One of the first Bible verses that my parents asked me to memorise in the early 1960s was Ephesians 5:1-2 taken from the Kitab Perjanjian Baharu serta dengan Kitab Zabur, published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1949.
I have a copy of this New Testament with Psalms, a valued legacy from my late father, and still treasured by my 76-year-old-mother.
The verses are quoted: “Sebab itu hendak-lah kamu menurut teladan Allah, seperti anak-anak yang di-kasehi, dan lakukanlah diri-mu dengan kaseh, seperti Almaseh pun sudah mengasehi kamu lalu menyerahkan diri-nya karna kita, menjadi persembahan dan kurban ka-pada Allah akan bau yang harum.” (Efesus 5:1-2; pg 489)
Both my parents are Kadazandusuns from the Tuaran and Kota Belud districts of Sabah. They learned to read and write in the early 1950s from Christian religious teachers in their villages. Adult literacy was taught in Kadazandusun and Malay (pronounced as Malayu’), but the only printed reading material available at that time was the New Testament and Psalms in Malay.
They also spoke Malay when they went to town to sell and buy products from other ethnic groups, such as the Bajaus, Iranuns, Chinese and Kadayans (Brunei Malays).
The Malay language has been the lingua franca among the peoples of Borneo for a very long time, and it was never associated with any specific religion.
When some of the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak became Christians and used the name "Allah" for God, they understood it as part of the Malay language which they and their ancestors have been using as their main trade language.
Since the New Testament and later the whole Bible was only available in the Malay translation, naturally Bible lessons, songs, prayers and Bible school materials were taught and written in Malay.
The Malay language was not only the trade language but the "official" language of the Bumiputera Christians in church conferences, seminars, Bible schools, meetings, Sunday services and other church functions as they come from different ethnic groups, namely Kadazandusun, Lun Dayeh, Murut, Iban, Kayan, Kenyah, Penan, Bidayuh, Kelabit, to name a few.
These activities happened in the 1940s, and became even more widespread after the Second World War, and continue on until the present day.
Even after Sabah and Sarawak became part of Malaysia in 1963, the name “Allah” used by Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians in the two states was never an issue when family reunions were held during Christmas, New Year, Hari Raya, Harvest Festivals, Gawai and other gatherings.
In many families, there are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus because of intermarriages.
During Christmas, songs are sung and prayers said in Malay – and the name “Allah” mentioned by Christians, but I personally have not seen or heard any confusion among the Muslim relatives and friends.
Would you be happy if the legacy of your forefathers is taken away from you?
( By STEMMAH SARIAU, MySinChew
The writer is a Kadazandusun from Sabah.