JAN 23 ― “I think it’s time Christians started telling both sides (of the story), look, listen stop bullying us. We are an even more important vote bloc than Hindraf and all we’re asking for is to be left alone.” ~ Emmanuel Joseph, a Malaysian.
A number of friends had reservations upon reading my last op-ed and feature article. Clearly, Dr Chandra Muzaffar of JUST’s comment that the Christians would affect the upcoming general elections have made them uneasy.
“Why are we Christians, especially the Chinese Christians always the bogeymen?” a friend asked.
Sivin Kit, Lutheran pastor who is also a PhD scholar in Religious Ethics, said this fits the fear narrative, which seems to be the blueprint of Malaysian racial politics. He didn’t deny that Malaysian Christians were more “politically awakened” but said they are part of a larger picture.
To impose the idea of the moneyed Chinese Christian influencing the politics of Malaysia is rather irresponsible. Yes the numbers have risen to 9 per cent, but will they make truly an impact? Will all of this 9 per cent vote?
Chris Chong, a social scientist I met in Singapore at an inter-faith leadership seminar, was circumspect. “The Chinese Christians of Malaysia tend to be first or second generation of theists.”
And not every one of them is rich or even middle class. Who were they, really? In his thesis paper, “Christianity and The Middle Class”, he quoted Raymond Lee and Susan Ackerman, who in their book Sacred Tensions: Modernity and Religious Transformation in Malaysia, observed that, “…the reproduction of secularisation in the East does not necessarily mean the demise of religious tradition. On the contrary, it implies the importation of new values and ideas that compete with established religions, thus possibly prompting religious revivalisms as nationalist expressions against Western secularisation.”
Chris added, “In short, middle class participation in religion has transformed the religious landscape in Asia.”
The middle class
For many of us, the middle class means people who are educated, earn incomes that are far from the poverty line, and yet are not earning the incomes of the rich. Simply put, the average Malaysian professional who is married, receives the support of parents who help out with childcare, is trying very hard to save for their old age and children’s futures.
And when it comes to the non-Malay middle class, there is the perception that they have more money than the Malays or Bumiputeras. Chris Chong, in his paper, pointed out the following:
“When the peninsula gained its independence in 1957, there was a nascent middle class in post-colonial Malaya. The middle class was made up largely from the Chinese community.
“The middle class among the majority Malay community was mainly made up of a small group of government administrators (Abdul Rahman, 2001, p. 83).
“In 1957, the proportion of Chinese in the administrative and managerial occupation stands at 62.4 per cent compared with the Malays at 17.6 per cent. The same trend can also be observed with other middle class related occupations such as the clerical, sales and service groups. The Chinese proportion in the clerical and related occupation stands at 46.2 per cent compared with the Malays at 27.1 per cent while in the sales and related occupation, the Chinese proportion stands at 66.1 per cent compared to the latter’s 15.9 per cent. It is only in service and related occupation that the Malay proportion stands higher than the Chinese, i.e. 39.7 per cent to 33.3 per cent.
“However, from the 1970s onwards, the percentage share of Malays in this occupation grew from 17.6 per cent in 1957 to 24.1 per cent in 1970, to 37.0 per cent in 2000. There is also a significant increase in other middle class related occupational groups as well.”
Hence, to say that the Chinese dominate the middle class strata today is misleading. The NEP boosted the fortunes of the Malays, and Chong also stated that the non-Malays also benefited from “… the economic transformation of the country.”
One thing is for sure: the Muslims and Christians are praying harder now.
That article I wrote
Gregore Lopez, a Visiting Fellow and political scientist at The Australian National University found the feature I wrote “intriguing.”
“In my opinion, the debate on Allah is because there are two countervailing force of equal strength (Umno vs PKR/PAS creating space for conservatives and liberals/progressives) ― that’s why there is a debate.
“When Umno was strong, there was no space and no need for debates (note that all legislation strengthening Islam with the support of BN, and Malaysians happy that their rice bowls were full, in Malaysia occurred while Umno was in full control).
“When Mahathir was strong, there was no place for anyone, but also a place for everyone, below Mahathir of course. But now that Umno is weak, everyone has a place and almost equally including Umno. Umno now have to make their case especially to gain political legitimacy.
“I think in Malaysia, greater religiosity (ritualistic rather than spiritual) came in the mid 70s, and with Mahathir’s push in the 80s, and of course that of AI (all responding to global and domestic waves).”
Perhaps I have misread the situation, he suggested. What was the empirical data for the feature?
“The real question, which your article should address is: What is religiosity (what’s your definition), how have you measured it, how has it changed (you note schools.
“In the past, Malaysia had good national schools, so people went to national schools. Now despite increase in religious classes and Islamisation of the national education system, the quality of schools has declined with poor quality teachers, rising issues with indiscipline and gangsterism. So Muslims and many other Malaysians who can afford it, opt to send to private schools which they perceive are better run. So, it’s not a case of ‘increased religiosity’, but purely a decision for better and more holistic education in a “safe environment,” he wrote.
Lopez’s questions are legitimate. I am not being defensive of the feature I wrote, but in the media, we have deadlines, and we can focus on only so much (or a number of people). We decided to focus on Kuala Lumpur, and talk to the average Malaysian Muslim/Christian. We also have a word limit ― 800 words per feature.
While I appreciate Lopez’s suggestions ― they would make for a great PhD thesis ― I feel it’s a mixture of reasons as to why people are becoming more religious. Politics is one reason, but there has to be a bigger, more whole, reason to people praying more. Why are we turning to God even more fervently now?
I’ll say it’s faith. And this is something we will explore in another feature!
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist