By RK Anand
The 73-year-old cleric is passionate about his chosen path, and his faith and conviction motivate him to speak out against injustices, which has earned him both bouquets and brickbats
JOHOR BAHRU: Step into the office and his four-legged companions are the first to greet you. Among the canine entourage, are two beautiful German Shepherds called Max and Bella. The rest are Beagles and a Doberman Pinscher.
Bishop Paul Tan loves his dogs, and never tires talking about them. He recalled how he had been given Bella when she was a two-month-old pup, and was thus forced to play the role of a surrogate mother.
The 73-year-old cleric is just as passionate about his chosen path, and his faith and conviction motivate him to speak out against injustices, which has earned him both bouquets and brickbats.
His critics accuse him of breaching the rule of the Catholic Church with regard to abstaining from partisan politics and label him as pro-opposition.
In his defence, Tan said that he does not take sides but condemns the immoral practices in the political realm irrespective of whether it is Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat.
“I cannot help it if some find this to be a bitter pill to swallow,” he added.
Among all the religious leaders in Malaysia, the head of the Malacca and Johor diocese is considered to be one of the most vocal. He abhors racists, religious bigots and corruption.
Speaking without fear or favour, the bishop has even launched scathing verbal crusades against Dr Mahathir Mohamad, calling on the authorities to detain the former premier for his insensitive remarks.
‘So what if I get shot?’
In an exclusive interview with FMT on the 10th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop, Tan acknowledged that his outspokenness could put him at risk, but he is not perturbed.
“I have received letters from people of all faiths telling me to be careful. Some have even asked if I am not afraid of being shot.
“I tell them ‘So what! We all die, and being shot is one way to go. But what is most important is that I adhere to the teachings of the Church and execute the will of God when I am still breathing’,” he said.
The Jesuit priest also laughed off the rumour that he was given a posting in the Vatican, where he served for a decade, in order for him to escape Mahathir’s infamous Operasi Lalang dragnet in 1987.
“That is not true. I have heard people saying this as well. The truth is when I was informed that my name could be on the list [of those to be detained], I packed my bags and waited [to be picked up]… I am still waiting,” he said with a chuckle.
Besides his intellectual prowess and rich life experiences, Tan’s most striking qualities are his warmth, humility and remarkable candour.
Asked about the duration of his Jesuit training, the bishop replied: “Normally, it takes 14 years.” And after a brief pause, he added with a smile: “But if you are stupid like me, it will take 18 years.”
‘God works in mysterious ways’
Tan, who hails from Yong Peng in Johor, revealed that he was first bitten by the religious bug when he was 18, during which he was pursuing his Form Six in Singapore.
On what drove him to this path, he replied: “I felt the evil of the world, especially politicians telling lies and the corruption in Singapore. I wanted to go to the mountains to pray and do penance for them.”
However, his family objected and packed him off to his uncle’s place in Penang hoping that he would change his mind.
“But as they say, ‘man proposes,god disposes’. In Penang, my cousin took me to meet a French priest. The latter suggested that I work first and got me a teaching job at the La Salle secondary school in Kangar [Perlis],” he said.
During his stint in Kangar, Tan said he attended a talk by a visiting Jesuit priest from Papua New Guinea, who spoke about his missionary work.
“When we asked him about the cannibals there, the priest replied, ‘Yes, they eat you like they eat ice-cream.’ I almost collapsed when I heard that… but that was what motivated me more… the priest’s determination to spread the word of God even under such adverse circumstances impressed me,” he added.
Tan then broke out into laughter, saying that he was inspired to work with indigenous communities after watching the movie Tarzan.
“This is how God works, in very mysterious ways,” he added.
Recalling a divine experience in Kangar, the bishop said there was a teacher who had perfected the art of telling horror stories, which left the others scared stiff, and Tan praying with greater zeal.
“His most horrifying tale was that of a multi-coloured ghost in the outdoor ‘jamban’ [toilet]. One night, as I was reciting the rosary and walking, I came near the toilet and I started thinking about the ghost.
“Despite being frightened, I never turned back. Then all of a sudden, I felt like I had owl’s eyes and could see clearly. It was pitch black but I was able to see the trees and mountains. I also heard beautiful music in the background, and my fear vanished. But when I walked past the toilet, everything became dark again.
“That is when I told Jesus… whatever happens, I will be your faithful servant,” he added.
Tan, who was ordained as a priest in 1971, revealed that he had his novice training in the Jesuit order in Hong Kong for two years. Following this, he went to the Philippines, where he completed a BA in Humanity and a MA in Philosophy.
From here, he was sent to Taiwan to teach at the national university there, during which, he learned Chinese philosophy.
He was than sent to Ireland to do his theology. He obtained a licentiate (equivalent to a Master’s degree). After which, he was sent to Paris to prepare himself with four French Jesuits and a Canadian Jesuit to enter China under Mao Tse Tung.
“God again disposed of our plans,” said Tan. But he did not regret since he got a doctorate in Chinese history from Paris.
It has been a bed of thorns
“Have I ever thought of leaving the religious life? Yes a number of times… But circumstances were such that I decided to continue.
“My biggest crisis was struggling with the question that if God is all good, how can he allow evil. I agonised over this. When I confided in my superior, he said ‘Paul, I think you have lost your vocation and your faith.’
“But he also told me to see my master of novices. So I went and saw him. But when I told the master of my predicament, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘Don’t be silly Paul… yours is a psychological problem not a theological one’ and he told me to continue,” he added.
Tan then left for Ireland, where he met a Jesuit priest who put an end to his dilemma.
“This was an Irishman. His question was simple. ‘Do you trust God?’ and I replied, ‘Yes’. He then responded, ‘And so you must know that evil comes from somewhere else, not God.’ It was his tremendous faith and friendship that made the problem disappear,” he said.
“But I still struggle with making people understand the concepts of good and evil from an intellectual standpoint and I am mulling writing a book on this,” he added.
When serving at the Catholic Research Centre in Petaling Jaya many years later, Tan said he received a letter from Rome, asking him if he would like to work there.
“I didn’t want to. I tried giving excuses. But as a Jesuit, I had to bow down to the order of the superior,” he said, describing his experience at the Vatican as nothing short of amazing.
“That is where you learn about the corruption in the Church and the saints in the Church,” he added.
There is still hope for Malaysia
As for the future of Malaysia, the bishop said that her citizens must cease thinking along racial lines and forge closer ties.
“We are all brothers and sisters in God… all these racial overtones and undertones in politics disgust me. Material progress or otherwise, that is secondary… this is more important,” he added.
Tan said that he remembered how Malaysians of all races shared a stronger bond when he was growing up but unfortunately this has since eroded.
However, the bishop, who after seeing photographs and video clips of the Pakatan Rakyat rallies held in several states, believes that there is still hope.
“Politics aside. I see a revival of this spirit in the rallies being held, there is definitely hope, especially among the younger generation. I saw a photo of a group of girls, Indians, Malays and Chinese, who were carrying a banner saying ‘We are one’… I was very moved.
“It is on their shoulders that the fate of this beautiful nation rests. God bless Malaysia,” he added.
First published in freemalaysiatoday.com