By Joe Fernandez
Several Christian pastors in Peninsular Malaysia have reportedly discussed the idea of Christianity being the official religion of Malaysia. If any part of Malaysia has a case for making Christianity the official religion, it’s Sabah and Sarawak where the majority of the people, the natives or Orang Asal included, are overwhelmingly Christian.
Instead, the people in Malaysian Borneo decided from the very beginning that they would not have an official religion. The thought of making Christianity the official religion in Sabah and Sarawak never for one minute crossed the minds of the people in these two states. Religion had to remain a private and personal affair, separate from politics and the state.
This decision was reflected in the Cobbold Commission Report, the Inter-Governmental Committee Report and the 1963 Malaysia Agreement.
The Batu Sumpah – Oath Stone – in Keningau, Sabah, is also a reminder of the promises of Malaysia: no official religion; freedom of religion; respect for adat (customary law); and the state government holds authority over land. The people of the interior, in return, pledged loyalty to Malaysia.
The Oath Stone was meant to overcome the resistance of the people in the interior to Malaysia. They did not understand all the various documents on Malaysia and needed something simple to dramatically translate all their concerns into an enduring form that they could grasp.
The reality is that this provision on Sabah and Sarawak having no official religion has been observed more often than not in the breach. The goodwill of the people of Sabah and Sarawak has been taken for granted by the federal government.
Former Sabah state secretary Simon Sipaun, now under probe for sedition, best summed up the scenario when he told participants at an inter-party dialogue in Kota Kinabalu in early March that “life in Sabah was better before Malaysia”.
Sipaun pointed out that based on his personal experience in the civil service, that there was no Muslim-Christian conflict in Sabah before Malaysia.
No body-snatching cases
There were no issues like the term Allah – an attribute of God – being reserved only for Muslim use; the Bible not being allowed to be in Malay print; no cases of body snatching at the morgue; non-Muslims not being allowed freedom of worship and being forced to convert to Islam upon marriage to a Muslim; Muslims not being allowed freedom of worship including the right to leave the religion; and no case of Christians with “Muslim-sounding” names being listed by the authorities as Muslim.
Sipaun stressed that recruitment into the state civil service and promotions before Malaysia were based on merit and not race or religion. Likewise, scholarships were handed out on the basis of merit and not race and religion.
Before Malaysia, the last non-Muslim governor of Sabah was a British.
Since 1963, all governors in Sabah as in Sarawak have been Muslim and the Christians and others have been effectively denied the opportunity to occupy the post. The only time a Christian was appointed governor after 1963 was when Donald Stephens, the Huguansiou (paramount chief) of the Dusuns (including the Kadazan or urban Dusun) and Muruts, converted to Islam after a stint in “virtual exile” in the mid-1970s as High Commissioner to Australia.
Stephens had a brief first stint as chief minister but was ousted by Kuala Lumpur after he wanted Sabah’s participation in Malaysia “reviewed” upon Singapore’s exit in 1965. Stephens held that the partnership – Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore, and Malaya – that governed the Federation of Malaysia ceased to exist after the city state’s exit. Stephens wanted out.
Stephens made an even briefer second stint as chief minister in 1976 but this time as a Muslim by the name of Mohd Fuad. He came to an untimely end in a plane crash after he held out for a higher oil royalty for Sabah and not a measly five per cent. His predecessor, Mustapha Harun, was ousted on the same issue but lived to a ripe old age after looking on helplessly when Umno entered Sabah to displace and deregister his United Sabah National Organisation (Usno).
Between Stephens and Joseph Pairin Kitingan, another chief minister (1985-1994) and currently the Huguansiou, there was Peter Lo as an interim chief minister.
Another exception was during the rotation of the Sabah chief minister’s post after 1994 when three non-Muslims held the post for brief two-year stints – Yong Teck Lee, Bernard Giluk Dompok and Chong Kah Kiat – to be replaced thereafter by only Muslim chief ministers.
Again, the issue of race and religion seems to predominate in Sabah in line with the “ketuanan Melayu” – Malay supremacy – dictates of the Umno federal government.
Sabahans in general – and the same in Sarawak – are uncomfortable that the politics of race and religion in Peninsular Malaysia has invaded the body politic in their state and resulted in polarisation. This has pitted the Muslims, not so much the locals but the illegal immigrants, against the non-Muslims in every sphere of life in Sabah and Sarawak.
One of the most polarising issues has been the influx of 1.7 mostly Muslim immigrants from the Philippines and Indonesia to overwhelm the 1.5 million Sabahans. Most of the immigrants are illegals while a minority has employment passes.
To add insult to injury, many illegal immigrants appear to have been issued with Malaysian personal documents and this has facilitated their placement in the electoral rolls. This lies at the heart of the continuing marginalisation and disenfranchisement of Sabahans, the natives or Orang Asal in particular including local Muslims.
It’s not known how many thousand illegal immigrants have since become “instant natives” by the simple backdoor method of securing Malaysian personal documents, which place their birth officially as somewhere in Sabah. Officially, they are listed as “Malays”, a classification which did not exist in Sabah before 1963.
Muslims in Sabah are generally listed as Bajau, Suluk, Barunai (Brunei Malay), Irranun or Dusun. The last category may be Ranau, Bisaya or Orang Sungei, among others. Most Dusun in Sabah are Christian if they are not animists or pagans. The Dusun are also one of the two original native groups in neighbouring Brunei, the other being Dayak.
Sabahans and Sarawakians would not agree with any proposal that Christianity be recognised as the official religion of Malaysia or at least in their half of the country on the other side of the South China Sea. If Christians in Peninsular Malaysia want their religion to be the official one for the state, it’s their cause which they have to pursue on their own.
However, Sabahans and Sarawakians would very much want the race and religion factors to be removed from the politics and administration of their states. They would very much want life to be as it was before Malaysia when there was also no fear of the police, as Sipaun observed, no draconian laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA) and no emergency ordinances governing the populace.
Putrajaya should stop pursuing Umno’s “ketuanan Melayu” agenda in Sabah and Sarawak and ruling the state through local proxies. The politics in these states militates against such a mindset. The local populace does not have a fixation, as in Peninsular Malaysia, with the Chinese being in business or being wealthy. – FMT