I’m A Malay Pastor In S’pore, My Journey To Christianity Involved A Machete & Running Away From Home

Singaporean Malay Pastor Shares His Story Of Converting To Christianity

“Why…” the neat-looking pastor pauses to choose his next words carefully, “is it that being a Malay in Singapore, you also take on a religious identity? But, this is not quite the same compared to if you are a Chinese or an Indian?”

He continues with a sad smile, “But I guess that’s life lah.”

Within a week of reaching out, Isaiah F agreed to speak with me at a nondescript Starbucks after I approached him with an unassuming curiosity of wanting to understand and hear his story on a deeper and more personal level.

During our conversation, what was offered to me was an intimate journey and a story hardly ever told, if at all. The Singaporean, in his 40s, has been in church ministry for over 20 years.

But Isaiah is no ordinary pastor, especially not in Singapore.

The extraordinariness that surrounds him, especially in the relative context of the local church community that he now calls home, also defines the seemingly eternal struggle that he continues to overcome to this day — being Malay at birth.

A chance encounter with God

In between sips of his venti-sized latte, Isaiah patiently recounts the definitive moments of his tumultuous voyage in becoming a Christian pastor since he made that fateful decision at the tender age of 15 to convert to Christianity.

This brief conversation will come to leave a lasting impression on me.

“Growing up, my circle of friends consisted of peers from all walks of life, from different races and religions, but my closer circle consisted of mainly Chinese friends. One fine day, my friend actually “tricked” me into going to a church with him,” Isaiah recalls with a grin.

“And the craziest part of it is that my friend is actually not a Christian at all. He was only there to look at the church girls and brought me along to accompany him.”

Upon learning his friend’s ‘mischief’, the mild-mannered pastor admits to feeling angry at first. But he decided to go with the flow to see what it was like on the other side.

Image courtesy of Isaiah F

Isaiah recollects feeling wholly out of place, like a fish out of water, at his first church service. He had no idea what was going on when he heard the preachings of the sermon and prayers to a different God.

Yet, it was during this virgin session that something unexpected happened.

Like a much-needed splash of water for a struggling fish on land, Isaiah unexpectedly felt the presence of God, one that he had never prayed to before. “It was really shocking when I felt His holy presence because I did not expect it at all – yet it happened. I felt His presence.”

The wide-eyed pastor continues speaking with a sense of fascination.

I felt God then and there like I never felt before. From there, I have never looked back since.

It was this defining moment that implored the then-teenager to delve deeper into the Christian faith. In the same year, Isaiah made up his mind to embrace Christianity.

This would signify the start of perhaps the most arduous journey of his life as he navigated the complex decoupling of the racial and religious identity of being a Malay in Singapore.

Father chased him around with a machete upon finding out

“At 15, I was underaged and required the permission of my parents to complete any sort of conversion of my faith,” the pastor recounts matter-of-factly before delivering the next chapter of his story, giving me an internal ‘oh-damn’ moment. Growing up, Isaiah was born and raised in a respected and tightly knitted Malay family.

Isaiah remembers the dramatic scene when his dad got wind of his intention. He flew into an uncontrollable rage and chased the teenager around the house while swinging a machete. Isaiah rushed out of the house before collapsing beside the family car and kneeling.

Out of desperation, he did the sign of the cross while mumbling words of prayer to himself. As if in answer to his silent prayers, Isaiah’s brother-in-law yanked him out of the way just as his father threw the machete in his direction.

The cold, steel blade missed him by just a hair.

When the dust eventually settled, Isaiah’s father sent him away to a pesantren – a religious boarding school in Indonesia – for a few months. It was his father’s attempt to recall him to the faith he was assigned at birth.

During the months in exile, Isaiah remembers holding on to his Christian faith tighter than before, silently reciting prayers that reverberated fervently in his heart. The bespectacled pastor had also snuck out of the institution to get a copy of the Bible from a local church after his father destroyed his.

Upon returning to Singapore, Isaiah was put under strict supervision by his family, especially his dad. “When my friends called my home looking for me, my family would take down their names and inquire where they were calling from, just to make sure that I was not in touch with people whom my dad deemed as negative influences.”

He then calmly carries on with a sense of gusto, “But, God will always find a way, and God granted me a pair of strong legs.”

Sneaking to church during football training & hiding a bible

In his late teens, Isaiah was gifted with an exceptional ability to play football. With that ability, the fleet-footed youth had the opportunity to attend training sessions with his team.

The defender remembers training hard for his team and, at the same time, taking advantage of the little pockets of time before and after training sessions to sneak into a nearby church to maintain the connection with his chosen faith.

Image courtesy of Isaiah F

It was a daring pretence that Isaiah was able to keep up for a couple of months before eventually arousing the suspicions of his pious father. In an elaborate ploy, the elder decided to send Isaiah off for an errand. Whilst away, his room was ransacked and his father discovered the hidden Bible.

When telling this part of the story, Isaiah leans in more intensely and says, “When I came back home, my dad showed me the Bible he found among my belongings. It was there and then that my father took and held a sharp object against my neck and forced me to renounce my faith or he would kill me.”

“This time, he pressed the object, which I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, and held it hard against my neck.” Once again, the elder threatened decapitation unless the teenager renounced his newfound faith.

I was prepared to die then. I closed my eyes and said what I thought would be my last prayer.

As fate would have it, his father did not kill him despite his consistent refusal to renounce his faith. Still, he decided to send him to Indonesia again for a longer stint, perhaps a last-ditch attempt to convert his son back to his original religion. This time, the father announced, it would be “for years, not months.”

