Categorised | Columns

My East-West Allah

Go not to the temple to put flowers upon the feet of God,
First fill your own house with the fragrance of Love

Rabindranath Tagore

MY first reaction to the news that a church was attacked was one of disbelief. Most East Malaysians, I think, would be confused as to why this is even an issue in the first place. Whether it was in East Malaysia or Kuala Lumpur, my memories of bilingual and Malay-language mass in church included this essential part:

“Kudus, kudus, kuduslah Tuhan, Allah Maha Kuasa.”

When we asked for forgiveness, we would sometimes pray:

“Saya mengaku kepada Allah yang Maha Kuasa … bahawa saya berdosa dengan fikiran dan perkataan.”

In our prayer books, both in East Malaysia and in Kuala Lumpur churches, guidance for reading of the Gospels is written:

Bacaan Injil

Injil sebagai puncak sabda Allah diwartakan dari mimbar oleh diakon atau imam.

My father is a non-Muslim bumiputera and my mother a West Malaysian Chinese. My sister and I grew up attending mass and read books on Buddhism; my mother’s Catholic brother who practises Buddhist meditation introduced Islamic poetry to our family. We have Muslim cousins and Buddhist aunts.

My East Malaysian cousins and I share ancestors who were bobohizans — pagan medicine women — and men who held bomoh abilities. My family members and I, regardless of faith — whether Muslim, Christian or Buddhist — understood that “Allah” and “Tuhan” could be used interchangeably. It was never something to get confused about.

As Catholics, we never fought with our Protestant cousins the way I had to defend my church denomination when I came to Kuala Lumpur. Diversity in skin colour and belief were expected, and accepted. Had anyone tried to put my Buddhist or Muslim relatives down on account of religion, they would have my sister and me to contend with.

Underlying it all, we knew, even as children, that everyone’s blood runs red, and that we ultimately worship the same God. Those who did not believe in a higher being practised love and compassion anyway. This was good enough for most of us.

Excerpt from prayer book (Courtesy of Petra Gimbad)

Being the product of a mixed-race marriage does that to you. In East Malaysia, taxi drivers would never ask, “You Melayu ke Cina?” Once, I had a conversation in primary school about our collective heritages. Many of us were the product of at least three races, most named five. Only two were pure Chinese Malaysian.

Imagine getting into a cab in Kota Kinabalu and having to recite, “Aku orang Cina, Bugis, Filipina, Kadazan, Murut …” It just does not work. Plus, there are far more interesting things to talk about, such as poverty in Sabah or the Penan issue.

Blurring the lines

The recent church, Sikh gurdwara and surau attacks brought me home to Sabah and Sarawak and what I missed about them. In Malaysia, our textbooks ask schoolchildren, “Is Ali a Malay?” and “Is Mei a Chinese?” based on what they wear, what they speak, and what religion they practise. This is despite the fact that most Chinese girls do not wear cheongsams on a daily basis; and many of my Malay and Indian Malaysian friends in Kuala Lumpur speak English at home.

In East Malaysia, the lines are blurred. You find Kadazan Malaysians who pray at the gurdwara, and Sino-Kadazan Malaysians with Arab and Muslim ancestors who pray in churches.

My father’s Muslim friends were so accepting of pork being served at the same table. This is similar to the acceptance practised by Buddhist and Hindu friends throughout Malaysia of non-vegetarian cuisine or beef meals.

Vegetarians don’t complain when meat is served
at the table (Pic by lockstockb /

It worries me how West Malaysian ideas of intolerance have started creeping in: during my childhood, peers started telling me off for being kurang ajar while I absentmindedly ate pork in front of them. What then, one begs to ask, of vegetarians or Hindus who do not eat meat or beef and accept the serving of certain foods at the same tables?

It seemed a little unfair when, as a Catholic, I refrained from meat on Fridays and was totally okay with chicken being served at the same table on that day. I would rather have my friends near than feel segregated on account of food. This is more muhibbah, no?

Why fight over a word?

