ACCORDING to the Malaysian Census 2000, Christianity in Malaysia is practised by 10% of the population, the majority being in Sabah and Sarawak, where they make up 40% of the population in the two states.
In the urban areas of Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Penang, Ipoh and Johor Baru, the profile of a typical Christian is one who is middle-class, English-educated, professional, conscious of issues, articulate and critical. And they will certainly play a crucial role in the coming general election.
There is no single Christian group that can claim to represent all the Christians in Malaysia but the major denominations include the Roman Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, and independent charismatic churches.
Church groups like the Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM), the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) are the constant voices that speak out on Christian issues in public.
In this session of Cafe Latte Chats, we bring together Seputeh MP Teresa Kok, Subang Jaya assemblyman Datuk Lee Hwa Beng, Balakong assemblyman Datuk Hoh Hee Lee, secretary-general of the National Christian Fellowship (NCEF) Malaysia Rev Wong Kim Kong, and Council of Churches Malaysia secretary-general Rev Dr Hermen Shastri to ponder on the issues that are of concern to the Christian community and how these will impact on the general election.
Christian perspective on the elections
Chun Wai: The typical profile of a Christian in an urban area is likely to be middle-class, possibly English-educated and one who is very conscious of issues. Datuk Lee, Datuk Hoh and Teresa fit into this profile. We are beginning to hear of more churches organising activities and dialogues relating to the general election. What are the churches doing about the elections?
Kim Kong: The general election is very important for all citizens, Christians included. The government is one of the institutions ordained by God for a very definite purpose to do good, to maintain law and order, as well as ensure what is right for the well-being of the nation.
Most churches will pray about the elections. Christians look for spiritual guidance as to what is God’s plan for the nation. It is inevitable for pastors to preach on issues relating to good governance like justice, righteousness, fairness and moral principles.
Chun Wai: Some believe this election will be a very tight fight between the BN and the opposition, especially for the urban votes. Are churches being courted by both sides?
Hermen: I have not heard of political parties going to churches but I have heard of churches wanting to have dialogues with political leaders. The churches have taken it upon themselves to raise issues that are close to their hearts.
Chun Wai: Has the NECF been courted by political parties?
Kim Kong: NECF did not initiate any dialogue with political parties. However, Christians involved in politics have been extended the opportunity to meet with pastors and Christian leaders. Just a few weeks ago, an MCA contingent came to meet 100 over pastors. There was also a question-and-answer session. We continue to maintain an open door policy.
Chun Wai: Teresa, maybe you can share your experience as an MP from the DAP.
Kok: Not only in the past few months. All this while, we have been concerned about subtle religious persecution issues. We take the initiative to meet with the religious councils, especially when (former Prime Minister) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad declared Malaysia as an Islamic country. Sad to say, when I approached pastors back then, some of them said it was the job of the NECF and they did not want to meet us. They did not want to be involved in politics. I said it was just a closed-door dialogue but they still refused.
Chun Wai: Was it because you are from the opposition?
Kok: I think so. This is the kind of phobia for some pastors. However, times have changed. More pastors are now politically conscious of the present situation. Some of the charismatic churches I attended even hold special sessions to pray for every segment of the administration. So I think this is an encouraging sign.
Lee: To answer directly to Teresa, MCA’s view is that Malaysia is not a theocratic Islamic state. It is a secular state with Islam as the official religion. The Catholics have always been politically conscious, but lately the Methodists and the rest have also become more aware. We in MCA have taken cognisance of this.
Chun Wai: Does being more politically conscious mean being more anti-establishment?
Lee: Not really, but Christians realise it is their duty to vote. They will look at the candidates and choose those who come closest to their Christian values.
Hoh: I never consider the church as a specific group of supporters. I treat them as I will the others in my constituency. If they need help, I try to assist. I am very careful not to bring the church into politics and I do not want the church to be involved directly.
Politics from the pulpit
Chun Wai: In one particular church in Petaling Jaya, we have received feedback that the person concerned had been bringing up strong political views which some in the congregation perceived to be anti-government. And sometimes, the members feel uncomfortable because when they go to church, they want quiet time with God to unload their burdens, but they end up hearing political views. Does this kind of orientation fit in?
Kim Kong: I think the Bible is very clear – the church has to be apolitical and not be involved in the political process directly. The church is a neutral institution; we cannot take any political inclination towards any particular party or candidate. However, the biblical value of good government can be taught.
Hermen: In my 25 years in the ministry, I have been exposed to churches here and in the world councils. Notwithstanding what Rev Wong has said, I think church comprises human beings and human beings are caught in the social context, and much of the politics of the day are reflected in the social context. They always look after their own interests and everything is communal here. Urban constituencies more exposed to a modern way of life will be more interested in engaging different parties.
Chun Wai: In Malaysia, politics have always been quite partisan and even emotional at times. While the church may agree on certain issues, there’s always the question of approaches that can divide the congregation. For example, the pastor can be very anti- or pro-government, and the congregation is made up of people with various political affiliations and they may not be too happy with the stand taken by the pastor. Will that create division in church?
Hermen: You just take one issue, let’s say our response to a certain concern. And then, you will find in the church some will say get involved, others say don’t. They are no different from the rest of society.
Chun Wai: Teresa, you are a Catholic and Catholic churches are known to be more vocal, please share your experience.
Kok: We are duty-bound to speak up for justice. If you can’t speak up, can’t act, at least pray for the situation. I used to attend mass in Petaling Jaya and during the community prayer time, the priest always has no choice but to bring certain issues into prayer, and certain religious words banned, you have to pray for that. And ISA being used, you pray for the detainees and the families. And we pray for press freedom, religious freedom, for independence of the judiciary, pray for the Prime Minister so that he has the wisdom to rule the country – that is all for the good of the society.
