By Debra Chong
May 28, 2010
KUALA LUMPUR, May 28 — DAP’s surprise win in the recent Sibu by-election was the latest message being sent to the Najib administration that it needs to buckle down and deal with the “Allah” issue sooner rather than later.
The party made a special appeal to the Christian voters, citing the need to prevent Putrajaya from regulating the ways and language of worship for non-Muslims, after a landmark court ruling on Dec 31 that allowed the word “Allah” to be used by all.
The rise in a conscious Christian vote came after churches in Muslim-majority Malaysia reported a growth spurt, and leading the pack was the 82-year-old Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB), an evangelical movement that worships mainly in Bahasa Malaysia, the national language.
Its sphere of influence is growing fast, particularly among the Orang Asli tribes in the Malay peninsula, said the Christian Fellowship of Malaysia (CFM), an umbrella body that represents voices from both the orthodox churches and evangelical groups.
CFM general secretary Tan Kong Beng credits SIB’s growing appeal to “cultural affinities” between the local indigenous community and those from the Borneo interior.
First set up in Sarawak in 1928 and regarded as a relatively young church, the SIB has been making inroads into Peninsular Malaysia in the last two decades.
Some 30 SIB congregations have been set up in the peninsula to date, with more on the way.
Tan sees the SIB evangelists from Sabah and Sarawak to be more empathetic with the Orang Asli groups and so better able to build a closer rapport with the locals.
“Urban West Malaysians are very different from the Orang Asli,” Tan told The Malaysian Insider.
He explained that English — commonly used in the city and town churches — proved a challenge to those living in the rural areas.
The Bumiputera generally speak in their own native tongues, or the national language with outsiders, he said.
The SIB community in neighbouring Shah Alam have been making regular visits to a remote Orang Asli village the next state over for the past few months, its pastor Richard Samporoh told The Malaysian Insider.
The church has a dedicated Orang Asli ministry, made up mainly of young working adults and university students who visit the tribespeople and provide a range of social-welfare services, such as basic health checks and free tuition classes, making the indigenous more receptive towards the church.
But even as the church expands, so have its problems.
SIB church leaders from both sides of the South China Sea complained of the home ministry’s increasingly heavy-handed treatment towards the church and its members, prompting them to file several lawsuits against the government.
Earlier this year, a group of Orang Asli Christians in Pahang sued the government for refusing to supply water and electricity to their village church.
The Jahut from Kampung Kubang Pasu lost the case at the Temerloh High Court but were appealing the decision.
Next week, the High Court here will attend to a suit filed by Sarawakian SIB member, Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, who sued the home ministry for seizing her personal religious books and CDs, allegedly because they contained the word “Allah”, which may “confuse” Muslims.
Pastor Jerry Dusing, who heads the Sabah SIB, said the confiscation of Christian books remains a problem in Malaysia.
He, too, has filed a similar suit against the government for confiscating an imported shipment of Malay Bibles three years ago. The court will hear his case later next month.
Pastor Danil Raut, president of SIB Semenanjung, related that the indigenous tribes in Sabah and Sarawak have been using the controversial “A” word in their worship since before Independence.
His fellow SIB member, Alfred Tais, who also sits on the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) committee, explained that the Bumiputera Christians were upset because they perceived the government’s restrictive policies as a violation of the Federal Constitution and the terms laid out in the agreements for the Borneo states to join the peninsula to form Malaysia.
The ruling Barisan Nasional government had tried to play down the issue, only to have it backfire on them, as seen by the way Sibu — where over half the electorate were Christian — voted earlier this month.
The secular DAP, which had been placed as the underdog in that by-election, had mounted an aggressive campaign, arguing the right of non-Muslims to use the “A” word.
“We’re not creating it to be a hot topic but… we can’t control public sentiment,” Dusing told The Malaysian Insider just before the polls, highlighting Sibu’s extraordinarily large Christian voter population.
“To us it is a hindrance to be able to practise our religion freely. The Christian community is concerned that our Bible is placed under internal security. Books that teach positive religious values placed under restrictions.
“We hope the government will take a sensible attitude towards this problem,” he said.