July 15, 2010
I was invited last Friday to speak at an event jointly organised by Empower and SIRD (Strategic Information and Research Development Centre) entitled “I am what I believe”. A rather intriguing topic to begin with, the objective of the forum was to bring a diverse range of youth together to discuss the role of religion in politics and the fine workings between the two. The speakers represented the fields of law (Aston Pava from the Bar Council), feminist activism (Nazreen Nizam from Sisters in Islam), social and community work (Mrithula Shiva from the URI, United Religions Initiative), and public policy (myself).
Though I did not have a text, I was asked to prepare a summary of what I wrote for the purposes of their record-keeping and report. So here we go. A rough outline of what I said last Friday evening at MBPJ, with about 30-odd young people sacrificing their night out to have some solid discussion on the religious-political sphere in Malaysia.
The Relationship between Faith and Politics
Tonight I will speak on two over-arching topics in relation to faith and politics; the first will outline my personal background and the reasons for which I subscribe to the principles I believe in today, and thereafter I will try to address the problems that are currently being faced in Malaysia.
I’d like to firstly put a caveat that I am not speaking on behalf of the state government. However, because I do wear that particular hat, I do have a certain amount of experience and exposure in the realm of policy-making from a state government’s point of view. Hence, I speak as a policy analyst, one with experience in government, and one who happens to have been brought up in the tradition of the Christian faith.
My heritage is therefore one of Christian tradition. Having grown up in an environment of relative conservative spirituality, the ‘church’ had us believe that much of what constitutes Christianity is essentially to do with one’s spiritual health – the relationship between self and God, the divine. Most of our teachings were centred upon how to improve one’s spirituality, with a particular focus on the afterlife. However, as I started becoming exposed to public issues such as corruption, injustice, cost overruns (such as the Istana we are now faced with), abuse of power, discrimination of minorities and a host of other issues, I realised that the public-private divide was a myth, for someone whose faith so fundamentally describes the personhood of someone.
Again, I am only speaking based on my own experience. The division between the public and private spheres in this instance was difficult, especially since the ethos that drove me as a person – those very principles of justice, honesty, truth, accountability – were the same things that I would project onto the public sphere. Faith and politics were hence intimately intertwined insofar as social justice was concerned. For example, the efforts to fight slavery in the past stemmed precisely from faith principles (or the interpretation of what those religious principles were to that particular group of advocates).
My premise is therefore that for those whose faiths so intensely drive their being, it is not possible to extricate one from the other. The problem arises, however, when there are varying interpretations of opinions on public morality; or when policymakers begin to take it upon themselves to consciously legislate public morality. This, again, is entirely possible, if and only if, the leader concerned is able to rationally consider what is the greater good for all. This means that policy decisions must be made for ALL from different backgrounds, and these differences must be taken into consideration.
Living in Southeast Asia and Asia, for example, it is inevitable that any of us would have had some sort of exposure to religion growing up and even at present. To say strictly that there IS a separation of the two is utopian for some but impractical for most. Given this reality, how then do we approach decision-making for the public at large?
Let’s focus on Malaysia right now. The problem in our country is that there is a tight and interrelated nexus between the issues of race, religion and politics. Race and religion so fundamentally describe identity. The nexus is therefore between identity and faith, identity and power, which are extremely strong ties. Without delving too deeply into history, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 without a doubt spurred Muslims in Malaysia towards a religious wave. Again, this is too sweeping a generalisation and I am not doing justice to historical political discourse, but what resulted from these trends were the emergence of political parties in a race towards being more Islamic than the other: UMNO and PAS. I do not doubt the genuine intentions of many, but there have certainly been strategic steps taken for political expediency purposes, on both sides. Therefore this establishes that religion in Malaysia ties too closely with politics for us to have a rational discussion on the theoretical relationship between faith and politics – or rather, the prescriptive notion of what ought to be in place.
In addressing the issue of a secular vs. an Islamic state, I believe the definition of the term secular or secularisation is interpreted differently by different quarters, and therein lies the difficulty of discourse. A secular state does not necessarily mean one that is completely non-religious. This just means that the country is not legally defined or shaped or dictated by those religious principles, for example as mentioned above the legislating of public morality. In any case, even without those legal tags that we place upon Malaysia, can we not be satisfied to say that the country is in fact Muslim in ethos nevertheless?
