The Anglican bishop of West Malaysia, Bishop Ng Moon Hing, was one of the keynote speakers at the Lausanne International Researchers conference. He took us briefly through the history of missions in Malaysia. The English took control of Malaysia from the Dutch in 1786. In 1805 the first Anglican church was established in Malaysia. However, the churches were seen as primarily for traders, the army, and British workers, not for local people. Just a few local people who worked with British people became Christians and joined the churches.
In 1848, the Anglican church began mission work in Sarawak, East Malaysia. However, only in 1909 did mission to local people begin in western Malaysia. It was still not a priority. The Bishop suggested that some of those involved in the mission were motivated by the idea that if local people became Christians they would be more friendly to the British, absorb the British style of operation and be better prepared to be good public servants.
World War II changed everything and brought about the realisation that there was a need for a church that was owned and led by local people. In 1957, the country became independent of Britain. As the British returned to Britain, there was a huge vacuum in leadership in the churches in Malaysia. In the 1960s, missionaries were issued with 10 year permits and by the 1970s most of them had to leave.
In 1969, there were racial riots in Malaysia. At that time, many business and highly educated people left the country, including many Christians. In 1970, the Anglican church had 32 buildings in Malaysia with a total membership of 1,700 people. There were just three local priests. The Catholics, Methodists and Presbyterians were in a similar situation. The national church really began about Some young people who had studied overseas returned and took on leadership.
One of the great challenges for the Christians in Malaysia has been Islamisation. Many institutions in Malaysia are explictly Islamic: universities, banks, insurance, and courts, for example. Indeed, the Bishop suggested it was not really about Islam but ‘Arabisation’. In contrast, the Christian churches are viewed as being linked to the west, to agendas of promoting loose moral and homosexual lifestyles, supporting Israel, and denigrating Arabs. The Bishop suggested that there were many extremists in Malaysia including many who supported ISIS.
The Bishop argued that evangelism could not be done as it had been done in the past. The missionaries had a three-pronged approach through education, medicine and social welfare. But such an approach was no longer possible financially. Nor was it appropriate to the contemporary situation. He emphasised the importance of discipleship training and providing good education for lay people in the churches. At the same time, there was a need for dialogue with other faith groups.
Dr Kang-San Tan, the director of AsiaCMS also spoke at the conference. He argued that there was a need for a mature theology of other religions. They could not be seen simply as demonic as some missionaries had presented them. The diversity of other religions needed to be recognised. He noted that there were many streams of Buddhism for example. He argued that it was necessary for the Christian community to find ways of engaging with the fact that the economic, political and legal institutions were reinforcing Muslim identity.
Yet, Muslim identity was not fixed, nor monolithic, he said. Muslim identity took a variety of forms and many people were open in their search for meaning. On the other hand, there was resistance to Christianity because of its links with Western materialism. While there has been much economic growth and development in south east Asia, there are many people for whom life is a struggle. While some grow rich, others are left in poverty. One of the particular groups mentioned by Dr Tan were the Rohingya people from the Rakhine State of Malaysia. While we were in Malaysia, some ‘death camps’ were discovered near the border with Thailand, containing the graves of perhaps hundreds of these refugees. Dr Tan reminded the conference that the place of the Christian community was to groan with the pain of a broken world.
This article was first published in Pointers: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol.25, no.3, September 2015. p.15.