Reaching the Nations

Malaysia

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Malaysia

Geography

Area 329,847 square km.  Malaysia comprises a portion of the Malay Peninsula between Thailand and Singapore and a portion of the island of Kalimantan (Borneo). Several heavily traveled straits encompass Malaysia, such as the Malacca Strait between West Malaysia and Indonesia, giving the country strong geopolitical importance.  Terrain consists primarily of heavily forested plains and hills, with large areas of rainforest in East Malaysia.

 

Population: 25,715,819 (July 2009)

Annual Growth Rate: 1.723% (July 2009)

Fertility Rate: 2.95 children born per woman (2009)

Male Life Expectancy: 70.56 years (2009)

Female Life Expectancy: 76.21 years (2009)

 

Peoples

Malays: 50.4%.

Chinese: 23.7% (Hokkein, Cantonese, Hakka)

Tribal or other (Iban, Kadazan, etc.) 8.82%

Indians: 7.1%

Other: 3.2%

 

About 80% of Malaysia’s population, including most ethnic Malays, resides in West (Peninsular) Malaysia, which is much more urban than East Malaysia. The most prevalent tribes in East Malaysia are the Iban and Kadazan.  The Iban live in Sarawak Province, but have also migrated to Sabah Province as well as West Malaysia and the West Kalimantan Province in Indonesia.  The Kadazan are from Sabah Province.  Other major tribal groups include the Rungus, Dusun and Kadazandusun, many of which are Kadazan subgroups.

 

Languages: Bahasa Malaysia (%), Cantonese, etc. [list languages over 1 million speakers]    

Literacy: 88.7% (2000 census)

 

History

Indians brought Hinduism and Buddhism to Malaysia 100 BC, and Hindu kingdoms were established until the spread of Islam in the 15th century AD.  The Portuguese reached Malacca in 1511, and Great Britain colonized Malaysia during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Japan controlled the region during World War II, and after the war power was restored to the British.  Malaysia gained independence in 1957 and experienced instability within the country and with neighboring nations including communist movements and conflicts with neighbors to define borders. Singapore seceded from Malaysia in 1965. 

 

Culture

The Iban were traditionally known as headhunters living in longhouses, which they still live in today.  Up to hundreds of families can live in a single longhouse in Sarawak.  When family members marry, they often build onto the end of the longhouse of their original family. 

 

Economy

GDP per capita: $15,300 (2008) [% of US]

Human Development Index: 66

Corruption Index: 5.1

Much of Malaysia’s economic potential rests in its geographic location between China and Indonesia, as well as its key position along major Southeast Asian shipping routes.  Malaysia transitioned from an economy dominated by the export of raw materials 30 years ago to an economy that has diversified and modernized.  Economic prosperity came to the country during the 1970s and 1980s and continues today.  Manufactured goods as well as the extraction of petroleum deposits around the country help drive an export driven economy.  More manufacturing occurs in West Malaysia whereas more extraction of natural resources occurs in East Malaysia.  Officials are concerned about keeping the price of imports low and adjusting to lower world-wide demand for goods originating in the country.  Currency reform has also been an area of focus for the past several years. Malaysia’s location attracts many foreigners for employment.

 

Faiths

Muslim 60.4%

Buddhist 19.2%

Christian 9.1%

Hindu 6.3%

Confucianism, Taoism, other traditional Chinese religions: 2.6%

Other/unknown: 1.6%

None: 0.8%

 

Christians

Denomination  Members  Congregations

Catholic  600,000

Seventh-Day Adventists  70,000   253

Latter-day Saints  5,646  19

Jehovah's Witnesses  3253  80

 

Religion

Most ethnic Malays are Muslims and live in West Malaysia; very few are Christian.  One Christian group estimates that there are 30,000 Malay Christian converts in the country.[1]  Chinese adhere primarily to Buddhism or Chinese traditional religions.  Most of the tribal peoples in East Malaysia are Christian, particularly in the province of Sarawak. 

 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index: 47th

As Muslims constitute a slight majority of the population, Malaysia continues to struggle over whether to define itself as an Islamic state; some Muslim-majority provinces have adopted portions of Sharia law.  Malaysian law forbids the proselytism of Muslims, which comprise 60% of the population.  If Malays are interested in joining the Church and wish to denounce Islam beforehand, they must appeal for public apostasy in order to have their Muslim status revoked.  Proselytism laws vary among provinces, with the most liberal provinces in East Malaysia.

 

Major Cities

Urban: 70%

 

Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Klang, Ipoh, Ampang Jaya, Subang Jaya, Petaling Jaya, Kuching, Shah Alam, Kota Kinabalu, Seremban, Kuantan, Sandakan, Kuala Terengganu, Kota Bharu, Tawau, Kajang, Taiping, Alor Setar, George Town, Sungai Petani, Selayang Baru, Batu, Miri, Sibu, Bukit Mertajam, Melaka, Kluang, Batu Pahat, Kulim, Sungai Ara, Bintulu, Muar, Butterworth, Gelugor.

 

Cities listed in bold do not have a LDS congregation.  Currently 14 of 35 cities over 100,000 inhabitants have a Church presence.  Every city over 100,000 people without a Church presence is in West Malaysia.

 

LDS History

The LDS Church experienced little growth for the first 30 years that missionaries served in Malaysia.  The first missionaries arrived in 1972 and served in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia has been a part of the Singapore Mission since its organization in 1974. 

 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 5,646 (2008)

In 1990 there were only 300 members in the country.  Membership increased to 1,100 by 2000.  Membership grew at over 20% a year from 2005-2008. In recent years, there have been about a thousand convert baptisms a year in Malaysia.  Currently membership stands at around 5,600. Malaysia is the country with the ninth most members without a stake.

 

The strongest growth has occurred in the Sarawak Province, where many of the Iban tribe have joined the Church.  In 2001 only three branches existed in the province in the cities of Kuching, Miri and Sibu.  As of August 2009 there were 10 branches in the province, with Kuching, Sibu and Bintulu each having three branches.  It is not uncommon for some missionaries in East Malaysia to have over 20 investigators at Church on a Sunday.  Many branches in East Malaysia commonly have several baptisms a week. 

 

Congregational Growth

Branches: 23 Groups: 3+

The first district was created in 1980 in Kuala Lumpur.  A second district for East Malaysia was created in 1997 based in Kota Kinabalu.  The next two districts were created in Ipoh (West Malaysia) and Kuching (East Malaysia) in 2003.  The fifth district was created in 2008 in Miri (East Malaysia) and the sixth was created in 2009 in Sibu.  Groups meet in several locations, including two in the Sibu area and one for Chinese-speaking members in Miri.  Since 2001, four branches have been added in East Malaysia and no increase in the number of independent branches in West Malaysia.  In 2009 and 2010, four new branches were created, three of which were in East Malaysia.  The branch in Sibu, East Malaysia, was split into three branches, one of which was designated as Chinese speaking.

 

A senior missionary couple serving in West Malaysia reported that in May 2009 that there were 26 branches and two groups.  In May of 2009, the Church had 19 independent branches in the country, indicating that there were at least seven dependent branches found in Malaysia at the time.

 

Activity and Retention

Most branches are reported by missionaries to consist of 50-100 active members, suggesting approximately 1500-1750 active members in the country.  The number of congregations grew only from 15 to 19 between 2000 and 2008, while membership increased from 1,309 to 5,646.   Nominal membership growth has far outstripped the increase in church units, reflecting challenges of member retention and local leadership.  The number of converts retained every year in Malaysia may be as low as 200-300, considering that few new congregations have been created.

 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Chinese, English

Simple English and some Chinese are used most in Church services in West Malaysia whereas Malay, Iban or Chinese are most used in East Malaysia.  Very few Church materials and no LDS scriptures have been translated into indigenous languages in Malaysia.  Only two Church publications are available in Malay: Gospel Fundamentals and The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Testimony.  Local members report that in 2009, the Church authorized the translation of the Book of Mormon into Bahasa Malaysian.  Scripture translations take several years to complete.  The only Church publication available in Iban, one of the most widely spoken languages among LDS members in the country, is The Articles of Faith.  Among languages spoken in Malaysia, Cantonese and Mandarin have the largest body of translated church materials and scripture.

