Minority with a major role

  • Analysis
  • Sunday, 24 Jul 2011

Christians make up only 9% of the country’s population but their willingness to take political positions in recent years suggests that they will be a factor to reckon with in the new political landscape.

BACK in the 1990s when Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham was still a small fry in DAP politics, his party boss Lim Kit Siang told him that going into politics was not like going to church. The boss further told him he should not manage politics the way the church is managed.

Ngeh, who was then about to become the Perak DAP chief, was seen as too soft and talked like a preacher rather than a politician.

Lim’s implication then was that Ngeh, a devoted Christian, had the tendency to turn the other cheek, a phrase in Christian doctrine that discourages retaliation in the face of aggression whereas politics is often about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Ngeh has since gone from small fry to a big name in DAP but he is still as Christian as they get. He is the Bruas MP and Sitiawan assemblyman and his family members have been staunch Methodists for four generations.

But as for that thing about turning the other cheek, well, that was a long time ago. DAP politics has become almost as fierce as that seen in Taiwan, and Ngeh and his equally famous younger cousin Nga Kor Min are known as the most aggressive and combative pair of politicians in Perak.

But Ngeh’s edge over many other Chinese politicians these days is his church background. This is because the Christian vote has become a political factor in the new political landscape.

“Among the non-Muslims, Christians are among the most active and vocal in political advocacy,” said UCSI University don Dr Ong Kian Ming.

A key reason, said Dr Ong, is the way government decisions on religious matters have impacted on them over the last few years, chief of which was the court ruling on what has become known as the Allah issue. The controversy surrounding the High Court decision on the use of the term “Allah” was a tipping point of sorts for the Christian community.

More recently, said Fui Soong, CEO of the Cense think tank, the Christian community has been “completely stirred up” by the politics of Bersih.

Christian sentiment has not been this politicised in years and many congregations had prayed over the Bersih issue while church members and even some pastors were known to have joined the protest. The thing is, Bersih’s call for free and fair elections resonated with biblical concepts of justice and righteousness.

A widely circulated article by Rev Eu Hong Seng, chairman of the National Evangelical Christian Federation (NECF), defended the aims of the protest and said it was “time for the moderates to speak up, be heard and play their role in this nation.”

This weekend, former NECF secretary-general Rev Wong Kim Kong is giving a talk titled “Christian response in the midst of political confusion and uncertainty”.

The online version of the recent Catholic Herald newsletter said a lot about where its editorial team stands politically.

A sampling: GE13 our thanks to Bersih; Police tried to kill Anwar; Firm wins RM620,000 from ‘PM aide’ in cheating case; After Bersih, Pakatan sets eyes on expanding rural votes; Malaysian police arrest four for wearing Bersih T-shirts.

The church, or the Herald, at least, also seemed intent on downsizing the significance of the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Pope, going by the headings of the related news items: Catholics won’t suddenly change; Allah row drags on despite Najib-Pope meet; Holy See and Malaysia agree to establish diplomatic relations; Vatican visit alone won’t solve Christian problems.

All these are a sign of the times, it has been said.

Even the formation of the NECF itself was a consequence of the times. NECF is the umbrella body for some 20 or so Christian denominations, many of which are of the newer variety. They congregated under NECF in 1983 because of issues relating to the Malay language Bible and difficulty in finding suitable sites for worship.

NECF is one of three main Christian umbrella bodies. The other two are the Roman Catholic Church which reports to the Vatican and the Christian Churches of Malaysia (CCM) which comprises denominations such as the Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Syrian Orthodox and so on.

The three groupings claim about a third each of the total Christians in the country. Yet, together, they make up only 9.1% of the country’s population and even a smaller percentage of voters.

“They are not big but they are generally educated, articulate and willing to take positions,” said Dr Ong.

The new middle class

Many of them are professionals and part of the new middle class. They travel, are informed and their economic situation also allows them to put into action what they believe in.

