Malaysia, formerly Malaya, is developing rapidly and is influential in the Islamic world and in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It faces challenges with the country’s ethnic and religious mixture.
Peninsular Malaysia is seven times more densely populated than East Malaysia. Malaysia is ethnically diverse, comprised of ethnic Malay, Chinese, indigenous tribal peoples, Indian and other migrant groups.
To be Malay is to be Muslim. In Peninsular Malaysia, the official and majority religion is Sunni Islam. In East Malaysia, Islam is a minority religion. There is a constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. In practice, however, it is not possible for a Malay person to legally change his or her religion. In the last 20 years, the government has pursued a policy of promoting Islam so that Chinese, Indians and tribal groups, especially in East Malaysia, are pressured to embrace Islam.
The official language in Malaysia is Malay (Bahasa Malaysia). However, there are 145 other languages, 130 of which are tribal. Other principal languages are English, several Chinese languages and dialects, Tamil and Iban.
There are two distinct parts of Malaysia: Peninsular (West) Malaysia on the Kra Peninsula of mainland Asia with more than 75 percent of Malaysia’s peoples, and East Malaysia on the northern third of the island of Borneo.
East and West Malaysia are separated by about 400 miles of open sea and together cover 205,000 square miles.
About 68 percent of Malaysia is forested and the nation is the world’s leading supplier of tropical hardwoods.
Except in the highlands, Malaysia is hot and humid throughout the year. The average temperatures are about 70°-90°F (21°-32° C). There are two monsoons: the northeast monsoon between October and March and the southwest monsoon from May to September.
The early history of Malaysia is obscure. It was split into small independent kingdoms until the 15th century when Malacca became a great kingdom and trading center, founded by a refugee prince. He converted to Islam, and Malacca became a center for the further spread of the Muslim faith.
In 1511 the Portuguese conquered Malacca. Because of its desirable location and despite constant fighting with surrounding kingdoms, the Dutch took it over in 1641.
The British, for trade and political reasons, moved into the area and took control of Penang (1786), Singapore (1819) and Malacca (1824). To work the tin mines, the British imported Chinese and Indian laborers, who then became involved in territorial disputes with the native Malays. The British, therefore, worked indirectly through the hereditary Malay rulers (sultans) so as to maintain peace and order and protect their trading interests.
At this time, East Malaysia was largely dominated by the powerful Muslim state of Brunei. Through gifts, land grants and trade, the area became a British protectorate in 1888.
Following occupation by the Japanese during World War II, there was a movement for independence from Britain. This was achieved for Peninsular Malaysia in 1957. In 1963 the current Malaysia was formed with the addition of Sabah and Sarawak (East Malaysia). (Singapore was also part of Malaysia for two years, before leaving for economic and political reasons.)
Today, Malaysia is a federation of 13 states, with a monarch being chosen by rotation from among the hereditary sultans. The federal parliament is democratically-elected.
Politics have been dominated by ethnic disputes between the Malays and the Chinese who came to the country under the British. The politically powerful Malays have been extending their influence over the non-Malay population in educational, economic and religious life. The growing power of fundamentalist Muslim politicians has further polarized the country, with consequent inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions.
Global market forces also pose a challenge to the government. Malaysia is a leading exporter of electronics and is consistently showing economic growth. It is striving to reach “developed nation” status by 2020.
Francis Xavier set foot in Malaya in 1545, and in 1814 Robert Morrison began work in Malacca, where his Chinese translation of the New Testament was later printed. During the 1800s other churches were planted among the British settlers and government servants, but because of an understanding between the British government and the sultans, evangelistic work was not permitted among Muslims.
Meanwhile, in East Malaysia, Anglicans and Methodists were at work among the animistic tribal peoples. The Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) was founded in 1928. OMF International workers were lent to BEM occasionally, until in 1975 the two missions merged.
After the communist takeover of China, many former missionaries to China went to work in Malaysia. OMF International was among them from 1952 until the late 1970s, when the government’s open-door policy to missions changed.
With the withdrawal of outside mission help, Malaysian Christians were forced to stand on their own feet. Increasing numbers of well-qualified Christians have sensed God’s call to reach out to their own people and lead churches.
|East Malaysia||5.68 mill.||1.9 mill.||33.6%|
|West Malaysia||22.66 mill.||710,000||3.1%|
|28.3 mill.||2.6 mill||9.2%|
In East Malaysia there has been significant church growth among the indigenous peoples. BEM/OMF International and other agencies left a legacy of Bible translations into the local ethnic languages. The Evangelical Church of Borneo (SIB) now takes its place in regional evangelical associations and is the largest church in Malaysia. It faces pressures from urbanization and modernization, which greatly affect the lifestyles of the local peoples, and also from Islam.
The majority of Christians in Malaysia are found in East Malaysia, where a third of the population is Christian. The overall Christian population has grown from less than four percent in 1980 to nearly 10 percent in recent years. Modernization is a double-edged sword, presenting the greatest opportunity for Christians to witness in an increasingly open Malay world, while at the same time posing a threat to the church. Western acculturations such as the spirituality of health and wealth have been problematic.
An increasing number of Christians from Malaysia are working in cross-cultural mission. They have the advantage of growing up in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious environment in an economically prosperous country that is situated in East Asia.
The focus of OMF International in Malaysia is on theological education and helping to train the future leaders of the church in Malaysia. OMF International seeks to partner with the Church in Malaysia by placing lecturers in seminaries and Bible colleges in the country. It also seeks to work with Malaysian OMF International workers to promote the church’s mission mandate and challenge more Malaysian Christians to be willing to commit themselves full-time to God’s mission in East Asia.
Non-Muslims do not have full religious freedom. Pray for:
- The restoration of full religious liberty.
- Courageous Christian leaders who are willing and able to present the needs and rights of the Christian community and minorities to the authorities.
- Malays who have believed have suffered social ostracism and the loss of legal rights, privileges and jobs; some have had to leave Malaysia. Pray for supportive fellowship for Muslim background believers.
Pray for Christians to display God’s love to Malaysians.
- Pray that the Malaysian church will be a reconciling community through genuine care for all.
- The Malaysian government has actively tried to restrict the importation of Bibles in Bahasa Malaysia even though it is the language of the majority of Christians in East Malaysia. Please pray that the Bible in Bahasa Malaysia will become available to anyone in the country who wants one.
- There is a need for more Christian literature in Bahasa Malaysia.