GE14: A people’s election

In the hilly land to the north of Johannesburg, on the wall opposite the Bench, in the Constitutional Court of South Africa, nestled in the Old Prison Fort where Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi were once imprisoned, the bricks were red, dirty and unpainted.

Each time the Bench convene, and as the judges face the counsels, the red, dirty and unpainted brick wall stared at them silently but powerfully.

These were bricks from prison cells of the old fort. The wall serves as an ever present reminder to the sitting judges that the decisions they make may bring back the dark days of the Apartheid regime.

The fact that the old Apartheid prison was transformed, or rather redeemed, into a monument of justice and human rights itself speaks of a revolution meant to be thorough and long-lasting.

Back to Malaysia.

A Malaysians’ Moment

May 9, 2018 will forever be etched in the collective memory of Malaysians. For the first time since 1957, after 14 general elections, Malaysians managed to vote out the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) federal ruling regime. Being in government for 61 years, BN is the longest serving ruling party in a democratic country in the world.

The prospect of BN losing power was almost nil with the president of UMNO-BN, Najib Razak, then Prime Minister, declaring three days just before polling that BN would not only win but win big. He claimed that the crowd at opposition rallies were actually ferried from elsewhere and were not genuine local voters.

Some may even say that May 9 was a miracle. But it was only because they lacked the confidence that Malaysians could and would do the right thing. We showed them that we did it, that the moral compass in each our hearts is still unspoiled if a little cranky from years of suppression by the former regime.

While we await the voting pattern and analyses once the official number is out, I want to share with you several observations and thoughts as one of the witnesses and participants of this momentous event.

One thing is evident: This election and then its victory belonged to the people, not political parties.

At about 6.00 pm, an hour after voting was closed on 9 May, people began gathering at several counting centres. One of these was SMJK Jit Sin, the official Election Commission (EC) counting centre for Bukit Mertajam, my constituency.

The fact is, DAP Bukit Mertajam Committee had decided that there shall not be any gatherings, not on the streets nor at the counting centres. While all candidates had to immediately congregate at one location, we dispatched our key local leaders to the nomination centre to see through the process of result announcement. These leaders were given specific instruction to disperse or at least control the crowd if any.

Yet, my immediate thought that night when reading news of people gathering at counting centres was, “They were not there for us, they were there for something bigger”.

Several people criticised Pakatan Harapan for not telling our zealous supporters to “behave” outside the counting centres. What they do not realise was this: the people were not there to defend Pakatan Harapan nor our candidates. They were there to defend their votes and their election.

I think all political parties need to realise this by now. That this May 9, 2018 was not about any political parties, just as August 31, 1957 was not about political parties even though Pakatan Harapan and the Alliance were important players on each occasion respectively. It was a people’s moment, for the lack of words. A Malaysians’ Moment if you like, our second Merdeka.

What’s next then?

The morning after: A whole new world

I believe many will agree with me if May 9 represents a whole new world; the very next morning, how many of us felt the air were fresher the sky bluer and I am not just being figurative – there were so many “Welcome to new Malaysia” greetings that morning.

Indeed it was a whole new world. There will be many things which we may not even have a definition for yet. Let me pull out a few notable examples in the last one week:

1) A new Council of Elders – which would make Dumbledore, Gandalf, and Yoda smile with approval – was established almost as soon as the Prime Minister was sworn in to guide and oversee the reforms promised by the new government.

2) Perak UMNO assemblymen, Zainol Fadzi Paharudin and Nolee Ashilin Mohd Radzi endorsed Pakatan Harapan’s Ahmad Faizal Azumu as Menteri Besar, preventing a potential hung assembly. Both Zainol and Nolee however did not join Pakatan Harapan and merely gave their support to enable a state government to be formed.

3) The young and inspiring Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) Youth Chief and MP for Muar, Syed Saddiq admonished the newly minted Johor Menteri Besar, Osman Sapian for saying that opposition Barisan Nasional state assemblymen will not receive constituency development fund from the state government.

4) The appointment of an ethnic Chinese Finance Minister – who nevertheless reminded the world no less, that he is through and through a Malaysian – which is not only a break away from UMNO-BN’s old model, but also reminiscent of the strength of our national unity reflected in the post-Merdeka Tunku Abdul Rahman cabinet.

And the list will only grow longer. But clearly a whole new world requires new framework and new thinking. Business as usual will not do anymore.

