Although Christianity in Malaysia is often thought of as the religion of peoples whose ancestors were migrants of greater or lesser antiquity, whether Portuguese, Dutch or British, or Chinese or Indian; in East Malaysia especially it is also the faith of large numbers of tribespeople. As Malaysia further develops, the question of relating Christianity to national culture becomes an important issue. Christianity has helped preserve the cultural identity of some migrant groups; now as a faith represented among most races, it can also be a force for national unity.
In the story of the coming of Christianity and its development, a matter of interest is the intentions of the governments under whose protection the missionaries came. The Portuguese were interested in trade and in conversions further afield and did not make the efforts here they did elsewhere. While some individuals had the desire to spread their faith more widely, the actions of the Dutch and the British did not extend past providing for the religious needs of their own people. The Dutch were interested in trade and in eliminating the Portuguese. For the British it was in their interests to act in some ways as protectors of Islam.
Positively this meant that Christianity was not the religious arm of imperialism. Although there were undoubtedly benefits and some connections, those with a missionary commitment were more often aware of government restrictions on the scope of their activity. Many of the early Protestant missionaries who came under the cover of the British presence really wanted to be in China and when that was possible, especially after 1842, they moved there. In the mid-nineteenth century this greatly weakened Christian influence, but when in the 1950s missionaries who were forced to leave China came to help in the New Villages created during the Malayan emergency, their presence contributed significantly to the development of the Church.
Although sporadic efforts were made in Singapore and Penang to bring Malays into the faith, success was usually temporary. However Christian schools contributed to cordial relations with a number of Malay rulers, and provided some compensation for other aspects of imperialism. Now that virtually all Malaysians are educated in the national language, the earlier efforts of a handful of missionaries to study the national religion and language seriously are beginning to be better appreciated. It is at this point that issues of commitment to the country, contextualisation in a multi-cultural situation, and the realization of the potential Christian contribution to national unity come into focus.
1.2. Before the Portuguese.
Earliest Christian contacts go back possibly as far as the 7th century when Nestorian Christians from Persia were found in China, India, Ceylon and across the straits of Melaka in North Sumatra. There is unconfirmed literary evidence that there were numbers of Christians among a trading community on the Malay Peninsular either in Kedah or Southern Thailand at this time. Later in the middle ages Catholic diplomats, travellers and priests travelled through the Straits en route to and from China. Among the traders resident in Melaka during the Melaka Sultanate of the 15th century there were Nestorians and also Armenian Christians from what is today Eastern Turkey. The guns of the Portuguese may have been unfortunate in terms of what Christianity was all about, but theirs was not the first or the only arrival of the Christian faith in this region.
1.3. Roman Catholicism in Melaka, 1511 to 1641.
On 24 July 1511 Alfonso d'Albuquerque conquered Melaka. His fleet was accompanied by Franciscan and Dominican Friars most of whom moved on to the Moluccas a short time later. Although the coming of the Portuguese involved a mixture of economic and religious motives and was in both respects a race with Islam, the economic interest dominated. Since Muslim traders now took their business elsewhere, the Catholic invasion had the unintentional effect of aiding the spread of Islam.
As far as the Malay Peninsular was concerned, the Portuguese religious mission was limited to ministering to the Catholic community established within Melaka itself. Chinese and Indians converted in small numbers and Malays by intermarriage. No essential distinction was made between becoming a Christian and becoming Portuguese.
The security of the settlement was always precarious with raids from Johore and Acheh and after 1600 from the Dutch. There were few bright spots. The visits of Francis Xavier from 1545 to 1552, the baptism of Japanese converts, and the first mass of a young priest conducted in full European splendour. More generally life was marked by warfare and sickness. While the reputation of being the greatest sink of iniquity in the East may not have been undeserved at times, we should perhaps be more impressed by how much people's faith helped them survive the suffering of the long and difficult years which did not end with Melaka's fall to the Dutch in 1641.
In terms of Christian impact on the Malay Peninsular the Portuguese had neither the vision nor the moral and spiritual energy to contemplate evangelism. Inevitably, Christianity was perceived as the religion of invading foreigners whose presence was unwelcome.
1.4. Catholicism under the Dutch : 1641 to 1786.
The taking of Melaka by the Dutch marked the end of Portuguese political influence and the beginning of new difficulties for what was left of the Catholic community in the defeated town. For sixty years the Dutch outlawed Catholic worship. Despite this Catholicism survived, sustained by secret visits of priests who conducted services upriver and by strong lay leadership from the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary.
