Not Race but Grace: Mission in Malaysia
Dr Judy Berinai joined the Ridley Hall community for Easter term on the Refreshment Programme for her sabbatical. Originally from Sabah, Malaysia, Judy has taught at the Sabah Theological Seminary in Kota Kinabalu since 1991 and here shares with us the background to mission in her home country.
Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy, a multi-ethnic and multicultural country with a population of approximately 33 million in 2022. The citizens of Malaysia include bumiputera (indigenous people, predominantly Malays), Chinese, Indians and others. Despite being a multi-ethnic and multicultural country, the Malay majority dominates the Malaysian government, power and politics. Islam is declared the official religion in the Constitution, but there is freedom of religion for the other ethnic communities. In view of that, race and ethnicity in Malaysia are imbricated with religion: Malays with Islam, Indians with Hindu, Chinese with traditional religion, Taoism, Confucianism, ancestor worship and later Buddhism, and indigenous people with animism. In Article 152 of the Malaysian Constitution, the Malay language is declared as the national language of Malaysia in spite of the country’s linguistic complexity.
Historically, Western missions coincided with the expansion of Western colonialism in Malaysia since the decline of the Malay-Muslim Sultanate of Melaka in the 15th century, when successive colonisers such as Portuguese (1511–1641), Dutch (1641–1786) and British (1786–1957) conquered not only Melaka but gradually the other states of Malaya. In 1874 the Pangkor Treaty (between British and Malay Sultans) protected the indigenous Malays from Christian missionary activities, not necessarily out of respect for Islam but for political reasons. For that reason, Christianity was often considered as the religion of peoples whose ancestors were, or who were affiliated with, the colonisers such as the Chinese and Indian immigrant communities in West Malaysia.
Christianity was established in East Malaysia as a consequence of the Western missionary movement in the late 19th century. For instance, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) and the Church Missionary Society (CMS) were responsible for introducing Anglicanism to Borneo by sending missionaries from England and Australia. Although initially their primary purpose was to give pastoral care to the British expatriates and the Chinese immigrants, they gradually evangelised indigenous peoples.
Today approximately nine percent of people in Malaysia are Christians, represented by a wide range of denominations, such as the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and a range of independent Evangelical and Pentecostal/Charismatic movements. In retrospect, Christianity has helped preserve the cultural identity of some migrant groups; and now as a faith represented among most races in Malaysia, Christianity can be a force for national unity. Churches in Malaysia, under the umbrella of the Council of Churches of Malaysia and National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, are challenged to witness God’s grace in a multicultural context in Malaysia.