For a start, government can no longer be paternalistic, or worse authoritarian. Just like the night of May 9 when the people claimed the election for themselves, they too had claimed the government for themselves. It is their election, their government. Democratic space must be expanded, and the people’s voice must be respected and government accountability must be upheld.

I think if anything, that means stop enticing or allowing elected representatives to “jump” party. May 9 crushed the old cynical wisdom that “the people can never do the right thing”. We should trust the people to make the right decision for our country, and therefore respect the decision once it has been made. This is a self-reminder to my party and coalition.

May 9, a monument for posterity

Like the red dirty and unpainted bricks of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, May 9 should be consecrated as a reminder of this important event. Just as the Court is nestled in the old prison fort and thus in a strange way redeeming the symbol of an oppressive regime, so May 9 is situated in the caliginous period approaching May 13, hopefully in time to come, redeeming the memory of the dark period of our nation’s history, celebrating in its stead, the glorious Malaysians’ Moment.

Oh, and one more thing. A young colleague recently reminded me that I once told him, “the line of good and evil is not between us but within us, and the way to save our country is to be part of the change we want to see.” I am sure I paraphrased that from somewhere, I don’t know. But we just emerged from a very heated campaign and a very fierce election, there are bound to be casualties. And yes, the old regime may have hurt some of us at the personal level. But there is no time to waste on the trivial and on personal vengeance. Let’s move on, but together. Let’s stop the pain from being passed down. Let’s focus on nation building, on reconciliation, on reconstruction, on justice not vengeance, and most importantly, on what we have promised, reform, not revenge.

We have a nation to rebuild, and we can only do it together, as Malaysians.

Umno’s last bastions: Ideology and subsidy

The Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini famously once said of the Iranian Revolution that it is not about the price of watermelon, a popular fruit in Iran. This indicated that the Ayatollah’s politics were aiming at loftier goal, and economic hardship was even to be tolerated to achieve it.

On the other hand, Ibn Saud, the founder and first ruler of Saudi Arabia, when confronted with the economic problem of hunger in his land, instructed the then newly formed American oil conglomerate, Aramco to simply increase the salary of their Saudi workers. Inflation was the natural result.

Malaysia – or rather Umno’s politics – has always been a combination of Khomeini and Ibn Saud. Sometimes feed them with lofty ideals, sometimes simply give out more money. The former we have come to know as “Ketuanan Melayu”; the latter is called “subsidy”.

The Islamic authorities in Pakatan Rakyat states – weird isn’t it; muftis in Johor or Perlis or Pahang have not uttered a word on this – began a witch-hunt on Christians using banned Islamic terms, 35 of them in Selangor, 40 in Penang. On the surface it does seem like a typical Islam versus Christianity drama; the regime is upholding the sanctity of Islam against would-be challengers. Yet it cannot be that easy.

All over the world, Islam and Christianity do not fight like that; not over words. Muslim scholars from Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi to most recently, Reza Aslan, have offered both criticism and cynicism against the Malaysian government’s stance on the “Allah” issue. Local Muslim intelligentsia and even Muslim politicians from both sides tried, in vain, to “theologise” the government out of its absurdity.

This is not Islam versus Christianity, much less Muslims versus Christians. No.

This is going back to the core of Umno Baru, and its “Ketuanan Melayu” ideology. This time, the ideology is manifested in the sacredness of the Malay language which can only be appropriated by the superior race. Now it seems that even in language, just like everything else within the Ketuanan Melayu worldview, only the superior race has a special and privileged access.

Price of kangkung

Then, after weeks of tension over the “Allah” issue, Prime Minister Najib Razak humoured Malaysians with his statement on the decline of the price of water convolvulus or more popularly known as “kangkung”, a favourite local vegetable. Unlike the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, the Umno-Barisan Nasional government is concerned with the price of kangkung.

Subsidy works as a double-edged sword for the regime. On one hand, it fuelled the rentier type economy. On the other hand, the subsidy helped cushioned the impact of a high growth, low wage economy against the masses to avoid major public discontent. The federal government dished out subsidy on everything from housing to food to petrol to toll to transport. Fishermen and farmers are subsidised to keep their produce, such as kangkung, cheap.