Although in the 18th century Melaka became a sleepy hollow, and in its poverty not much of a threat to anyone, its faith, as well as the colourful ceremonies of its Portuguese community, became permanent features of religion in Malaya.
Underlining the primacy of the economic interests of the Dutch (they focused on Batavia in Java not on Melaka), and setting a significant precedent for the future, was the fact that when the Dutch had sought the aid of Johore for the conquest of 1639-41 it was laid down that neither party would interfere in the religion of the other.
1.5. The Straits Settlements : 1786 to 1842.
In 1786 Francis Light managed to obtain Penang from the Sultan of Kedah on the understanding that the British would aid him against Siam as required - an undertaking which they failed to honour. Although Penang never developed quite as Light had hoped, it became a significant component of British presence and therefore of missionary activity in the region.
Soon after his arrival Light encouraged the settlement of French Catholic priests who had been at Kuala Kedah after being expelled from Siam. Parish work was developed on the island and in due course the College General was transferred from Thailand. From 1809 to 1983 this was the major centre of training for Catholic seminarians in the region and provided an important base for the training of local leadership. However the increased activity of French Catholics resulted in a crisis of jurisdiction which was not resolved until 1888. Portugal claimed the exclusive right of patronage for the church long past the time when it was capable of exercising it in a meaningful way.
By 1805 Penang had attracted the notice of the London Missionary Society (LMS) as a possible base in the East `beyond the Ganges.' However the `Ultra Ganges Mission' was in fact first established in Melaka in 1815 by William Milne who was sent to assist Robert Morrison, the pioneer Protestant missionary to China. Melaka had passed into British control in 1795 when Napoleon took over Holland and appeared promising to the LMS primarily because of its Chinese population.
Milne and Morrison had felt called to China, and their Anglo-Chinese College in Melaka was intended as a training base and school while it remained impossible to gain access to China itself. Nevertheless Malay work was also pursued seriously. Milne himself developed a good relationship with Munshi Abdullah and came to appreciate Malay sensitivities to aspects of Christian theology, although this was not always true of his colleagues.
From the early 1820s the LMS also had missionaries in Singapore as well as in Penang, but they found it difficult to establish their work satisfactorily. Their printing presses were perhaps more successful than their schools or their evangelism and it was constantly disheartening that often colleagues died after very brief service and before their language proficiency could be established. The loss of Milne in 1822 was a serious blow. Other societies came to Singapore for short periods, particularly the Americans, but all the missionaries except Benjamin Keaseberry left as soon as the Opium Wars with China and the subsequent `unequal treaties' gave them access to China in the 1840s.
By 1842 Protestant missionary results were minimal although some progress had been made in providing for ministry among the increasing number of Europeans in the Straits Settlements. For members of the Church of England, St George's Penang had been built in 1818 and St Andrews in Singapore in 1838. Presbyterians and Catholics were not far behind. With the exception of the Catholics, these churches had only a limited missionary commitment to non-Europeans, but their presence laid a foundation for churches which would eventually be more Malaysian.
1.6. The Straits Settlements and Sarawak : 1842 to 1874.
After 1842 the development of chaplaincy churches for the expatriate population continued at an unspectacular rate. Beyond the Straits Settlements the Peninsular suffered from unrest and general instability. Chinese migrants were developing the tin resources of Perak and the time was approaching when pressure from Singapore business interests would succeed in obtaining greater British involvement.
Meantime churches and schools carried on together with limited missionary activity. In theory more should have been done. Support for East India Company chaplains in Malaya by the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), required that they undertake missionary work, but until 1865 their appointments were short term, their base was India, and the demands of the European population were more than enough to keep them occupied. In was in the 1860s that the first significant local outreach from the Singapore Anglican and Presbyterian churches began.
In Sarawak the situation was very different. In 1841 the Sultan of Brunei granted James Brooke (1803-1868) the governorship of part of what is now the First Division of Sarawak in return for his help in putting down a rebellion. Thus began the unlikely dynasty of `white rajahs' whose `mild despotism' ruled Sarawak for just over a century.
