THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in Malaysia, John Roxborogh, in Christianity in Malaysia. A Denominational History, edited by Robert Hunt, Lee Kam Hing and John Roxborogh, Petaling Jaya, Pelanduk, 1992, 75-106.
In Malaysia the Presbyterian(1) Church is found only on the Peninsula. In 1980 there was an adult membership of 3900 with an estimated affiliated membership of 7000. The Church is strongest in the state of Johor with 33 congregations or preaching points and a further 16 in the rest of the country. Most congregations are predominantly Chinese speaking, but there are also 13 English services and one Tamil.
The languages used in worship reflect the major ethnic strands in the history of the denomination: migrants from Amoy and Swatow, their English speaking descendants and converts, and English speaking expatriates.
Chinese work grew out of the missionary activity of the Presbyterian Church of England and the London Missionary Society supported by the Singapore Presbyterian Church at Orchard Road and also by migration of Chinese Christians from the south of China. Expatriate congregations at Penang, Ipoh, and Kuala Lumpur gave support to the mission at different times and their former buildings at Penang and Ipoh are now used by local congregations. St Andrew's Kuala Lumpur retains a significant expatriate ministry as an international congregation as well as providing facilities for a Chinese speaking congregation.
In 1971 the four 'English' congregations, which had in 1958 become more independent from London by forming their own presbytery(2), joined the Chinese Synod (formed in 1901 and often known simply as the Chinese Christian Church) to form the Presbyterian Church of Malaysia and Singapore. In 1975 the churches in Malaysia and Singapore separated to form independent synods in view of the withdrawal of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965. The move was necessary, nevertheless the strain on resources of leadership and finance was severe. Like others, Presbyterians found the task of rebuilding an infrastructure of church administration in Malaysia difficult.
In the history of the Church there is often a contrast between the Chinese and the English speaking components - whether the latter are Scottish, English and other Caucasian expatriates or English speaking Chinese and Indians. It is easy to see how problems arise given the different cultures and traditions of each and the issues are not unique to Presbyterianism. Generally speaking English speaking Chinese congregations have been more open to change and to involvement with other Christian groups, and Chinese speaking congregations have been more traditional. As in other denominations, it is the English speaking who are more interested in the use of the national language.
The reasons for these differences are understandable. The English speaking have already made a break from their home culture and at the same time are in contact with a wider range of Christian thought and activity. Chinese speaking congregations feel that there will be a place for them in the Malaysia of the future and believe that English will lose some of its importance. Different perspectives sometimes provide a source of tension when premises are shared and needs conflict. It is easy for interaction to become delicate and relationships can be further complicated where the English congregations are 'daughter' churches - sometimes in more than one sense. The English membership may include those whose parents are in the Chinese speaking mother congregation.
However it is important to note that as well as obvious differences there are also points of similarity in the history of the Chinese and the English expatriate streams. In general - the exception is the Straits Chinese congregation in Prinsep Street, Singapore - Chinese and English speaking congregations were both expatriate to begin with. In the beginning both Chinese and English congregations served to provide cultural and religious continuity in a foreign environment. Both used the language of their country of origin, not their country of residence. Both looked to parent churches in their countries of origin for their trained ministry. Both had some success in mission to their own countrymen in Malaya and had difficulty extending that mission outside their own ethnic grouping. And in both cases, despite the ancient links of history which drew them together as one denomination, they did not find it easy to come together to function as one Church.
In the 1960s the four English (expatriate) Presbyterian congregations (Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore) were anxious to negotiate to form a new church in union with the Chinese Synod. However the Synod was content to take its time believing that the expatriates would leave sooner or later in any case. With the reduction in their population following Independence and on-going problems obtaining clergy, the English congregations were in a weak negotiating position and were somewhat bewildered when it came to appropriate procedures for communication. It was an era in which 'colonial' congregations were seen as anachronistic and the Presbyterian Church of England as the parent body of the four churches was anxious that a settlement be reached as quickly as possible. No doubt there were mistakes of manners and protocol. There seems to have been little common understanding about what they were doing and it was an especially frustrating time for the bilingual missionaries who sought to act as cultural and ecclesiastical middlemen.
It is arguable that had the roles been reversed misunderstandings over the process and concern about the outcome would simply be on the other foot. Like the Chinese congregations, the English believed in their own style of church government. The absence of a creedal statement such as the Westminster Confession in the constitution was one of the difficulties to be overcome because of the conditions attached to financial trusts at Orchard Road in particular. The English felt some sort of compromise was possible, and if they had been in a stronger position they would have negotiated for a result they believed to be more appropriate for the future church of Malaysia. However the need for this was not felt by the Synod, and the expatriate leadership could not communicate their vision. In the event they were in no position to obtain much beyond some concessions for greater autonomy as long as the English congregations continued to have an expatriate character.
This might be noted as a case where those in favour of the missionary and Western way, as it now appeared, lost. Ironically some of the issues arose out of the policy of the Presbyterian Church of England mission from the early days which had been to create 'Three Self' (self-governing, self-supporting, self-propagating) churches in China and in Malaya. In China this policy helped produce a relatively autonomous church with some success, though not without some trauma. In Malaya the three-self policy led to an independently minded Chinese Church which was essentially a Chinese three-self church and not a Malayan three-self church. Given the circumstances it could hardly be anything else for a considerable period. What it did show was that three-self principles are inadequate in a number of respects when applied to a migrant community where the needs of preservation of language and culture have to be balanced against those of indigenisation and national relevance.
2. Early Presbyterianism in Malaysia.
The earliest contact with the Reformed tradition was through the Dutch who conquered Catholic Melaka in 1641 and built the now famous Christ Church Melaka in 1753 for Presbyterian and not Anglican worship. Its interior architecture in particular reflects Dutch Presbyterian traditions of the period.(3)
Missionaries from the London Missionary Society (LMS), beginning with William Milne who settled in Melaka in 1815, were sometimes Presbyterian or at least of Presbyterian background, though the LMS was essentially Congregationalist in its church polity and eventually in its membership. The LMS missionaries in Penang and Singapore assisted with ministry to the Scots community along with the East India Company chaplains who conducted worship for members of the Church of England.