According to a report by Pemandu, at our peak, we spent RM74 billion in 2009 on various subsidies, amounting to 4.6% of our GDP compared to Indonesia at 2.7% or the Philippines at 0.2%. All these to keep the price of items artificially low so that the people remained happy while rentiers plundered away.

The cracks in the walls

Ideology and subsidy are the final bastions of the Umno regime. The fact is, the one is indefensible in this age and the other is unsustainable in this economy. Strong as these fortresses may be, cracks are showing in their walls.

Ketuanan Melayu does not make sense anymore to the majority of Malays who aspire for good governance over the regime’s corruption, moral and political. Even Umno finds it hard to believe itself these days, evidenced by the hiring out to Perkasa its role as the defender of the Ketuanan ideology. Perkasa plays a more convincing role than the backslidden Umno. Yet, today, even Perkasa is faltering.

As for subsidy, we know the story. Federal Minister Idris Jala warned of the government’s irresponsible spending and escalating debt. We are heading towards bankruptcy in 2019, and the only way forward is to cut, no sorry, “rationalise” subsidy. For whatever its worth, the current Prime Minister was more prepared to take liberal measures with regards to the economy. In 2010, he initiated plans for subsidy cut just a year after his first appointment as PM.

The clock is ticking for Umno even as Najib dismantles the very fort which prevents an angry (and hungry) mass from bringing down the regime. With a major wave of inflation descending this year and more subsidy cuts to be expected, it is doubtful that cheap “kangkung” will save Umno, or at least Najib. – January 15, 2014.

*Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam and the National Political Education director for DAP Socialist Youth.

2013 bitter sweet, 2014 we will survive

Like the chocolate I got for christmas, 2013 was bitter sweet. Let me serve the desserts first. I was involved in Penang Institute’s major mission to prepare a 10-year development blueprint for the Penang state government, the Penang Paradigm. I got elected on 5 May this year as a federal MP for my hometown, Bukit Mertajam. And my wife and I are pregnant with our first child, due happily on the eve of the 308 political tsunami anniversary next year.

But bitter part, Malaysia is obviously disappointed with the result of the 13th General Election in May, or at least 52% of us are. And then came the waves of major price increases, one after another. The people were hoping for a change, and now we will be lucky if we can get spare change.

It’s always not easy to be a messenger of bad news, but 2014 is sure to be a tough year to deal with. Malaysians are anticipating a second wave of price increase and then a third towards the end of the year. The federal government seems to be on a lot of cosmetics lately but I think its safe to conclude that we won’t see any radical transformation anytime soon. It’s business as usual in Putrajaya – the jets, the lavish spending trip, the posh overseas apartments, meaty contracts for friends etc.

Yet, we have shown that we are a resilient people. And those in Penang can look forward to a more cushioned impact as the state government began to introduce several policy measures to face the coming onslaught. Among others, the most fundamental and important item, housing, will see a radical paradigm shift. Not only the state re-claimed its role to provide affordable (not just low-cost) housing via PDC the state development corporation, a new policy removed the most basic kind of housing (those valued from RM40k up to RM400k under the categories of low-cost up to affordable housing) off the commodity market at least for a time (5 to 10 years) to curb speculation and price bubble. This is radical. Another new strategy by the state government is to introduce the shared equity model to enable more people to own their first home. This is basically your government partnering you to build your nest. This is radical.

The local economy has had a strong foundation, laid since the 70s by our late Chief Minister Lim Chong Eu. We are not starting from zero. The present Chief Minister, a second Lim, Lim Guan Eng is expanding the legacy of his first Lim predecessor. His C.A.T (competency, accountability, transparency) strategy paid off. Penang now has the best civil service and public delivery system in the whole of Malaysia. We are the most liveable city in the country and among the best in Southeast Asia. All these are ingredients which attract talents and resources from within and outside of Malaysia to our city-state.

2014 may be a tough year, but I know we are a strong people. It’ll be a memorable year just like 2013, a year to remember we have all struggled to make the best out of the situation. A year which defines us as who we are – a hardworking, resilient and united people, regardless of what our government tells us.

Happy New Year my friend.


— Steven

P/s – My small New Year gift to you, a reflection on the background of the waves of price increases, what to be expected next year and what the federal government should have done:

Rethinking “unity in diversity”

There are two stories in the Bible about unity and diversity. The first is about the beginning of civilisations, and the second about the beginning of the church.