Brooke was not especially religious but wanted a missionary presence to provide education and to aid the suppression of head hunting by Dyaks. In 1847 the Borneo Church Mission was founded and its first missionary Francis Thomas (later Bishop) McDougall (1817-1886), proved ideally suited to the task. From the beginning the Anglicans came in a missionary role and for some time had the field to themselves. Initial openness among Malays soon changed - the mission found itself stimulating an Islamic revival by its very presence - but progress among tribespeople and in due course among Chinese was soon significant.
In 1855 McDougall was consecrated bishop, but his successor in 1869, Walter Chambers, was also responsible for the Straits Settlements and had less time to spend in Borneo as a result.
1.7. From the Treaty of Pangkor to the Japanese invasion : 1874 - 1941.
The Treaty of Pangkor on 20 January 1874 marked a new stage of British involvement in the region. It led fairly quickly to the appointment of British advisers in Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, and Pahang followed by the creation of the Federated Malay States in 1896 with a Resident-General in Kuala Lumpur. `Religion and custom' were specifically excluded from the British sphere of advice. With these matters being very much the prerogative of Sultans who had lost other powers in return for their security, the treaty effectively placed Malays outside the scope of Christian missionary activity.
Nevertheless during this period the Christian Churches expanded steadily and successfully, building churches and schools throughout the country, particularly in the Straits Settlements, in Perak and in Selangor. There was also some medical work. Although expatriate chaplaincy often lead the way for Anglicans and Presbyterians, for Roman Catholics, Methodists and others, it was the churches amongst the Chinese and Indians which had greatest strength.
The effects of the increasing British presence on these developments were indirect but far-reaching. Migrant Indians brought in to man estates included significant numbers of Christians - Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, and Mar Thoma. Chinese came in large numbers and sometimes Christians migrated as communities - Basel Mission Hakka to Sabah, Methodist Foochow to Sibu and Sitiawan. They and others were motivated by troubles in China and attracted by the economic prospects and political stability of British Malaya. Those who accepted a commitment to remain rather than just save for their eventual return created a demand for English education which the Churches, especially Methodist and Catholic and to a lesser extent, Anglican, were now in a better position to provide.
The British themselves built churches with new Anglican congregations being started in Taiping and Kuala Lumpur in 1887 and Seremban in 1893. Alongside these developed Tamil and Chinese missions. The Open Brethren had been present in Singapore and Penang from the 1860s and from the 1880s developed a successful mission in Taiping. Methodism arrived with William Oldham in 1885 and made rapid advance helped by its resources of American manpower and finance and benefiting from its experience as a missionary church in India as well as from the increasing interest in English education. Its timing was impeccable. In people like Horley, Shellabear and Blasdell the Methodists had some outstanding missionary leadership. Presbyterians in Penang had co-operated with the SPG in a mission in Province Wellesley through the 1880s but apart from there and Singapore where J A B Cook gave leadership to the Chinese Presbyterian congregations at Bukit Timah and Prinsep Street, its energies were fully absorbed by the expatriate Scottish communities.
In Borneo the situation developed with the expansion of Sarawak territory under Brooke rule and the take over of what is now Sabah by the British North Borneo Company in 1881. This coincided with the arrival of the Mill Hill Fathers as Roman Catholic missionaries. The Anglican mission suffered from the bishop's being partially resident in Singapore until Borneo again obtained its own bishop in 1909. Able and dedicated priests such as W H Elton of Sandakan were insufficient on their own to cope with the demands and the opportunities confronting the mission. It was a perpetual disappointment that sufficient ordained manpower was consistently lacking and that steps to train and ordain local priests were painfully slow.
1.8. `Japanese Time': 1942-1945.
Of great significance was the removal of expatriate leadership so that the churches were entirely in Asian hands for the first time. Chinese Methodists took the opportunity to declare their independence from American Methodism. In Borneo local Anglican priests, an Indonesian Methodist pastor and some Austrian Mill Hill Fathers were able to continue until near the end of the war at which time there was great devastation of property.
Expatriate churchmen interned in Changi prison now saw very clearly that after the war they and their churches would have to change. They had been insular in their relations with one another and too aloof in their relations with Chinese and Indian Christians.
1.9. The return of British rule.
With the end of the war it seemed inevitable that independence would come sooner or later although there was debate over the nature of the political settlement, particularly with regard to citizenship provisions for non-Malays. The churches moved quickly to repair their buildings and re-establish their work. However it was not a matter of simply carrying on from where they had left off, although the services marking the restoration of St George's Penang might have made one wonder about British intentions.
