A sketch of west Malaysian churches

map of west malaysiaA pleasant surprise awaited me in the dimly-lit basement car park of Trinity Theological College. Rev Benedict Muthusamy, my classmate, a Presbyterian moderator and the pastor of a church in Kulai, had come for some business.  We had some coffee in the canteen and our conversation turned interesting as he gave me his personal sketch of the west Malaysian churches.

Big cities

There are many churches in Kuala Lumpur and the biggest ones in the country are there too. Penang is not far behind. English congregations thrive there as they have a ready pool of English educated people. Here are the resources, the networks, the seminars and conferences . There is no lack. The Bahasa congregations are also doing well what with job seekers, used to worship in Bahasa, coming from Sabah and Sarawak.

Small towns

The Chinese speaking congregations are stronger in the smaller towns like Muar, Kluang, Sitiawan, Gua Musang, Kota Baru, Kuala Trengannu and others. They often have an offshoot English congregation but these are getting weaker with the brain drain to the capital city and the little red dot. The Indian churches: they suffer from feeling inferior and small, and are usually financially in the shadows. However, the bright spot for small town churches is that the fellowship among pastors in these places are strong and that is great.

Well this is just one pastor’s off the cuff opinion of the general church scene. If you can help fill out the skeleton, do make a comment.

Nostalgic in Kuching

at the Kuching airport

The 1960s feel

It was like going back to the 1960s when Singapore was less crowded with buildings, cars and people. Most houses and buildings in Kuching were not more than 4 storeys and were well spread out. The streets were conspicuously clean and they still have roundabouts. Modern tall hotels and commercial buildings with gleaming glass skirted the waterfront. Side by side with the modern, were charming old shop houses. The spaciousness of the small city relaxed the eye; the fresh air perked us up; the pace was slower; and it was quiet.

The Harbour View hotel

We stayed in the three star Harbour View Hotel. It was clean and the rooms and service were satisfactory. Under good advice, we had all our breakfasts outside, in the three Chinese kopitiams, 2 minutes to the left from the hotel entrance. There we had our breakfasts: beef noodles, kolo mee, Sarawak laksa, char kway teow, and a Malay dish which is satay atop mee rebus. Definitely a better choice than the hotel buffet, if you want to try the local fare.

local breakfast

satay atop mee rebus

The Kuching Waterfront

The hotel was 3 minutes from the Kuching Waterfront which made for a pleasant evening walk along the Sarawak river. We saw across the river, the lighted-up Parliament building, the Astana, a fort and a Malay village. The feel of the waterfront was the Singapore esplanade of the 1970’s: the Queen Elizabeth Walk. We searched for dinner and wandered through a shopping centre that had about 40 stores and hardly any food. We ended up eating at Top Spot, a popular seafood centre atop a multi-storey car park. The food was reasonably tasty and quite affordable. We loved the local jungle vegetable from the fern, but were shocked at the Medium serving size.

view of waterfront from Harbour view hotel

Kuching waterfront

boat rides

Top Spot seafood: okay lah

Sarawak Cultural Village

The next morning’s highlight was the Sarawak Cultural Village, about an hour’s drive from where we were. It was the size of several football fields with Mt Santubong as a beautiful backdrop. The theme park, a living museum showcased the different tribal people groups: their longhouses, utensils, culture, dances and food. The highlight was a professionally-performed cultural show of about 40 minutes which entertained us with its movement, colour, sound and humour. The sape, a native indigineous string instrument produced particularly captivating sounds, and I wondered if there were local churches that used them in their worship services.