The first story is quite famous, about the Tower of Babel, found in the book of Genesis of the Old Testament. A long time ago, all of humanity were speaking the same language and shared the same culture. In other words, there was a lack of diversity. One day, someone had a brilliant idea, “why not build a skyscraper?!” That was the first mega project in the history of humanity recorded in the Bible. The plan was to build a tower so high that it reaches the heavens, believed to be the dwelling place of God. They wanted to become like God. God obviously thought that it was a bad idea. Their unity made them very proud and forgot who they were. So, the Bible said God confused the language of the people. The first skyscraper project failed and was abandoned because people begin to speak different languages and have different opinions. In other words, diversity emerged.

The second story, a lesser known one, is found in the New Testament, in the book of Acts. This is the story about how the church was started. Slightly more than three months after Jesus was sentenced to death as a political rebel by Rome, the Jews in Jerusalem celebrated the festival of Pentecost. Pentecost is the Jewish harvest festival. Tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world, from Europe to Africa to Asia came back for pilgrimage in Jerusalem. You can almost imagine the noisy narrow streets of Jerusalem, filled with excited pilgrims catching up on the news of the holy land, and most of them speaking in the languages of their adopted homeland — speaking in Greek, in Latin, in the Asiatic languages, in Arabic even.

And on that day, Jesus’ disciples were gathered in the upstairs of a house in Jerusalem. They were obviously very afraid, their leader Jesus was just being sentenced to death under the Roman version of “crimes against the King”. They were praying — that is probably the best thing a small oppressed minority can do. Then suddenly, God sent his spirit like a wind into the small room where the disciples were. When the spirit of God came to them, the disciples, led by Peter were suddenly empowered and energised with new passion. They began to come out of their hiding place into the streets filled with pilgrims and begin to speak about the message of Jesus Christ. The interesting thing was, the disciples were not speaking in their own language — Aramaic or Hebrew. They were instead speaking in foreign languages, languages they never learnt before, the languages from the places where the pilgrims came from. It was like Babel, there was a confusion of languages. But this time, despite the diversity, each of them spoke one message, the message of God’s love preached by Jesus.

Why do I tell this story?

I want to show that interestingly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, our religious traditions have always preferred diversity.

A pivotal verse in the Quran, Surah al-Hujurat verse 13, celebrates diversity as being divinely ordained — “O mankind! We have created you from a pair of man and woman, and made you into diverse nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

Our religious traditions do not perceive diversity as a bad thing. In fact, from the biblical and Quranic texts I quoted, diversity was a direct consequence of God’s creation or intervention no less. And notice, the Quran did not say God made diversity so that we can ultimately have unity, but rather so that we may know one another, presumably so that we may learn from one another.

Hence, I want to invite us to rethink this whole discussion about trying to achieve unity in diversity.

Tyrants hate diversity

Hatred for plurality and diversity is a consistent pattern in authoritarian society. Dictators hated diversity. They promote unity as if unity is the ultimate good thing, but they are in fact afraid of differences. Notice how the moment our politicians see diversity, they are quick to propose “solutions” as if diversity is a problem. In recent times, we often hear calls for one nation, one country (1 Malaysia?), “kerajaan perpaduan”, or that the people should set aside “ideological and political differences”, whatever that means, and to “be united”. As it were, to be different and to express differences cannot be tolerated. To be different is especially problematic for those in power. When people are different, they are difficult to control and manage. It was Lenin himself who said: “Trust is good but control is better.”

When I said Lenin, don’t think hatred for diversity is a problem strictly confined to Cold War communist regimes. The goal of capitalism is to have singularity, a common market. It is easier to assume that everyone needs the same product and commodity. Hence, advertisements tell us, whether you are a Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan or Orang Asal, you need to buy such and such product. To the capitalist, it is definitely more profitable to be able to produce a product which can serve the need of everyone.

In fact I want to go a step further, how even in those who are progressive, we tend to see others not in the diversity of idiosyncrasies, but in the pretext of respect and tolerance, we often reduce others into “fellow human beings”. It is not terribly wrong, but if we think hard enough, isn’t this yet another way of “colonising” the other, trying to make them like us, a “fellow”? What happens is we risk creating our neighbours in our own image.

