Negaraku: PJ Anti-ISA Vigil Remembers The BERSIH Rally (2)

The problem with Malaysian mainstream media like this report from the Star is the selective reading and interpretation of events (some might even say spinning) which is utterly disappointing! (it makes one wonder whether they even had a journalist there as a eyewitness of the events. My comments in RED! (This might be a little raw than my usual random and restraint style. It is equally selective and bias at least I better admit it first – it consciously accents the elements which was obviously downplayed)

MP and two reps among 23 held for illegal assembly

Perhaps the title should have been “FRU charged to disperse peaceful gathering of civilians singing the national anthem “Negaraku”?

PETALING JAYA: Petaling Jaya Utara MP Tony Pua and assemblymen Lau Weng San and Ronnie Liu were among 23 people arrested during a candlelight vigil near the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) last night.

Who were the other 21? How about the Catholic priest who was in his white robe? How about the ordinary lady who was hit in the commotion?

They were arrested under Section 27 of the Police Act for allegedly taking part in an illegal assembly after several warnings to disperse were ignored.

What warnings are they referring too? . we heard some unintelligible shouts .sporadically at the MBPJ. Is that a warning? or is it intimidation? I can’t recall anyone speaking from a loud hailer giving several warnings and there was no negotiation with anyone who like the MP and Two reps mentioned above.

The vigil, organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih), started at about 8pm at Dataran PJ near Amcorp Mall.

The vigil was in some sense organized by ordinary citizens for the past few weeks with no incident. Since November 9 is the eve for the BERSIH effort last year, so they converged for last night. Of course, I know there’s word limits for news pieces but then facts are facts.

However, the group, numbering in the hundreds, moved to the civic centre near MBPJ when police ordered them to disperse.

Again where was the intelligible orders? I mean in words . are shouts orders?

Also arrested were activists and a priest. Pua and Lau, who is the Kampung Tunku assemblyman, claimed they were manhandled when they were arrested at 10.15pm.

A Roman Catholic Priest to be precise who either didn’t run or couldn’t run because he was wearing his cassock! It should still read “Also arrested were activists, a Roman Catholic Priest, and the rest were ordinary citizens.”

Plus, from the SMSes I got and eye-witness accounts, it’s more than a claim they were manhandled, they were seen to be manhandled! How about the following from Lau’s Blog in real time live below!

I was arrested by police in front of MBPJ. Hit twice at the face. The second punch hurts my lips and it’s bleeding, also a few scratches on my face. The riot police marched in to disperse the crowd without any warning.

As elected rep, I went forward to the first truck and would like to access the situation. I was scolded off in a very rude way and was chasen away by them. I repeatedly told them that I merely wanted to know who were arrested. I was scolded off again and I told the plainclothes to be polite.

Then I was dragged into the truck while punch twice at my face. The police officers applied some yellow lotion on my wounds to avoid the breeding. I manage to recognise the plaincloth who beat me. I will lodge a police report against the injuries. Ronnie and I saw him in the police station just now and Ronnie went forward to ‘interogate’ him, asking him about his name. He refused to give but thank God I can recognise him even he is reduced to ashes.

At midnight, several MPs from DAP and PAS and members from non-governmental organisations gathered at the PJ district police headquarters, condemning the apparent police violence.

More than several to be precise. It was not just DAP and PAS, PKR was there too! No BN reps in sight! Members of NGO were expected to show up. But if the pictures below are correct . again, give some credit to ordinary peace loving Malaysian citizens . they were there too!!

The vigil was held to protest against the detentions under the Internal Security Act, among other things.

Of course, the police station was impressively well guarded … kesian, pity them it was a long night for them too … I wonder whether they get overtime.

Selangor Chief Police Officer Deputy Comm Datuk Khalid Abu Bakar confirmed that police had arrested 23 people, including the three representatives under the Police Act.

He said the group had been gathering there illegally for four weeks and had not obtained permits to do so.

DCP Khalid denied claims that the group were singing the national anthem when they were arrested.

Watch the videos here and decide for yourself (especially the 2 darker video clips!).

On second thoughts, maybe this is more like splitting hairs. The FRU charged into the group while they were singing the last two lines of the national anthem, but by the time they arrested them they managed to finish the last line! Are we missing the point somewhere?

He said police would complete investigations and if those arrested co-operated, they might be given bail.

So, there you go . Malaysian journalism at it’s worst . This is not only disappointing (which I expect), it’s blatantly insulting to our common intelligence (please show the people some respect if you claim to be the people’s paper!) No wonder I don’t buy the paper . save money and give it to those who need it . I recommend child sponsorship programs like World Vision or similar efforts locally!

Negaraku: PJ Anti-ISA Vigil Remembers The BERSIH Rally (1)

I thought Sunday evening would end with a celebrative and a sober mood in the light of the release of RPK and the cause of abolishing the ISA, and remembering the unforgettable demonstration of the people’s voice in last year’s BERSIH walk.

The first “original” planned gathering forced to be at Amcorp Mall entrance gives us a glimpse the evening earlier and ended with the crowd singing heartily our national anthem. Many went home after that, others who were late joined the remaining few who headed to the PJ Civic Centre park. The second rendition of the “NegaraKu” (translated “My Nation” from Bahasa Malaysia) didn’t have the chance to finish properly.

Malaysiakini had the fastest report here saying Police disperse crowd, 24 arrested, The Malaysian Insider turned minimalist here with a muted title Opposition reps detained at Bersih rally. Anil Netto again gives us on the ground citizens reporting here LIVE: Pandemonium erupts as police charge into crowd which has the title which captures the essence of what happened

The people were singing the National Anthem “Negaraku” and were ready to go home. But before they could end …

A video clip from another view from further behind. Jarod’s thoughts on the Anti ISA Vigil at PJ being intruded by FRU! raised the same concern I had for the younger children present there.

There were younger children and youth who was there to give support for this movement. I salute them for their awareness. I also want to tell their parents that indeed you are farsighted to bring them there to see for them selves! This will bring an awareness in them about Malaysia politic. However, I do not know how they will react to this cruel incident. I do not know whether do they injured them selves when the FRU chase after those people who were there.

Thankfully, no children were injured physically (as far as I know) but I wonder how the parents are going to explain what happened last night. I wonder what would be the damage on how the next generation will view those who were meant to protect them. Imagine the following conversation:

“Dad, why are we here tonight?”

“We’re here to show that we love our nation, son. We want to show concern for those who have been detained without trial under the Internal security Act (ISA).”

“Oh yes, RPK got released right, so we’re celebrating too?”

“Sure, and tonight it’s the eve of another event where thousands of Malaysians voiced their desire for a free and fair election too! So, it’s a double celebration.”

“Dad, so it’s not just a protest right? Are we safe? I’m a little scared .”