Of more significance than celebrations of British return was the fact that the resolutions of Changi were not forgotten. In 1948 the Council of Churches of Malaya and Singapore came into being and the same year Trinity College was founded to train local ministers for the region. The return of peace brought to light many stories of bravery, resourcefulness, courage and suffering among Christians and the full story of these days still needs to be told.
1.10. Emergency, Merdeka and beyond.
In 1948 communist attacks resulted in a declaration of a state of emergency in Malaya which was to last until 1960. Part of the government response to the serious security situation was the creation of `New Villages' for rural Chinese squatters whose residence on the edges of the Malayan jungle made them a base for recruitment and support for the communists.
Over 400 New Villages came into being as a result. To help win the `hearts and minds' of those resettled into barbed wire villages the British went to considerable lengths to encourage churches and missionary societies to send missionaries and welfare workers to help humanize what were little more than concentration camps.
This call for assistance came at the same time as missionaries were being forced out of communist China. Although most church bodies refused to have anything to do with government sponsorship, Chinese-speaking workers were soon coming into the country independently. New denominations and missions were among the arrivals, including American Lutherans and Southern Baptists and the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and China Inland Mission (CIM, then in the process of changing its name to Overseas Missionary Fellowship, OMF). Altogether it was the largest influx of missionary personnel that Malaya was ever to experience.
The New Villages were a responsive mission field though the modest results were disappointing to some who felt that missionaries might have been more effective in urban situations. Nevertheless a good number of churches trace their origins to this period.
While for some it may have been the first time that they experienced missionaries who really lived among the people at their own level, it was notable that among existing Malaysian churches support for New Village work was not as strong as might have been hoped. The fact that almost entirely the villages were populated by just one ethnic community meant that both government and church were involved in perpetuating problems of communalism even if by so doing other issues were eventually solved.
At the same time as the Malayan Christian Council was involved in coordinating the New Village work it was also seeking to promote the cause of church union. In this it was far less successful. Problems of language tended to restrict those seriously involved to expatriate church leaders who were also more familiar with the historic differences between denominations in their home countries, particularly over episcopacy.
Local Christian leaders felt themselves on the margin of these ecumenical discussions. It seemed that they were being asked to agree to a foreign solution to a foreign problem and neither the problem nor the proposed solution seemed relevant to their own priorities. Many, especially Chinese-speaking, were swayed by accusations that those involved were betraying the Gospel.
The success of the Church of South India scheme in 1947 appeared to be an encouragement to similar efforts in Malaysia but that had involved only one ethnic group, had taken nearly 30 years, and became a source of serious division within the Anglican communion world-wide. Despite good will and good intentions discussions eventually collapsed. The majority of Malaysian Christians may not have even been aware that they had taken place.
Despite this failure these years marked the high point of ecumenical co-operation for some time. Although those involved were very alive to the need to increase local participation, this was not easily achieved outside those who were quite Western in their outlook. The real integration of ecumenism into the life of Malaysian churches had to wait until there were Malaysian issues which proved beyond doubt the value of this sort of co-operation. When Malaya achieved independence in 1957 the churches began to show more signs of moving from expatriate to local leadership, but despite the flow of students from Trinity, progress was slow and patchy.
Although accused of not being Evangelical, the Malayan Christian Council was in fact enterprising and industrious in its outreach activities and unlike its critics looked very seriously at the old question of the scope of the Christian mission in Malaya and Singapore. Careful attention was given to questions of religious freedom for all groups in society and submissions made to the Reid Constitutional Commission as Independence (Merdeka) approached.
The bringing of Sabah and Sarawak into the Federation of Malaysia followed by the expulsion of Singapore in 1965, had the effect that the churches in West Malaysia now had to face thinking of themselves as relating to East Malaysia and not to Singapore. This was not altogether easy and came at a time when they were still coming to terms with their independence from the funding and personnel of overseas churches. There was a loss of leadership to Singapore, if not to further afield, and the time, effort, and cost of creating an infrastructure of church administration and theological education within Malaysia itself was considerable. It is not surprising that church growth faltered during these years.
In Sabah and Sarawak the post-war years saw a steady stream of converts from tribespeople in what amounted to a mass-conversion movement. Consolidation in the faith for long-houses that declared themselves Christian was not always easy and the pastoral and social needs are still enormous. The Borneo Evangelical Mission founded by a number of Australians in 1928 and today associated with the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, successfully nurtured the Sidang Injil Borneo with a mission policy which concentrated on leadership development and economic independence.