For many of us in Malaysia who are familiar with the Roman divide-and-rule political strategy, often employed by authoritarian regimes to ensure political survival against a strong uprising, to commend diversity can be problematic. Counterintuitive as it may sound, I want to propose that the solution to the chaos of diversity is not necessarily to force some kind of simple unity or even to have more tolerance, but rather, it is in politics — we must get our politics right because ultimately politics is the art of managing diversity.

Promoting diversity

Firstly at the individual level, we must realise that human beings are multidimensional. We must not allow our government to impose on us a single dimensional identity, for example, you are either a Bumiputera or not, you are either pro-government or anti-government. We may be from different ethnic groups but many Malaysians cheered Lee Chong Wei as he battled it out on the badminton courts. We may support different political parties but many of us share the love for durians, evidenced by the durian parties held every year in Parliament. We must allow this fuller multidimensional perspective of our neighbours and ourselves to emerge.

Secondly, we must be bold enough to promote the democratisation of culture. In Malaysia today, we see that the whole country is taken hostage by west coast Malaysians. For example, Malays in the west coast sought to impose our category of “Malay-ness” to the other parts of Malaysia as if Malays in Perlis and Selangor are the same and Malays in Penang and Terengganu or Kelantan are alike. There is an attempt to reduce the rich cultures within the Nusantara society into one single category — Malay. Hence, today, do we hear about the Acehnese or Bataks or Bugis, or Javanese or Minangs or Sundanese? Go to Indonesia and you will soon discover even with their geographical proximity, Bataks in North Sumatra are quite different from the Acehnese and definitely different from the Javanese and certainly to those in Jakarta. The same can be said of the different Chinese and Indian dialect sub-communities. We must celebrate this rich colourful threads which will eventually weave into the beautiful fabrics of the human society.

Thirdly, we must allow for the creation of different polarities in the society. We must not block the emergence of diverse (and it goes without saying legitimate) interests in the society, in other words, allowing a greater democratisation. This at least removes the tension away from the current bipolar competition, for example, between Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputeras.

In a very interesting paper pointed to me by my colleague Dr Wong Chin Huat, a fellow of the Penang Institute, the Federalist Paper 10, James Madison, a founding father of the United States, encouraged the formation of a large country with diverse demography to prevent the easy creation of factions whether a majority factions or a minority factions. To put it simple, in a truly diverse society, it is more difficult to gang up to bully others.

Finally, we must offer politics — I want to avoid using the old term emancipatory politics. So I am using a lame term, good politics. In my recent book “The Audacity to think: An invitation to rethink politics”, I said the answer to all the bad politics around us is not “no politics” but rather good politics. Why do I say the answer lies in politics?

We need intolerance

We are living in a world where the people are turning their back against politics, preferring to allow the “experts” i.e. politicians do to the job, often unsupervised. There is a general disinterest in politics, perhaps caused by distrust or simply ignorance. We no longer see politics as the arena to solve the problems of our society, from the distribution of resources to the dispensation of justice. The failure of the government is now almost wholly mitigated by the market from legitimate business providing goods and services to the black market providing an alternative system of order where government delivery fails (think about illegal parking attendants, syndicates extorting protection money, etc.)

Because of the general disregard of politics, the problem of economic and political inequality inevitably becomes the problem of race and culture. One is rich or poor or powerful or weak not because of some systemic injustice but because of one’s race, or religion. The solution, we are told, is to understand and tolerate one another, the other race is lazier, smarter, more scheming, or less savvy, but let’s try to live with one another peacefully. The classic example here is once again national slogans encouraging us to see ourselves as one country, one nation, one people — 1 Malaysia. The political problem of inequality thus becomes the cultural problem of intolerance. Hence we are then misled to think that solving the world’s problems is not through political action, not through the institutionalisation of justice but rather through respect and tolerance for those who are different from us — often we are told “jaga sensitiviti kaum”.

I think we must move beyond subjective tolerance into a more objective analysis of our social relationship. We will soon realise that our problem is not mainly one of intolerance but really injustice. Which brings us back to politics, or rather “good politics”. To paraphrase the words of contemporary philosopher and social theorist Slavoj Žižek, we are all united not by our toleration but rather by our intoleration, the universal intolerance against human suffering and human oppression. Žižek provided an anecdotal example of this sort of solidarity; speaking of the 2011 protest at Tahrir Square, Egypt, he observed:

“Here we have a direct proof that freedom is universal and proof against that cynical idea that somehow Muslim crowds prefer some kind of religious fundamentalist dictatorship… The moment we fight tyranny, we are solidarity. No clash of civilisations. We all know what we mean. No miscommunication here.”