“Don’t worry son, we should be ok. The last few weeks, the candlelight vigils had been very peaceful. We aren’t doing anything wrong.”

* * *

(after running and escaping being charged at by the FRU)

“Dad, why did they charge at us?”


Last night was a history lesson that no one there will ever forget. It’s one evening which none of us should ever forget even though some of us might be tempted to delete it from our memory.

If we even want to imagine and work for a better future, then we need to face the real history right before our eyes, and not give up even the smallest desire to play some role in crafting a tomorrow we won’t want to forget because it was worth remembering. At least for the sake of our children.

Conversation With Edward Ling

During the build up to the March 8th General Elections and the aftermath, it became more obvious to the Church at large that there were more Christians who were involved as politicians as well as working behind the scenes. One significant development was the increased participation of younger people in the political process, whether as basic as a polling and counting agent or availing themselves for election to office.

I met Edward Ling at numerous Christian university and youth leadership related events in the past. So when I discovered he was the campaign manager and later political secretary for Hannah Yeoh, I was curious as to what led him to where he is today and what makes him tick as he has taken a conscious plunge into party politics through the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

In this article I have included his speech made at recent 15th DAP National Congress (2008) which gives us a glimpse of how he engages the issues within his own party. What struck me in his speech was his call for the DAP to reflect their stated ideology as a truly “Malaysian” party by attracting more Malays into their ranks. This looks like quite a daunting task in my view for a political party which seems to depend more on a base of Chinese voters and championing non-Malay Muslim concerns. But, voices like Edward need to be heard within the spheres of influence that he is part of. Change happens at multiple levels and his call is part of the bigger picture.

The second part that struck me was a small segment at the end of his speech where he reflected a self-critical stance of the younger leaders within the Pakatan Rakyat which is healthy. The emphasis on freedom of speech and thought while also taking into consideration the issues emphasized by the respective component parties, ie. PKR and PAS, shows us an ongoing work in progress beyond the sound bites we get in mainstream media.

I have highlighted the two points above hopefully to deepen our appreciation of the currents within and beyond the structures which Edward has chosen to participate in. I believe it also helps nuance our kneejerk reactions towards headlines which often do not tell the whole story.

What is important and encouraging to me in my conversation with Edward, is that there are these younger leaders from the Church such Edward who are willing to take the plunge, or in one of my favourite slogans, “Jump first, and fear later”! Now, the ball is passed back to us in the churches to provide the needed pastoral support, personal as well as corporate encouragement, critical engagement and resources so that those like him are not left alone to slog through the messy world of politics on their own until the next general elections!

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

My name is Edward Ling, I am currently the Political Secretary to Hannah Yeoh. I guess I am an unsuspecting candidate for a political secretary. I help Hannah on a voluntary basis (But I do get reimbursed a small allowance for my travel & such). I act as the right hand person to Hannah, helping her in every way possible. I think you can also term my role as personal assistant. Sometimes it is difficult to define the responsibilities at this moment because I help her in various areas – from setting up the office, representing her in certain appointments, helping her answer calls, setting up appointments, helping her draft policies, sometimes to driving and accompanying her to meetings, just to name a few. Recently we got a few other volunteers on board to help Hannah as well.

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

I have always been interested in politics. As a young boy I was more interested in reading the newspapers then studying my books. My mum had to ban me from reading the papers!

Even before (and after) I graduated and came back from Australia in 2003, I became a “complainer” – I would complain about almost everything to do with this country. From the “useless” Moral Studies in school to administration of the country. I always thought there was a better way and I had a better idea. Some could term this as “an arm-chair critic”. One day I decided that I had to do something about it – instead of just complaining – so I decided to join DAP. I wanted to choose a platform to voice my opinions and suggestions. I thought – what better way to implement change then to be in a position of influence and power – i wanted to to change the country through politics.

3. 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?

It was always an ongoing interest. I used to draw pictures in my Moral subject paper in protest (while still schooling) *laughs*. I did that because I thought Moral studies was a waste of precious schooling time!

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

I admire William Wilberforce (a prominent British politician, philanthropist and slavery abolitionist in the late 18th to early 19th century). Born wealthy, he could have lived a comfortable life, but he gave his life fighting for change, against the status quo of slavery. Watch the movie “Amazing Grace”. 😉

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

A few of the church members have stepped forward to join as volunteers. However I believe the churches in Malaysia still have a lot of room to get involved in community work. I wish churches would churn out political ministry (alongside with kids ministry, worship ministry, etc..). Few churches understand that we have lost the influence in government and politics. We are too comfortable being shoved into shoplots and factory lots. Why should this be? Our 1st Rukun Negara reads “Kepercayaan kepada Tuhan”. Why are we afraid or avoiding what we are allowed to do?

6. 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?

At this moment in time Barisan has a party whip – which effectively means anyone who wants change within Barisan will face a tough time trying to implement change. Besides, I believe most readers here already know the sins and weaknesses of Barisan National.

For me, DAP has been the most consistent in its stand in terms of its vision in which the party wants to propel the country forward.

I don’t have many friends in Barisan Nasional, although I’d love to make friends with them. After all, we should “love our enemies”. I usually can’t relate to them and we usually get into a heated debate as soon as we start discussion politics. *laughs*. I do have a close relative who is a member of MCA.

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

Well, the Bible speaks a lot about governance. The Bible speaks very much about God’s instruction to man on how to govern. Take numbers/leviticus/exodus for example.

John Chung was instrumental in helping me realize how easy it was to be involved.

You can read more about Christian involvement here:

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

Some lessons learned – language skills are very important we cannot rely on our own strength but His. With God, all things are possible! I have learned that I am not as patient as I though I was.


When people hear our story and attitudes are changed. When I see another young person rise up to do something for a good cause.


Being an agent of change in a country which is so resistant to change. Attitudes, I cannot change


I was surprised when some of my closest friends popped by my house on the 12 of March! (4 days after the historical March 8th).

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

I believe starting a “political ministry” or rebranding it as “community work project” would appeal to the churches as what we do in this ministry is to engage society in totality. In the last few months I have ministered to society more then in my 25 years as a Christian. If you are interested to know more on how you can help, I encourage you to come and see me. 🙂

Speech made at the 15th DAP National Congress (2008)

Good day,

Leaders of DAP, fellow delegates.

My name is Edward Ling, delegate from Damansara branch, now pro-tem Chairman of DAP Bandar Subang Jaya.

Let me start with a little story. There were a bunch of new recruits at boot camp. Their trainer said to them “For the next two weeks, you are going to do all of your training without changing any of your clothes”.

So for the next two weeks, the new recruits did all their exercises & training without changing their clothes. Finally after two weeks, the trainer announced “I have got good news for all of you. Today, I am going to allow you to change your underwear”

”Phew, finally!” sighed the relieved recruits.

