Agents of Change – Conversation With Steven Sim

In the light of these trying times that Malaysia is going through, one may wonder what can be done for betterment of society. What’s crucial is who is is stepping out to do what needs to be done. This is especially true when we consider the social and political engagement of Christians post March 8, 12th General election context which will have it’s first anniversary in less than a month’s time. The fact is that there have been many who have already worked hard behind the scenes as week as in the forefront in terms of nation building.

We need to heed a reminder from the late great church statesman and mission theologian Leslie Newbigin – – Christians ought to be “the strength of every good movement of social and political effort.” Bishop Newbigin’s insight is a timely challenge as well as invitation to us all in every sphere of influence we are engaged in.

When I first met Steven Sim at the “Moorthy” candlelight vigil in front of the high court organized by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) and supported by civil society groups, I had already sensed he was responding to that call to be “the strength” Newbigin talked about. I was intrigued by his willingness to move to Penang from Klang Valley for work as well as to be with family, which later with the change of Penang state government openned up further opportunities for him to contribute towards the good of society.

Recently, both the Selangor  State Assembly representative for Subang Jaya, Hannah Yeoh and he were selected and sponsored by the United States Department of State for the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) on Transition of Power in the U.S. Federal System. Steven two reflections which were published in Malaysiakini:

The Obama Future: Great Expectations (Part 1)
The Obama Future: Great Expectations (Part 2)

So, Steven is one shining light amongst the many younger folk standing on the shoulders of giants emerging today committed to shaping the future of Malaysia.  As we listen to his responses in this interview, we catch a glimpse of the vision he is captured by, the influences that has impacted him, and the motivation which provides him inner strength in an environment which is extremely demanding emotionally, intellectually, physically, socially and spiritually.

As Christians who are concerned to see the Church as a sign of God’s kingdom here on earth, we are grateful that more like Steven have responded to the call to serve in the public square whether behind the scenes or in the forefront. The pressures are immense and much discernment is needed as one works with diverse communities with a mosaic of opinions and convictions.

Since Jesus’ promise is “I am with you until the end of the age” which we all treasure and cling on to. I believe regardless of our opinions in the specifics, in the bigger picture with those deeply in the democratic process of nation building , our starting point and orientating framework is “we are with you” more than “Great that you are there, I support you from a distance”. The fact is, being in leadership and especially for Christians in politics, it is a lonely place to be.

There will be moments when we may offer guidance, friendly critique, and alternative viewpoints, but it is done with a spirit of humility which conveys – “we are in this together” and not an armchair critic’s distance which communicates a condescending, “I know it all”. But, what is more urgent and important, I believe is that we must be committed to intercede for those like Steven as a Church. We need to cheer them on with encouragement for their courage and willingness to contribute. We are called to walk with them when they are facing walls of discouragement withholding judgment.

At the end of the day, all of us are called to be “the strength of every good movement of social and political effort.” All of us can participate, and contribute in a variety of ways. Yes, indeed, we can.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, and what are you currently involved in terms of politics.

I am born and bred in Penang, studied at Universiti Malaya, KL. On paper I am a member of the Gereja Presbyterian Malaysia whch I joined through City Discipleship Presbyterian Church (CDPC) when studying in KL. CDPC is still very special to me, and I look up to Rev. Wong Fong Yang, the Senior Pastor, who has been a major influence in my life, even politically. Right now, back in my hometown in Penang, I am attending Bukit Mertajam Gospel Centre, which is part of the Brethren Assembly in Penang.

I am also a member of the Democratic Action Party, a Secretary in my home branch and am currently working with the Penang State Government as a Special Assistant to the Youth and Sports EXCO.

How did you land up doing what you are doing now?

In terms of my political involvement, it has been a deliberate direction since my university days, being influenced by mentor such as Rev. Wong and friends such as John Chung (I notice this name appeared in Edward’s interview as well…) and my experience in campus politics. I ran and was elected into the Majlis Perwakilan Pelajar Universiti Malaya 2003.

