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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Will ‘Allah’ swing votes in Sabah, Sarawak this time?

The ‘Allah’ issue is seen almost as an exclusively peninsula problem by Sabah and Sarawak folk but there are rumblings that a country should not have two sets of rules for its citizens. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, July 29, 2014.The ‘Allah’ issue is seen almost as an exclusively peninsula problem by Sabah and Sarawak folk but there are rumblings that a country should not have two sets of rules for its citizens. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, July 29, 2014.
For all the hysteria surrounding the word “Allah” and whether non-Muslims can use it, the conflict almost never affects the people who use it the most.
About two-thirds of Malaysia’s 2.9 million Christians are in Sabah and Sarawak. Today, they still use “Allah” in their church services.
Sabah and Sarawak folk speak of the controversy as if it is a tale that happens in a strange land whose inhabitants are perplexingly different from them.
Even their Muslim neighbours in Sabah and Sarawak scratch their heads when asked about what they thought about the term “Allah” being an issue in the peninsula.
However, the question is whether their feelings about how the controversy has intensified will translate into votes.
For what is different this time compared with a year ago before the 13th general election is that several peninsula Muslim authorities are serious about enforcing a ban on the use of the word “Allah” in their states.
At the same time, the country’s highest court has decided that Catholic weekly, Herald, cannot use the term in its Bahasa Malaysia edition.   
So will these new developments be the last straw for ordinary Sabah and Sarawak folk who support Barisan Nasional and Umno?
Anger but little impact
In the 2013 general election and the Sarawak elections of 2011, the “Allah” issue barely had an impact on rural voters, many of whom are Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians.
This is despite the issue grabbing national attention. In the months prior to the Sarawak elections, for example, two consignments of Bahasa Bibles meant for Kuching were held up at Port Klang and Kuching port.
Christian leaders were in an uproar. Putrajaya hurriedly cobbled together a 10-point solution so that the Bibles could be released and assured the Christians that the texts may be used.
The seized Bibles were an issue during Sarawak elections but it was dwarfed by others.
What dominated that campaign were the alleged corruption scandals of Sarawak’s then chief minister Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud and the loss of native ancestral land.
Urban voters Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Miri and Kuching ditched BN. But it is unclear that they did so because of the “Allah” issue.
For instance, many of the votes that BN lost in 2011 and 2013 were from the Chinese community.
University Malaysia Sarawak political economist Associate Prof Dr Andrew Aeria said many Chinese cast protest votes against BN in Sarawak.
“They wanted their fair share in terms of development and contracts. If the new chief minister can reconfigure these demands, he can win them back.”
Post-2013 scenario
But after 2013, Muslim hardliners clamped down. Some 300 Bibles were seized in Selangor and the agency has refused to return them to the Bible Society of Malaysia.
Until today, it has refuted the attorney-general’s stand that there is no case against the BSM and insists on taking the BSM to court.
Prior to that, the Federal Court in October last year upheld an earlier ban on the use of the word “Allah” by the Herald. 
But in interviews over the past week with ordinary Christians in Sabah and Sarawak, none was affected on a personal level by the ban.
Churches in Sabah and Sarawak could freely use the term just like they have for more than 100 years, and Muslims in civil society and the Barisan Nasional leadership continued to stress that the “Allah” controversy was a “peninsula thing”.
“We do not have the same views as Muslims in the peninsula,” said Borneo Heritage Foundation secretary Jalumin Bayogoh.    
“Over here, it’s not a problem for Muslims,” said Jalumin, a Muslim based in Kota Kinabalu.
Christians, meanwhile, were adamant that they would use the term no matter what Putrajaya or the peninsula states say.
“Whatever laws are passed, court decisions made, people will pray using the word ‘Allah’. Who is going to stop them?” asked James Guang, a business executive in Miri.
“The police? Can they round up all the Christians, especially in the rural areas, praying to Allah?”
Will ‘Allah’ swing votes?
But despite the little impact the controversy has had on them, many were upset that the federal government allowed it to happen.
“How can you have one nation but two sets of rules?” asked Henry Mogindol of Penampang, Sabah.
“This reasoning does not make sense. You can use ‘Allah’ in Sabah but when you fly to the peninsula you cannot?”
Many also believe that this time, Christians might be motivated to vote against BN because of it.
The next general election is four years away but Sarawak is due to hold state elections in 2016.
“Umno is dragging down (Sarawak) BN,” said Victor Keling from Kuching.
“This is even though the state government's stand on the issue is just the opposite of the federal government's,” he said.
Guang said it would make an impact if parish priests started speaking up against it and in so doing, influenced their congregations. 
“I know for a fact that rural priests are not very happy with the government. They get no government funding to repair their churches.”
Again, going back to the Sarawak elections three years ago that was exactly what pundits were expecting – that the widespread anger by Christian leaders would trickle down and sway their congregations at the ballot box.
But that did not happen.
Another Unimas lecturer, Joseph Romanair, said that for many in Sarawak’s interior, bread and butter issues – rural roads, electricity, piped water – were their main concerns.
Also, since the Sabah and Sarawak governments are both not treating it as an issue, it has almost no impact among ordinary Christians.
Neither are Muslims in Sabah and Sarawak as fired up as their brethren in the peninsula.  
Parti Bersatu Sabah lawmaker Datuk Joniston Bangkuai admitted that the opposition attempted to use the “Allah” issue to gain traction in last year’s general election.
They claimed that if the BN was returned to power the Alkitab would be burned.
“But I tell people and the opposition, so far has this happened?” said Bangkuai, who is Kiulu assemblyman.
He said the opposition would still play up the issue but believed this time, BN would call their bluff.  
So although it has almost no impact in Sabah and Sarawak, the “Allah” issue will probably be kept alive by politicians who hope to profit from it.

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