Then the trainer continued “Tim, you change with Ken, Ken, you change with Reuben, Reuben, you change with Jack …….etc…etc…”.

The moral of the story here is that when we change, we must change for a good reason. We should not change merely for the sake of changing.

Much has been said about change. Malaysians has voted for change – our challenge to all Malaysians is to change their negative attitudes. However, DAP must also change as we propel Malaysia forward.

We speak about Malaysian Malaysia, but we need more concrete steps to achieve this.

Firstly to attract more Malays into DAP, we need to learn from the private sector – there is no need to reinvent the wheel – we can learn from some multinational companies and what they are doing. One idea is to practice what is called “diversity and inclusiveness”.

What this means is that we have to value the background, perspectives and diversity of all Malaysians, and strive to incorporate the needs and viewpoints of diverse communities in the design and implementation of policies.

A simple example would be to have more of our DAP meetings in Bahasa Malaysia. If this is not possible, have it in English, the neutral language. We should try to avoid using certain exclusive languages that only certain communities understand.

Let us not repeat the mistake of not being prepared to govern. Some of our leaders openly admitted that we were surprised to become government in the states that PR won on March 8th. Is DAP in Pakatan Rakyat prepared to govern Malaysia tomorrow? What is our blueprint for the country? What is our negotiation strategy with the rest of the coalition parties in Pakatan Rakyat? Are we actually able to propose new systems that will work immediately? I know for a fact that we have leaders who will be able to draw up a budget immediately (since we have come up with the alternative budget). However, what about other areas? We really need to attract the right experts and the professional into the party. When we become the federal government, we must not simply give positions such as ministerial positions to party leaders merely for the fact that they are party leaders. Don’t forget, we speak of meritocracy which means we have to fit the right candidates for the right jobs. Those who are not qualified for the job should not been given the task.

On a side note, it is important to reassure our voters in the last elections that the party is not sidestepping its promises to hold local council elections by having a concrete proposal on how we are going to implement this once we are in power.

I believe there are two key areas in which we must focus our energy and brain power – the Malaysian economy and education. In terms of these two key areas education, let us start to draw up a blueprint in which will truly propel Malaysia forward.

I also observe that DAP needs to rapidly grow its leadership base. Today, DAP leaders are wearing too many hats. We should strive to avoid giving too many positions to a single individual, but instead give the opportunity to raise and groom other young talented leaders. We need to do this in order for our leaders to be effective in their jobs. For example, today we have leaders who are elected representatives in both parliament and state assemblies, who hold state positions, are in the CEC and also hold a position in the CEC, etc, etc …

Let me now turn my suggestions to our friends in Pakatan Rakyat. Firstly I think it is good that we openly give suggestions as the saying goes “iron sharpens iron”.

To the groups in PKR and PAS who protested at the Bar council Forum, I totally disagree with reasoning of the protest. However, we must allow for freedom of speech as we so often talk about.

To PAS members who say that you are sidelined in Pakatan Rakyat, pleased be informed that we are equals. The statistics show that in terms of ratio, the number of councilors appointed to PAS far exceeds that of DAP.

Thank you.

At the Abolish ISA Forum

During times like this, we are tempted to use many words to present our feelings, arguments and suggestions. There is much already said and repeated with much vigor and clarity and does not need repeating. Media Rakyat’s Forum: Abolish ISA has three video clips that you can view.

For me, one moment stood out during the Abolish ISA Forum on 23 September 2008. I struggled to hold back my tears when everyone in the hall gave a standing ovation when Raja Petra’s wife Marina Lee stepped onto the stage.

Later as she shared heart to heart with the attentive audience what is on her mind, it was hard to remain numb and unmoved. The call to re-look at our humanity first, rather than the rhetoric of national security, shouts right in front of us through the feeble and yet firm voice of those who are left behind. The reaction from the crowd was loud and clear.

I received an email last night reminding me of the words of the courageous Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) who is attributed for penning the poem “First they came …”. As we consider the various actions each of us may choose to take and converge for truth, justice, peace and healing in days to come, Pastor Martin’s words strongly impress upon us that apathy can no longer be an option.

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

I Shop Therefore I Am: Consumerism and Its Impact on Christian Life and Ministry

“My concern is not materialism, strictly speaking, or even the consumption of goods—as contingent beings, we must consume resources to survive. The problem is not consuming to live, but living to consume.”

– Skye Jethani  ((Skye Jethani, “Leader’s Insight: From Christ’s Church to iChurch – How Consumerism Undermines our Faith and Community” in [accessed July 7, 2008-].))

“The gold bit on your horse, the gold circlet on the wrist of your slave, the gilding on your shoes, mean that you are robbing the orphan and starving the widow. When you have passed away, each passer-by who looks upon your great mansion will say, “How many tears did it take to build that mansion; how many orphans were stripped; how many widows wronged; how many laborers deprived of their honest wages?” Even death itself will not deliver you from your accusers”

– John Chrysostom  ((Quoted in Justo Gonzales, The Story of Christianity. Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of Reformation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 197.))


In a conversation with my friend Ali who is part of a Muslim Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), he shared his observation that many Muslims as well as people today are caught up in focusing on materialism rather than the transcendent mysteries of God and life. He sees his mission as a practising Muslim working through the particular NGO that he is a part of to correct this problem. As a pastor and a Christian, I could not help but resonate with his concerns, because it appears that the Christian community in Malaysia (not to mention other parts of Asia) is also entrenched with the same preoccupation. It seems to be more concerned with the tangibles of the “good life” than it is with the intangibles of the “godly life” in Christian discipleship.

However, what lies before us is more than a preoccupation with material goods. This is but symptomatic of a deeper root cause, in which Christian life and ministry is perceived primarily through the lens of consumerism, a system, mentality and tendency with consumption at its centre.  ((Consumerism here is defined as (1) an economic system which places extremely high value on incessant production and consumption of material goods and services at an even higher level of physical convenience and comfort; (2) an accompanying mentality which assumes that such a system is the best or only one possible; and (3) a related tendency or even drive to find much, sometimes most, though rarely all human fulfillment in providing and consuming material goods and services. Christopher Kiesling, “Liturgy and Consumerism,” Worship 52, no. 4 (July 1978): 359.)) I propose that while confronting consumerism critically is a must, a parallel focus on an alternative vision of who we are as a church, as well as relentlessly embodying and expressing the missional call of God on the people of God for the world needs to be accented more than ever.

Beyond Relevance and Resistance

“Relevance” has become for many the rallying cry of the church today. The church strives hard not to be left behind as an archaic and irrelevant institution, unrelated to the everyday lives of people. While seeking to be relevant is arguably part of the missionary posture of the church to those living in a non-Christian or even post-Christian environment, one wonders if what started off initially as a sincere attempt to build bridges to the world has been overtaken by a consumer-centred marketing posture, particularly as we appropriate uncritically the tools of marketing and management?  ((The classic proto church growth movement seminal work by Donald McGravan, The Bridges of God, was birthed out of his missionary experience. Donald McGraven, The Bridges of God:A Study in the Strategy of Missions (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005), or “The Bridges of God” [accessed July 7, 2008].))

