I ask all people of goodwill to help build a culture of encounter, solidarity and peace.– Pope Francis
As we celebrate the New Year today, Sarawakians must not forget that the Peace and Goodwill that we enjoy today is a tradition going back to the very foundations established by the first and only English “Rajah” in the Far East.
Sir James Brooke and three generations ruled Sarawak with a firm but fair hand allowing all the races and religious groups to thrive in a country that was once known as the Land of the Headhunters.
When the Church of England wanted to Christianise Sarawak, it was James who refused to allow it as the people who invited him to become Rajah were staunch Malay Muslims led by his army chief Datuk Patinggi Abang Ali.
Brooke felt that things in Sarawak should be allowed to take its course through inter-marriage and friendships between the different racial groups.
It was unlike the earlier centuries where European nations such as Portugal, Spain and Holland swept through South East Asia as conquerors while proselytising its inhabitants.
On the other hand, the British who had ruled Malaya with the assistance of the wise rulers of the Malayan states saw it fit to mould the country into a multi-cultural entity.
A “new” Sarawak was born 60 years ago when Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman mooted the idea of a federation of former British colonies, namely Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah).
But as the Malay population grew, it was a matter of time that political groups began their own brand of proselytising.
But unlike our counterparts, Sarawak has come a long way since Independence where the state has remained a multi-religious community.
Sarawak is a state where Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths can live together.
So it was a great encouragement when Sarawak elder statesman and politician Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud called on Sarawakians to unite and strengthen friendships on Christmas Day.
As the only surviving member of an elite group of Sarawak’s inaugural Cabinet of six members led by Iban chief minister Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan, the Melanau Muslim knows this well coming from a multi-religious community that practises what it preaches.
Unlike other communities, the Melanau comprise Muslims and Christians followers.
Taib’s own forebears include relatives having inter-married over the years.
The Governor has openly admitted that his ancestors were “Kayan Lalu” people from the Kajang community of Belaga who were forced to leave their homeland when the 2nd Rajah Charles Brooke led an army of 12,000 that devasted the homelands of the Orang Ulu community in 1863.
This major battle was initiated by Charles after the assassination of two of his best friends, Charles Fox and Henry Steel, by Melanau dissidents Talip, Taibi and Sawing in Kanowit.
Over the last generations, the Melanau of coastal Sarawak still remember the day when they were victims of war and Taib has personally taken it upon himself to be an exemplary Muslim.
Taib’s Christmas message struck at the very heart of Sarawak’s trials and tribulations over his lifetime.
A Melanau Muslim who scored a distinction in Bible Studies at the St Joseph’s Catholic School, Taib and other Muslims were practically forced to recite the Lord’s prayer which was mandatory for mission school students during his time.
Taib’s classmates and friends until today include a Melanau-Chinese Catholic, Reverend Father Lawrence Chua, and his bloodline on his maternal side which includes Kelantan Malays.
Since becoming chief minister of Sarawak on March 27, 1981 and until he became Governor, he has practised tolerance through his circle of friends.
During Hari Raya, Taib and his Polish-Muslim wife Laila would hold “open house” for all communities.
Today in Sarawak, it is still the norm for Sarawak Christians to hold “open house” for people of various religions.
Indeed, the Governor’s Christmas Message was timely as Sarawak welcomes the new year after a long year where the Covid-19 pandemic caused untold hardship.
God willing, 2021 will continue to usher in an era of peace, love and respect – a camaraderie which is unique and found nowhere in Malaysia except in the Land of the Hornbills.
The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.