I officially joined the DAP in 2007 after meeting with the Member of Parliament in my area, YB Chong Eng (PR – Bukit Mertajam). She has been an inspiration to many people here because of her non presumptous grassroot-driven approach. I started out by helping YB Chong Eng to set up her web-blog (www.chongeng.org) and later was heavily involved in YB Chong Eng’s campaign team during the 12th General Election in 2008.

But as for the job in the State Government, it was actually a chanced opportunity. After coming back to Penang from KL, I spent two years working and building my career and life in a multinational manufacturing company. By Feb 2008, a month shy of the March 8th general election, I resigned from my job with plans to move on to explore opportunities elsewhere.

When the Pakatan Rakyat won the 12th General Election to form the Penang State Government, I was invited to assist YB Ong Kok Fooi, State Exco for Youth and Sports and Women, Family & Community Development in her portfolio at Youth and Sports. I accepted the offer as an opportunity to continue what I have been doing in a greater degree.

There have been complaints that the younger generation are more apathetic to current issues especially civil society concerns and politics in the country; were you once upon a time in that category? If yes, what changed you? If it was an ongoing interest, how was it nurtured?

Until my time in university, I was basically indifferent to politics and public issues. I strongly believe our education system has something to do with this. We were basically taught that, no matter the circumstances, there is and can be no alternatives to the present political arrangement of Barisan Nasional helming the top. There was, in a sense what Antonio Gramsci called cultural hegemony, an attempt by the ruling authority to hammer in certain values into the people through public systems, including the schools and the media. And this was a real challenge to encouraging young minds to be critical of the status quo.

I think you can say that UM with all its political romanticism, if there is such a thing, created the awareness in me to look beyond the system and do something, not just being a passive helpless observer or even critic. And to a large extend, my friends and experience in the UM’s Persaudaraan Kristian Varsiti (Varsity Christian Fellowship or PKV) helped me to develop not only the awareness of public issues but the foundation upon which I engage these issues.

In many ways, my friends and mentors in the PKV showed me that Christianity is not a religion of escapism, not the opium of the masses, but rather the dangerous message of the just and righteous god has finally fulfilled his promise to intervene as the true king of the world. That’s subversive, that’s political. It challenges the values of the powers that be, including their offer of peace and harmony. Finally, as I have mentioned, the Rev. Wong Fong Yang, Senior Pastor of CDPC has been pivotal in encouraging us to think in terms of the gospel as a good news for all, including the poor and the marginalized, what he called, quoting author Franciscan priest Brennan Manning, Ragamuffin Gospel.

Who are some people, dead or alive, who have inspired you to do what you are doing now?

The Rev Wong Fong Yang, Bishop Hwa Yung, Dr. Tan Soo-Inn and Dr. Ng Kam Weng, all who have shown me, whether by direct mentorship or through their writings and sermons, that Christianity is less about the set-ups but rather is about the personal and passionate involvement of God in the business of the world. They showed me in their own way, but especially by their leadership of the Church, how the Church can and must play a role in becoming part of the solution to the problems in this world.

I guess for me to name those who are not Malaysians, I would need to write a telephone directory – I feel that there’s a need to honour Malaysian Church leaders whose contributions are often unrecognized.

But I cannot resist the temptation to name the Rt Rev Bishop N. T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, whose big fat books (or rather works of art) on “Christian Origins and the Question of God” has been an excellent inspiration to me especially in understanding “the god who rolled up his sleeves and got down to business” as described in Isaiah 52:10.

What kind of support are you getting from your local church leadership or the church in general in your active involvement thus far?

My elder, Dr. Khong, is actually quite supportive while the young adults are very excited with my involvement and their prayers and well wishes have been great encouragement.