 

Meetinghouses

The first Church built chapel in Malaysia was dedicated in 2006 in Miri, East Malaysia.[2]  A second chapel constructed by the Church began construction in Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia a month after the dedication of the first meetinghouse in the country in Miri.  Although each of these cities currently have meetinghouses, both only have one independent branch.

 

Humanitarian and Development Work

The Church is involved in humanitarian projects, particularly in East Malaysia.  15 villages in Sarawak now benefit from a clean water project funded by the Church in 2007.[3]  In 2010, senior missionaries were conducting clean water projects in many regions of East Malaysia.  Other humanitarian projects senior couples participate in include wheelchair donations by the Church in conjunction with the Rotary Club.

 

Opportunities, Challenges, and Prospects

 

Religious Freedom

Missionaries serving in Malaysia have to leave the country frequently to renew their visas and comply with visa laws.  This results in periodic hiatuses from missionary work and expenses in taking missionaries temporarily out of the country, usually to Singapore.  This is a particularly time consuming and difficult journey for missionaries in East Malaysia who travel by plane to get their visas renewed.  Missionaries in Malaysia avoid the title “Elder” on mail due to potential threats from radical Islamic groups.

 

Cultural Issues

Some cultural practices interfere with LDS teachings in Malaysia, such as the drinking of alcohol at the funeral of a loved one among the Iban tribe.

 

National Outreach

Currently the Church does not have a presence in any cities of less than a 100,000 people.  In East Malaysia, which has the most liberal proselytism laws and presents the greatest opportunity for church growth, only half the population live in cities larger than 10,000 inhabitants.  Outreach into smaller cities and villages will one day be necessary to reach a larger segment of the population.

 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

With an estimated 20-25% of converts becoming long-term active members, convert retention and member activity remain key challenges for church growth in Malaysia.  Activity problems are great in both East and West Malaysia.  Factors hampering convert retention include missionary pressure to quickly baptize converts with limited understanding before meaningful Church activity becomes routine, lack of adequate church materials in indigenous languages, church services held in languages that members of diverse backgrounds may not understand, 

limited local leadership to nurture converts joining the Church in large numbers.

 

West Malaysia may have a more severe inactivity and retention problem, likely linked to the large diversity in nationalities among members.  A member in Kuala Lumpur estimated his branch to have about 100 of the approximately 300 members active.  Growth in active membership appears to be relatively flat, with new converts merely replacing those lost to inactivity.  A stronger emphasis seems to be placed on bringing new members into the Church rather than teaching and fellowshipping new or less active members. 

 

Mission leadership and local leadership are working to address these problems with couple missionaries training and assisting local branches presidencies, as well as creating more congregations to meet the needs of many of the new converts.  This is evident with the creation of a Chinese speaking branch in Sibu in 2009.

 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Very few ethnic Malays have joined the Church.  An increasing number of Chinese converts are helping grow membership in Malaysia.  A single branch in West Malaysia may have up to 50 different nationalities.  These converts from many different nations pose challenges in assimilating membership into congregations speaking the same language for Church meetings.  The majority of the converts of the Church in Malaysia come from the poorer immigrant workers from Africa, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, or from the native peoples of East Malaysia.  Converts must often overcome differences in culture and language with other immigrant workers in the Church.  Immigrant workers in the country often lack sufficient resources to lead congregations due to the transient nature of their employment and living accommodations.  Future growth among immigrants and migrant workers in this area of Malaysia may continue to strain leadership to meet the needs of those from unfamiliar cultures. Yet the Church has the great opportunity to reach many different people from countries in which the Church is not found or is under severe restrictions for sharing the gospel. 