A quick glance at the church’s life and ministry today suggests that perhaps we have bought into a consumerist mindset unconsciously when it comes to what we do in church and what we consider important in church.

First, the growth of the Christian, Gospel, and Worship music industry is the most phenomenal example.  ((Joe Morris, “Christian music industry foresees record year,” Nashville Business Journal, [accessed July 7, 2008]. Gospel Music Association, “Christian/Gospel Music Albums sales rise in 2006” [accessed July 7, 2008].)) In a year end report from the Gospel Music Association (GMA), we read the following:

According to Nielsen SoundScan’s 2006 Year-end report the Christian/Gospel category of overall album sales joined classical, soundtracks and Latin as the only genres that grew in sales in 2006. Christian/Gospel music sales are the largest of those four genres and represents 6.75 percent of all album sales.  ((Gospel Music Association, “Christian/Gospel Music Albums sales rise in 2006” [accessed July 7, 2008].))

The reasons given for the increase in sales are noteworthy:

2006 was a good year for Christian/Gospel music. Album sales were up, albeit slightly; digital sales continue to rise and most importantly, the impact of the Gospel through music reached beyond even what our sales reveal. Everywhere you look, in books, games, TV and movies, music that is inspired by faith seems more prevalent than ever before,” said John W. Styll, president and CEO of the GMA. “There may be many reasons why this is true, but I think chief among them is that people seem to be drawn to the inspiring and compassionate message of Gospel music amid uncertain times.”  ((Michael Glitz, “American Idol ‘Shout to the Lord’: Controversy and Results,” The Huffington Post [accessed July 7, 2008].))

Perhaps it was to meet the people’s need for inspiration that prompted producers of the television reality show, American Idol to feature on its 2008 “Idol Gives Back” episodes the popular worship song, “Shout to the Lord,” by Hillsongs worship leader Darlene Zschech.  ((Jean Kidula, “The Rise of the Religious Music Industry in Kenya: Gospel From Roots to Rap,” interviewed by Siddhartha Mitter, Afropop Worldwide [accessed July 7, 2008].)) The growth of the Christian music industry (some might prefer the word “ministry”?) is not just limited to the North; it is true in Africa as well.  ((Sarah Rodman, “The music industry takes sales as gospel,” The Boston Globe [accessed July 7, 2008].))

While the creative and artistic use of music and the arts is strongly encouraged in corporate worship, questions are raised when there is a convenient marriage of consumer interests with what may have been originally creative or contextual expressions of gifts in the church. Authentic worship can unfortunately be overshadowed or even swallowed up by commercial interests.  ((Quoted in Philip D. Kenneson, “Selling [Out] the Church in the Marketplace of Desire,” Modern Theology 9, no. 4 (October 1993): 331.))

Second, the dominant use of Church marketing and management categories in church life today is another case in point. This is not just confined to the so-called “mega-churches,” which have often been criticised for the adoption of managerial practices. Even in discussions on church planting or new church development in the so called “mainline churches,” it is not uncommon to find such discussions overwhelmed by matters such as survey proposals, strategic plans, timeline charts, budgets, and policies. Not all see this as something necessarily bad. George Barna for instance sees “marketing” in neutral terms as he makes an apologetic for its use in church ministry.

Church marketing is the performance of both business and ministry activities that impact the church’s target audience with the intention of ministering to and fulfilling their spiritual, social, emotional, or physical needs and thereby satisfy the ministry goals of the church. The emphasis of this definition is on using marketing to serve the best interests of ministry. While the definition indicates that certain business activities may occur in the process of marketing the church, those activities are undertaken as a necessity to help the church achieve its ministry potential. The practice of marketing has no intrinsic value. For the purposes of the church, its sole value is derived from its ability to enhance church expansion.  ((Quoted in Philip D. Kenneson, “Selling [Out] the Church,” 336.))

What Barna expresses here may well be in the minds of many pastors and church leaders today. This is not surprising, especially for those who are already well-versed in the language of business and find it natural to relate this to the church:

First, the Church is a business. It is involved in the business of ministry. As such, the local church must run with the same wisdom and savvy that characterizes any for-profit business. As in the business world, every church must be managed with purpose and efficiency, moving towards its goals and objectives. Our goal as a church, like any secular business, is to turn to profit. For us, however, profit means saving souls and nurturing believers.  ((Kenneson, “Selling [Out] the Church,” 337-342.))

Has the business model become the predominant paradigm in “doing church” today? In his provocative article, “Selling [Out] the Church,” Philip Kenneson highlights some presuppositions often present in the way many modern churches engage in ministry. One of these presuppositions says: “That the church is a business, and more specifically a service agency.” Embedded in this are the following operative assumptions:

  • That the church’s goal (or ministry) is to meet (unmet) felt needs.
  • That the church should be consumer driven.
  • That the individual is primary, while the church is secondary, if not tertiary.  ((Robert A. Kelly, “Lutheranism as counterculture? The Doctrine of Justification and Consumer Capitalism,” Currents in Theology and Mission 24, no. 6 (December 1997): 497.))

While the rhetoric of many seminars and conferences today may be about “ministry” and “service,” the underlying presupposition is more often than not “the customer is king,” rather than “Christ is Lord” over our lives and ministry.

Third, we note the dominant influence of American Evangelicalism on Asian Christianity, which often comes clothed with strong consumer-capitalistic ideas. Whether it is old “Positive thinking” school of Norman Vincent Peale, the “Possibility thinking” of Robert Schuller, or the reinvented “prosperity gospel” of Joel Osteen, one finds the same body of ideas presented, albeit in different garments. Many of the proponents of the different forms of “victorious” or “success” Christianity are excellent communicators. Peppering their presentations with enough Bible verses to support their overall vision, they find a ready audience amongst Christians living in economically growing settings like Malaysia and Singapore. Robert A. Kelly, approaching the subject from a “counterculture” perspective, gives a needed caution: “Evangelicalism is not a problem because of praise songs, but because it is thoroughly enmeshed in consumer-capitalist ideology and confuses success with the eschaton.”  ((Jason Clark, “Consumerism as Religion – Part I : The Dinner Party Test” [accessed July 7, 2008].))