With the departure of the LMS to China in the 1840s the Scots communities took steps to call their own ministers and this led to the arrival of Charles Moir in Penang in 1851 and Thomas McKenzie Fraser in Singapore in 1856. Both took an interest in mission work outside their expatriate congregations. Moir learnt Malay but found the responsibility of trying to be a missionary in Province Wellesly as well as parish minister to the Scots in Penang too great and he resigned in 1857. It was a pattern to be repeated by a number of his successors. Eventually, in a striking piece of ecumenical cooperation, from 1879 to 1890 mission work in Province Wellesly was carried out by the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel assisted by an annual donation of 200 pounds from Penang Presbyterians.
In Singapore Fraser also had a short ministry but succeeded in employing a Chinese catechist, Tan See Boo from South Fujien who had been converted through the ministry of the first English Presbyterian missionary to China, William Chalmers Burns. See Boo's ministry bore fruit, and he was ordained an elder in 1864, but in 1866 he and his small congregation left the Presbyterians to join the Brethren and were followed in the same direction not long after by an English Presbyterian missionary and the third minister to the Scots Church.
Nevertheless the Presbyterians in Singapore employed other catechists though financial support depended very much on William Keaseberry who had resigned from the LMS in 1847 to remain in Singapore after the others had left. After a time a group of Teochew speaking Christians gathered at Bukit Timah at the 'end of the road' as it then was.
Keasberry's other major outreach was among the Straits Chinese at the Malay Chapel in Prinsep Street which he had built in 1843. What had been intended as a mission to the Muslim Malays bore most fruit among Malay speaking Chinese whose ancestors had been in Malaya for several hundred years. Keaseberry died in 1875 and for a time the work was under the care of an elderly self-supporting missionary, William Young. In 1881 the efforts of the Orchard Road congregation to obtain a full time missionary to the Chinese from Swatow and South Fukien were finally successful. They had been supported by the pleas of English Presbyterian missionaries in that area of China who saw numbers of their converts migrating without a church to go to when they arrived in Singapore. In November the Rev J A B Cook arrived after a year's language training in Swatow and took responsibility for both the overseas Chinese (Bukit Timah) and the Straits Chinese (Prinseps Street) missions. It was this event which was eventually chosen as marking the founding of the present Presbyterian Churches of Malaysia and Singapore.
The connection with the English Presbyterian Church rather than the Church of Scotland needs some explanation given that it was Scottish Presbyterians who formed the congregations at Penang and Singapore. In part it was due to the fact that many of the Chinese Christians had been converted in Swatow (East Guangdong) and South Fujien areas through the English Presbyterian mission and there was a desire to maintain this connection. Although many of the 'English' Presbyterian missionaries were in fact Scots, it was recognized that to associate with Scotland at that time would have meant a choice between one of three Presbyterian churches in Scotland who despite virtually identical polity and theology, were not finally reunited until 1929.
With these considerations in mind, in 1872 Singaporean Presbyterians became part of the Presbytery of London North of the Presbyterian Church of England. The London Missionary Society link was later renewed when migrants came from their mission in Amoy, and in the 1950s when some of their ex-China missionaries joined the Presbyterian Mission in Singapore and Malaya. More recently still the Congregationalist Churches in England (the home church of the LMS) amalgamated with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church, reflecting in England the co-operation experienced in Malaysia over a long period.
3. From 1881 to World War II.
3.1 The Chinese Mission
Rev J A B Cook was a leading figure in the Singapore Christian community, but his letters reveal some of the frustrations of relating to other denominations. He complained of Anglicans who would not join in prayer meetings with others, and Methodists who said they were coming to evangelize the poor but who appeared to succeed more with a different sector of the economic spectrum.(4)
Working among Chinese migrants, Cook sincerely sought to implement a policy of building a 'Three-Self' church. In the 1950s the phrase attracted attention because of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement in China, but from the 1860s the phrase itself and the associated concern to develop a local church capable of directing its own affairs, supporting itself and being responsible for its own evangelistic outreach, was a common policy among many missionary groups including the Presbyterian Church of England. It is not as surprising as it might seem to find Cook writing home in 1884 that he had formed a presbytery with three Chinese elders and himself as moderator and that it was his aim to build up 'a strong native church, "self-supporting, self-governing and self-extending".(5)
In the event, the formation of the presbytery proved premature, but the vision was eventually realized with the formation of the Singapore Presbyterian Synod in January 1901. The constitution as it developed was based on those drawn up by synods in China and as recently as the late 1950s it was said that the Church in Malaysia looked to the Church in China not only for its constitutional models but also for amendments to its structures, rules and procedures. It was the desire of Chinese churches to minimize Western denominational distinctives and hence their omission of the Westminster Confession as well as the tortuous but not always useless provisions for disciplinary procedures and handling disputes which fatten the rule books of Western Presbyterian churches.
By the time of Cook's retirement in 1925, after 43 years service, there were 16 Chinese congregations or preaching points and the Church was solidly established. However Cook's leadership should not overshadow that of the pioneer Chinese pastors. Rev Tay Sek Tin was called from China in 1897 for Fujien work and after his retirement 20 years later was succeeded by Rev Tan Leng Tain from Amoy. In 1920 the congregation in Muar called the Rev Chia Teck Guan. These appointments established a pattern which was to last until after the Communist revolution, whereby the Chinese Presbyterian Church in Malaysia looked to the Church in China to supply its ordained ministry.
The number of congregations and members expanded steadily. It was helpful that in 1931 the English Presbyterian Church replaced Cook with T C Gibson and A S M Anderson. Gibson had had 20 years in Swatow and Anderson had been in South Fujien and their experience prior to coming to Malaya was a great asset. It was part of Gibson's concern in particular to reduce the overtones of paternalism and formally place the appointment of missionaries under the Chinese Synod, a concern heightened by the difficult experiences of the Church in China during the 1920s.
The mission among Straits Chinese based on the Prinsep Street congregation in Singapore took a slightly different path, but was notable for the strength of its lay leadership, particularly that of Sir Ong Siang Song whose father had been converted through James Legge of the LMS in 1847. A persistent problem for many churches but especially Prinsep Street, was the lack of Presbyterian schools to provide educational support including for those who might go on to train for the ministry. There had been a successful, though short-lived, 'Eastern School' in the 1890s and the failure of the mission to keep it going despite its difficulties was cause for comment, regret and surprise at the 'unpresbyterian' attitude to education it seemed to reflect, as well as the lost opportunities for the Church and community which it represented.