The more interesting question to me, therefore, is then to what extent can personal beliefs inform our policy decisions? Should they at all? In the courts, through government administration? I believe that faith can inform and influence our decisions, but only to the extent that it benefits the greater good for all. The important consideration is that of people of multiple religions being affected as a result of any public policy decision.
And yet, more and more issues besiege us daily. There are the issues of the “Allah” controversy, temple relocation, church-burning, Kartika and caning as a result of alcohol consumption, apostasy and the list continues. My personal conviction is that we ought to ask ourselves where we are at the cross-roads, where we want to go and how is it we are to get there? We must be able to work on faith principles and common values that can be applied to the public sphere. I can think offhand of initiatives such as working on poverty, the right to water, refugee issues, humanitarian aid, and so on. There is a need to recognise common ground, that of respect, dignity, trust. The Common Word Document that was sent by leading Muslims around the world to the Church community was an epitome of such respect for a common belief in one God and that of loving thy neighbour.
This work has to begin with the young, as I believe some would be too encumbered with baggage of their own beliefs and that of their heritages (including that within the Christian faith) to progress further. More people of such thought projections should be empowered to speak up and express their opinions, without the religious agenda being hijacked by a select few. More avenues must be given, such that religious views are not exclusive to those who are legally or administratively given the right to speak or define one’s personal beliefs. We must be able to break free from the insecurities, fears of identity that have burdened our own communities for far too long.
What are the right avenues to work on this agenda? Through profession (the vocation that one chooses to take up i.e. law, policy), involvement in civil society (NGOs like Perkasa are powerful but to speak up means forming and joining other NGOs to have a critical mass and show voice and power), politics (being involved in actual decision-making or supporting those in politics who share your views), the media and Internet (Web 3.0 is powerful as a source of influencing opinions far and wide). Ultimately, it’s about education and opening of the mind. Remember this. Leaders make decisions based on what they believe the people want. Enough people believing and displaying publicly that they desire traditional, classical religion to be less defined within the law, will eventually lead the way to that end. This, after all, is democracy.
April 23, 2010
“Allah” Debate: Dealing with False Insecurities
11th Jan 2010 (Published in Malaysiakini here)
News of the recent series of attacks against churches across Malaysia has sent shockwaves to all. Although there have been tensions in the past few years between different religious groups, few imagined that these could ever descend into violence such as the kind experienced recently. Within three days, there were arson attacks on at least eight churches in various locations throughout the country (in Klang Valley, Perak, Melaka, Sarawak and Seremban), in which the Metro Tabernacle church had its ground floor (its administrative office) entirely destroyed.
Although police investigations are ongoing, many speculate that the attacks were linked to a controversial court ruling on the 31st December 2009, effectively allowing the Catholic newsletter The Herald to use “Allah” in reference to God in its Malay edition. “Allah” has been used for God amongst the Malay-speaking East Malaysian Christians for centuries, but problems only arose in 2007 when the Home Ministry threatened not to renew The Herald’s publishing licence. Some have insinuated that it was only after the newsletter began carrying critical pieces against the government that the clampdown began.
The court ruling has stirred uneasiness amongst certain sections of the Muslim community, and this has been aggravated by regular racist and inflammatory articles in a mainstream newspaper Utusan Malaysia. These groups say it loud and clear that “Allah is for Muslims only”. It is therefore important to identify the various fears and insecurities involved in this highly emotional issue.
September 18, 2008
Post a prayer up at the prayer wall…
That is, if you believe in a God, or a higher being..
This is for Malaysia – the country going through upheaval.
I asked my friends the other night, whether they love Malaysia.
I do love it – not in the plasticky, fluffy way.
I love Malaysia with a deep, roaring, ferocity.
Don’t-mess-with-me-I-am-going-to-defend-the-country-and-push-for-its-betterment-mister-kind of love.
I think there is no other way to love, really.
September 15, 2008
Utusan reports on NGO support of the ISA here. Apparently it is made out to show that all Malay NGOs are in support of the use of the ISA.
