Instilling religious harmony in Sarawak

Archbishop Simon Poh (left) in a discussion with Abang Johari during the former’s Christmas open house in Kuching two years ago. Also seen in the photo is Abang Johari’s wife Datuk Amar Juma’ani Tun Tuanku Bujang and Datuk Seri Fatimah Abdullah, Minister of Welfare, Community Wellbeing, Women, Family and Childhood Development

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Getting along with someone with different beliefs and backgrounds may not be easy in most places, but in Sarawak, it is simply a way of life for people of different ethnicities and religions to live harmoniously side by side.

In fact, instead of these differences driving people apart, Sarawakians have shown that diversity can be a cause for unity.

For example, imagine, a family of Christians and Muslims, living under one roof, celebrating Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Gawai Dayak and Christmas every year.

Nancy Nais and her family are an example of all the above where race and religion were never excuses to compare and contrast.

With a mixed parentage of Bidayuh and Chinese, Nancy is married to an Indian Muslim, Mateen Ahmed Affandi. They live with her parents who are Christians, and 13-year-old daughter Sarah Insha Nais Affandi.

Nancy (left) and her family.

“We are one big multi-racial and happy family. Living together was never an issue. In fact, it bonds us even more, especially when my daughter is very close with my parents. They have taken care of her from the moment she was born.

“Every Chinese New Year eve, we will celebrate and eat together at the same table at home. Same for Gawai Dayak, Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Christmas. Even during the fasting month, my mother will get up earlier than us to prepare sahur. Sometimes she will join us at the table,” Nancy shared with DayakDaily.

On Sundays, Nancy will drive her parents to church and after that, they will pick a place to have family lunch or dinner, together with her husband and daughter.

They are one of the many shining examples of multiracial harmony in Sarawak, a true ‘muhibbah’ spirit to show to the world.

Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg is a devout Muslim, but he believes that all religions have good values. For him, what is most important is to see Sarawak moving forward and becoming a developed state by 2030. The philosophy that he has adopted as his policy in this is the Medina Charter.

What is the Medina Charter?

According to senior lawyer, Shankar Ram Asnani, who is Hindu, the Medina Charter or the “Constitution of Medina” is perhaps one of the earliest written constitutions, promulgated and declared by Prophet Muhammad. It is a significant document declaratory of an understanding and/or agreement reached between all the inhabitants or tribes of Medina to forge harmony, unity and guaranteed the people their freedom of religious beliefs and practices for all who follow the believers, will be treated equally as the believers.

He said, the document, aimed at protecting the state’s unity and leadership, promoted harmonious working relations between the people by giving equal rights to every citizen as well as giving them a say in government matters, and operated democratically to promote a democratic and inclusive system of governance. The people were guaranteed autonomy and freedom of religion but must be united with the believers to advance the cause of the nation.

“To me, it is exemplary of our Right Honourable Chief Minister Abang Johari to have declared in the same tone of the Medina Charter that he would treat all people of Sarawak equally,” Shankar said.

Right thinking

Shankar Ram Asnani

Shankar noted that Sarawak has no official religion even though Islam is the official religion of the Federation of Malaysia.

“In the past, there was a process of Islamisation and a lot of people were converted, then they went back to their traditional practices and this became quite alarming at some stage.

“But what is important is the right thinking. You educate them on the right human common values, the right way of thinking.

“That’s why as a lawyer, the judges will emphasise on the right thinking member of the society and not the wrong thinking.

“When people have the right thinking, they will not force the wrong thing. This is better than talking about harmony. You don’t need even (to trumpet) harmony when people have the right thinking. Right thinking, it tells you ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’…certain things you don’t go beyond the boundary. So we come back to our colonial masters, their thinking is based on the right thinking. They tried to educate people on the right thinking,” Shankar asserted.

Sarawak is indeed a land where friendship between races of all faiths have been the way of life for the ordinary rakyat, be this at work, or in the public sphere.

Shankar explained what he meant by right thinking: “When I was born, I was baptised in the Sikh way from a Hindu home…. We worship the tenets of Buddhism. That’s why I sometimes go to the Buddhists temple and pray sincerely.

“Then we also have biblical studies and all those teachings. We also have Jawi…I had the chance to learn the Christian teachings.”

He said that these religions actually all say one thing, which is the right thinking, the correct way of life, and the correct doings.

Shankar suggested that one way to maintain the current religious and racial harmony in Sarawak is not to overemphasise on religious beliefs but instead on common human values.

“That is good value that we should focus on rather than our own religious beliefs.