It is frightening to contemplate the possibility that the versions of Christianity we have “bought” into uncritically are in fact versions that have been syncretised with consumerism. A greater danger lurks around the corner, and that is the possibility that we may be replacing our faith with another “religion,” despite couching it with “Christian” terminology. Jason Clark, a Ph.D. candidate who was a church planter but now serves as a pastor and speaker in the United Kingdom, seeks to explore “how consumerism functions as a religious system, and the effects that has on people who want to form Christian identity, in particular in relationship with other Christians as the Church.”  ((Eugene Peterson, Eugene Peterson’s Pastoral Library (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) is a good modern classic to start with.)) His intuitive concern which guides his research echoes my own intuition of the challenges we face here in an Asia swimming in a globalized world.

Repercussions from Living in a Consumer Culture

There are some who react against the drive to “relevance” and retreat to the old-time religion of the past (in whatever form we remember, whether high church liturgy or revivalist expository preaching) as a way of “resistance.” While going back to pre-modern resources in history is a helpful measure, an uncritical appropriation of the past that ignores the present seems to be a dead-end as well. The wisdom of Danish philosopher Søren Kiekergaard when applied to the church is needed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

As we reflect on the repercussions from a consumer-driven Christianity, we do so from a posture of “repentance,” i.e., to first pause and stop, and then change our life and ministry direction as the Spirit leads us, hearing the call of Jesus to commit ourselves afresh to honouring the Father on earth in our time and location. This is an ongoing and life-long process.

First, the people and leaders of the church are too busy keeping up with the latest and the most improved trends and solutions. We are often swept along by whatever new waves of fixing church that come along, rather than step back to reassess our unique contexts and reengage the Gospel for the formation of our own personal and corporate identity. We engage in “copying” the programmes offered rather than go through the slower creative process of working things out for ourselves. In my own limited experience in being a part of a church restart with a small group of fifteen adults and two children, I made a conscious decision to refrain from running to one seminar or conference to another in search of solutions or formulaes for church growth. This opened up space for a thorough re-examination of my own ministry values and discipleship.

Second, it is a tragedy when Christians unconsciously define themselves as “customers” while the church is seen as “producers.” While these words may not be used openly, in practice, spiritual formation or discipleship is often demonstrated through one’s consuming of the various programmes that purportedly cater to every conceivable need. Thus, discipleship is understood less in relational and communal terms than it is individualistically and in terms of ‘producer’ and ‘consumer.’ It is common for many pastors to burnout because they are unable to meet the growing unspoken expectations of church members whose “felt needs” are endless. Eugene Peterson’s phrase, “un-busy pastor” seems to be an impossibility in today’s pastoral ministry. Being seen as one who is “busy” about God’s “business” has become the reigning mindset that has imprisoned many of us in pastoral ministry. When I was fresh out of seminary, the books that occupied my imagination were church growth and church management resources. But what really ignites my imagination nowadays are readings in theology and missiology, and more significantly, the wisdom of pastoral theologians like Eugene Peterson who has saved me from more hard knocks.  ((Tom Sine, The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008).))

Third, the preoccupation with church marketing and management techniques, besides being symptomatic of our uncritical embrace of the prevailing consumerist culture, actually distracts us from the spiritual discernment needed to be surprised by God in the messiness of ministry. Being in control is the modus operandi of a consumerist paradigm; yet we live and serve in a world that is increasingly chaotic, confusing and unpredictable. The way forward to be faithful in living out the Gospel and sharing the Gospel in word and deed is more about discernment on where God is already working, and consciously confronting mindsets and values which place our consumer interests at the centre. It means allowing Christ, who is the centre and the narrative of Scripture, to revise the script of our lives in the light of the future of the new heaven and new earth. A thorough theological reorientation is needed in ensuring that the methods and ethos we employ in church ministry are not defined in consumerist terms.

A “Revolutionary” approach?

There are currently encouraging developments in what Tom Sine calls “the New Conspirators,” that are expressed in emerging, missional, mosaic and monastic streams in the church today.  ((René Padilla explains, “The expression integral mission (misión integral) came into use principally within the Latin American Theological Fraternity (FTL) about twenty years ago. It was an attempt to highlight the importance of conceiving of the mission of the church within a more biblical theological framework than the traditional one, which had been accepted in evangelical circles due to the influence of the modern missionary movement. In the last few years the expression has been used so widely that the literal translation into English, integral mission, is gradually becoming a part of the vocabulary of those who are pressing for a more holistic approach to the Christian mission, even outside Spanish-speaking evangelical circles.” In What is Integral Mission anyway? [accessed July 7, 2008].)) Brian McLaren’s observation on the young Christians in the emerging stream, where “It’s not about the church meeting your needs; it’s about joining the mission of God’s people to meet the world’s needs,” looks promising as a starting point to detoxify the church from our own consumerism. However, to avoid the agenda being set by the world’s needs, it is crucial that we focus on the mission of God. For years, René Padilla has been an important voice for the concept of “Integral Mission,” which provides a framework which points us back to thinking in more “theological” and “missionary” terms rather than in “marketing” or “management” terms.  ((René Padilla, What is Integral Mission anyway? Para. 22 at para. 14-15.)) When concepts like social justice and a holistic understanding of the implications of salvation are highlighted, consumerism begins to get uprooted and the seeds of the kingdom can then be planted. Padilla, in agreement with McLaren, expands the implications of “Integral Mission”:

When the church is committed to integral mission and to communicating the gospel through everything it is, does, and says, it understands that its goal is not to become large numerically, nor to be rich materially, nor powerful politically. Its purpose is to incarnate the values of the Kingdom of God and to witness to the love and the justice revealed in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit, for the transformation of human life in all its dimensions, both on the individual level and on the community level.

The accomplishment of this purpose presupposes that all the members of the church, without exception, by the very fact of having become a part of the Body of Christ, receive gifts and ministries for the exercise of their priesthood, to which they have been ordained in their baptism. Mission is not the responsibility and privilege of a small group of the faithful who feel called to the mission field (usually in a foreign country), but of all members, since all are members of the royal priesthood and as such have been called by God that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1Pet 2.9) wherever they may be. As Brian D. McLaren aptly states,

[For Christ, his “called ones” (which is what the Greek term for “church” really means) will also be his “sent ones” [or missionaries] … In this line of thinking about the church, we don’t recruit people to be customers of our products or consumers of our religious programs; we recruit them to be colleagues in our mission. The church does not exist in order to satisfy the consumer demands of believers; the church exists to equip and mobilize men and women for God’s mission in the world.  ((Advent Conspiracy [accessed July 7, 2008].))

As we revise the vision of our core identity and ministry as a church, there are some disciplines that I find helpful which can serve to fortify us against the seductive influence of consumerism in ministry. The way forward is to counter the practices that breed consumerism with disciplines that create a fertile ground for the transforming work of God’s Spirit. There is no short-cut for the long-term work of conforming to the image of Christ as individuals and as a church.