Locked alone in his room after the dramatic episode, Isaiah prayed to Jesus before making up his mind to run away from home, searching for a life where he would be free to practise his faith.

Without a cent to his name, NRIC or personal belongings, Isaiah climbed down from the third storey of his childhood home. After making it safely to the ground, he began a 2-year stint of drifting from one friend’s home to another at just 17 years old.

Living away from home for 2 years

To survive, Isaiah had to look for jobs where the employers were happy to close an eye and hire him without any form of identification card on him. He was lucky enough to find a job as a service crew at a restaurant, where he earned S$3 per hour.

Shifting to a more relaxed tone now, Isaiah laughs when he recalls how, after months of hard work at the restaurant, he was finally promoted to a supervisor with a pay raise that saw him earning $3.50 per hour.

When night fell, he would sleep in different homes of kind-hearted Christians who opened their doors to the then-teenager. On the flip side, Isaiah was now able to freely and religiously attend church, which affirmed his faith. He also found a community that accepted him for his beliefs.

Two years later, Isaiah was contacted by the police to come down to the station to collect his identification card his father had left with them. Isaiah smiles as he remembers gleefully heading to the police station to collect the card before getting a rude shock.

He ended up being detained in a holding cell for eight hours instead.

Interestingly, it was there that he had his first experience of preaching to a listening crowd.

In the holding cell, I made friends with the others as they slowly discovered that I am a Malay who is also a Christian.

“As I told my story, the other detainees from all walks of life quietly listened to me, and at that moment, I felt like I was preaching. It was my first time doing something like this here.”

Soon after, a familiar face he had not seen for 2 years appeared and demanded that Isaiah renounce his faith in exchange for freedom and the dropping of charges in his name, which Isaiah is still unsure of today.

When the plucky young adult refused, his dad left him behind bars. Thankfully, it wasn’t for long, as Isaiah made his first phone call to a fellow Christian friend who later bailed him out.

Not long after, Isaiah sent a card to his stepmother for Mother’s Day. Perhaps touched by the sincere gesture, she wrote a card back with a poem and invited him home. And just like that, Isaiah found himself back home after 2 years.

The final farewell to his birth home

Back home, Isaiah’s stepmother and siblings were delighted by his return. However, they had also almost instinctively locked up the windows and doors for fear he would flee.

When his dad came home, Isaiah expected another round of confrontation with the elder. Instead, he was greeted by a happy father who missed his son after more than 2 years of separation. His first words to Isaiah were simply, “Have you eaten?”

After that encounter, Isaiah describes the next 2 years of his family relations as “stable”. It looked as if his closest kin had finally accepted him for his choice of faith.

Unfortunately, the mirage was soon broken when a separation between his father and his stepmother led to the latter leaving the house.

His father, once again, issued Isaiah with a strict ultimatum — to renounce his Christian faith and be well-taken care of for the rest of his life or to cut off all ties and leave the house within 3 days.

Choosing to leave the house once more, Isaiah packed up and said his final goodbyes, giving his father one last hug. His father’s last words pierced his heart:

The moment you step outside that door, you are no longer my son.

Isaiah left his birth home with a heavy heart and never saw his dad again.

Living life as a Malay pastor under a new identity

Since leaving his home, Isaiah has effectively converted to Christianity. As a full-fledged adult now, he remembers being treated as Case 01 of his generation. Isaiah became the precedent that would set the foundation for how similar cases in Singapore would be managed.

Image courtesy of Isaiah F

Describing the conversion process, Isaiah says he had to explain his rationale to a panel of religious elders. He notes that although they do not have any tangible power to deny your application, they would try as much as possible to dissuade you from taking the final step.

Out of curiosity, I ask Isaiah the reason behind choosing his name. He explains that he had prayed and consulted God.

He claims that the name, which means “the Salvation of Christ”, was spoken to him, and he truly resonated with it after feeling the grace of God and surviving unshattered through the darkest period of his life.

Image courtesy of Isaiah F

At the same time, he kept and passed down his given name, “F”, as a family name and a remembrance of the tumultuous chapters of his life and a reminder for his children. He wants them to know that they can attend church freely today because of what he had gone through to keep his faith.

Isaiah and his wife
Image courtesy of Isaiah F

Upon hearing this rationale, I can’t help but feel a tinge of irony for Isaiah’s dad if he were to hear this.

Perhaps, for Isaiah, the name ‘F’ is also a spectre of the identity he left behind, which continues to haunt him. He regularly receives death threats on social media, where he has a relatively healthy presence.

But he remains unfazed even in the face of nefarious messages. He shrugs and opines that he knows his decision to live openly as a Christian pastor has opened him up to attacks from people who disagree with how he has chosen to live.

Conjuring memories of the more sinister messages he has received, Isaiah says, “Sometimes, people will reach out and ask me for general advice on how to leave a faith and convert.”

“But from the tone, you can tell that there’s just something about it that is…”, he pauses for a beat before finishing, “…just off.”

His journey proves that to truly complete the transition, one must be ready to face challenges and be willing to take on the possible backlash.

There’s still much to live for

Throughout our conversation, Isaiah struck me as a genuine and humble figure who was more than happy and willing to share his story.

When asked for common reactions received from people who learnt that he is a Malay pastor, he smiles and mimics the typical response he’d receive, “Can meh?”

Rounding up the 2-hour sharing session, I pose my last question to Isaiah — what is the most challenging part of living the life he has chosen?

Without hesitation, Isaiah says, “For me, it is missing the Malay culture, the celebration of the festivities and being considered part of that Malay community,” he sighs softly. “After all, that is the community I grew up in.”

Featured image courtesy of Isaiah F.

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