“I mean, I asked blessings from even the archbishop. To me blessings can come from anyone. We have the ability to bless another in the correct way,” said Shankar, who is also president of the Sri Mariamman Temple Kuching.

Religious freedom a way of life in Sarawak

President of the Hokkien Association Datuk Richard Wee, who is a practicing Buddhist said, the association had two temples under the care of the association, namely the Muara Tebas Temple and the Wayang Street Temple.

The Muara Tebas Temple has long been a symbol of racial and religious harmony. The temple is located at the top of the hill overlooking a Muslim kampung.

“But ever since the temple is there since time immemorial, on the 1st and the 15th days, they (worshippers) hold a lot of prayers. So the Malay folks in the kampung will help carry the josssticks and the foodstuffs to the temple from the foothill. And then some of them even do the cooking because the temple is also vegetarian.

Wee (seated third right) in a group photo after hosting Sarawak’s religious leaders for lunch at Sarawak Club recently. Seated from left are Fozda, Dr Khaira, president of the Kuching Buddhist Society Chua Beng Thian, Ambrose and Balachandran. Standing from left are Pung, Shankar and secretary-general of the Baha’i Assembly of Sarawak Dr Shehab Phung.

“The Malays also help to cook and serve. So, in return, the Hokkien Association has worked out an arrangement with the kampung village security and development committee (JKKK) representatives. So we ask them to help with the traffic control and in return, they charge each car RM5. And the RM5 will be given back to the JKKK. We also provide t-shirts for them. We try to co-exist together,” said Wee.

Wee explained that Sarawak’s earlier leaders had laid down the solid foundation for the harmonious society that the state hosts today.

“We had (former Chief Minister, the late Pehin Sri) Adenan Satem and now we have (Datuk Patinggi) Abang Jo. You can truly see that they want to further develop it (religious harmony),” he said, adding that politicians should not make use of religion for their political advances.

Elder Ambrose Linang (left) and Balachandran Annamalai

Meanwhile, Association of Churches Sarawak (ACS) secretary-general Elder Ambrose Linang highlighted a unique understanding between Muslims and Christians in Miri.

“The Good Shepherd Church and Masjid An Naim in Lutong, Miri share their carparks. It’s from the heart that we are doing this. For Friday prayers, the church will open its gate for the Muslims to park their cars and on Sundays, the mosque will open its gates for the Christians to park their cars. The value is in their hearts.

“We have been together for many, many years. ‘We’ here means the Buddhists, the Taoists, Baha’is, the Hindus. If we have any event, we all go there. When we have the Christian event, like the national prayer day service, and the joint Christmas celebration, not only here but also in other parts of Sarawak such as Sibu, Miri, Bintulu and Kapit, we do things together like the harmony walk, where all the faiths walk together. So, this has become a solidarity walk,” he explained.

Linang said, interfaith Christmas celebrations don’t only revolve around Christians but includes participation from the various religions.

“We all get together, together with the Malays, represented usually by the Islamic Information Centre. We are happy together, you know. When the CM came even to our small church, at its fundraising function last November, he came to witness and give a financial grant to our BEM Church.

“When the CM has done that, who are we not to do that? We have to complement that and we even make it better,” stressed Linang.

Dr John Fozdar

Dr John Fozdar, who is a Bahai leader said Sarawak is fortunate to have a leader like Abang Johari.

“We are very fortunate Abang Johari has taken over as Chief Minister of Sarawak because in West Malaysia, many Muslim leaders will say you cannot go to this place and that place because it is against Islam.

“Abang Johari is not like that, he reaches out to all religions and happily mixes with them. And in return, every religion is happy with him. They recognise he reaches out and in turn the Hindus and the Buddhists also reach out to him. This is not religious tolerance, it is a genuine respect for each other’s religion,” said Dr Fozdar, adding there are currently between 45,000-50,000 Baha’i followers in Sarawak.

“The Bahai teaching is that religion is like clothes which the father gives to his child. When the child is born, he is given nappies, then as the child grows older he is given different kinds of clothes but he is still the same child and having the same father. And we believe the father is God and the child is humanity,” he pointed out.

The secretary of the Sarawak State Council of Malaysia Hindu Sangam, Balachandran Annamalai, agreed with Dr Fozdar and stressed that Sarawak must have religious harmony instead of mere ‘tolerance’ because in ‘tolerance’ there is a limit.

“That’s my stand here. So, in Sarawak, religious harmony should be emphasised. The strength in Sarawak is that there is no official religion where Islam is like any other religions. I found that is the best module that we can produce,” he said.