First, a good start would be to attend to the disciplines of fasting combined with giving. At the end of 2007, our congregation drew on the practical ideas from the “Advent Conspiracy.”  ((David E. Fitch, The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and other Modern Maladies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 153-179.)) It was a call to relook at how we prepare ourselves as we move towards Christmas as a church. The “Conspiracy” comprises four simple practices to help us re-orientate our vision during the festive season, i.e., worship more, spend less, give more, and love all. During that season of sales, congregation members were challenged to spend less, especially on themselves, as a version of fasting to confront the consumer-tendencies in us. And even in the gifts for others, members were encouraged to be more creative and personal rather than extravagant. Balancing the disciplines of giving, worship and love was important. That was the goal. It was not simply about spending less. David Fitch suggests a longer term approach and calls the church to reinvigorate the practice of the Benevolent Fund as a step to help the church grow as a community in but not of Capitalism.  ((Christopher Kiesling, “Liturgy and Consumerism.”))

Second, reengage the disciplines of corporate worship and consciously guard against self-centred consumerist tendencies. This begins with a thorough examination of the lyrics that we sing and the songs that we choose. In addition, a process of reforming our liturgy, order of worship, and the contents of corporate worship is needed. We can draw from the contemplative tradition, which emphasizes reflection on the meaning and mystery of God’s redemptive love, and integrate this with the social justice tradition which confronts us with the needs of the poor, the needy, and the marginalized.  ((Jason Clark, The Rediscovery of Ritual in the Emerging Church)) We need to replace the “consumer-driven” rituals with rituals which form kingdom values and vision.  ((A new helpful booklet on the importance of friendship is expounded by Soo-Inn Tan, Friends in A Broken World: Thoughts on Friendship From the Emmaus Road (Singapore: Graceworks, 2008).))

Third, relook at communal formation beyond small group programmes. Placing a strong emphasis on relationships or friendships as the context for discipleship and spiritual formation as the goal is key.  ((Most of Todd Hunter’s rationale and practical examples can be found here [accessed July 7, 2008])) While we want to avoid the preoccupation with programmes and methods, we also recognize that discipleship is always intentional; thus some level of organization is needed. We must be cautious not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” when it comes to small groups. What is needed are more relational models, like for instance the Three is Enough (TiE) Groups by Todd Hunter.  ((A good example of connecting Biblical narrative with current day concerns is found in Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004).))

Fourth, relearn the language of Christian life and ministry through the disciplines of Biblical meditation and theological reflection. Changes in the practices relating to our ministry and spirituality ultimately are undergirded by a robust Biblical-theological framework, which means that Christians need to hear the scriptures uncensored. Stories like Jesus’ encounters with the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18) and Zacchaeus (Luke 19) must not be spiritualized that we miss the discomfort that they bring to us. Passages from the Old Testament prophetic books like Isaiah on fasting (Isaiah 58), and Micah on the requirements of God from his people (Micah 6) cannot be ignored. The reintroduction of the lesser known histories of the early church fathers and the monastic movements in church history serves to provide additional resources in reprogramming the corrupted “software” that we operate with today. I recall the disturbed faces of my church members when they were confronted with the words of John Chrysostom and the lives of the desert fathers during a church history class. Once we get over the initial discomfort and inertia that comes with exposure to the unfamiliar, we come to appreciate the rich resources that are there within the Christian tradition that can help us cultivate discernment in dealing with the subtlety of contemporary consumerism.

The reflections and practices above are not meant to be exhaustive. They are but a sampling of what many pastors like myself may be wrestling with today in the secret chambers of their hearts. Many might already have felt intuitively the nudge to make some needed changes in their ministries. Very often, we face battles when no one is looking. What is written in this article is nothing really new, and yet, perhaps that which seems most mundane, ordinary and insignificant may be the most “revolutionary” starting point for the rest of God’s purposes to be realized in our lifetime. Was it not our Lord Jesus who said, “The Kingdom of God is like a Mustard Seed” (Matthew 13)?

This was first published in “Church & Society in Asia Today” – A Periodical concerned with Christian Ministry and Mission in Asia Today, Published by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College, Singapore. Reproduced with permission.

My Malaysia Day

On September 16, I decided to fly the Malaysian Flag. To be more precise, I used the one coloured by my 3 year old plus daughter and displayed it on my car. So much has been happening since the March 8th General elections, and in the light of more recent events of the use of ISA to detain citizens of Malaysia without trial, some have quietly advised me to stock up some food at home, there’s also a loud silence in the Christian community with the exception of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters which disturbs me.

Do we stock up and shut up? How can we ordinary citizens respond? What can the Church as an instrument of justice and peace do?

Some would choose to break out of their comfort zones stepping into the streets, and stand in solidarity with fellow Malaysians through the emergence of numerous peaceful candlelight vigils like the “Remember September 13” event at Bukit Aman organized by Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI). I know of one denomination leader who participated in the candlelight vigil organized by the Democratic Action Party (DAP) at their headquarters. Some might criticize such an action as aligning oneself with a political party. Personally, I am proud of this leader who was willing to show his solidarity with the ISA detainees and was not so much thinking of political alliance. Let’s face it, we do not have the luxury of time to debate which event we can or cannot join, by the time we finish our theoretical ramblings, we would have done nothing.

I chose to go to the Malaysia Day Celebrations at the Kelana Jaya Stadium. There were many Christians who sat and stood with fellow Malaysians of all races and religions. Church members told me how singing the “Negaraku” at the closing brought tears to their eyes. One of them shared how a fellow Malaysian standing next to him told him that this is the first time the national anthem meant to much to him until he could not hold back the raw emotions. This is where the Church as a sign, foretaste and instrument of the reign of God, or another way of putting it the people of the way of Jesus, identifies in concrete ways with the concerns of our neighbours. We need no doubt to be on guard against uncritical patriotism, or blind allegiance to any form of ideology, but the fact God became flesh and lived amongst us, as his body on earth, we live amongst the social realities as well.

Besides the various expressions on the streets and in the stadium, quietly but surely there was the contribution of the Church calling people back to in the words of Father O.C. Lim, “the power of prayer and silent witnessing”. The worship sanctuary which for many could have been a place of escape from all the troubles of the world, is now transformed into a space where the “worldly” concerns are humbly and silently brought before God.

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

As a pastor I felt inspired by the words of Father O.C. Lim, that we can play a role in guiding fellow Christ-followers to integrate spirituality with social engagement. Thus, our church decided to organize a prayer vigil on September 16 evening to open up another avenue for us to express our concerns and even protests in a peaceful (non-violent), purposeful, and prayerful manner.

The prayer vigil was nothing fancy, there was no hype no hysteria. There was only an honest, humble and hopeful posture before God, and one another for the sake our ourselves, our children, our neighbors, our friends and our future!