The arguments we have over the right to a word are utterly bewildering. Classmates and I said “Ya Allah!” instead of “Oh my God!”, and used the terms “Nabi Isa” and “Yesus Kristus” interchangeably. Out of respect, my Christian friends and I would try to use the term “Nabi Isa” when we were referring to Jesus Christ while talking to Muslim friends. However, if we said “Yesus Kristus”, our Muslim friends did not mind — we understood that our faiths had differing concepts, but we knew we were essentially talking about the same man.

This took place in a school that had a 95% majority of Muslim girls, who may fit the constitutional definition of what it is to be a Malay Malaysian. They spoke the language as do all of us in East Malaysia, regardless of race — unlike the Kuala Lumpur community who sometimes cannot even communicate with each other. They wore the baju kurung, as do many non-Muslim schoolgirls throughout Malaysia. And they professed the Islamic faith. However, many of the girls were ethnically Bajau.

The only Muslim I had to worry about was the ustaz who purportedly sexually harassed his students. I was exempt from this because I did not have to take Islamic studies — a part of me wished I could, because it angered me to hear my friends’ stories and I wished I could have collected evidence on their behalf.

As early as primary school, Malay-Muslim friends in Sabah made sure I knew that I should never feel forced into Islam, and that some would attempt to do so by force to “capai pahala”. I was to take my time to learn about the religion. If I chose not to convert, that was okay, too. One of these friends was the daughter of an ustaz and ustazah.

Closer to God

In the light of attacks on churches, a gurdwara and surau, I feel immensely lucky to be a mixed race child from a family of many faiths. I believe — and this is personal — that this has brought me closer to God. Hafiz expresses it best:

Blue church next to an Iban longhouse in Sarawak
(Pic by tajai @ Flickr)


I have learned
So much from God
That I can no longer
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew.
The Truth has shared so much of itself
With me
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even pure

Petra Gimbad works on child rights and refugee issues, and is an English graduate.

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23 Responses to “My East-West Allah”

  1. Thank you so much for posting those lines of prayer. I have been wanting so much to type out the verses and prayers in Malay to show how authentically part of the Malaysian landscape Malay (or Indonesian) Christian material is, how naturally it flows as part of the language. You simply cannot say “take out that word and put another in”. But I have been separated from Sarawak for so long, and don’t have access to any materials at the moment to refer to.

  2. toni says:

    After all is said and done, this issue has nothing to do with religion or race. It’s simply politics — so really no need to write so long and so detailed about nothing.

  3. Sam says:

    A good article and I hope the “blind” in West Malaysia will learn what it means to be a human being.

    In Peninsular Malaysia, there is a lot of religious exhibitionism. Each Umno politician wants to show how religious he/she is, but these same people wallow in sin — sex, corruption, deceit and lies … [and yet] are defending religion and Allah.

  4. ron says:

    Good one Petra. Two incidents come to mind: a sign on a bus requesting passengers to abstain from eating pork , and a multinational company that banned microwaves because employees were heating pork in them.

    With much respect and love and understanding for anyone who has religious food restrictions, how can we point out the obvious: that one’s personal religious observations cannot be projected onto others who don’t hold such beliefs.

    Often the issue becomes confused with disrespect. Disrespect would be forcing someone to eat that which he believes to be forbidden. Say you invite a person with religious food restrictions to a banquet and do not serve any suitable food. That would be disrespectful and lacking courtesy.

    But expecting someone who does not share your beliefs to abide by them in your presence, that’s just about subjugating minorities because you know you can get away with it.

  5. Kim says:

    Thank you for expressing so well what it is like to be an East Malaysian; where living in harmony with people from different faiths and ethnic groups is a norm, not an anomaly.

  6. Kris says:

    Well said. This nation was founded on a core of love and understanding. To that effect, as you have pointed out, Hindus and Buddhists have no issue dining at a table that has beef served, or even having meat at a table when one is a vegetarian. Muslims had no issue with pork other then not consuming it, and we respected and understood that.

    These days, though, it’s all about me, myself and I. Everyone else has to make allowances for us. Whither the love and understanding?

  7. John Baptist says:

    This is a lovely article, Petra. And from first-hand experience with friends from East Malaysia, I know your views expressed to be true. I am resolute that there is still hope for our nation regardless what the naysayers utter.