Balachandran, who hails from Melaka and has been residing in Sarawak for the last 35 years, is married to an Iban woman from Lubok Antu.

“We maintained a mixed marriage. I’m a Hindu and my wife is a Christian. My children will follow her to church because we have understood the foundation of Hinduism. There is no conversion and justification and we don’t have all those things. That’s the reason why I told her to maintain that,” he shared.

As an academician at the Batu Lintang Teachers’ Training Institute, he has taught students from all faiths and races.

“That’s the opportunity for me to share the message of harmony and I see that. In Sarawak, by nature they have harmonious beliefs compared to West Malaysia. This, you can’t do in West Malaysia,” he said.

As an academic, Balachandran suggested that the ‘Sarawak religious module’ be taught in schools in Sarawak, as all religions have noble values which could build a more harmonious society in the long run.

Dr Kalwinder Singh Khaira

As a small community numbering some 1,000, the Sikhs have been in Sarawak for more than 150 years. Besides Kuching, they have settled in Sibu, Bintulu and Miri.

“The number may be small but not the contribution. Sikhs have been living with all the other faiths all these years. We are right at the centre of town. Even the CM comes regularly to the temple and he would say, we have the church, the temple and the mosques in a straight line and they have lived harmoniously since the Brooke time,” recalled Sikh Temple Association president Dr Kalwinder Singh Khaira.

“Our temple in Kuching was built in 1912. Before that, there was another structure but at the same area.

“I think it’s only in recent times that we have religious friction. And I agreed with what we have shared here that sometime it’s due to politics. We should be higher than that. I studied at St Joseph’s Secondary School.

“So it’s very important that whatever we do, we are united. We should rise above all these religious differences. Are there differences? Surely there are but we must discuss it at the table.”

Dr Kalwinder stressed that Sarawak is truly unique. And to maintain the existing religious harmony, the state’s immigration autonomy should be kept to ensure the ‘Sarawak mould’ could continually be maintained.

Pung Chee Haw

Pung Chee Haw, the secretary-general of the Kuching Buddhist Society said, Buddhism teaches love and compassion to its believers.

“And therefore, what we do as an organisation, say for example, give study loans, we always give irrespective of race and religion for as long as you need the money to continue your studies. We will give the money to help you. And there a lot of activities that we do, for example, hold blood donation programmes. We accept anybody. We used to get to get a lot of response from the public,” he said.

Pung disclosed that the Kuching Buddhist Society also offers assistance to hold cremation services for other adherents.

“For things such as cremation, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Muslim, a Catholic, a Sikh. We just cremate the bodies and we allow you to put your ashes in our temple. We do not say you must be a Buddhist, we don’t.

“And very often, we get requests from the pubic, especially those who are very poor and cannot afford the cost of cremation, we will do it for them them for free.

“At the moment, our temple is giving food, and other provision to poor families, and we have as many as 250 recipient families. We will send foodstuff to these poor families. We do not care whether they are Muslims, Ibans, Bidayuhs, Christians or Buddhists. And every year we will give angpow to these people. We also give food, oranges and pocket money. And we give no matter what race they belong to,” said Pung.

The setting up of Unit for Other Religions (Unifor)

Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah about to cut the ribbon to declare open Unifor’s new office at Wisma Satok, Kuching (Nov 15, 2018).

Unifor was the brainchild of the late Adenan. Since taking over as CM on January 13, 2017, Abang Johari has further enhanced the policy by allocating RM20 million for 2018, an increase from the initial allocation of RM15 million in 2017. Last year, the allocation was increased to RM30 million. For this year, it has been raised to RM50 million.

Unifor is the only such body in the whole country which looks after the welfare of other religions.

“This is indeed a legacy that our CM has greatly supported through Unifor which was initiated by Tok Nan (Adenan). This has further contributed to the harmony in Sarawak today. This spirit of mutual acceptance and respect reflects the very heartbeat of Sarawak, a legacy that we have to nurture, protect and hand down to the future generations,” said Catholic Archbishop of Kuching, His Grace Simon Poh.

He also hoped that the culture of hosting open house, which is something unique to Malaysians, particularly in Sarawak, could be sent as a proposal to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to be gazetted as a tangible cultural heritage.

“It will be something that is unique. Here we have all races, all religions sharing festivities with everyone. This is how we get to know one another and build friendships. Our open house welcomes everyone, it is open to friends of other faiths. We want to build a society based on doing common good,” added Poh.

Since taking over as Chief Minister, Abang Johari has implemented 81 initiatives in the last three year, one of which is his emphasis on religious and racial harmony in Sarawak, through Unifor. — DayakDaily