Our coming together for prayer though might have been sparked off first by the string of recent developments especially the latest arrests under the ISA, but we gathered also for more long term and deeper reasons , that is,

  • to remember all those who have contributed with their sweat, tears and even their blood to the formation of this space we call home, and our identity as Malaysians.
  • to remember the highs and lows as well as achievements and setbacks of our common historical pilgrimage together.
  • to remember the past with honesty and humility and look forward to the future with hope.
  • to remember the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the forgotten as well as those who have been laboring hard in showing them concern and advocating for them and with them thus far.
  • to remember those who are in authority and bear the responsibility to ensure institutional instruments are functioning rightly guided by the constitutional framework.
  • to remember the last, the least and the lost.
  • to remember our creator, liberator, and life-giver who is the true author and director of history, giving thanks for the  privilege we have a role to play and participate in the unfolding of each page, and renewing our commitment to walk humbly before God in our speech, thoughts, relationships, and every human activity. This is a timely reminder we responding to his grace towards us, are stewards (not rulers who abuse and exploit)  who faithfully manage the gifts showered upon all of us by the almighty.

During a segment of the prayer vigil, we gathered in a circle to share one word which was occupying our minds. Justice, Trust, Hope, Anxious, Faith, Shadows, Light ….

We sang a song from Taize which captures the desires of our hearts, and aligns us beyond the urgent and the immediate.

The Kingdom of God is Justice and Peace,
And Joy in the Holy Spirit
Come Lord, and Open in us the gates of your kingdom.

We heard from the words of Jesus from Matthew 5:3-12:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you
and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

After mutual sharing of reflections on recent events and meditations from the Scriptures, we prayed together a prayer published in the Herald before closing with the Lord’s Prayer and a Benediction.

A prayer for our nation

Let us proclaim the name of the Lord;
And ascribe greatness to our God!
Lord your work is perfect.
And all your ways are just.
Let Your voice be heard today
by all the nations!
O God, Judge of the nations,
Put fear into our hearts
So that we may know that we are only human.
Father, the whole of creation
groans and labours
to be delivered from the bondage of corruption,
into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

Lord Jesus, send forth Your Spirit of Truth and let this Spirit prove to ‘the powers that be’ how wrong they are about sin, righteousness and judgement.

O Lord, declare the power of your works to Your peoples and let us be filled with the knowledge of Your glory as the waters cover the sea.

Gather us O Lord in Your name and may all worship the One True God. Amen.

(A prayer composed from various Scripture verses of the Bible)

I believe we need a multifaceted approach to the problems and challenges before us in these “crazy times”. I’ve grown to appreciate the prophetic dimension of God’s calling upon us as a Church through individuals and even institutions. I believe all of us can play a role as voices for justice and instruments of peace. I do not think this is the time for fragmented actions draining our energies from a more integrated efforts. We need to value every single effort by every person.

And we must not underestimate “the power of prayer and silent witnessing”, as an important contribution to participate in what God is doing in the world. As people of faith, we trust that God is moving way before we even decided to do anything. We are discerning how we can join Him, more than getting Him to join our causes. At it’s best, prayer is not a means to escape the troubles of this world, it’s a way to engage the world with our total being before our creator, liberator, and life-giver! Authentic prayer energizes us while clarifying our cluttered feelings and thoughts, so that we can discern the will of God, and act in faith accordingly and humbly.

With the help of church member, we managed to set up a “virtual” Prayer Wall after the prayer vigil, signifying the prayer does not end when the doors of the church is closed and the last candle is blown out. Our prayers and actions continues and more can join in, even if it means for a start, to say a little prayer.

What Really Matters

”Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better.” -Luke 10:41-42 (NIV)

How timely it is to be reminded on “what really matters?”. Of course, the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), with the emphasis on Mary’s choice of what is better – i.e. to sit at the feet of Jesus as his learner and student, has been used as a guilt inducing whip on the activist and busy person in all of us. I doubt that is the purpose of Jesus words.

Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, it is clear that sitting at his feet to learn and going out into the world to serve are not mutually exclusive. It’s a matter of timing, focus, rhythm. And those of us who are spinning more than one plate and wearing multiple hats are well aware of how distracted we can become in the midst of so much movement in our everyday life. Like Martha, the problem with us may be less about the activities we are involved in but the inner battles that rage within us; where we are “worried and upset about many things.” And that’s draining, tiring, frustrating. In addition to that it’s easy to lose our focus on what’s important in the grand scheme of things.

There is a big majority of Christians who need a big kick in the behind to help them leap out from their comfort zones and “do something” or at least cut down their “whining” (if they can’t stop). There are also those who are in the thick of so much activity, whether it’s trying to make a difference in the world, or caught up with the affairs of the world. Both can’t claim any superiority in their position because both need to refocus, and Jesus waits for you even now.

After we sit with Jesus for a little while, hear his voice once again (especially through the words of the Bible), and meditate on our daily work and efforts through his lens by the Spirit, then we can plunge in again, not just doing our work right, but with all clarity, doing the right work! Stuff that really matters…

Prayer, Persistence, Justice

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

-Luke 18:1-8 (New Revised Standard Version)

Prayer, Persistence, Justice. I hear people talk about the link between prayer and persistence a lot. Especially when it comes to asking for our own needs as well as the needs of others. But adding the component of Justice, puts into the equation a needed content corrective that we often lack. What is the content of our prayer? The Lord’s prayer does not neglect our personal supplications – “give us this day our daily bread”. So, we are not playing down personal needs. What is needed is putting our personal needs in the wider context of God entering a world gone wrong and setting it right again. For those actively engaged in this kind of work—whether in social concern or social advocacy—it’s tempting to look at people who talk about prayer and complain that they don’t do anything. For those who call themselves prayer warriors or intercessors, it’s easy to look at the activists and accuse them of not trusting in God and instead relying on human strength. Both have missed the point, as polarities often do.

Prayer, Persistence, Justice. These three words bring those who are in the field as well as those in the prayer ministry together before the God who is working both in the visible and the invisible. Anything less than that impoverishes us from the resources and wisdom He offers us as his agents of change in this crazy, crazy world. With these three components in place, we then are on the road to demonstrate an integrated Christianity which I believe brings genuine hope to the future. How we pray and what we pray for come in true synergy and focus.

Prayer. Persistence. Justice.

Look Who’s Talking With The Other Side

We met on Friday March 7, 2008 at the polling and counting agent briefing for Lembah Pantai. It was an unexpected friendship which was birthed from unplanned circumstances. Both of us were thrown into a mini-crisis to sort out volunteer arrangements for the school we were assigned to. By 3AM on Saturday, March 8, 2008, after multiple phone calls, loads of stress, and a singular desire to make sure we have a workable solution, together with those who were REALLY in charge we knew we would at least survive the morning.

