Faith among the chaos in Kuala Lumpur

by Sophia Lee

Posted on Monday, October 26, 2015, at 4:43 pm

WORLD reporter Sophia Lee is traveling through Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries. She’s sending us regular reports of what she sees, feels, and does—Nellie Bly–style.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—“Right now is the worst time for you to visit,” a local told me as he weaved his car through the lawless, go-kart park that is Kuala Lumpur’s highways. But then he paused to consider my profession as a journalist and corrected himself: “No, this is the best time for you to visit.”

And it’s not just because the ringgit, Malaysia’s currency, is dropping, dropping, dropping without a break—a profit to tourists, but a loss to locals who can barely get by. Malaysia currently scores a big, ugly “F” in economic security, social stability, religious climate, and environmental health. Here in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, anybody with ears and a nose can detect a stink of discontent and resentment in the air.

From the 19th-floor window of my apartment in Bukit Bintang, the city’s most popular shopping district, I could barely make out the skyscrapers or mosque minarets because of the thickening haze, a result of vicious forest fires in Indonesia. Many of the locals walk around with masks, and many more stay indoors because of severe health problems from the air pollution. Officials even had to close schools for several days. Parents worry, old people hack and cough, politicians point and harrumph, young children whine about being shut indoors. Everybody is grumbling, but there’s not much they can do.

I felt that same inertial disgruntlement from the locals toward the government. Prime Minister Najib tun Razak is hopping in hot scandal (known as the “1MBD Scandal”) after the discovery that hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly from state funds, were channeled into Najib’s personal bank accounts. With skin as thick as rhinoceros hide, Najib denied these allegations, sacked his attorney general and deputy prime minister, punished critical publications, clamped down on street protests, and even set loose his allies to sow conspiracy theories against the local ethnic Chinese—an old and effective tactic in Malaysia. One poster plastered in a public area exhorted readers to obey the prime minister because “Najib is our Caliph!” As with the current environmental crisis, many locals are grousing about the leadership, but what more can they do in a country where vocal dissenters disappear or meet sudden deaths?

Meanwhile, the average citizen is hustling. Investors are pulling out from Malaysia, small businesses and big companies are closing, and thousands of people are losing their jobs while having to pay a newly implemented and controversial “goods and services tax” that has raised prices for all and hurt many local businesses. Thus, the gap between the rich and poor is widening as the middle class slide down the socioeconomic pole or migrate to fairer countries such as Singapore or Australia. Though the touristy areas of Kuala Lumpur are still glittering, other places are less so. If you know where to go, you’ll find pockets of locals and refugees ailing in slums not too far from the city center.

Less obviously, Islamization is on the rise in Malaysia. That movement is harder to sense in an urban, cosmopolitan city like Kuala Lumpur, where only 46 percent of the population self-identify as Muslim, but people who conscientiously follow the current state of affairs are shifting from concern to alarm. I asked several locals what people can do to stem Islamic encroachment into public and private sectors. “More people, especially Christians, need to be aware of what’s going on,” one young Malaysian answered. I persisted, “Then what? What more can they do?” He thought for a long time and then shrugged in despair: “Nothing.” Later, he told me he’s planning to migrate, maybe to Australia or the U.K.

So what’s going to happen to Malaysia? And what can Christians do—or more correctly, what should they do? There are lots of loud and reasonable-sounding voices arising, oftentimes conflicting each other.

Many local Christian leaders are actually encouraging their congregants to join political rallies or engage in interfaith activities. One seminary graduate I met joined the opposition party to influence politics from the inside out. Others talk about the need for more active evangelism, despite the law that bans proselytizing to Muslims. One optimistic megachurch pastor told me he’s calling all Malaysians he meets overseas to “come back home” because they’re missing out. “Just you wait,” he tells these expats. “Malaysia will be a model for Asia and the world.” But few are as optimistic as him. Some are reading signs of the End Times and believe this is an age where churches must brace themselves for intense persecution, not politicking.

As the above-mentioned local told me, it’s the worst of times for Malaysia, but it’s also the best of times for Christians to awaken and equip and harvest. Most alert Christians will agree with that general statement—but the question is how?

The whole situation in Malaysia reminded me of the wet market I visited in Kuala Lumpur’s suburbia, where shoppers haggle among the stalls containing butchers and noodles frying, giving off the stink of fresh pork blood and fish. I kept bumping into sweaty elbows, sharp hips, and steaming plastic bags. It’s colorful, noisy, and chaotic—much like the country, where people of various ethnicities, religions, and tongues clash within too tight a space.

There in the market, I met a widow who wakes up at 3 every morning to sell kuih (steamed rice cakes and fried pastries) with her young son. All around her, butchers and fishmongers and halal food-vendors yell and haggle back at customers. That makes her easy to miss, because she’s quietly tucked behind a little table—not even a proper stall—at the end of the market, and the products she sells are small. But somebody had noticed her and had invited her to church—repeatedly.

Today this woman is a Christian who silently prays as she sells her kuih. She prays for the people she meets on the bus, and the hungry-looking Burmese refugees to whom she sells kuih at a deeply discounted price. At the next-stall, a Muslim mother and daughter watch her lose profits and shake their heads, muttering, “She crazy one lah!” So she prays for them too. Her son, a precocious child who has frequent dreams about Jesus, is also praying and sharing his faith with his classmates, even his Muslim friends.

And the entire time she’s praying, the widow is also keeping her eyes open for the lost sheep who, like her, are hungry and mourning and pure. Perhaps, even as smart and passionate people plan and debate and wring hands, God’s hands are already actively preparing and gathering His flock through humble workers like this widow in the market. Blessed are the ones who recognize the Master’s voice of truth and love amidst the noises.

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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