However, in 1923, on the initiative of the Revs Tay Sek Tin and Tan Leng Tain in Singapore, a girls English school was begun in Katong which provided the foundation for the present Katong Presbyterian Schools and eventually the Katong Presbyterian Church. There were also some primary schools established in Johor, notably at Kluang, but despite generous support from some and the efforts of the Rev A S M Anderson, there was neither the commitment nor the resources for this sort of mission which might have been hoped for.
Within Malaya it was the policy to focus attention on Johor (there being an informal comity arrangement with the Methodists that they should concentrate on the North and Presbyterians on the South) and it was the aim of Anderson to set up a Presbyterian church in every town in the State, even to the extent of using his own money to do so, as in Kota Tinggi. His vision extended to Kota Bahru and Kuala Trengganu where his visits marked the beginnings of Presbyterian Chinese Churches on the East Coast. He spent his last years (he died in 1959) living in Muar and spending his time distributing tracts and doing personal evangelism among young people.
In the 50 years before the Second World War the links between the expatriate congregations and the Chinese Church and mission appear weakest. The expatriate congregations at Singapore and Penang had been augmented by new churches at Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, which gave better coverage in the attempt to provide services for Scottish planters and tin-miners up and down the country. They were by and large absorbed by their own needs, and involvement with the Mission did not extend past providing financial assistance for particular people or projects.
For Chinese congregations it was during these years that the links with Lingtung and South Fujien were most vital. The Church that arose out of the English Presbyterian mission in China was the source of language training and experienced missionaries as well as of Chinese ministers, and the experience of the churches there provided the basis of policies applied in Malaya. These were the ancestral homes of many members and the 'mother churches' to which people naturally looked for leadership and guidance.
Between 1901 and 1938 the mission had grown from 8 congregations to 16 and 3 preaching stations, about equally divided between Singapore and Johor. There were 3 ordained Chinese pastors and 11 unordained preachers with 2 vacancies. During 1937 the membership increase included 120 adult baptisms which brought the membership to a total of 1452. Like other denominations the Chinese Synod benefited from the visits of the Chinese evangelist John Sung from 1935. Building progress followed spiritual with attap sheds being replaced with better premises,(6) although more substantial improvements did not take place until the 1950s when many more Chinese came to have a greater sense of permanence about living in Malaya and Singapore.
3.2 St Andrew's Penang
There were long periods - one as long as 17 years - during which the Penang congregation kept functioning despite their failure to obtain a minister, but with the induction of William Murray in 1892 the situation greatly improved. Murray, like his predecessors, learnt Malay and though he left in 1899 he put his language training to good use when he returned in 1902 to be the minister of the Straits Chinese congregation at Prinsep Street for 34 years.
During successive ministries Penang maintained something of the willingness to be involved in wider work it had shown earlier. William Cross from 1912 to 1915 supported YMCA activity and started the St Andrew's Outlook which developed from the journal of the Penang congregation to one serving the four expatriate churches and linking their widely scattered membership. It was from Penang that the system of outstation services developed. Only a minority of members were in the main centres and ministers travelled great distances to take services in homes on estates and elsewhere.
The outstations that grew up with the Penang Church were Prai, Malakoff and Caledonia in Province Wellesly, Alor Star, Kulim, Sungei Patani and Sungei Tawar in Kedah, Gula and Klian Intan in Perak; in addition services were held twice a year at Takuapa Pangnga and Puket in West Siam; Medan, Galang, Tebing Tinggi, Siantar, Begerpang and Toerangi on the east coast of Sumatra were visited three times a year.(7)
3.3 St Andrew's Kuala Lumpur
The development of Kuala Lumpur following the formation of the Federated Malay States in 1896 and the success of rubber after the turn of the century, shifted emphasis from Singapore and Penang to this inland city served by the new railway. 'Instead of a few coffee and sugar estates mostly in financial difficulties, there was opened a vast territory of rubber estates. And the outlook for the Church in Malaya was transformed.(8)
By 1911 the expatriate population of Kuala Lumpur was 1396, an increase of 1250 in a decade. Occasional Presbyterian services began in 1902, initiated by Murray from Penang. The founding minister was A D Harcus who arrived in 1915. Although he left in 1923 having seen the present church building opened in 1918, Harcus remained a key figure in the development of the Presbyterian Church in Malaya. A person of energy and clear judgement, his leadership on various London committees was vital for liaison and in obtaining funds and ministers.
The second minister in St Andrew's Kuala Lumpur was Roy Whitehorn who served from 1923 to 1927 and some of his and his wife's letters and notes are still in the hands of his family.(9)
The mid-twenties were golden years for colonial service and Whitehorn enjoyed them to the full. In Kuala Lumpur he sometimes travelled 500 miles a week attending outstation services with a harmonium on the luggage carrier of the car so he could play the hymns when he got there. For four years he played rugby for the Selangor Club, was involved in musical presentations and was editor of the St Andrew's Outlook. He only wore a "dog-collar" when he had to, and wondered if the Anglican clergy 'slept in theirs.' One free Sunday he attended St Mary's and noted that 'the Europeans always sat in front, the Eurasians and Indians at the back and the missionary folk tactfully half-way.' But, as he also observed, in his own Church the membership was almost totally European with only four Eurasian families.
A talk given in England by Mrs Whitehorn in the late 1920s gives an excellent picture of the rational behind the chaplaincy form of ministry which the Presbyterians, like the Anglicans, provided for the British in Malaya. It may be hard to recover some of the class and race consciousness of the period but the atmosphere is one of mutual acceptance.
She noted that Europeans were not just British, but also 'Australians, New Zealanders, Dutch, Danes and Swiss and some Canadians and Americans.' There was a good mixture of occupations, 'from more or less "working-class" people: miners, engine-drivers, railway workshop foremen, police subordinates, to heads of Government departments.' The bulk were 'planters, miners and the "manager" class,' everybody was 'proportionately quite a good deal "higher" than the corresponding class at home.'
