Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Views from East Malaysia

The battle might be between the Roman Catholic Church and the government over the right to use “Allah” but the ones most affected are those in Sabah and Sarawak.

As Sabah leader Tan Sri Bernard Dompok pointed out, they worship in Bahasa Malaysia as its the national language and Bibles are in that language because it is not feasible to print or translate it to their various dialects.

More importantly, “Allah” is their word for God, the same as for the Malays, who borrowed it from the Arabs.

Semantics aside, the people in Borneo do not see the fuss or problem over the name of God.

The Muslims in Sarawak, Jack (who asked that only his first name be used) reasoned, were not just tolerant of other faiths. They have accepted non-Muslims as a daily fact of life the same way parents accept that their children have different personalities.

A government servant, he had earlier said he hoped the spate of attacks against churches in the peninsula would not spill over into Sarawak.

Though he was upset over the broken windows of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church in Lutong, Miri, Jack’s faith in Sarawak’s Muslims has not been shaken.

“I hugely believe that this is an isolated case, and most Sarawakian Muslims and also Sarawakians are surprised that such an incident could happen at all in Sarawak,” said Jack. Many of the people interviewed for this article asked that their names be changed due to the volatility of the topic.

It is this renowned bond between the non-Muslims and Muslims of Sarawak and Sabah that has often been held up by peninsula politicians as the ultimate model of race-relations.

Yet while these politicians speak highly of East Malaysia’s ethnic unity, they seldom make any serious attempt to get peninsular Malaysians to emulate it.

Conversely, says Sabahans and Sarawakians interviewed by The Malaysian Insider, the insular race, religion and language politics of the peninsula have often been imported and forced upon East Malaysians for as long as the states have been part of the federation.

And this is what unsettles them when it comes to the turmoil about who gets to use “Allah”: that again, the peninsula-centric Federal government is telling them to change an elemental aspect of their lives that has never before been a problem.

In other words, says a Sabah Government officer, it was never a problem until the “Semenanjung” people made it a problem.


When his friends greet him with the salaam, Mujahid, 20, is never confused as to whether the person is a Muslim or not. Nor does it matter to him.

Neither does he or the Sarawakian Muslims he knows think to ask why Christians in the state use “Allah” in their prayers or sermons.

“It is very condescending to me when someone tells me that I will be confused when non-Muslims use ‘Allah’ because my faith (in Islam) is not weak … Me and my family are extremely disappointed by the uproar and all these attacks on churches,” says Mujahid, a university student.

Sarawakians and Sabahans are saddened by how an age-old community norm of theirs has suddenly turned into a fractious issue by those who do not understand the history of the practice.

Dayak community leader Dr John Brian Anthony explains how when Christianity was being propagated to the East Malaysian natives roughly 100 years ago, the texts that were used were imported from Indonesia.

These texts used the term Allah and were in Bahasa Indonesia, which was similar to the Melayu Kuno used by the natives.

“My elders and me use the same text till today because that is the language we know. If someone tells me that my language is wrong, then I say ‘Why?’ Is it about Aqidah (faith) or is it about form?”

The Home Ministry banned the use of Allah in The Herald’s Bahasa Malaysia section. Yet it is this version which is widely read by Catholics and other Christians in East Malaysia.

When the High Court overturned the ban in Dec 31 last year, it caused an uproar among peninsula-based Muslim groups.

However, Anthony says, East Malaysian Muslims have never opposed the use of “Allah” by Christians and other non-Muslims.

Political scientist Dr Faisal Syam Hazis of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) puts it another way: “The use of Allah by non-Muslims has already been embedded in East Malaysian society for more than 100 years. It has never been an issue. So why are these peninsular Muslims suddenly jumping up and down over it?”


For Dr Zaini Othman of Universiti Malaysia Sabah, the “confusion” that is being felt by the Muslims he meets in the state is why the issue is being raised now.

“Based on my daily experience with Sabahans, this is what they are asking. They feel that there is a hidden political agenda behind it.”

Though the Federal government has been at pains to stress that the issue is not about political mileage, Kuching-based blogger Norman Goh doubts that the violence it has spurred is being tackled seriously.

“First you allow the protests (by Muslim groups). Then when the attacks happen, you say [you] ‘might’ use the ISA (Internal Security Act). When Hindraf, Bersih and Bar Council rallies occurred, you did not hesitate to use the ISA,” says Goh, 23.

Faisal’s colleague, Dr Andrew Aeria, was unequivocal in his reading of the debacle.

“The view here is that Umno has fanned all of this. They seek to impose their racist imaginings on the rest of Malaysia without realising that Malaysia also contains Sarawak and Sabah.”

What Aeria is referring to is the fluid, non-communal approach to ethnic relations in East Malaysia, where groups do not seek to impose their norms or beliefs onto others.

It is helped by the fact that in the historical memory and the demographics of these two states, no group has been dominant.

The ethnic demarcations are also not enforced by politics, says Aeria, where political parties are not formed just to serve one group.

“Some parties have many members of one group but they are intrinsically multi-racial. This is where you see parties like SUPP (Sarawak United People’s Party) that looks like a Chinese party but it fields Bumiputera candidates.”


Unimas’ Aeria and Faisal also dispute the views of a Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) race-relations expert who contended that for Sarawak Muslims, religion was not as important as tribal identity.

In a previous The Malaysian Insider article, Prof Dr Mansor Mohd Noor of UKM Inter-ethnic Studies Institute gave an opinion that peninsular Muslims were less tolerant when it came to questions on Islam than their Sarawak and Sabah brethren.

“For Muslims in East Malaysia, the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims is not a problem because their identity is tied to a tribe rather than to a religion,” Mansor has said in the article titled “Allah unites some and divides others”.

“Saying that is almost like saying we Sarawak Muslims are less Islamic than the ones in the peninsula just because we can tolerate Christians using ‘Allah’,” says Faisal.

East Malaysians of all creeds are passionate about their faith and identity but they were more accepting of each other, says Aeria.

“If you are saying that peninsular Muslims cannot be as tolerant as the ones in East Malaysia, are you saying that peninsular Muslims want to remain racist? What is wrong with emulating East Malaysian tolerance?”

Conversely, since the debate over whether to allow non-Muslims to use “Allah” is currently being determined in the peninsula, it seems that West Malaysians have no problems imposing their beliefs on East Malaysians.

And that, says those interviewed, would be very unfortunate for Sarawak and Sabah.

[Source : The Malaysian Insider]

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