ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur
Updated: December 23, 2016 05:42 AM GMT
A lone churchgoer prays among empty benches at a cathedral in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Despite having a Muslim majority dominated by ethnic Malays, a large percentage of ethnic minorities in Malaysia celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. This is under threat as Islamization creeps into the country. (Photo by AFP)
For 46-year-old Mulia Kasitung, any concerns about the creeping Islamization of Malaysia are far from her mind. It is "not in keeping with the Christmas spirit," says the local handicraft maker from Kampong Marimau in Kudat district, a poverty-stricken area in northern Sabah.
"Christmas is all about family and celebrating with old friends," she says.
"I will drive back home on Christmas Eve and stay there till just before New Year visiting friends and relaxing. I enjoy the season. We will sing carols, pray and appreciate the closeness of our family," she says.
Home, for the mother of two, is a traditional longhouse shared by 20 families.
Kayah Unto, a farmer from the interior of Sabah, is also upbeat and looking forward to the Christmas celebrations.
"Even if we experience financial problems we will work together and share the cost of celebrating Christmas," Unto said.
He is more concerned about the estimated cost of the village hall decorations and communal feast for 150 families, which will be somewhat above the equivalent of US$1,000.
"We will divide it among each household as we do every year. There should be no problem," says the farmer who has been imprisoned for complaining about land encroachment by large plantation companies on his land.
The idea of sharing is emphasized. "We go for Mass and then visit those who are holding an open house. Those who can afford to buy extra decorations. Sometimes we have fairy lights but no electricity," he says with a laugh.
Unto is looking forward to the Christmas gathering and meeting relatives he met last year.
It’s the same for his neighbor, Jaafar Dorong, who says the festival brings people together.
They go house-to-house singing Christmas carols then attend Mass. The Christmas feast is simple — perhaps steamed fish, potatoes washed down by tapai a potent rice wine.
In Kampong Dalat, Sarawak, the Catholic community there is looking forward to reuniting with family members who return from work elsewhere in Malaysia at the end of each year.
Christmas here like in many of the villages in Sarawak and Sabah are unique in the sense that Christian families that have Muslim relatives celebrate the festival in a spirit of tolerance.
"We come together as one family, celebrate and enjoy each others' company. That gives meaning to our lives," says Rose Sute.
But this may end if fervent Islamists in Malaysia get their way.
For many Christians there is also a somber mood, largely because of creeping Islamization in the country.
By next year, if the government goes ahead with imposing stricter Islamic laws, this could be their last Christmas where they will be able to celebrate the festival freely.
Sarawak and Sabah, two Malaysian states with large Christian populations, are already feeling the impact of the importation of Islamic values into their societies with families split along religious lines struggling to stay together.
Some look warily across Malaysia’s border at Brunei and at the Indonesian province of Aceh where Shariah law is imposed and Christians are forced to tone down their celebrations. Households and businesses are even prohibited from displaying any signs of the festival.
Ominous sounds have come from Prime Minister Najib Razak about the need to uphold Islamic principles in Malaysia. Liberal Muslims complain of a shift to the Wahhabi practices of Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia from Malaysia’s tolerant practice of the religion.
The government has fanned racial and religious passions by supporting a proposed law seeking to impose stricter Shariah law penalties including whipping and lengthy jail terms for failing to adhere to Islamic rules.
Unsurprisingly non-Muslims in Malaysia are alarmed. They fear the government is willing to destroy the country’s social agreement to remain in power.
The bill will divide Malaysians. Claims that it does not affect non-Muslims are false minorities say. Anything to do with Islam affects non-Muslims in the country and testimony to this can be found in court records.
Under fire since a massive corruption scandal revealed billions of dollars went missing, some of which were traced to his private bank accounts, Najib has teamed up with hardline Islamists and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party with its cleric president Abdul Hadi Awang.
Attempting to calm fears Hadi, who introduced the bill, told non-believers that "they are ignorant and unaware that there are Islamic solutions to all problems," according to The Malay Mail online.
"We want to manage this country with all the states and its multiracial society all according to our understanding of the Quran and Al-Sunnah," he said.
Political observers note that the drive for a more exclusive Malay Islamic state will tie religious supremacy to the Malay race cutting off the native, ethnic non-Muslim groups in Sarawak and Sabah and other non-Muslim Malaysians from determining the future of the country.
Every person has the right to profess and practice his or her own religion. The Malaysian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion but the country has a system that has allowed discrimination to creep in.
Several laws passed of late and old ones resurrected (the Sedition Act) have already curbed the freedoms like that of speech, the right to demonstrate and criticize that were once, not long ago, taken for granted.