As part of a conference hosted by the Council of Churches of Malaysia, at their headquarters in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, I attended the afternoon sessions of their annual “Day of Solidarity”. This is a gathering focused on issues of justice and peace – information, discussion, worship and the chance to meet each other. For those of us visiting from overseas, it was a unique window into the concerns of Christians in Malaysia at a time of increasing political tension and polarisation – and a chance to see religion being used to forge various forms of public solidarity.
Several hundred attendees from Catholic and Protestant churches across Kuala Lumpur attended the opening “Taizé” worship (an international standby for gatherings that include both Catholic and Protestant participants) and then dispersed into workshops on human trafficking, migrant labourers, the situation of indigenous people in Borneo, and young people’s role in politics and society. I sat in a crowded room hearing a representative from a leading human rights organisation telling stories of the migrant workers she was trying to defend.
“Four men turned up outside our offices just as we were closing for the night. They said, we’re from Bangladesh, we’ve been forced to work for no money, they don’t give us enough food, and the boss took our passports away, but now we’ve managed to get out, can you help us? And I phoned some churches and said, can you take these people in, they’ve got nowhere to go, and the officials all said, it’s Sunday tomorrow, we’re very busy with preparing the worship…” – the room half laughs, half groans in sympathy – “so in the end I took them into my own house. But I’m asking you, can you set up a hostel in your church, can you organise to give hospitality to even a few migrant workers when they escape these situations, because these are our neighbours who need us, they are in our country, millions of them, and people always say, we Malaysians, we are so nice and kind and friendly” – another slightly embarrassed laugh from the room – “but when you look at what happens to migrant workers here, I ask you, how can we say that about ourselves? And what I really want to ask you is, why does this happen?”
The group picked up the urgency in her question, and a rapid discussion wove in other themes that I’d heard already in the buzz around the day – police and government corruption, lack of press freedom, the racial hierarchies that are part of the tangled legacy of colonial times. “I know this is very controversial, but I wonder, does this encourage Malaysians always to see some people as worth more than others?” asks a participant, referring to the special protections given to Malays in the constitution (almost everyone in the room is ethnic Chinese or Indian). The speaker concludes with a call to “live the Bible, not just learn the Bible” by defending the rights of migrant workers, and we head for a tea break.
It’s an election year, and the closing session brings together a panel of four young politicians for a wide-ranging discussion – beginning with the broad question of their visions for justice and peace in Malaysia but rapidly moving, with the encouragement of the audience, into the details of politics. There’s passionate support for the institutions of liberal democracy, checks and balances, transparency in government. The polite audience is at its least polite when a member of the governing party defends the forthcoming bill introducing punishments for spreading “fake news”; clearly not everyone trusts the government to decide what counts as fake news. At this Christian gathering the only speaker who addresses religion directly from the stage is a Muslim opposition politician, who speaks about migration and movement – linking the World Council of Churches’ Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace to the hijra, and the history of Malaysia as a place of seafarers, migrants, temporary settlers and guests. (I learn later that he himself is from a multi-racial and interfaith family, sufficiently unusual in this respect to have been a focus for media attention). We’re all pilgrims, he says, and we can be united through our pilgrimage – the audience is appreciative.
By Dr Rachel Muers