  8. Tan says:

    After 52 years of independent under BN rule, we are still called by race to differentiate one another. So, do not expect that to change so long as BN still rule the Federal Government. The concept of 1Malaysia is merely a propaganda by the BN to entice the citizens on equality and fairness in governing and wealth distribution. In fact, BN had been using the government machinery for propaganda thus far as claimed by ex-Information Minister.

  9. Fredom says:

    @Toni: “This issue has nothing to do with religion or race. It’s simply politics”

    Agree with you, Toni. You see it clearly.

    The “Allah” issue and Mathathir’s recent statements [on 9/11] are old tricks attempts to divert attention from the semi-paralysed government today, and to get Malay [Malaysians] to return from the opposition camp using Christian versus Muslim, Western vs Malaysia [arguments] (often used by Mahathir against Australia at Malaysia’s expense).

    I urge all East Malaysians to examine the past records of the political-ISA-issuing, one-party ruling government. What have they achieved? Many West Malaysians are disillusioned. You can read all about it [on the internet] today.

    A true two-party democratic system would give East Malaysians the best results, as has happened in developed countries like Australia, the UK and the US. A change to the alternative party in the next general election will start the ball rolling for better days, a better economy, better governance, better compassion for all. Make it a point to discuss these issues with all in East Malaysia, as it is pivotal for the final overall results. Don’t get sucked into promises and short-term pork barreling by any party.

    Welcome to politics.

  10. TrulyMalaysian says:

    I have to agree with Toni: the issue is not at all about religion or the attitude of the West Malaysian Muslims, it’s just about an issue that is now being abused for political agendas.

    Malaysians are generally tolerant and peaceful people. That is why we have been enjoying living in peace while most parts of the world are troubled by tribal wars, religious wars, wars between nations, civil wars etc. Even US and Australia were not spared by racists unrest (if we recall the Los Angeles police brutalities on [African Americans]; anti-Indian/Asian attacks on students in Australia; Croatian ethnic cleansing, etc).

    But Malaysians have been respecting and enjoying going to all festivities and open houses during Hari Raya, Christmas, Deepavali etc., both in West and East Malaysia. The cordial relationship among the Malaysian people has always been intact and unique from most parts of the world. Therefore it shouldn’t be generalised, marginalised or politicised. Because there is no issue at all.

    The key to this success is RESPECT, which all Malaysians have been instilled with from their traditional backgrounds and values. For instance, to respect the elderly is a must here, a common value that is not even easy to find in so-called “developed countries”. What more to respect places of worship?

    As these traditional values have been sidelined by the demands of modern and economic priorities, the Malaysian values that kept us together all this while have been threatened. Therefore the act of burning churches or surau is not Malaysian at all, and is very foreign and disturbing. The further act of trying to portray Malaysian Muslims as extremist or intolerant is also disturbing. Non-Muslims have been able to eat pork and worship in their temples all this while because it is taught in Islam and practised by Muslims in Malaysia to tolerate as long as it is not a threat to Islam and Muslims.

    One has to look with a sincere heart why some Malaysian Muslim conservatives oppose the use of “Allah” in Christian publications. Even if these Muslim conservatives are opposed to the “insensitive approach” of the churches, they must also oppose the idea of burning churches because it is not Islamic. […]

  11. M.K. says:

    An excellent article! I am a Hindu but I had my education at a prominent La Sallian school in Malacca: St. Francis’ Institution. While being a Boarder in the 60’s, we had students of all races and religions living together. All types of food was served during our meals and all of us slept together at a common dormitory. The best part was we all PRAYED together at the school-chapel without any fuss!

    Today, we are able to sit back and recollect fond memories of the good old days while most of us have held on to our faiths. Nothing much has changed and we are still the BEST OF FRIENDS! That was EDUCATION before 1969.

  12. M.O.T.U says:

    Beautiful 🙂

  13. Laksamana says:

    As far as I know, relations between various races in towns and cities were generally good in the 1960s, much like what is happening in Sabah and Sarawak. What is happening today is the result of years of islamisation in Peninsula Malaysia? Needless to say, the non-Muslims are paying a price for their years of giving blind support to BN. It is heartening to know that there are many moderate Malaysians who are willing to speak up nowadays. There is still hope. 🙂

  14. Daniel says:

    Very true..

