UCA News

Festive cheer and fear in Malaysia

Christians celebrate muted Christmas as tensions awkwardly escalate
Festive cheer and fear in Malaysia

Christmas decorations on display at a Malaysia store. (ucanews.com photo)

Published: December 18, 2015 03:05 AM GMT
Updated: December 17, 2015 04:51 PM GMT

Regular visitors and Christians in Malaysia could be forgiven for saying the Christmas cheer of old is rapidly disappearing from the season.

Jason, a youth from a Malay-speaking village, or kampong, deep in the interior of Sabah says as much in Malay with a half-mocking grin. He's just returned to his village after a stint in peninsular Malaysia.

He's back for Hari Natal, as it's known in Malaysia. Sitting outside his family home and keying a list of names into his smart phone he talks about what it's like to celebrate Christmas in a country that has intensified its Islamization process of all things government and private over the past several years and left many baffled and reeling in disbelief.

Those watching the changing political landscape in this once relaxed Southeast Asian country, see such volatile policy swings as unsurprising. They've noted how the Christian community almost automatically bears the brunt of any electoral misstep by the government. The community has already been forbidden from using certain Malay words in their liturgy and the recent uproar over the complaint that crosses in churches are a cause for alarm among the Muslim community has upset many.

There's also talk that any grand display of Christmas as a religious celebration is discouraged in peninsular Malaysia and there are restrictions on the types of carols that can be broadcast by local radio stations.

While all this may make it increasingly jarring to blurt out "Merry Christmas!" as the Azan, the Islamic call to prayer blares out five times a day from loudspeakers at hundreds of Mosques and suraus in Muslim Malaysia, Christians there are nonetheless quietly gearing up to celebrate Christ's birth as they have always done — decking out their homes with Christmas decorations and preparing for the traditional family gathering on Dec. 24 and 25.

Commercialization of the celebration is quite marked. The peninsula being more developed and wealthier than the Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, where there is a larger population, naturally puts on a bigger show of Christmas.

In the two resource-rich east Malaysian states, especially away from the urban setting, the Christmas celebration is a bit more real. In the kampongs just an hour away from the towns, caroling practice is being conducted in chapels and lists of families have been compiled that the carolers will call on the week before Christmas.


Familiar celebrations

Visit any of the many mainly Christian-populated kampongs there and the strains of "Silent Night", "O Come all ye Faithful" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" can be heard being belted out with enthusiasm. The carols in English, Malay, Kadazan and Iban add a festive air to the pastoral settings of the native Christian communities. 

It's the way it has always been during the season of Advent on the island of Borneo — a time-honored tradition established by European Christian missionaries when both Sabah and Sarawak were under the British colonial government. 

Unpretentious and simple, these farming communities have managed to keep the celebration focused on its religious significance. But that's not to say the associated frills of the season are not popping up. In mid-November shoppers would have noted an increase in imports of Christmas staples. Pre-Christmas sales are in full swing — in shop windows the focus is on fairy lights, Christmas trees and knickknacks, toys, Santa Claus, reindeer, snow and the odd piece of mistletoe. The shelves at the supermarkets are loaded with the usual Christmas confectioneries — fruitcakes, tarts, puddings, cookies, a variety of chocolate and so on. Rooms in hotels and restaurants are being booked and Christmas is on the market.

At the entrance of a main commercial street in one east Malaysia town, municipal Christmas lights hang. After all the religious territorial markings and heated debate, it's as though there is a kind of Christmas truce and there is a general holiday air with schools closed until the New Year and bargain hunters milling about the malls.

A Muslim woman takes a photo of an outdoor Christmas display in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. (ucanews.com photo)


In urban areas, older folk remember and talk about a carefree time when non-Christian friends would happily drop in on them on Christmas Day and they didn't have to fret about what they were serving. Now they have to think twice.

Preparing for a Christmas open house these days is a tricky matter. Where once the issue of diet was just shrugged off, the bragged-about Malaysian tradition sadly tends to be a "closed" affair now. What's on the table determines who will visit. In the kampong, that rules out the favored Christmas treat of wild boar brought in by the family patriarch after a long hunt. In the urban setting, Christmas fruitcake takes a hit due to the generous amount of tipple that fortifies the treat.

These trifles are however far from the worries of farmer Connie Kinsong, a mother of seven from a kampong in the shadow of Mount Kinabalu, in Sabah, and which is a two-hour trek from the nearest drivable road. Her Christmas dinner is nothing like what she's seen on television and in advertisements. "At most we have a kampong [free-range] chicken along with some vegetables and roots that we collect from the forest." It's all washed down by some orange juice or a bit of rice wine. Another specialty is prepared from the dried meat of paddy rats. If the family is lucky, wild boar will be on the menu, but that‘s a rarity now. "Today we have to buy more," says Kinsong wistfully.

Her eyes light up when asked about the tradition of going house-to-house caroling. "It's more organized now," she says about the practice sessions at the village chapel. The (religious) sisters are in charge. "We always start by having a reflection before practicing, and when we are ready, we go house to house and sing the carols. Everyone is excited all the way up to Christmas Day. The children are home on holiday and some of the older ones come back if they are not too far away."

So it's as it ought to be — a religious and domestic celebration rolled into one — joyful because families come together in the celebration.

Still, as they prepare to celebrate Christ's birth, there remains a gnawing fear that their right to practice their faith as they see fit will face more challenges in the New Year.

"When you allow repeated affronts, when the government allows public servants and instigators to continue to disrespect and have contempt for non-Muslims, it all feeds into the backdrop of fear we're seeing across the country," says Stephen, a volunteer church worker.

What does he want for Christmas? "More cheer and less fear in the New Year," he says.

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