Malaysian churches are opening their doors to politicians from both camps in an unprecedented way as they strive to explore their political voice, perhaps for the first time in Malaysian history.
Traditionally apolitical here, the churches have so far generally still stopped short of endorsing any party or camp, perhaps for fear of being perceived as seeking to be a political power block in this religiously sensitive country.
But they are encouraging political debate, which itself is unusual.
For example, at the Loyola Hall at Saint Francis Xavier Church in Petaling Jaya, 300 parishioners gathered a couple of nights ago to hear the incumbent Gerakan state assemblyman for Bukit Gasing Dr Lim Thuang Seng and another Barisan National representative face off with Mr Edward Lee from the Opposition DAP.
The toughest words came from the floor when the panellists took questions.
Many issues were brought up, most of them reflecting secular concerns, from overpriced land assessment fees and concern over corruption and other rising criminal activities to oil subsidies and the brain drain from Malaysia.
The parishioners did not mince their words when it came to sharing their opinions.
“In the last five years, I find that my religious and fundamental rights have been encroached and eroded. Are you recommending that I vote for Barisan Nasional so that my rights can be further eroded over the next five years?” asked a Chinese man in his 30s, stumping the two Barisan Nasional representatives.
The highlight of the evening remained a rather more secular concern from Mr Victor Oorjitham, Maxwell Towers PA chairman, who requested the two BN men to make a pledge "to support that no development on Bukit Gasing takes place".
Mr Oorjitham has been campaigning for the past three years to preserve the green lung.
He received a standing ovation.
Despite the tide against him, Datuk Dr Lim was firm: "I'm not going to sign this pledge... because I don't want to make empty promises. God has put me here to serve you, and serve you well.”
Another parishioner Mr Martin, 57, declared himself unconvinced.
“Pretty much what I expected. The incumbent politicians will never give direct answers and the Opposition will always give promises. I have already decided whom I will vote for. The talk didn't change my mind. I hope to deny the ruling government the two-thirds majority. It's a wake up call – time for change,’’ Martin told The Malaysian Insider.
Driving the churches to discover even a limited political role in encouraging such debate is a widespread sense of disillusionment over the way the Government has managed religious interests in past years, say analysts and political observers.
The response at a higher level is mild, but still clear.
The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism issued a statement this week asking their followers to pray for candidates that live up to common religious values and who strive for greater national unity.
On the ground, there appears to be tide of desire to register a point.
But one long-time political observer, who requested anonymity, pointed out that this could backfire as the demographics were against the church – Christians make up fewer than 10% of the population.
“Any move that is perceived as building a power block will draw a negative reaction from the Muslim majority so they will have to think through what they’re doing,” he told The Malaysian Insider.
A noted political commentator Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin echoes that view, saying that if the largely urban non-Muslim population choose to sent a negative signal to the ruling Barisan National, it could lead to polarisation of the Malaysian electorate. “On the one hand, a predominantly Malay rural population will support BN and a growing urban non-Muslim population will support the Opposition. This cannot be good for the country.’’
But he adds he still believes the emotion that is driving some of the anti-establishment feeling will be replaced by reason and pragmatism by March 8, polling day.
“The defining question is whether non-Muslims believe that a vote for the Opposition will bring a solution to all their concerns. Deep down they know the answer is no.’’ - THE MALAYSIAN INSIDER