The question whether the Church was doing all it should for non-Europeans was obviously a real one, although she confessed 'one must admit that church members out East do not all take an active interest in missionary work.' That was an understatement, and what was done was well removed from the life of most Europeans. Nevertheless the Whitehorns believed very strongly that chaplaincy work was essential. The credibility of mission work suffered when less than Christian standards were exhibited by Europeans, so it was important to try and ensure that managers and others were 'of high principles rather than leading a life of immorality and drunkenness.' It was also felt that Western civilization in its purely economic and political form was morally dangerous. Christianity was needed to counterbalance the negative effects of the changes the British were bringing to Malaysian society.
As the Church benefited from the growth of the economy and the size of the expatriate community, so it also suffered in times of recession as in the early 1920s and from the late 1920s until the mid 1930s. During this later period the Church at Penang could not afford to pay its minister and had to break its contract with him.
Long vacancies helped financially, but the work suffered spiritually and pastorally and remaining ministers were sorely stretched covering from Singapore to Penang while engaged in endless correspondence to find suitable replacements for those who had left. Expatriate ministry was not cheap especially when the expenses of furlough and family were considered. This coloured the selection of ministers. Those with too many children or who were too old, too young, too eligible for marriage, or not good at socializing, or even too missionary minded, were all discounted as candidates. Though the work was subsidized by the Presbyterian Church of England and under their authority, there was a preference for ministers from Scotland or Wales rather than England. The right accent and a down to earth frame of mind were distinct advantages.
Income depended not only on individual giving and support from England, but also on businesses. The pattern developed in all the expatriate churches of seeking donations from foreign owned plantation and tin mining companies. Eventually the arrangement was formalized with so much per planted acre (3 cents in the late 1960s) being made available annually to a range of churches including Anglican and Presbyterian. No doubt this was seen by the companies as a way of helping to provide staff care in a situation where sickness and death remained very common, nor were the churches the only 'charities' which received support.
3.4 St Andrew's Ipoh
St Andrew's Perak was the last in the chain of expatriate Presbyterian churches to be established, and it is one for which the greatest quantity of archival records exist being one of the few churches of any denomination whose pre-war files have survived.(10)
Like its sister churches, Perak, as it was generally known, saw its fortunes rise and fall with the economy. Its congregation was never large and financial problems were never far away. The pattern of services with a central church and a minister who travelled thousands of miles on outstation preaching was that developed earlier in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. (Comments were made about one minister that his was a merciful profession, but it did not extend to the treatment of his car.) Lay leadership was extremely important and it was lay initiative and generosity which saw the foundation stone of the church laid in 1929 and the life of the congregation sustained during difficult periods.
There was less linkage with the Presbyterian Mission than in Singapore or Penang and the very physical appearance of the building - it is a beautiful little stone church which looks as if it has been transported from the Highlands of Scotland - indicates that it was built by expatriate Scots for expatriate Scots. The Highland scene in Golf Club Road Ipoh is complemented by a mock Tudor manse and though the facilities are now well used by a Chinese congregation, the geographical location is a handicap - a problem also with St Andrew's Penang. For many, St Andrew's Church, along with the Club and the St Andrew's Society, and in some cases the Masonic Lodge, was part of a cluster of institutions which helped preserve identity and memories of cultural roots even for those who spent the rest of their lives in Malaya.(11) How many followed the proverbial British practice of dressing for dinner every night in the jungle to keep up their standards is not known, but one Presbyterian minister in Malaya, having been caught out once, always carried formal attire on his outstation visits, just in case.(12)
The precariousness of the finances and the need to be on good terms with scattered members with a fragile church commitment made it difficult for the minister to do or say anything which challenged accepted practices in church or society. The whisky bottle on the table at Perak session meetings is part of oral rather than written history. In the late 1920s there were debates in Session about seven-day working weeks in tin mines and on the plantations. Although someone ventured that "he thought there was presently no hardship" a motion, hardly very strong, resolved "that it is an admitted fact that one days rest in seven is beneficial to all mankind, those in authority should be reminded of this."(13) A relieving minister in 1937, Allan Easton, was more bold, if not exactly more popular, and had some success with one mining company at least in obtaining improved hours and paid holidays for workers.(14) It was a pity that within a year tin fell and workers were being given more holidays than they wanted.
4. The Japanese occupation.
The news of developments in Europe in 1939 was depressing, and a Day of World Prayer resulted in packed churches. Aiken at Ipoh was candid enough to tell the congregation,
You have given up your golf today at great personal sacrifice ... some of you have been genuinely moved to pray for peace ... and lets be honest, some of you are really hoping that war will be averted through this act and day, to get back to Sunday Golf and Sunday pastimes that do not include church attendance. - there's a crisis in our lives every day, every Sunday!(15)
But this was about war in Europe, it was not expected to come to Malaya and despite being caught up in mobilisation exercises, expatriate churches shared the air of false security which marked British preparedness for the coming of the Japanese. Aiken found himself appointed chaplain to the Perak Volunteer Territorial Force whose training culminated in a camp in the Ipoh Turf Club. If he soon gained a reputation for appearing just after the more strenuous exercises, it was compensated by his arriving with drinks and ice-cream for the troops and providing social evenings in the manse.(16) A letter home to Scotland from the Session Clerk dated 28 November 1941 observed:
We have all become war-minded these days and have been expecting the Jappies to have a crack at us somewhere, but they have not started yet and I doubt now if they ever will. At least if they have any sense left they won't, as they will certainly get the worst of the encounter.(17)
In Ipoh the last months before the invasion saw debates over whether or not to seek greater autonomy from Britain by the formation of a Presbytery of Malaya - something not achieved for 30 years - and the exhausting business of trying to find a new minister as Aiken left in November 1941. John Fleming, a Manchuria missionary from the Church of Scotland agreed to come in November 1941 after giving up his hopes for a return to China via the Burma Road. One of the last acts of the Session Clerk that year was to apply for permission for Fleming to conduct weddings. In the event he had little opportunity to fulfil any pastoral duties, though his ministry was certainly appreciated. Fleming quickly found himself driving trucks and ambulances as the British defences withdrew down the Peninsular. He was evacuated from Singapore, got back to China by air from India and in the 1950s returned to be secretary of the Malayan Christian Council.