 

Language Issues

Church meetings in West Malaysia are usually conducted in Bahasa Malaysian or English, which helps unite expatriates and other non-Malay members speaking together in a second language.  As the languages spoken in the Church in Malaysia are often not the native languages of many Church members, many converts may feel detached from members around them or may not fully understand the Gospel teachings presented to them.  If Malays become more opened to the Church proselytizing in Eastern Malaysia, the Church may lack an adequate base of leadership and members who speak Malay fluently enough for Church meetings to be conducted. 

 

Many converts speak languages with few or no Church materials translated.  The lack of scriptures and adequate church materials in local languages limits the depth to which converts may learn doctrine and lessens the resources available for members to be more self-sufficient on maintaining their testimonies in the Gospel.  It is difficult for investigators to learn about the Church and pray to gain a testimony when the scriptures are unavailable and Church meetings may be conducted in a language which is unfamiliar or not spoken fluently.

 

Leadership

Very few Malaysian members have been to the temple or received the Melchizedek Priesthood.  One senior missionary couple in East Malaysia in 2009 reported that only one couple from their branch had been through the temple.  Most branches have only a handful of Melchizedek Priesthood holders.  This is likely the result of many converts not progressing after baptism to the point of receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood.

 

Temple

Malaysia is currently part of the Hong Kong China Temple District. If a future temple were announced in Southeast Asia, Singapore may be a likely location, much closer for members living in Malaysia.  President Hinckley stated in Singapore in 2000: "I want to hold before you the challenge of promoting the growth of the Church in this area, and the faithfulness of the people to a point where some day we can have a Singapore Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."[4]

 

Comparative Growth

The growth in raw membership the Church has seen in Malaysia is comparable to nearby Cambodia and more distant Mongolia.  Both Mongolia and Cambodia saw rapid growth in terms of membership, each increasing by about 1,000 members for a five year period of time between 2000 and 2005.  Growth in these two nations has since decreased to membership increasing by about 300-600 members a year.  Unlike Mongolia and Cambodia, Malaysia has seen its greatest success in missionary work among converts who were already Christian, whereas in Cambodia and Mongolia nearly all converts were Buddhist.  However the Church in Malaysia has lacked the high rates of convert retention and native missionary service experienced in Mongolia.

 

Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other Christian groups with strong member missionary programs have experienced success in Malaysia, particularly in East Malaysia, indicating continued receptivity to a religious message.

 

Future Prospects

The large numbers of converts from  different cultural and linguistic backgrounds present challenges for integration and retention.  However, prospects remain favorable for continued church growth in the medium term, particularly in East Malaysia and among foreign workers.  If the pace at which the Church is growing in East Malaysia continues, the first stake may be organized in the country in the coming decade.  Missionaries reported in early 2010 that the Miri East Malaysia District was preparing to become a stake.  Additional congregations are likely to will continue to be created in East Malaysia, primarily in Sarawak. 

 

Due to its geographic isolation from the Malay Peninsula, East Malaysia could one day support its own mission.  To the extent that laws in their home countries permit, foreign workers from countries like Myanmar and Nepal who join the Church in Malaysia may one day have the opportunity to build the Church in their native lands as they return home and share the gospel with friends and family.

 

Breakthroughs among the ethnic Malay population are still needed. Foreigners in West Malaysia can also help grow the Church and prepare for when Malays become more receptive to the Gospel.  The Church may eventually experience greater success in missionary work among Malays who are already Christian. 



[1]  “Apostacy in Malaysia,” Little Speck, retrieved 26 March 2010.  http://www.littlespeck.com/region/CForeign-My-041228.htm

[2]  “Meetinghouse for Malaysia,” LDS Church News, 15 April 2006.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/48834/Meetinghouse-for-Malaysia.html

[3]  “A reliable supply of clean water,” LDS Church News, 12 May 2007.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/50564/A-reliable-supply-of-clean-water.html

[4]  “Pres. Hinckley completes tour in Pacific Rim,” LDS Church News, 12 February 2000.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/37174/Pres-Hinckley-completes-tour-in-Pacific-Rim.html