At first glance, we come from different worlds. He had more experience as a polling/counting agent, I was a newbie who did not have a clue what to do. He is working at a Management Institute, and I am a pastor of a church. He is a member of political party; I don’t have any political affiliation. He is a Malay Muslim, I am a Chinese Christian. He studied all his life in Malaysia; I spent a couple of years overseas when I was younger. He lives in the nearby crowded low cost flats; I am renting condominium with a swimming pool. There is nothing on surface which immediately unites us.

On second thoughts, we do have some areas in common. We are Malaysians. The next link is Bangsar, he lives there while the church I pastor is based there. We have a commitment to ensure we had a free and fair election, so being polling and counting agents was our contribution to the area in which we are working and living, besides voting in our respective constituencies. We are both young adults in our 30s, married with children; he has one while I have three. We aspire to see Malaysia become a better home where our children can blossom and grow. We are hoping that our lives can flourish in all aspects with a more mature democracy after the 12th General Elections of Malaysia. We were united on a path towards a common future we could agree together. Well, perhaps not in all the details, but at least as we started to talk to each other, and tried to listen to our common concerns, and explore some baby step solutions; we were heading somewhere better than where we were previously coming from. And more importantly, we became friends – friends in conversation and companions along the journey together. Yes, I have been talking with the “other side”.

After the euphoria of the results of the last election, the elated feelings of hope now have come back down to cautious scepticism about what is the next step for our country. The recent UMNO-PAS talks have caused alarm among many non-Muslims, especially when many supported what they perceived to be a more progressive PAS. There have been voices from the Malay Muslim community which lauds this move by both parties. Of course, what we see is merely the tip of the iceberg; it is news generated from mainstream media which we can’t help but read with more than a pinch of salt. The latest news is that PAS reaffirms their commitment to the Pakatan Rakyat, and their refusal to cooperate with UMNO came to the relief of some and the frustration of others.

One thing is certain, I am learning not to allow the ups and down of my daily life to be determined by the headlines of the main stream media. There is always more than meets the eye, and in our current Malaysian context where news is based on spinning or speculation, so much effort is needed to read between the lines where we don’t have access to more reliable facts. I was amused when I read that a blogger was considering cancelling his satellite TV Astro subscription in the light of the political dramas these days. I’m glad I had not even started subscribing. The news and views on the internet are already information overload and for better or worse keeps me glued to the latest; better than any TV series.

Coming back closer to where most of us might actually be, the conversations with my new Malay-Muslim friend brought the issues down from the headlines to the heart of the matter for people on the ground. One’s perspective on issues surrounding “Malay Unity” is nuanced after hearing the genuine frustrations of being a Malay Muslim who does not have access to power. It was surprising to discover the deep distrust ingrained in those who have felt betrayed by their fellow Muslims. The surprise was not so much intellectual, but emotional, when one can “feel” the hurt in close proximity. I received an SMS one day asking me, “Do you still trust PAS?” Immediately, I was reminded of a statement slipped into our conversations over teh-tarik, “How can we trust UMNO after what they have done consistently in the past?” It’s hard for me to imagine the exact meaning behind this rhetorical question. But it’s a start.

While there were genuine concerns over the implications of these so called UMNO-PAS “Malay Unity” talks, there was an intuitive critical stance within me to question what was communicated through the main stream media, as well as what was really happening. I called my friend to ask him what he felt and how he perceived the matter – and it wasn’t as enthusiastic as the media portrays it to be. Then again, another important lesson I’ve learnt in our conversations that the Malay Muslim community are much more diverse then we give them credit for, even within their own political aspirations as well as religious emphasis. On another occasion, one unforgettable comment I heard from a conversation with a Malay Muslim academic was about how hard it is for intra-religious dialogue to happen in our country, so we can imagine the uphill challenge of inter-religious dialogue. As a Christian, and a pastor I can resonate with these sentiments in my own religious community. Its fascinating that sharing like this actually draws us in solidarity together as we deal with our own challenges in changing mindsets and postures to others.

Too often, our minds are only geared to see the issues before us either in “confrontational” mode or “compromise” mode. As Christians for example, if the only topics we are known for is related to religious conversion and our religious rights and freedom, then we have little else to connect with others not of our religious persuasion. Where in actual fact, there is much more happening and can happen in between which I would term as a friendlier “conversational” mode.

Polarities, conflicts and confrontation sell more newspapers. The opposite pole of compromise and lack of position sends the message that one does not have a back bone or easily labeled as a chameleon. When we are seen as a powerless minority, we don’t want to be seen as begin easily bullied. So, a lot of genuine cooperation and hidden conversations based on friendship and efforts towards a common future are too boring and mundane and are given less attention.

And yet, it’s these unseen conversations, invisible friendships and informal non-heavy-agenda-driven relationships which provide a healthier environment which contribute to the long term maturity of our democratic process beyond the recent “Political Tsunami” – a popular term some like to use.

Hopefully by now, the reader will guess that what I am trying to get at is not the official talks by those in power or in position. There will always be a place for that. There will be questions of religious freedom which cannot be swept under the carpet in the name of being nice neighbours to one another, or being politically correct citizens. We will still need to face painful experiences due to misunderstandings, perceived infringements of our rights as citizens guaranteed by the constitution, and difficult questions surfaced by the fact that we do live in a pluralistic society of differing beliefs and convictions. “Confrontations” and “Compromises” will be part of this process of wrestling with the complexities before us. What other ingredient is missing? What needs to be uplifted as well so we won’t be captive to the agendas of self-serving politicians, or a mass media which thrives of sensationalism and polarities?

May I humbly suggest, taking our “conversations” with those considered on the “other” side more seriously. I am referring to the ordinary citizen like you and me being willing to initiate or be responsive to opportunities to not just talk with those who at first glance are really different from us, but to genuinely listen to those we consider as the “others”. Of course, after initial contact we might find we are in reality on the same side on many areas. We may also find we will be uncompromising on others. As we move beyond understanding and respect, where it includes genuine differences as well, there can then be real openings to envision a future together. We must never underestimate the long term potential our small efforts can do. It’s hard work. Someone has got to do it.

Sometimes we stumble on doing it without even realizing it. But to keep on in the same direction, it would take a real commitment to not just talking and listening but true friendship as well. It sounds really simple in the midst of so much complexity, but seriously, we need to start moving beyond tolerating each other, being suspicious of each other, distrusting each other to actually being friends. We don’t have to give up who we are, and we don’t become less of who we are, but we sure can grow and become more than who we would otherwise be.

I am looking forward to my next cup of tea with my “friend”. We’ll have much to talk about ranging from the mundane bread and butter concerns to the media driven issues of Malaysia’s unpredictable dramatic political episodes. We won’t be in the papers where people will say, “Look who’s talking with the other side?” We are small fries. But then if the Butterfly theory works in the real world of socio-political change, at least we can be small butterflies where even when no one is looking, and our talking can make a difference.