KUALA LUMPUR 14 Sept – Beberapa pertubuhan bukan (NGO) kerajaan menyifatkan Akta Keselamatan Dalam Negeri (ISA) masih relevan dan perlu diteruskan bagi menghalang cubaan mana-mana pihak melakukan tindakan yang boleh mengugat ketenteraman awam.
Presiden Persatuan Peguam Muslim Malaysia, Tan Sri Abu Zahar Ujang berkata, ISA sebagai undang-undang pencegahan terbukti berjaya dalam peranannya selama ini sejak ia digubal selepas peristiwa 13 Mei 1969.
Katanya, sebab itu ISA tetap relevan apatah lagi dalam negara yang didiami rakyat berbilang kaum kerana sebarang perbezaan kecil sekalipun boleh diperbesarkan pihak yang tidak bertanggungjawab hingga mencetuskan api permusuhan.
”Justeru ISA amat penting bagi mengelakkan negara porak-peranda walaupun parti pembangkang mendakwa ISA ini undang-undang yang zalim.
”Namun dalam hal ini kita perlu pragmatik. Jangan kita melompat tak tentu pasal. Sepatutnya kita jangan timbulkan pelbagai tanggapan apabila ISA digunakan hingga mencetuskan masalah lain,” katanya kepada pemberita di sini hari ini.
Beliau berkata demikian ketika mengulas mengenai tindakan ISA terhadap tiga individu yang terbabit mencetuskan isu perkauman dan persengketaan agama di dalam negara, kelmarin.
Mereka yang terlibat ialah Ahli Exco kerajaan negeri Selangor, Teresa Kok, pengendali laman web Malaysia Today, Raja Petra Kamarudin dan wartawan wanita Sin Chew Daily, Tan Hoon Cheng.
Bagaimanapun, Hoon Cheng dibebaskan di Pulau Pinang pada pukul 3.30 petang semalam.
Sementara itu, Ketua II Gabungan Persatuan Penulis Nasional (Gapena) Prof. Datuk Dr. Abdul Latiff Bakar ketika dihubungi berkata, ISA merupakan satu tindakan tegas kerajaan dalam menangani isu sedemikian.
”Perkara-perkara yang terkandung di dalam perlembagaan termasuk Rukun Negara, jika ada pihak tertentu mempersoalkannya sehingga mengundang keresahan rakyat maka mereka harus dikenakan tindakan tegas.
”Oleh itu Gapena melihat tindakan mengenakan ISA sebagai relevan, terutama ke atas mereka yang cuba menghuru-harakan negara dengan menyentuh isu sensitif,” katanya.
Dalam pada itu, Abdul Latif turut tidak menolak isu sedemikian timbul disebabkan sikap segelintir ahli politik yang mempolitikkan hal-hal tersebut demi kepentingan diri sendiri dan kaum.
”Ahli politik macam ‘over acting’ dalam berpolitik, saya percaya mereka ini ada agenda tertentu,” katanya.
Selain pengawasan pucuk pimpinan negara, katanya, Raja-raja juga perlu lebih memainkan peranan dengan kuasa yang dimiliki dalam melindungi hak-hak dan kepentingan bangsa, ketuanan Melayu dan agama Islam.
Timbalan Presiden Gabungan Pelajar Melayu Semenanjung (GPMS), Syed Anuar Syed Mohamed pula berkata, langkah mengenakan ISA merupakan satu jaminan keselamatan dan ketenteraman semua kaum di negara ini.
”Hanya melalui penguatkuasaan akta ini mampu menenangkan keadaan di dalam negara sekiranya terdapat ‘pencemaran politik’ seperti ini.
”GPMS percaya ISA bukan sahaja mampu menstabilkan keharmonian dan keamanan antara kaum, malah membantu memulihkan semula ekonomi negara selepas berdepan situasi ancaman sedemikian, ”katanya.
Sementara itu, Presiden Gagasan Melayu Perak (GMP) Datuk Seri Dr. Mohd. Hilmi Ismail berpendapat, tindakan ISA membuktikan kerajaan prihatin dengan melakukan terbaik untuk ketenteraman negara.
Menurut beliau, pihaknya yakin kerajaan tidak akan menggunakan ISA sewenang-wenangnya kecuali terhadap mereka yang dipercayai boleh mencetuskan ancaman kepada keselamatan negara.