But generally I feel that the Church has not yet formulated a response to those who are involved in politics, whether Christians or otherwise. We generally do not know what to do with the politicians, Government or Opposition. Besides, some of our theology of not getting involved in the world, the secular and sacred divide, may hinder our giving of support to those who are doing politics. I am hopeful that the situation will change however, although we still need a lot of education and maturity to be able to handle political and public issues prudently.

You are now involved through DAP and Pakatan Rakyat; what made you walk this particular path? Do you have friends who are with the Barisan Nasional component parties, how do you relate?

I joined DAP because I believe in the principle they fought for and admire DAP’s determination all this while as a voice of conscience in our Country’s politics. Incidentally, I didn’t start active politics as an “opposition” voice; in university, I ran for election under the “pro-establishment” camp.

I do have friends in the BN, in fact in my current job, I made even MORE friends, including those in UMNO. I guess the thing about politics is not to treat your opponent and her ideology as strictly one entity. We must engage the issue and not the person. There is a danger to imagine that we are the good guys and the people on the other side is evil. Good and evil are not divided by their seating in Parliament, but rather the fragile conscience in one’s heart. I salute a lot of our senior politicians in Parliament who are able to be good friends (yes!) outside, but fiery debate opponents when in the august Hall.

On a more personal level, yeah, there are mamak stall debates about the difference of political ideas, but usually we close rank on a cup of teh tarik (or in my case, milo kosong panas) before we end.

How does your Christian faith and worldview inform your politics? Are there specific Biblical references or teaching your draw from in your work?

As I mentioned earlier, the dangerous and subversive message of Jesus, the embodiment and fulfilment of god’s promise to finally intervene in our messy world. When God does that, when he takes charge, we follow the values of the big boss, not the little napoleons trying to force their own brands of values. That’s to put it simply.

My favourites including the gospels and the prophets, especially Isaiah.

What are some lessons you have learnt thus far after being actively involved in the last elections and now supporting the MPs or ADUNS who are elected? Please share some highlights, challenges and surprises.

I learnt to think in longer terms, that is, not to be anxious for seeing results immediately. Perhaps this is very Christian, because firstly we do not overestimate our ability; to think that we actually can be saviour of the world; like Superman who can solve any problem at faster than a speeding bullet (now, lightning).

Secondly, it helps to have a perspective of “ages upon ages” or “eternal life” as translated in the bible. Whatever happens in our course of “changing the world” or righting the wrong, or just simply doing our job, it is worth remembering that “it’s never the end of the world” for those who put hope in God.

One of the greatest challenges I face, and I believe this is not unique to me, is the temptation that comes with having power and authority. Especially for us Christians, we can easily feel that our status of power is god-given and a vindication and we may develop a better/holier than thou attitude against others. As they say, power corrupts, we may soon even sell our values and principles when overwhelmed by the prestige that comes with power.

So far, no special surprises, perhaps its my friends and family members who are surprised when I appear on the newspaper giving political comments.

What would be areas of equipping and support from the church which you think would help you be a better agent of change?

Education is of the foremost importance. I believe that most of the time, we have not exhausted the biblical source for public engagement. And for that, we not only missed the richness of the bible but missed the opportunity to be witnesses of God’s kingdom to the world.

Then prayers. This is a must, because our battle, as St Paul said, is not against flesh and blood. There must be space in Church for those who are involved in public engagement or politics or actually anyone at all to come and pray and be prayed for in regards to vocation. I think we are a little short of this, a pastoral and prayer ministry focused on assisting and supporting Christians in their vocations.

Finally, I believe that if the Church is actively playing her prophetic role in the society as God’s agent of righteousness and justice, the Christian politicians would find solace in knowing that he or she is not alone. I mean, the Church does not have to be seen as supporting a political party, in fact she shouldn’t. Nonetheless the Church cannot be silent when faced with social and political issues in this world. Her silence may one day become an indictment against her, as is the case of the Roman Catholic Church during Hitler’s reign of terror.

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