [Paper] (Given by the author, 1 December 2006).

A version of this article is posted in The Micah Mandate

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