”Tidak ada di dalam dunia ini yang tiada batasan, apa yang dilakukan kerajaan tentunya untuk tujuan kebaikan semua,” katanya.
But I am proud of the statement issued by the Muslim Professionals Forum, posted also in full here:
The arrests of MP Theresa Kok and journalist Tan Hoon Cheng under the ISA following that of blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin raise grave concern for Malaysians.
An endearing legacy of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s leadership that we have come to appreciate is the openness albeit limited, that has come as a breath of fresh air after 2 decades of punitive control of the public sphere.
The arrests of the three individuals under the draconian law at a time when Malaysians have become more mature politically and less inclined to be baited by racial politics will no doubt further erode the legitimacy of and support for the ruling party, perhaps irrevocably.
Of no less import will be the repercussions to Malaysia’s reputation internationally, that time and again the ruling party resorts to an unjust and antiquated piece of legislation to silence dissent in order to sustain her cling to power.
It is clear to all that the arrests of MP Theresa Kok and journalist Tan Hoon Cheng are completely without justification. Tan was merely doing her job as a journalist and UMNO has undertaken the appropriate measures, including an apology from its deputy president. In the “Puchong Azan Issue”, MP Theresa Kok was arrested over what is clearly a false allegation. We urge the authorities to immediately release the two and bring to book those responsible for fomenting racial and religious hatred.
It cannot be completely denied that Raja Petra Kamarudin in his writings and those who contribute to his blog have expressed views that many Muslims consider as denigrating the prophet and the religion of Islam. However we believe this can be countered by sound arguments based on well accepted teachings and sources of Islam. In the extreme, the authorities may take him to the Syariah court. The use of the ISA is excessive, inhumane and runs counter to Islam’s principles of justice.
In this blessed month of Ramadhan, we urge the authorities to act justly in carrying out their responsibility of maintaining the peace and security of the country. We also urge everyone in the public sphere to exercise restraint and wisdom in discussing issues of race and religion.
Board of Directors
Muslim Professionals Forum
Malaysia Day Prayer Vigil
Time and Place
Date: Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Time: 7:30pm – 9:30pm
Location: The Father’s House (BLC Premises)
Street: 23, Jalan Abdullah off Jalan Bangsar
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The purpose of this prayer vigil is to open up another avenue for us to express our concerns and even protests in a peaceful (non-violent), purposeful, and prayerful manner.
The venue will be open from 7.30pm – 9.30pm. All Christians from all streams are challenged to come and spend some time in silent prayer. This is also open to friends and people of goodwill who wish to join us. You may come at anytime between 7.30pm – 9.30pm.
Those who come are encouraged to spend at least 5-10 minutes or even more time as they wish. There will be a short corporate liturgy at 8.45pm-9.00pm.
There will be post-it notes for us to write down a short prayer and post it on the wall.
This prayer vigil is inspired by SFX Church and the following words ..
“Our country enters the phase of naked display of aggression. When a regime is morally bankrupt it will use immoral means to hold on to power. We might be weak but we still have the power of prayer & silent witnessing. … The unjust may break our bones but they can’t break our spirit. ” – Father O.C. Lim
August 20, 2008
I spent two days learning about Sufism at a conference last week at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies – jointly organised with the Department of Malay Studies, NUS. It was truly fascinating, from someone who knew little to nothing of its teachings. A mystical spirituality is taught, that transcends systematic or regulated religion. The Wahabiyah movement would be typically opposed to Sufi teachings, since the former preaches more regulated practice of Islam. In fact, some even argue that Sufism is not Islam.
Neverthless, there also exists tarekah, which means a more organised version of Sufism. This comes in the form of groups that meet regularly. The tasawuf is a movement in reaction to the tarekah. Indonesia has little mushroomings of Sufi groups, although they may not necessarily be called Sufistic in nature. (Since it was a Western term to begin with..)
What was interesting to me was the political dimension of Sufism. The West has been looking to Sufism as an alternative to radical extremist Islam, which is both good and bad. Good, because it is true that Sufism does not preach violence nor hatred. In fact at the heart of it lies love. But it is bad because the only way to counter terrorism through Sufism is to have a systematic response – when Sufism is predicated on non-systematic faith. As a result, you may get a secret society-type movement that is overly reliant upon one leader alone. You know, like how Christian types can get all crazy over a charismatic leader (just because he can speak well and repeats himself five times over).