They are vocal, which makes them seem bigger than they actually are and their views are easily disseminated because there is a pulpit to preach from and a captive congregation to preach to. They are also into social networking where they take their message far and wide.

In Peninsular Malaysia, they are too widely spread out to be the king-maker in an election, except perhaps in Selangor.

The parliamentary areas of PJ Utara and PJ Selatan, said Dr Ong, have the highest percentage of Christians in Peninsular Malaysia. Christians make up 20% of the population and 14% of voters in these two seats, which fell to DAP and PKR.

In the 2004 and 2008 general elections, St Francis Xavier Church in Petaling Jaya invited the opposing candidates to address church members. Barisan Nasional’s Datuk Donald Lim had won in PJ Selatan in 2004, but by 2008 the mood had changed and although Lim’s challenger was the rather unremarkable and wooden Lee Hoy Sian of PKR, the audience’s hostilities were directed at Lim.

The bulk of Christian Malaysians are still to be found in Sabah and Sarawak. Christians make up 40% of the people in Sarawak and over 25% in Sabah.

The Sibu by-election in 2010 provided the first inkling of what could happen when the Christian vote moved en masse. DAP deployed its Christian leaders like Ngeh, Teresa Kok and Hannah Yeoh to campaign among Christian groups in Sibu; PAS MPs like Khalid Samad went to meet church goers after the Sunday service; and Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin received a standing ovation for attending a forum for Christian voters.

“It was a big gesture on the part of PAS. I don’t recall an Umno MP doing that,” said Soong.

The Sibu by-election was where the game plan changed.

But no one comes close to Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud in terms of connecting with the Christians. He officiated at the opening of a new Catholic church at the height of campaigning for the Sarawak election, speaks openly of having studied Bible knowledge and is not afraid to enter a church.

Comparatively, Barisan does not have as many politicians who identify closely with the Christians, or Muslims leaders who are willing to engage the Christians. The Christian Kadazandusun leaders come closest to being the Christian face of Barisan.

Cabinet Minister and Upko president Tan Sri Bernard Dompok is one of them. He is Catholic and when he is at home in Penampang, he attends prayer meetings, supports the Monfort Youth Training Centre and helps raise funds for church groups.

Dompok has emerged as a credible leader among the Christian Kadazandusuns and he was a natural choice to accompany the Prime Minister to meet the Pope.

“Christians want to see genuine respect for our religion. In Sabah, especially, we have to be very sensitive about religious issues because people here are not afraid of opposition politics,” said Dompok.

Or as Soong put it: “The Christians used to be more complacent when they were less challenged by the political landscape. But so much has changed.”

The Christians have had to confront a catalogue of issues over the years and the feeling among many of them is that their spiritual space is under siege. It began with misgivings over issues of conversions and body-snatching and culminated in the Allah issue.

“Things like that made people decide they have to assert their political rights to defend their religion,” said NECF’s Wong.

If it is any consolation to the Barisan, the Christian vote also overlaps to some extent with the Chinese vote which the ruling coalition already has problems with. But a point to note is that the Christian vote also comprises Indians and other minority races.

“Some of the older Christians are still afraid of PAS. The younger people have less hang-ups. They have seen that PAS has been trying to be more pragmatic,” said Dr Ong.

A point of no return has been reached for many of them. They are undeterred even though they know that PAS will never abandon its Islamic agenda.

Nor do they seem worried by survey findings which show that young Muslims support the Quran rather than the Constitution as the highest law, that an overwhelming majority agree with whipping for those guilty of alcohol consumption and cutting off hands for convicted thieves.

The Christians are too small in numbers and, in the peninsula, too spread out to be considered a powerful vote.

But, said Dr Ong, they are influential because they know their rights and have become very vocal about it.

As Puah Chu Kang would say, don’t pray pray (play play) with these people. They may be a minority but they are a part of the emerging third force.

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