For Tan Kong Beng, politics, not religion, divides Malaysians


The executive secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, an ecumenical body, speaks out. With the government lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 years, there will be almost 8 million more voters in the next election. “[P]olitical parties are now working overtime to influence the greatest number of people.” Christians are committed to dialogue with Muslims, “But the fundamental question is: ‘Who wants to talk to us?’”

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – Politics, not religion, could undermine social stability in Malaysia, a Muslim majority country with sharp ethno-religious boundaries, this according to Tan Kong Beng, executive secretary of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), who spoke to AsiaNews.

Established in 1985, the ecumenical body brings together the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia (CBCM), the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF). According to the 2010 census, the CFM represents more than 2.62 million Malaysian Christians, 9.2 per cent of the population. Muslims are more than 60 per cent.

In recent weeks, local public opinion has been split over two issues in particular. The first one in is the teaching of Arabic calligraphy in primary schools. The second one is a social media campaign by Islamic radicals to boycott “non-Muslim products”.

For Tan Kong Beng, the “People who claim to be heralds of religion and traditions are behind these controversies and are taking advantage of [group] identity for political ends”.

Recently, the government lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 years. “This means that at the next general elections in 2023, some 8 million more voters will take part in the polls. It is clear that political parties are now working overtime to influence the greatest number of people.”

The political agenda of some opposition parties is backed by certain Islamist groups, increasingly present in Malaysians life. “The most conservative, Mideast-inspired Muslim currents (like Wahabism and Salafism) have been present in Malaysia since the 1980s when Sunni-Shia rivalry began to divide the Islamic world,” the CFM executive secretary noted.

“Malaysia came under Saudi influence, which is why local Muslims have become more and more traditionalists than in the past. This scares all non-Islamic communities.”

“It should be stressed however, that the right to religious freedom is enshrined in the Constitution. Islam is the state religion, but all groups can profess their faith in peace and harmony. Yet, for some years, extremists have been trying to limit the rights of minorities: Christians, Taoists, Buddhists, Hindus and even Shiite Muslims, Ahmadis and those who are not Sunnis.”

Malaysia’s Christian community stands out for its commitment to dialogue with Muslims. “We are trying to promote dialogue and commitment,” Tan Kong Beng said. “But the fundamental question is: ‘Who wants to talk to us?’ Are the highest Islamic authorities willing to do so? I speak not only on behalf of Christians, but of all minority religious communities.

“A genuine and sincere dialogue implies that Muslims also come to meet us. We put every effort into it, but our outstretched hands must be able to find other hands to hold.

“In the neighbourhoods, in the workplace, we do not experience a climate of division. But in the upper echelons of politics there are people who have an interest in pushing us against one other. This will not happen. It is not easy to wipe away hate messages, but we must work hard, be willing to listen, and build bridges in all the environments we live in.” (P. F.)



Leave a Reply