Prior to this, I’d only read about Maimun and Layla’s story – and the beauty of longing and desire after something so intensely felt – this is the longing of a human after God, it was argued.
I still know very little, but people have been messaging me with little bytes of knowledge. The conference was good since it exposed me to the philosophical ideas of Islam, and finally some good solid Arab music (from Yemen) finished it off nicely.
Although Sufism is not debated widely in Malaysia, I think it would be an interesting idea to discuss it vis-a-vis the Wahabi standards that we currently practice today. Just a thought to simmer in the mind.
August 15, 2008
Sometime last month I was given the honour of moderating a lecture by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar at this International Conference: Religion in the Quest for Global Justice and Peace. His political faux-pas aside, I truly resonate with his views on religion.
I am pasting his paper in full here (I hope that is okay!) – with a full citation and attributed to him of course.
TOWARDS A UNIVERSAL SPIRITUAL-MORAL VISION OF GLOBAL JUSTICE AND PEACE.
by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, Universiti Sains Malaysia
Humankind is at a critical juncture. Our very survival as a species is in balance. Our present ideologies and religions do not seem to offer a solution. Because the challenges that confront us are global in nature, it is imperative that the philosophy that guides us in facing them is also truly universal. A universal spiritual-moral vision which seeks global justice and peace for the entire human family is what this imperilled moment in history demands.
I was invited to speak at the Inaugural Council of the Church World Mission’s East Asian Region (EAR) Youth Leaders’ Assembly 2008 this week, on Tuesday 12th August 2008. I spoke for an hour on “The Role of Christian Youth in Nation Building”, thereafter shared a panel with Ps. Sivin Kit (Pastor of Bangsar Lutheran Church) and YB Hannah Yeoh (State Assemblywoman for Subang Jaya constituency) on the topic of “A Christian Response to the Rapidly Changing Youth Culture, Secularism and the Role of Media.”
It was a great experience sharing the floor with friends who share the same vision for the country’s future. I’ll type out my reflections for the session in a separate article, but here is the paper that I presented during my session itself. One key point I highlighted was the need to have role models in their respective countries. In Malaysia, I think the youth have an increasing number of people to look up to as role models, which is something I thought lacking even as late as 2 years ago!
Now we have the likes of young people involved in public life like Hannah Yeoh, Tony Pua, Nik Nazmi, Khairy, Nat Tan, Michelle Gunaselan, Nurul Izzah, Teo Nie Ching, Firdaus Fuuad, Wan Saiful, Abidin Muhriz and so on. (Note that I’m emphasising the fact that they’re young, I don’t necessarily agree with all of the above’s political principles haha.)
The Role of Christian Youth in Nation Building
Inaugural Council for World Mission East Asia Region Youth Leaders’ Assembly
11th August 2008
The notion of nation-building presupposes that the nation itself is in need of building; or rebuilding, in some cases. The term nation-building in its original sense referred to newly-independent nations in Africa to reshape colonial territories that had been carved out by colonial powers without regard to ethnic or other boundaries. This would later include the creation of paraphernalia such as flags, national anthems, national days, national languages and so on. At the heart of this lay the deep-rooted need to search for a national identity.
For many Asian countries bar a few, this was certainly the case. Countries like Malaysia and Singapore (then Malaya), Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, and so on, have had to grapple with their respective national identities in a post-colonial world. A nation’s identity is usually framed along certain themes. In Malaysia, it has been “unity in diversity”, in dealing with the reality of a multiethnic and multi-religious society.
Each nation will have its individual identity based on specific cultural and historical heritage, language, norms and social frameworks. However, can it also be said that our faiths should inform national identity, and hence be instrumental in shaping the nation-building process? What role does Christianity play in the shaping of a nation? The question to ask ourselves within our respective countries is – in attempting to collectively build a nation, exactly what kind of nation do we want to build? What should the nation look like, cultural differences aside?
Building what kind of Nation?