What I also find interesting is that the priest also prays for Chua Soi Lek, so that he can have reconciliation with his family. All these, you can say they are political messages of prayers, but it is our duty to pray over what is happening in our country. People might think this is political. But, in fact, for me, it is not. It is our duty as Christians to bring out all these messages to act, and to pray, and participate in the restoration of the wrong things that are happening in the country.
Chun Wai: But when certain approaches are taken, do you feel that sometimes this particular church can be seen to be anti-government? Will it help at all?
Kok: I have heard that some parishioners had left that parish and they go to other Catholic parishes because they don’t like the priest to talk about or pray like this. But it has also encouraged parishioners to be more socially and politically concerned.
Lee: I think you have to differentiate between current issues and also party issues. There is nothing wrong for a church to talk about or pray about issues of the day. But I don’t think there is any church that will say, oh, I support the MCA or DAP .
Church leaders have to be neutral on the pulpit but on the ground, if he or she supports a political party, or take part in a rally, or attend a pro-government activity, I think he or she has that right.
Chun Wai: But Datuk, if pastors, whether they wear their collar on Sunday, and after that, never wear their collar, should they be involved in politics?
Hoh: Definitely not, because it can be very sensitive for both sides. But let’s say it is a social programme like a charity and they help as individuals, that is a different story.
Chun Wai: Rev Wong, in Sabah and Sarawak, it is very common for pastors to be involved in politics. I think there are quite a number of pastors in PBS. Why do you think it’s different in Sabah and Sarawak?
Kim Kong: They are slightly different in terms of political engagement because of the social fabric of the community. They are more conscious of the political process because their social economic status compels them to be more politically orientated.
As a result of that, pastors being much more exposed and educated, the chances for them to alleviate the social condition are much higher compared to Peninsular Malaysia. As a result, some of them engage in politics but there is a very clear demarcation, in a sense that if you have to be involved in politics, you have to resign as a pastor.
Then, the second issue is, Christians or people in general need to distinguish between political parties and the Government. I may meet the Prime Minister or minister, but it does not reflect that I am meeting the Umno president or the MCA president. I think there’s a need to distinguish between the role of the Government, of the Prime Minister and their role as the presidents of the political parties.
Chun Wai: Teresa, can you tell us about the DAP fielding a pastor in the election?
Kok: This is a pastor from Sabah, Pastor Jeffrey Kumin. I was introduced to this pastor and every time we pray together and he’s the only pastor who is willing to pray for me and the DAP … (panel laughs). My party approached him and he agreed to stand as a party candidate.
Christian concerns and needs of churches
Chun Wai: The number of Christians has risen to around nine to 10% of the population, even larger than the Indians at about 6.3%. Why is the voice of Christianity more subdued than other religions?
Kim Kong: The church’s main concern is spiritual rather than political. Also, the church, as a whole, does not have a common political agenda to bind them together. I think the separation between the state and religion is a very clear doctrine of Christians.
Hermen: I think we have to complement that with the reality of the Catholic church which has a strong presence and has always made its position known. If you read their Herald (the Catholic newsletter), it is different from the other Christian newsletters as they raise issues like pro-life, migrant workers and a host of other things, which are part of their agenda.
Chun Wai: Let’s talk about the needs of the Christians, what they would like to see done, and what is being done.
Lee: Freedom of religious practice is always paramount. Number two, places of worship have always been an issue. Under our existing guidelines, when we approve any project, we have to allocate places for mosques and suraus. Two years ago, the Cabinet came up with a decision that any project more than 50 acres must provide places of worship for non-Muslims as well. It is a good step but some go round this directive by proposing less than 50 acres, so the ruling is not effective in this aspect.
Hoh: Youths today are facing a lot of problems. If we Christians can step up and solve this problem and help society, this is good. As for education, we can see the Chinese are very concerned about education. Christians can also be involved in raising funds, providing scholarships. These are some of the things we can do.
Kok: The concern is the missionary schools. When crosses are taken down, for instance, this has become an issue; also, the Bahasa Malaysia documents and bibles. When I attend campus student gatherings, their prayers and songs are all in Bahasa Malaysia. When the Government interferes so much over the language issue, it creates some kind of unhappiness in the Christian community.
Why are not many Christians involved in politics? I think we have many good quality, educated Christians but they are involved in evangelical activities. They think it’s godlier. Also because of their background, they are more educated, upper middle-class people, they don’t want to dirty their hands because getting involved in politics also means getting your name tarnished, and your hands dirtied. There are also Christians who ask me to leave politics and get involved in more spiritual work.
Chun Wai: Dr Hermen, in all these issues that have cropped up, when you speak to the leadership and dialogue with the Prime Minister, they are very fair. The problem starts at the lower level, when one or two officers start to implement rules that make the cases complicated
Hermen: I think the only way to get through to this, when the down line becomes problematic, is to deal with the issue as an issue, not as a religious one. They would want to make every issue religious, that’s their problem.
For example, the case of the confiscation of books at MPH. These are Christian books in English with pictures of Moses, Noah and all that. This one unit within Internal Security says you cannot show a picture of Moses because it is sensitive to Islam. This is not an Islamic book. I would like to appeal to the Prime Minister to look into this matter.
Chun Wai: Do you agree that when these bureaucrats start imposing these rules according to their religious interpretation, it shows the politicians in power are actually affected?
Hermen: Yes, correct.
Kok: I think the Prime Minister should interfere. He has the Islamic credentials and he is a moderate Muslim. He needs to speak up.
Chun Wai: In conclusion, the Christians make up a substantial chunk of votes in the elections and these are issues of concern to them. In the battle for hearts and minds, their voices and their votes certainly matter.