To the end the feeling prevailed that the Japanese threat would be easily dealt with. The last letter on the Ipoh pre-war files is dated 11 December. It asks the Straits Echo in Penang to place a notice advising that services in Ipoh would be held later on Sundays 'owing to the brown-out and other duties connected with hostilities preventing members from attending service at the usual hour.'
Three days earlier the Japanese had landed in the north. They reached Ipoh by the 28th of December and Kuala Lumpur by the 11th of January. The British surrendered in Singapore on the 15th February 1942. The expatriate congregations were gone, their leadership, such as remained, was interned in the Changi camp in Singapore.
For the Chinese Synod the times were difficult. Members experienced harassment and a number lost their lives including the Synod secretary, two school principals in Singapore, three missionaries(18) (two of whom had only just been relocated from Taiwan) and several elders. Nevertheless the Church continued to function.
The fact that the Chinese churches had been guided to be independent of missionary leadership and authority meant that church life carried on and none of the congregations ceased altogether to meet for weekly worship. Much of the church life was of course disrupted. The church buildings at Senai and Yong Peng were burnt down, that in Kota Tinggi was occupied by the Japanese, and because Anderson was one of the trustees of the church at Kota Bahru, the ... congregation was only able to keep it by paying a fine of nearly $400 out of their annual income of $500.(19)
The story of the expatriate church leaders in Changi prison has often been told. Those interned included T C Gibson, the missionary; R M Greer, the minister at Penang who later returned to Singapore; H R Cheeseman, an elder and key figure who was later Director General of Education; and A Webb, the minister of St Andrew's Kuala Lumpur. They and others met regularly and divided the camp into 'districts' for systematic pastoral care. They shared with Methodists and Anglicans in the plans for postwar development of a council of churches and a union theological college, and they joined with most non-Catholics in the united worship of the 'Internment Union Church'. Other Christian activities were also important.
In the early days of internment ... Bible classes were regularly held and lectures on Church History were given. ... there was a Hebrew class. ... The Field Committee continued to meet throughout. ...
We reviewed the work of our churches. We weighed what had been done in the balances of spiritual values, and we realized that in much we must be regarded as found wanting. Particularly ... in regard to racial contact. ... We came out of internment determined to throw off any isolation of the past.(20)
There is no doubt that for the policies and attitudes of the expatriate churches of all denominations the shock of the fall of Malaya and Singapore and the experience of internment was salutary. The courage and initiative of Bishop Wilson of Singapore was of significance for the whole Christian community in its morale at the time and for its future development.
However the decisions made and changes of attitude which were apparent had their roots in pre-war experiences. There was an inter-church committee before the war in which Presbyterians, especially Gibson, had been active and the decisions concerning the formation of a national church council mirrored steps being taken around the world. Nor should it be overlooked that the experience of the local leadership of Chinese and Indian congregations was also formative since during the war they had stood on their own without missionary presence or financial subsidy. The challenge after 1945 was whether they also would think in terms of a more Malayan identity, or whether their experiences would draw them more to events in India and China; whether they would become more inward looking because that had been necessary for survival, or whether they would be prepared to be involved with other Christians in the tasks of national reconstruction and the creation of new church structures.
5. New moves : 1945 - 1948.
The end of the war in September 1945 presented an urgent agenda of restoration and rebuilding. Some church buildings had survived quite well, others had been badly damaged or destroyed. For the expatriate Presbyterian churches, Church of Scotland chaplains with the armed forces played a significant role as people returned from internment or leave or from exile overseas. Greer returned to Singapore from post-internment leave in February 1946 with responsibilities for all four congregations until other appointments could be made. He did not get to Ipoh until October. The church had been used as a store and the font was missing but otherwise things were intact. In Singapore the Session was reconstituted in July 1946 and in February 1947 Greer was inducted as "Resident minister of Malaya" with the Chinese Synod taking part in such a service for the first time. Greer had earlier been made an honorary member of the Synod. Army chaplains did a lot to fill gaps and later in 1947 a minister was obtained for Kuala Lumpur, but although congregations soon returned to Penang and Ipoh it was some years before they were able to obtain ministers of their own.
The hoped-for improvement in relations with the Chinese Church made a number of worthwhile starts, but not everything was possible. Chinese congregations helped Orchard Road get re-established with the loan of communion glasses, collection bags and cups and saucers, but suggestions of combined services were turned down.(21) However there was a joint committee handling relief supplies distributed to the Singapore congregations whose membership in July 1946 was estimated at 1575.(22)
In fact the general turn of events with the Synod after the war was in a direction the returning missionaries had not anticipated. It became clear that the further degree of autonomy experienced in their absence was to result not only in a four year 'Independence Movement' but also in a turning towards China. The Synod gave up the grant it received before the war to supplement salaries and invested in a coconut estate in Pontian to provide for the future. Henceforth the mission would pay for missionaries but that would be all.
These were steps towards independence from European support, but the question of where the interests of the church really lay appeared uncertain. In 1948 the Synod took the step of becoming part of the Church in China and changed its name to 'The Malayan Synod in the South Seas of the Church of Christ in China.' The result of continuously recruiting ministerial leadership from China was that the leadership drew themselves and their church back to their own roots.(23) There were some positive reasons for the move. The Church of Christ in China needed the support of overseas Chinese and Chinese Christians in Malaya felt the uncertainties of their own situation. Joining together was an act of solidarity.
During these years Presbyterians in Singapore and Malaya played their part in the establishment of Trinity College, but it took the Communist revolution in China to bring about the actual use of the College for training Chinese-speaking ministers for the Synod. In this the example of English churches in still going to London and Scotland for their ministers may equally be evidence of looking to the past rather than the future. Nevertheless it was apparent that while for the missionaries and the leadership at least of the 'English' Presbyterian churches, there was now a commitment to building a more self-consciously Malayan Church, the converts to their cause were not yet very many.
6. Emergency and Merdeka : 1948 - 1957.
The political events leading to Independence in 1957 had far reaching implications for all the churches. The state of emergency which lasted from 1948 to 1960 brought in new missionaries and new denominations as people expelled from Communist China were invited to work in the New Villages.