Sarawak Cultural Village

dayak longhouse

Josh

Matt and Penan hunter

checking target

Elaine

Jen

cultural show

Alan and Penny Hiu

Facebook again has proven to be a great social network tool. I was introduced to Alan Hiu by Peter Sze. We all got to know each other via today’s social media. Alan brought my wife and I to a better known Sarawak kolo mee stall for breakfast at 8.30am on Sunday. This was our first meeting and together with his wife, Penny and Richard their friend, we got to know each other. My children were sleeping in. It was amazing how quickly we gelled together because we shared a common faith in the Lord. Quickly, I learned that Alan was one of the leading back up singers with Lim Gee Tiong, the pastor of a 1,200 member Chinese church and famous composer and singer of the song, “Hold My Hand, My Lord”. He was deeply committed and served in the ministry without question. One day he received a Joseph Prince tape which, he said, just liberated him. So when he heard of  SIB Grace, he joined them. Now he is a key leader of the Chinese service there. We were so absorbed in the sharing of lives, I did not fully savour the noodles, but judging from the crowd there it must be good. The next time, I will slow down and enjoy.

St Thomas Cathedral

Alan Hiu was a gracious host and drove us around. Public transport was unreliable and taxis did not use the meter, so to have a local to drive us around was a big plus. He brought us to St Thomas Cathedral, which unfortunately had its doors locked between the morning and evening services on Sunday. We walked around the Cathedral where my maternal grandparents married in 1913. It was of course a different building then. To see my children walk around the church made me smile. Heritage is important, and I wanted them to be able to say, “I was there” to their kids. That evening, Alan brought us to the Food Fair, an annual August event that never failed to draw the locals. We pigged out with his family and Elder Alex and Richard. Following this, we had cake and melon juice at Alan’s home. This was Malaysian hospitality at its best. Somehow we Singaporeans have lost this in our hectic city lifestyle. We need to recover this biblical value, this precious and timeless virtue.

St Thomas Cathedral Kuching

city food fair - all kinds of local food

Kenny, Richard, Alan Hiu, Elder Alex

in the home of Alan and Penny and Adrian Hiu

All the way

The next day, they brought us out for a seafood lunch at a suburban restaurant with a Hockchiew chef. We loved the local jungle vegetables and the bamboo crustacean (that had to be fished out individually from the sea mud). Alan and Richard then did the second mile and sent us to the airport.

Lunch in suburban restaurant

native vegetables and bamboo crustacean

Kuching, Sarawak and the St Thomas Cathedral

John Law & Beatrice KhoRoots in Kuching

It was an old photo hanging on the wall of my uncle’s house that caught my attention. Interested as I was with my earthly roots, I took a few shots with my mobile. It was my maternal grandparents’ wedding photograph. They looked forward, stiff and formal – the common pose in those days. The name of the church was St Thomas Cathedral in Kuching. This photo kindled a desire to visit Kuching one day and walk that building and the city. This week while googling for places of interest in Kuching, I stumbled on St Thomas Cathedral. Its a lovely building, and had quite a rich, colourful past. At YouTube, I did a virtual tour of the Cathedral and learned about its history(see below) – almost everything I had wanted to know.

Short vacation

Even so, next weekend my family and I will take a short vacation there. Catch a popular day tour, walk the Waterfront, avoid headhunting Dayaks, and “die die must try” the Sarawak laksa and kolo mee. Sarawak has the largest percentage of Christians of all the states in Malaysia. We look forward to worshipping with a living body of Christians called Grace SIB. Just recently, I heard from pastor Peter Sze about this church and he connected me to Alan Hiu via Facebook. Alan has graciously offered to bring us there from the hotel.

Who knows, I may meet some distant relative from both the paternal or maternal side of my family of origin there.

Bat exodus in Mulu Caves

This was indeed the reward of trekking in Mulu national park: to see millions of bats fly in a single stream in a snaking formation . At sunset, every day, they leave the Deer Cave (where they rest and roost) to spend the night feeding on insects in the rainforest of Mulu National Park, a world heritage site in Sarawak, Malaysia. Ten trekkers from Singapore were there on 18th Sep 2008 to witness this unforgettable sight. For over 20 minutes we saw the beauty of God’s creation: bats in flight formation!