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KOTA KINABALU, Aug 23 — Sabah in East Malaysia is oft-touted as among the paradigms of the country’s cultural diversity, but the growing frequency of religious controversies has some here worried that this will soon be replaced by zealotry and intolerance.
In recent months, a cross outside a mission school was sufficient to raise protest by Muslim teachers and parents, and even eating in public during the recent Muslim fasting month of Ramadan became a topic of controversy.
These also come amid unresolved claims of attempts to convert natives of various religions to Islam, often involving alleged coercion or deception.
Some, like Grace Chong, a 31-year-old Sino Kadazan Christian living in the outskirts of the city, still recall how her childhood was a textbook example of religious harmony, when she and her best friends — a Bajau Muslim and a Brunei Muslim — shared meals together.
“During the fasting month, they would bring me some homemade Ramadan snack and bask in pride as I ate them during the school’s recess period.
“I had never really thought about abstaining from eating in front of them, nor did they ask. Sometimes we would playfully joke about how hungry she was watching me eat but it was never meant to be disrespectful,” she said, adding that she would also have them over during Christmas and point out dishes that contained pork or alcohol that they should stay away from.
But a recent deputy minister’s statement telling non-Muslims to avoid eating in front of fasting Muslims has made Chong, a government school teacher, reconsider.
“Now I worry that that when my colleagues tell me to go ahead and eat as I normally would but I worry that they might be secretly offended. I try to tell my students to be considerate to their classmates but I’m worried someone will be offended no matter what I say. I am more careful about what I joke about around teachers of a different faith for a fear of offending them.
“I am not sure how or when this happened, but whatever is it, it’s not so comfortable anymore,” she said.
Chong is also not alone in her concern. Another Sabahan who asked only to be called by her first name Jess, similarly noted that religion was increasingly driving a wedge among locals.
While Chong lamented about how this has changed the way Sabahans dine, Jess observed the effects on how natives dressing — more specifically how they are being pressured to conform to religious norms.
“I think other students wear far more provocative clothes than me but I get picked on because they think I do not respect them as I’m not ‘one of them’ (a Muslim native).
“It does not matter that I speak Malay as well as they do or that I had represented my primary school at the dikir barat (a Malay dance and singing performance),” the 28-year-old postgraduate student at a local tertiary education institution told Malay Mail Online.
Stories like Jess’ and Chong’s are some of the everyday conversations that have started happening in Sabah, albeit in hushed tones.
What most are less coy about is identifying what they believe to be source of this growing friction: attitudes imported by the “Orang Malaya”, or the people from the peninsula.
Much of this is based on the high-profile Muslim-Christian tussle for “Allah”, the Arabic word for God, which ended in the former’s exclusivity over the word, at least in peninsular Malaysia; in Sabah and Sarawak, authorities profess that Christians remain free to use the term.
Also fuelling the concerns are the sporadic reports of covert or deceptive conversions of natives to Islam as well as the incidents of locals being registered as Muslims by the National Registration Department over the use of the “bin” and “binti” affix that is associated with Islam in the peninsula.
John, a retired Catholic social worker who also declined not to be named fully, said that as a minority he was feeling more insecure than ever when it comes to freedom of religion, and that social media has given “religious zealots” an audience previously inaccessible to them.
“Now I feel that people, those who have the potential to take their beliefs to a more extreme level, are starting to test their limits,” he said.
Former Sabah Speaker and new federal Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak said that influence from west Malaysia cannot be blamed solely for religious controversies here, however, and that assimilation in both directions was the inevitable result of internal migration.
“At one time, the Dondang Sayang and Pantun champions were not Malays but Chinese. When we say, protect Sabahans against ‘Malaya culture’ we make it sound like we mean isolation. And that, too, is bad because many countries end up in civil war because of resistance to assimilation and cross-culture,” he said.
Although advising against the use of the term “Islamisation” to describe the growing prominence of the faith in East Malaysia, the minister also expressed disagreement with the incidents such as forced or deceptive conversions often blamed on preachers from the peninsula.
“So, yes, preach Islam if you want to. But do not coerce people to convert to Islam, which I do not agree with and is not allowed in Islam,” he said.