A good many Presbyterians were among the missionaries who came. This placed the Synod in an odd situation. Having begun its life with a minimum of missionary support, and having reached a stage when it was feeling the strength of its own independence, now it had the relatively large number of 16 missionaries to integrate into to its work. Given the size of the Church it was difficult for these new workers not to appear threatening.
Despite the principles established in the 1930s that 'all matters relating to the government of the Church shall be under the control of the [Chinese] Presbytery and the Mission shall take no part' and 'the work of foreign missionaries in congregations ... shall be by invitation of the Chinese Church,' it was inevitable that there should have been differences of opinion and policy which no amount of commitment to 'three-self' principles could disguise. There was validity in the concerns of both sides and Presbyterians were not alone in facing these sorts of issues. There is some parallel with the situation of the Lutherans at this time which resulted in Lutheran Church of America missionaries starting a separate Church altogether. Methodists and Anglicans seemed to succeed better at utilizing the unprecedented flood of additional manpower as Malaya became a focus of Western missionary concern for the only time in its history. China had turned Communist, Korea had been divided, Vietnam was to follow, Malaya could be next.
The Emergency, combined with the existence of a Communist regime in China which supported the guerrillas, had the effect of cutting off contacts between Malaya and China and eliminating migration as well as the practice of families sending their children back to China for education. Whereas it forced the Chinese Synod to think more in terms of Malaya and Singapore rather than China being home, the cultural linkage with China remained and in some ways the felt need to preserve Chinese identity was even stronger. A sign of this was the reluctance of the Synod to encourage English speaking work among their own young people.
The difficulty of training a local ministry which could relate to the many dialects used, when any training they received locally was in Mandarin if not English, was a hurdle to overcome. This question of language and the status of English speaking Chinese in their own Church also contributed to a lack of interaction with developments among other churches.
The Malayan Council of Churches (MCC) had John Fleming as its secretary, but his Mandarin though valuable was of less use that it would be today, and the activities of the MCC, in outreach as well as in ecumenical affairs, appealed more to those of English education. Things were not helped by the influence of Carl MacIntire's International Council of Christian Churches. His attacks on the World Council of Churches and those even remotely connected with it disturbed some of the leadership in the Chinese Synod and helped produce a secession to the Bible Presbyterian Church. Sensitivity to ecumenical involvements of any kind has remained a characteristic trait, though it does have its cultural elements. It had been the missionaries and English ministers of the Presbytery who took an active part in the Malayan Christian Council and after the union of the Chinese Synod and the English Presbytery in 1971 all such involvement ceased until March 1988 when the Malaysian Synod voted to reactivate its membership.
What was remarkable was not only the reluctance to be involved with the traditional 'ecumenical' bodies, but also the caution about being connected with evangelical groupings. The exceptions to this general picture of isolation have been membership of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Council for World Mission - the mission partnership which grew out the London Missionary Society and the churches it had assisted in the last two centuries.
A number of the English Presbyterian and LMS missionaries with the Chinese Synod (later including some from the Overseas Missionary Fellowship) found themselves involved in the development of English work, particularly in Johor Bahru, Batu Pahat, Pontian, Muar and Kulai. In these situations sometimes there was impatience on one side and suspicion on the other. Loyalty to the Synod was strained as the English work began to draw in people from other churches in places where Presbyterians found themselves providing the only English language services. In Singapore the Prinsep Street Congregation sought, unsuccessfully in the end, to transfer from the Chinese Synod to the Presbytery of the English speaking expatriate churches.
The expatriate churches duly revived and grew with steady ministries in all the centres and their awareness of Chinese work increased as missionaries with the Synod assisted during vacancies and holidays. In Ipoh the minister from the end of 1951 was R A Elder, a member of the mission staff who with his wife attempted to develop a Hakka congregation alongside the European.
With the strains of the Emergency the pastoral role of the expatriate churches became more significant and the dangers involved in maintaining outstation services were quite real. With the approach of Independence there was a dawning appreciation that some of the intentions expressed in Changi would have to be taken a further step forward. Expatriate presence would further reduce and the long standing difficulties obtaining suitable ministers and being able to pay for them, were also pointers to further changes ahead. Perhaps it was not without significance either that in 1957, for the first time, three ladies were elected to the Board of Managers at Ipoh.(24)
7. Church growth and church union : 1960 -1971.
The 1960s was a decade of remarkable development, particularly noteworthy for the 'Five Year Movement' inaugurated in 1960 and extended for a second period to last a total of ten years. This succeeded in doubling the membership of the Chinese churches through church planting and evangelism. Steps taken to bring the expatriate churches, the Mission, and the Chinese Synod closer together into the one church were eventually successful. Despite strains and contradictions, it appeared that all was set fair for a sound future. The inclusion of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, within the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 made little difference as Presbyterians had no ambitions for East Malaysia; but the withdrawal of Singapore in 1965 set the stage for the division of the Synod ten years later.
The Five Year Movement meant that the European congregations had Chinese services in their buildings and there were moves towards appointing ministers who could cater for both language groups. In Penang the number of expatriates was rapidly dwindling, but Dr Yeow Choo Lak did much to extend the outreach of the congregation through Boys Brigade work and through the kindergarten which under his wife's supervision eased the financial problems of the congregation. The Penang elders saw more clearly than some in other centres what was happening and took steps to secure the future of the church and to initiate moves for the union between the Presbytery and Synod.
The last minister to the European congregation at Ipoh, Derek Kingston, was another missionary and he shared the manse with Jeremy Law whose work laid the foundation of the present Chinese congregation. In Kuala Lumpur there was also uncertainty about the future of the expatriate congregation. Numbers were leaving, but it was by no means as obvious as in Penang and Ipoh that all would leave. In 1963 the Logos Mandarin congregation began using the St Andrew's premises as a worship centre. The ministry of Colin Dane from 1968 reflected some of the tensions of the period. Dane saw a number of issues very clearly, perhaps too clearly, as the problems were not just of policy, but also of timing and of tact. He pushed for union of Synod and Presbytery with safeguards for English speaking needs and sensibilities and prematurely sought to provide for a local ministry to the European congregation. The strain told on him personally, on the congregation and on others involved.
By the end of 1967 the Chinese Synod congregations numbered 13 in Singapore and 15 in Malaya. In Malaya there were eight ministers, 10 preachers and six deaconesses, a communicant membership of 2650 and a baptismal roll of 1350.