If we believe that Christian principles are holistic, then they should also inform our ideas about public life. Faith in the public square is very different from imposing strict religious values; rather, it is putting to practice those “kingdom values” espoused by Jesus in His time. This means tuning our senses into a frequency that sees the world as a landscape that God can transform. This transformation is one that is prescribed in the Bible: turning society away from dominance, hypocrisy, pomp, pride, “greed, malice, deceit, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7: 22-23) and towards kingdom values of justice, peace, sacrificial love, compassion and goodness.
In the process of nation-building, we then set out to do precisely that: to build our nations based on very concrete values already articulated for us. This is “His kingdom come on earth”. It is important to hold true a vision we desire for our nations, or nation-building effort comes to naught. The cause fought against corruption is a cause fought for social justice. The cause fought against systemic evil is a cause fought for what we believe in through Christ. Sacrificial love also includes having the grace to speak the truth with love, without prejudice of the other.
April 28, 2008
Finished reading “No God but God”, Reza Aslan’s book recently, and it is an excellent read. It charts out the entire history of Islam, dating from pre-Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) Arabia and consequent developments, making it simple for the layman to comprehend origins of the Shiite-Sunni divide, how Islam is not homogeneous since there are multiple interpretations of its theology and practice. Two points struck out:
First, the description of Sufism, which as we know is the mystical understanding of Islam, the nafs (desire) that longs for unattainable union with God the Creator, and insatiable love. In the story of Layla and Majmun, the lovers are initially banned from seeing the other, and after years of separation, develop the sort of deep, aching love that even upon finally meeting, cannot actuate. The intense longing is best left as it is, since proximity would be too intoxicating for either party. The Conference of the Birds outlines the birds who travel far and wide to discover wisdom, only to find that it is the journey itself that has developed their characters that way inclined. Sufism is the mystical journey towards full knowledge of God, best described but not defined.
The second is that the Muslim world has struggled for centuries to come to a thorough understanding of the governance of an Islamic state. Prophet Muhammad himself attempted this model, and years later debates ensue on the best practice of a society based on rules of justice, fair governance permeating all levels of public life. It also struck me that the author says, what we have today is not as much an external problem between the Muslim and Western worlds, but rather – an internal struggle within Islam.
Finally, the author states in an almost enlightened manner the following:
Democracy, if it is to be viable and enduring, can never be imported. It must be nurtured from within, founded upon familiar ideologies, and presented in a language that is both comprehensible and appealing to the indigenous population.
I think this is a wise saying, not because I disagree with international standards and international laws. I do agree with these principles, but it is more true that until and unless democracy is driven by the local community for which it will serve, and birthed out of such a context, then importation of ideals will never work (even if to the pleasure of a minority community). I may be lambasted for these, but I believe these are debateable points yet.
This is all the more pertinent as I observe workings within the Muslim world here. The Ummah is considered the “People of the Book”, but some agree it is to include all of humanity i.e. God’s creations. The call is for all to work together in securing peace and harmony. There are few people who would disagree with principles of democracy but there are ways in which one announces it, or fights for it, that is less subversive for the host country. Feeling the pulse of the nations here, Islamic democracy has a chance to flourish and it must be given its own space and chance to do so.
February 9, 2008
Article in The Sun on Wednesday 6th February 08
This is not my country or your country. This is our country.Wan Saiful Wan Jan & Tricia Yeoh Despite living thousands of miles apart, and the racial and ethnic differences, the two authors of this article share the same experience of being an ethnic minority. Wan Saiful Wan Jan is a Malay Muslim who has been living in Britain as an ethnic minority since 1993. As a Muslim, he feels the need to contribute to the British society that he is now part of, although he still feels a strong attachment to Malaysia. Tricia Yeoh has been living in Malaysia her whole life. A Chinese Christian, she too is an ethnic minority. Like many other minority groups in Malaysia, she considers Malaysia to be the only home she knows and loves. In Britain, the Muslim minority is demanding that they are treated as equals. Things are not much different for ethnic minorities in Malaysia. Just like minority Muslims in Britain, the minority non-Muslims in Malaysia too are asking to be treated as equals. The reactions they get are also more or less the same. In Britain, some among the majority, say “Don’t challenge us, this is our country!”. In Malaysia, once again, some among the majority Malay Muslims also say “Don’t challenge us, this is our country!”.
It is not easy being a minority, is it?