At Tahrir Square, the people faced with a tyrant joined hands to deal with the oppression they faced. At the protest, it suddenly didn’t matter whether one is a Christian or a Muslim, the focus was the pursuit of the revolution. Even those watching the crisis from afar will soon realise that we too were in solidarity with the protesters as they demanded freedom and justice against tyranny. At that point, we became part of the human family.

The second example is closer to home, Bersih. Back in November 2007, during the first Bersih gathering in Kuala Lumpur, critics claimed that it was really a Malay agenda, only the Malays were interested and were present. The overwhelming majority of those who attended the first Bersih gathering were indeed Malays. But then we saw in Bersih 2 and then Bersih 3, how the demonstration crowd begin to reflect the multiracial demography of our country. And for those who cannot attend, especially from Sabah and Sarawak, they organised their own local Bersih gatherings. Once again, there is no miscommunication here. There was solidarity among Malaysians of all races to demand for a free and fair election.

We can be united along the lines of good politics, noting again this is the lame term I use for what was previously known as emancipatory politics; politics which deals with freeing humanity from oppressions. This is the politics of intolerance, not tolerance.

* Steven Sim is a councillor of Seberang Perai Municipal Council and the publicity secretary of Penang DAP Socialist Youth.

This was published in The Malaysian Insider

Sermon In The Hacienda

“Mandate” is a powerful word, but it is also a popular word today. My best friend Joshua, who is reading theology at Trinity Theological College told me once that a mega-church in Singapore is “hot on cultural mandate”. And one of its pastors, when asked what did the church mean when talking about “cultural mandate”, said, it is “being relevant to culture by the casual clothes the pastors wear, the persona style they adopt, the contemporary worship songs” (Quoted from Joshua’s blog).

That’s one of the many forms of “mandate” we hear these days in churches.

But it took a trip to a distant country for me to hear a fresh perspective about “mandate”.

I was in the Philippines from May 6-15, as part of an international team of observers to the country’s 2010 Election. When I was there, I went to Pulupandan, a small town on the western coast of Negros Occidental, an hour’s flight from Manila. The township has a little more than 25000 people, a local leader told us that they were an ageing community. Most of the younger people either migrated to the capital or the more vibrant nearby city of Bacolod.

The election campaigning in Bacolod City was festive-like. There were three main teams, including the incumbents, vying for the mayoral and local government positions. The campaigning in Pulupandan was, however, quieter, and understandably so. But beyond the surface of peaceful calmness, there was a tortured silence. A local resident told me, silence did not always mean peaceful. It was a silence of being subdued, a silence of fear. Indeed when 80% of the land and most of the major industries in a small town of 25000 people belonged to the same family who was also holding much of the political power there, it was hard not to have images of powerful dictators compelling people to toe the line. Truth to be told, there were people who happily sing the praises of the incumbent government, although as one of my colleague from Australia observed, the compliments were almost scripted, repeated and repeated again by different people. But praises aside, the images of powerful dictators running the town are not too far from reality.

When I questioned him whether the family’s ownership of land and control of economy will affect voters’ liberty to vote for the opposition, the incumbent vice mayor asked me, “What will your boss do if you voted against him?” I think it’s safe to say that he took their votes for him as only reasonable.

There was one opponent who contested the incumbent mayor in the 2010 Election; he was a former mayor. But after he announced his candidacy in February, he was shot dead, while walking out of a church. His running mate, for vice mayor’s position was his sister, Gina. After her brother’s death, she persisted in the contest, against the incumbent vice mayor, who is the bro-in-law of the incumbent mayor, who had asked me earlier, “What will your boss do if you voted against him?”

ginaI spoke to Gina, a bulky rugged dark-skinned woman. She looked more like a farmer of the sugar cane hacienda (”estate”) than a vice mayoral potential. When I was at Gina’s large-compound home in Pulupandan, there were more than a handful of villagers who took shelter in that place after they were being evicted from their homes, which stood on, the lands of the ruling family, who, I must say it again, owned 80% of Pulupandan. A Catholic priest who was actively advocating the rights of the squatters was reported to be incommunicado.

