Window on the World - Malaysia

David Burfield

Land of Contrasts

Malaysia is a land of contrasts. Its capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL), is a modern, prosperous and vibrant city boasting the Petronas Twin Towers as the world’s tallest building. The city is connected to the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and its adjacent Formula One racetrack at Sepang by a state-of-the-art rail express. Neighbouring KL (you have to get use to initials if you live here) is Cyber Jaya and the Multi-Media Super Corridor – the Malaysian equivalent of California’s Silicone Valley. Malaysian-made cars dominate the highways and toll-roads and new housing estates and luxury condominiums mushroom seemingly overnight. Prosperity is generated especially by petroleum, palm oil, electronics industry and historically from timber, tin and rubber although these are now of declining importance.

By contrast, less than two hours drive from KL, or two hours flight to the neighbouring Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, hunter-gatherers still live off the produce of the jungle – hunting wild boar, deer and monkeys; gathering the abundant natural fruit and vegetables; fishing in the river. Their homes and furnishings made from bamboo or wood and roofed with thatching from the jungle; their water collected from spring, river or rain. Their lives tied to the ongoing life of the tropical rain forest.

Of course, between city and jungle are the smaller towns and villages and a varied agricultural development, which usually means clearing of swathes of jungle for timber and replanting with large estates of Palm Oil or smaller tracts of padi fields. In the highland (cooler) regions vegetables and tea are grown.


Malaysia is made up from three separated regions: Peninsular Malaysia – the former British colony of Malaya; Sarawak – the once private fiefdom of Raja Brooke in North-West Borneo; and Sabah ‘owned’ by the North Borneo Trading Company. Sabah and Sarawak are rather untidily separated by the small oil-rich nation of Brunei. Malaya became independent in 1957 and joined with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore in 1963 to become the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore withdrew from the federation two years later.

Malaysia has an equatorial climate (temperature range of approximately 26-35C throughout the year). The climate, hot, wet and humid, means that Malaysia is a green paradise blessed with not only tropical rain forest but also home to a bewildering variety of animals, birds and tropical fruits unknown in the West.


Malaysia has a rich multi-ethnic mix with Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous tribal peoples as the main components. The Malays have a dominant position politically (being the most numerous) and a special status conferred under the constitution as bumiputeras – literally ‘sons of the soil’. The Chinese and Indians are relative latecomers to Malaysia mainly arriving in the late 19th century as a response to the British attempt to develop the economy. Chinese immigrants were mainly tin-miners and traders whereas Indians (mainly Tamils from South India) were brought across as indentured labour to work the rubber plantations and build the railways – most of them stayed, as life in the then Malaya was preferable. Today this pattern continues with large numbers of Indonesians, Philipinos and other groups (many of them illegal) working in low paid jobs as construction and plantation workers or domestic helpers.


A consequence of the rich mix of different people groups is cultural and religious diversity. Probably all the major world religions are represented in Malaysia – Islam (the official State religion); Hinduism (Indian community); Buddhism and other Chinese religions (Chinese); Animism (indigenous people groups) and Christianity.

Malaysia has been proclaimed as an Islamic country, although under the leadership of the present Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohammad, the constitutional rights for freedom of religion have been upheld. However, hard-line Islamic groups are pressing for the creation of a more fundamentalist Islamic state where the Shariah (Islamic religious law) would replace the Western-style legal system endowed by the British.

Television programmes provide a window on this uneasy mix with religious programmes (learned discussions, Koran reading and prayer times) sitting awkwardly alongside Western-style advertisements and numerous foreign films and programmes from America, India and Hong Kong which, although heavily censored, espouse violence, greed and immorality.

Coming of the Gospel

Apart from very limited early missionary work, predominantly by Jesuit priests, the gospel arrived very late in Malaysia. Contrary to popular understanding, British colonial rule did very little to help the spread of the gospel aside from providing an infrastructure and roads which helped to open up the country in much the same way that the Roman Empire assisted the travels of St Paul and his companions.

In fact, for the sake of political expediency, the British made agreements with the Sultans (the local state leaders and foci of power) that the Malay people (Muslims) would not be evangelised. To this day the constitution of Malaysia enshrines the fact that Malays, by definition, are adherents of Islam.

Apart from the Anglican Church, which originated as a chaplaincy for expatriates serving in Malaya, there is little colonial influence. Thus British Methodists would be hard put to recognise Methodism here since there are no circuits, a minister to each church, few local preachers and bishops to boot! American Methodism arrived in Malaysia via two distinct roots: one via India and Singapore to the then Malaya; the other brought by the Foo Chow community from China when they migrated to Sarawak – now part of East Malaysia.

The Church Today

Geographically, ethnically and religiously East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) and the Peninsular are two different worlds. In the Peninsular the church is largely confined to the Chinese and Indian communities although there are churches amongst the indigenous people groups. The church is divided by denominations and by language – for example, there are four distinct Methodist Conferences: English, Chinese, Tamil and a Malay language Mission Conference in the Peninsular (with two more in Sarawak!).

As a whole the church is growing rapidly especially in the cities, and many local churches have been transformed over the past few decades by the Charismatic renewal providing a new impetus on evangelism and a new heart for worship. A feature of church life in the Peninsular is that most congregations hold their Sunday worship in homes, shop-lots, hotels, warehouses and the like rather than in purpose-built church buildings. This has developed in the past 30 years, as planning permission for church buildings is unobtainable. In reality this has proved a blessing, allowing churches to concentrate on growth and evangelism rather than buildings, and providing flexibility as the congregation grows.

By contrast the church scene in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) is totally different. Here the church is dominantly drawn from the indigenous peoples worshipping in Malay and tribal languages – in Sabah alone there are over 30 distinct language groups. As Christians form a much higher proportion of the population in these states the religious climate is much more open, new church buildings appear everywhere and the State Government has been known to donate funds to build churches.

In Sabah the early 70’s was a time of persecution and Islamisation and all serving missionaries were expelled. The Church was forced to its knees in prayer and from that prayer came a revival that swept through the churches bringing rapid growth and a new enthusiasm for evangelism. Today the church is in need of Bible teachers and trained pastors who can disciple the many who have come to faith and lead them amidst an uncertain and increasingly materialistic age.

Prayer Priorities.


  1. For continued political and social stability, not least as Dr Mahathir steps down as Prime Minister in October 2003.
  2. For continued outreach to people groups who still have not heard the gospel.
  3. For the raising up and training of godly men and women as leaders, pastors and church workers to disciple believers and to lead the church.
David Burfield is a scientist and has taught for 17 years at the University of Malay before retraining in theology and returning to Malaysia in 1996. He lectures in practical theology, preaching and worship at the Sabah Theological Seminary where his wife Rhona has an active ministry as a counsellor and English teacher.

Headline Autumn 2003 pp12-13