  15. MD says:

    West Malaysian ideas are indeed unhealthy.

  16. azmi says:

    An apt article. The ruling elite from Peninsular Malaysia must take a leaf from their fellow [citizens] in Sabah and Sarawak. Ultimately it is the ordinary citizens who will show that we can rise above all the politicking and take the reins again.

  17. nanthayo says:

    You make me yearn to go to East Malaysia! It sounds like the Malaysia we all envision (well, maybe not all of us, but certainly the rational ones)

    As you quoted Tagore, let us, especially those who are yet to have children, sow the seeds of harmony in our homes. Teach not our children to segregate, discriminate or develop prejudice! Easier said than done eh? We still refer to people as that Malay boy, that Indian girl or that Chinese feller!

  18. chrlz borneo breed says:

    You said it! I have uncles and aunts who are Bajay, Malay, Brunei Malay, Chinese, Kadazan, Dusun; friends of diverse local races. We eat, we talk, we criticise, we live and whatnot together, pork or no pork, Muslim or Christians, there was never an issue!! It simply comes naturally that we respect each other. There is so much you people in the peninsula need to learn about being ONE […]

  19. zakura says:

    50 years, [we have been] a [harmonious] country, don’t [pour] petrol [on the] fire. Every body can burn and die [by saying that] Allah is not a Malay word. Allah is only for Muslims who can believe in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

    Say: He is Allah the One and Only; (1) Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; (2) He begetteth, not nor is He begotten; (3) And there is none like unto Him.

  20. Ida Bakar says:

    Sabahans – Truly Malaysians.

  21. Gopal Raj Kumar says:

    It is not about what another chooses to call you. In the Malaysian context it is what one has to call you. It is prescribed by law and a law that our immediate forebearers acquiesced in creating and implementing at independence.

    But at the time the Chinese merchant classes and the Indian educated classes were in the ascendency. They were content to and had adopted and accepted British customs and practices which were still alien to Malays who to a large extent were still in their comfort zone being culturally, socially and politically Malays.


    Chinese and Indians then did not foresee a time when Malay [Malaysians] would exercise their political will through the ballot box in a democracy complete with its distortions and number plays.

    Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] sought to ring fence their position as lords and masters of their “new homeland” without having to integrate or assimilate, instead having to bribe and to solicit bribes to keep the comfort of their little enclaves […].

    The political conditions are different today. Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] suddenly want to be anak bangsa Malaysia not understanding the irony of that phrase. There is no anak bangsa Malaysia. Being Malaysian is a nationality. Being Malay, Chinese or Indian is about race and that people cannot alter regardles of what anyone may say.

    In fact there may be a line of hope here for those wanting to be real Anak Bangsa Melayu [in Malaysia] and that is to embrace Islam and be considered Malay.

    That appears to be the ultimate arbiter and leveller of all differences (to a point).

    But if one is able to give up one’s race, something one is indellibly stamped with forever which cannot be changed, it may not be a bad idea to instead change that concept one already believes in (the existence of a God) and break down all walls that have been erected between the races which appear to be at the core of all misunderstanding in Malaysia.

    In the alternative, Indian and Chinese [Malaysians] can accept what other nations in their neighbourhood do. Prohibit the use of foreign non-Malay slogans, characters and language from any official level, close down all vernacular schools (the breeding ground off all chauvinism), and vestiges of a former life and include religion in that change.

    Gopal Raj Kumar

  22. neil says:

    Hi Petra, your article is spot on, we have families who are Bajau and Dusun. We don’t have problems eating together as we use and serve [food in] different utensils for our Muslim relatives out of respect. It’s never been an issue in Sabah till now. God bless you all.

  23. JJ_ says:

    This article was written in 2010 and today, 4 years later, we are still stuck in this mess. I see apartheid creeping into our society and so long as our ruling party does nothing, it is condoning these actions.

    When Mandela passed away, our PM said that his party has the same struggle and ideals as Mandela. Well, Mandela spent his whole life breaking down racial walls. Can our ruling party say the same?


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