8. The Presbyterian Church of Malaysia : 1975 to the present.
After the separation of the Singapore and Malaysian churches in 1975 consideration was given to moving the headquarters to Kuala Lumpur. Although the need to establish a greater presence in the capital was recognized, it has been found more convenient - given the preponderance of membership in Johor - to retain the Synod office in Batu Pahat.
Despite a severe shortage of ordained ministers, growth has taken place. The Logos Church in Kuala Lumpur launched SEA Park Presbyterian Church as an English speaking daughter congregation in Petaling Jaya, and other churches are being planted in the suburbs of the city. An independent fellowship in Port Dickson was accepted into the Presbyterian fold and is growing steadily. In 1988 steps were taken to examine the life and constitution of the Church with a view to improving its effectiveness and rate of growth. The formation of an English Speaking Presbytery in May 1990, ahead of similar moves in Singapore, may facilitate growth as well as more straightforward administration.
The charismatic movement influenced many English speaking congregations in the 1970s, but despite pleas for a more pastoral approach the Chinese speaking majority introduced constitutional changes in 1984 requiring that all baptisms be by sprinkling and discouraging speaking in tongues. Since then the growth of independent charismatic groups and the passing of the element of novelty about the movement has probably led to reduced pressure for charismatic worship at the same time as in its moderate forms it no longer seems quite so threatening.
Government policy in the early 1970s resulted in an influx of new expatriates, predominantly American. This had the effect of transforming St Andrew's Kuala Lumpur at a time when the English congregations in Penang and Ipoh ceased to exist. The American Presbyterian Jon Hoadley came at just the right time to minister to his fellow countrymen. It was a surprise, a shock even, to the British, but the financial precariousness of the congregation disappeared practically overnight.
Within themselves the expatriate congregations had always been predominantly British with a strong Scottish accent, but suddenly St Andrew's Kuala Lumpur seemed very American. Although there is more to keeping American and Commonwealth Christians happy together than many realise, it can be done. In recent years St Andrew's has become more fully an international church catering not only to Americans, British, and those from the Commonwealth, but also to Malaysian Christians (particularly where one partner is non-Malaysian) and numbers from Germany, Japan, Korea and elsewhere. A great deal of the formality of earlier years - suits and ties and Sunday best - has passed and the balance of tradition and informality established during the ministry of the Rev Donald Elley from New Zealand in the eight years to 1989 struck a happy note for many.
In the 1930s the missionary T C Gibson wrote:
The real test of the success of any mission is not the patients in its hospitals, nor the pupils in its schools, nor even the number of converts baptized but the planting of an indigenous Church. In that alone have you any guarantee of permanency.
Recalling this in 1957 George Hood added:
An indigenous Church is not just a Church which runs its own affairs but a Church which has roots in the country and is meeting the challenge and needs of that country.(25)
The story of Malaysian Presbyterianism is that of related churches from different cultural backgrounds which have come together in a country of a different culture, language and religion. There are many points of difference arising out of the respective backgrounds and there are many points of similarity in how each has responded. Overall there is the question how much their efforts have resulted in a church which is not only autonomous, but also indigenous in terms of commitment to the country in which it is placed. Such a result cannot be expected to be automatic, and the implications of this commitment are still being realized.
A positive feature has been the way in which lay leadership has been the backbone of the church from its beginnings. It was Scots lay people in Singapore and Penang who called the first ministers; it was Chinese lay leadership at Bukit Timah and Prinsep Street which ensured the stability and growth of their congregations. Today it is the faith, endurance, and self-sacrifice of elders and church members whose quality of Christian life is essential to the spiritual health of congregations, particularly where there is no preacher or ordained pastor available.
Relatively speaking Presbyterianism in Malaysia appears weak. It is different in Korea, Taiwan or even Thailand so one cannot say that there is some broadly Asian cultural factor which is responsible. How far the situation is due to Presbyterianism as a system or to particular factors in the local situation must be a matter of further reflection. It may be that Presbyterian does not cope well with multicultural situations where individual cultural patterns are stronger than the identity of the church tradition itself.
In Malaysia this is a church which for much of its history has rejected the idea of being Presbyterian in favour of wishing to be Chinese. When church members today ask "What is Presbyterianism?" it becomes apparent that what may be the Presbyterian tradition in the past or in other places today has limited authority. It is possible to be in the sitution of tradition being a dead weight even when it is not well-defined. Perhaps the Presbyterian part of the tradition is neither very much the problem nor very much the solution, yet one would like to think that it still has something to offer.
As far as the last of the expatriate churches is concerned, by majoring on its international ministry, St Andrews Kuala Lumpur has also weakened its sense of Presbyterian identity. The adaption to the needs of its actual congregation which this reflects may be quite acceptable, but like the parent church in Malaysia, uncertainty about ethos and the absence of defined procedures for handling disputes and orderly change are areas of weakness.
In the church at large, lay elders frequently function as ministers in all but the celebration of the sacraments. In many congregations the number of elders is very few, often two, sometimes one and the balance of leadership is made up with deacons. Presbyteries meet seldom, often only once a year instead of monthly or bimonthly as might be expected. Pastoral concern for sister congregations does exist, as does prophetic concern for the world, but the expression of these things tends to be local and occasional. The shortage of ordained ministers remains chronic and the focus of concern for many congregations is essentially that of their own life. The exceptions are important and encouraging. Acts of charity at a personal level are often sacrifical, but denominational expressions of 'social concern' are limited and likely to remain so until the role of the central organization is more positively accepted by the member congregations.
At a national level church life has been marked by overwork and frustration. The building of trust and the articulation of a vision capable of commanding wide support is elusive. The problems of coping with theological and cultural diversity sometimes loom larger than they should. The boundaries of tolerable difference in matters of faith and worship are not easy to define despite the pluralism of Malaysian society taken as a whole. Yet steps have been taken to review the life of the church, to make meetings more effective, and to face some of the issues which frustrate growth and weaken loyalty.
