The London based weekly journal The Economist has called the recent victory of the ruling party in Malaysia “a tawdry victory”. There is no doubt that the elections were not completely free and fair. After 50 years in power, the Barisan Nasional has engineered a strong gerrymander. There were serious allegations of vote-buying and irregularities like the permanent ink used to mark the fingers of those who have voted being easily washed off.
In addition Government policies favour ethnic Malays and, in Borneo, other indigenous groups. People of Chinese and Indian origin are not so favoured. A strong whiff of racism pervades politics in Malaysia.
The disquiet of Malaysian Christians goes beyond the immediate problems of the election. They are concerned for example about non-Muslims being banned from using the word “Allah” to describe God. This controversy has been alive since at least 2007 when Christians were banned from using “Allah” in any publication, including the Bible. Catholic Christians took the Government to court, but failed to overturn the ban.
A fatwa issued in 2010 confirmed the ban and in January this year the Sultan of the State of Selangor strengthened it with threats of legal action against anyone who defied it or spoke out against it. Prime Minister Najid Abdul Razak supported the Sultan saying that their viewpoint protects harmony in a country with many religions.
Christians and Hindus in Malaysia argue that the word “Allah” does not belong just to Muslims. It is the normal Arab word for God, and Arab-speaking Christians in the Middle East have been using it probably for 1900 years. “Allah” entered Bahasa (the language spoken by Indonesians and Malays) more recently with both Christians and Muslims using it freely – until the last few years.
This ban, in a country with a secular constitution, obviously discriminates against non-Muslims, but it also restricts Christians in theological discussion about God.
Muslims appeal to Christians to use only the word “Tuhan” (which means “Master” or “Lord”) when speaking of God.
Bible translators, for example, are faced with two different words for God in the Old Testament: “Elohim” and “YHWH” (The Lord). In the New Testament “kyrios” and “theos” both refer to God. To be consistent in Malay Bibles, translators need two words to distinguish “God” and “Lord”.
The Malaysian Christians I know are not anti-Muslim, but they are worried by the way that this and other religious issues are used as a wedge between Muslims and Christians. They want rather to foster dialogue between the two faith communities.
Because of possible legal consequences, Christians in Malaysia are restrained in discussing these issues openly. Praise God that in Australia we have no such restriction. We can help our sisters and brothers by praying, and by expressing our opinions when we have the opportunity. If you know Malaysian Christians, you could tell them of your support and solidarity. They will value it.