The Methodist Iban Annual Conference is the result of long standing work by American Methodists aided by missionaries from around Asia. The Conference is still struggling in some ways. The American Methodists declared Sarawak a `land of opportunity' resulting in a formidable influx of about 100 missionaries in the mid-60s. This was followed by a sudden withdrawal in the mid-70s. Despite careful planning, useful agricultural and medical work and the provision of considerable resources for theological education, somehow what worked in other places did not produce the strong church that was hoped for. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that missionary overkill was one of the factors responsible. The suddenness and scale of both the arrival and the departure were too much for the church to cope with.
In the case of Chinese Methodists however, less assistance was given, and the strength of the Foochow Christian community was such that it was not threatened by it. It helped that it had been an indigenous Christian church from its beginning and in a situation where church and community had long been strongly identified.
Anglicans and Catholics are both well established in East Malaysia. In Sabah in 1970 the state government acted to remove all expatriate missionaries. This could have led to collapse, but instead people rose to the occasion and the local leadership which remained was prepared to insist that only high calibre students would be trained to replace the priests who were forced to leave. Catholics were also aided by the new emphases flowing from the Second Vatican Council which stressed the responsibilities of the laity in the total life of the church.
In both East and West Malaysia Church schools did much to help provide indigenous leadership for the denominations concerned as well as making a worthwhile contribution to society at large. In more recent years a certain loss of faith in schools as places of significant Christian witness is only partially explained by their steady transition to government institutions with minimal church control. It is also an attitude of mind which tends too easily towards being self-fulfilling.
The languages used by different congregations continue to have considerable influence on the shape of church life. Early on, for those who came as migrants, church fellowship in one's own dialect was a means of preserving cultural identity. However while it facilitated evangelism within that sub-culture, it also reinforced a mentality which was distrustful of the wider church and contributed to a deep-seated traditionalism which finds it difficult to distinguish between matters of faith and matters of culture.
The situation is often complicated by relationships between generations in the same church. It is not uncommon among Chinese Christians for the primary language of grandparents to be Chinese, that of the parents to be English and for their children, a greater acceptance of Bahasa Malaysia. Different languages also represent different styles of leadership, relationship and decision-making which are not always readily compatible.
This is of course not unique to Malaysia and can also be seen in English expatriate congregations. While enriching in many ways, diversity of language and culture plays havoc with church administration. To some extent the growth of Mandarin has simplified matters among Chinese speaking congregations and English still functions as a common language among many Christians in a way that may eventually come to be true for Bahasa Malaysia.
The growth of English speaking congregations led to greater mixing between Chinese and Indian Christians but also highlighted differences with those whose education was been in other language mediums. As a generalization it seems that English educated Chinese find some identity in their denominational label, whereas dialect and Mandarin speakers tend to find their identity in their ethnicity of which the church is but one manifestation.
The 1980s has seen the growth of theological education within Malaysia as among a number of other institutions Malaysian Bible Seminary and Seminari Theoloji Malaysia have become more firmly established. The charismatic movement has made its contribution and most churches have found ways of accommodating its insights even if there is still a tendency to react superficially to both its strengths and its weaknesses. More Protestants have woken up to the changes in Catholicism since Vatican II. Interfaith dialogue no longer makes headlines. The need for a unified voice in dealing with the government has encouraged Evangelicals (through the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship) and Catholics to combine with churches traditionally represented in the Malaysian Council of Churches to form a representative Christian Federation of Malaysia. The ability of national leaders to work together in this way is remarkable and needs to find more parallels at a local level. Para-Church groups such as Malaysian Care, Campus Crusade, Scripture Union, Graduates Christian Fellowship and others add their contribution to the total church life of the nation as do other groups which arise in response to particular needs.
Social changes, the problems of living in a multiracial and multireligious society in which Islam is the official religion, the difficulties of responding in appropriate ways to the movements and ideas of the worldwide Christian community as well as the need for each generation to rediscover God's purpose for them in this place, all make large demands from which there is no escape. But in Church History such challenges to people of faith are nothing new.
John Roxborogh, A Short Introduction to Malaysian Church History : A Guide to the Story of Christianity in Malaysia and How to Go About Discovering the History of Your Church. 2nd rev. ed, Malaysian Church History Series ; No. 1. Kuala Lumpur: Seminari Theoloji Malaysia : Catholic Research Centre, 1989, 3-15.