Simplistic explanations for the difficulties of the Church would blame missionaries, or converts, or circumstances, but there are no easy answers. The Presbyterian Church in Malaysia has had and has its quota of saints and wise men and women; it has shown itself capable of self-sacrifice and of planned growth. Yet the failure over a long period to attract, recruit, train, encourage, support and properly employ leadership from within its own ranks has left a crippling legacy. Years passed without the necessary decisions being worked through while annual meetings alternated lengthy procedures with excellent meals. Conflict was always painful and the prospect of once again leaving issues unresolved for another year easily became attractive. Over decades the effect was debilitating.
By the end of the 1980s these things seemed to be more in the past and the isolation from the wider Christian community, "Ecumenical" as well as "Evangelical", breaking down. Local congregations took up membership in the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship and in March 1988, the Synod voted to reactivate its long dormant membership in the Council of Churches. It will take time for this new openness to be reflected at a congregational level, but in these decisions, as in a number of others, the church has shown itself to be more capable of acting independently of Singapore than hitherto. In the face of the challenges to Christian faith and witness in Malaysia, there is a new sense of belonging and working together towards the future.
E Band, Working His purpose out. The history of the English Presbyterian Mission 1847-1947, London, 1948.
Gereja Grace First Anniversary Souvenir, Batu Pahat, Feb 1980.
GPM Messenger, October 1985, Synod's tenth anniversary.
A Johnson, The burning bush, Dawn Publications, Singapore, 1988.
A Johnson, An historical account of the steps taken leading to union between the Presbytery of Malaysia and Singapore of the Presbyterian Church of England, and the Synod of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore and Malaysia. Typescript essay submitted for the licensing examination of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore, October 1983.
The Presbyterian Church in Singapore 1881-1981, 100th anniversary commemoration volume, Singapore, 1982.
The Presbyterian Church in Singapore and Malaysia. 90th anniversary of the Church and 70th anniversary of the Synod, Singapore, 1970.
M Tankaraj, The history and the growth of the English speaking Presbyterian churches in the State of Johor, Senior paper, Singapore Bible College, 1978.
I am grateful to the Rev Dr George Hood for his comments on the original version of this paper and also for his help in directing my further research. He saved me from a number of errors, those which remain are mine.
1. A system of church government by elders and ministers in a series of church courts with annually appointed moderators rather than permanent leaders. It is distinct from Congregationalism in that there is regional and corporate responsibility. It derives from the system in Geneva under Calvin at the Reformation and taken by John Knox to Scotland.
2. The regional court of the Church which covers the churches in its area. In most countries, but not Malaysia because of small numbers of churches and long distances, it meets monthly or by-monthly. Above the Presbytery is the Synod or General Assembly which meets annually.
3. As a government building it was duly passed to the Anglicans, probably because there was no significant Presbyterian presence at the time of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. It was also commonly forgotten by English clergy and administrators that the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was 'a church by law established' by the British Crown and therefore equally entitled to government support. In 1843 the Church of Scotland split over government interference in the spiritual life of the church. The Straits Settlement Scots included a large number of Free Presbyterians who were sensitive to the dangers of government involvement.
4. J A B Cook correspondence with H M Matheson, Foreign Missions Committee of the Presbyterian Church of England, 1883-1885. Quoted by A C Herron, A history of the Protestant Christian Churches in West Malaysia and Singapore, unpublished mss, 1977, p.175.
5. Cook to Matheson, 10 July 1884, quoted by Herron, ibid., p.178.
6. St Andrew's Outlook, March 1938, p7f.
7. H R Cheeseman, 'St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Penang 1851-1951,' St Andrew's Outlook, 101, July 1951.
8. A D Harcus, 'History of the Presbyterian Church in Malaya,' St Andrew's Outlook, 105, April 1955, p.22. Also in the Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society of England, 4(10), May 1955, 160-175.
9. I am grateful to the Whitehorn family for sharing memories of their parents and the loan of letters and talks from which the following quotations are extracted.
10. These are at present held by St Andrew's, Kuala Lumpur. Copies of draft mss history of the congregation by a former elder, J P Cumming, "St Andrews Presbyterian Church of Perak. A retrospect 1928-1963," are in Seminari Theoloji Malaysia archives and the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the non-Western World, New Collge, Edinburgh.
11. Studies of expatriate life as a social phenomenon (notably J G Butcher, The British in Malaya 1880-1941, OUP, 1979 and C Allen, ed., Tales from the South China Sea, Futura, 1984.) have left the churches and the national 'loyal' societies (St Andrew's, St Georges and St Davids for Scots, English and Welsh respectively) out of consideration. These were important institutional expressions of cultural preservation and adaption.
12. J P Cuming, ibid., p.22, records an incident from the 1930s. Rev William Murray was staying with a planter. 'A gong rang as Mr Murray and his host sat talking but, he was told, "that is the dressing gong." Meeting his host later he found him in formal dinner clothes and his face showed his inner feelings of surprise - "Oh don't be surprised Murray" said the host, "I'm not dressing because you are here, I do this every night - just so that I don't slip up." But Murray felt uncomfortable for the rest of his stay, dressed in his "tutop" jacket.'
13. J P Cuming, ibid., p.8.
14. Ibid., p.23f.
15. Ibid., p.27.
16. Ibid., p.29f.
17. J S Ferguson to W B Caverhill, Perak Papers.
18. The one who became most famous was Margaret Dryburgh who had taught in Singapore from the 1920s. She died in Sumatra on 23 April 1945. E Band, Working His purpose out, the history of the English Presbyterian Mission 1847-1947, London, 1948, p.542. L Warner and J Sandilands, Women beyond the wire, Hamlyn, 1983. The BBC TV series TENKO was based on the experiences of women prisoners of war such as Margaret Dryburgh.
19. A Herron, ibid., p.262. Herron quoted pounds not dollars which are here converted at $5 to one pound.
20. H R Cheeseman, 'The Presbyterian Church in Malaya,' British Malaya, Oct 1947, quoted in R M Greer, A history of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore, 1959, p.141f.
21. J C M Jack to R M Greer, 1 Oct 1945, Orchard Road Presbyterian Church papers.
22. Orchard Road Church UNO Relief Supplies, 1st distribution, 19 July 1946, Orchard Road Presbyterian Church papers.
23. G Hood, Malaya the challenge, 1957, 18-22.
24. J P Cuming, ibid., p.42.
25. G Hood, Ibid., p.31.