The evicted villagers were supporters and beneficiaries of Gina’s family, and they claimed that that was the reason why they were being disenfranchised. On election day, when we went to monitor the polling activities, some of them actually discovered that their names were struck off the voters’ list, with red pen and a note saying something about them not being allowed to vote “per court order”.

Our interview with Gina lasted about an hour or so, beginning with a brief chat with her sister-in-law, the wife of her late brother. Towards the end of the interview, I asked Gina, almost nonchalantly, “are you afraid?” It was quite a stupid question, given that her brother was murdered almost possibly for contesting (the case is still pending investigation though). But on one hand, I was intrigued by her persistence to continue the campaign – she even campaigned for her dead brother to be voted – and on the other hand, I was really curious whether she felt any fear at all.

“Are you afraid?”

And almost without warning, Gina looked straight into my eyes, her dark skin further darkened by the shades of dusk, and said to me:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring the good news to the poor,

to set the oppressed people free,

to declare the year of the Lord’s favour”.

I was unprepared for anything like that. I had expected something more, “political” or “human right-ish” at best. But this was too much for me, because like a pastor exegeting my favourite text, Gina brought Jesus’ words in Luke 4 to life. Biblical text yes, but where was the sermon? The biblical text was wrapped around the watchful eyes of peasants seeking shelter in Gina’s house, by the cheerful wife of the dead mayor, Gina’s sister-in-law, by Gina’s rugged determination to continue this war against terror and oppression. That was a breath-taking sermon, you bet.

I shuddered at the newly expounded meaning of “mandate” in Gina’s sermon. Have I been trivializing God’s charge to me and imagining grandeur in my own little vocation, when it was much much easier to be in my shoes than in Gina’s?

I do not want to romantize Gina’s struggle. There were bad things said about her family as well. Her late brother was accused of orchestrating an ambush against the incumbent mayor when the latter won in 2007 (the communist rebel army had since confessed that they were the mastermind, but the mayor still believe Gina’s brother was somehow involved). I do not want to romantize the evicted squatters and the poor, I know when one is poor, heroism, moral and values are the last thing in one’s mind.

But as the late Archbishop Oscar Romero said, the glory of god is in the living poor. God chose to identify with the “ugly of this world”, both in appearance – the poor have no silks on their back – and in cultivation – the ugliness of human nature is more prone to surface against the backdrop of poverty. It was never easy to go into the world of the “ugly”, much less to love the “ugly” and to restore their dignity. But in Gina’s sermon that day, she made it clear, it was not easy, but a mandate nonetheless.

Gina ended her sermon by saying, “this is not just a battle here, but a battle ‘up there’ as well, it is a spiritual fight and we need faith”. I wanted to shout “amen! and amen!” but for the fact that, alas, I was not in Church. It was a sermon in the hacienda.


Tempted To Sin-gularity

How does it feel like to be tempted?

The story of the temptation of Jesus is kind of like the story of temptation par excellence for Christians. We were taught that even Jesus himself was tempted by the bible-quoting devil and we were taught that he managed to overcome devil’s trap by quoting the bible in return. There you have it, the doctrine that we must read and memorize our scripture.

If you ask me Luke’s story is interesting because, Luke inverted the second and third temptations as compared to Matthew’s account. When he does that, and we all know that Luke was deliberately putting together well known stories of Jesus for someone important (Luke 1:3-4), we can be safe to say that he was trying to construct a message.

In Luke’s version, the first temptation was the devil asking Jesus to turn a stone into bread.

Devil: If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread

Jesus: It is written, “Man does not live on bread alone [but on every words that comes from the mouth of the LORD]” (Luke 4:3-4)

The second temptation was the devil leading Jesus up to a high place and showing him all the kingdoms of the world,

Devil: If you worship me, it will all be yours

Jesus: It is written, “Worship the LORD your God and serve him only” (Luke 4:7-8)

The third temptation was the devil leading Jesus to the highest point of the Jerusalem temple,

Devil: If you are the Son of God, jump down. It is written “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you carefully, they will lift you up, your foot will not touch a stone”

Jesus: It says, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test” (Luke 4:9-12)

The devil, as we can clearly see from the third temptation can quote the bible as well as Jesus if not better – he quoted longer verses. I think it is safe to say that Luke probably want to tell us, it’s no good just memorizing the bible or even being a bible expert.

But what interest us in this is the dynamics of the temptation. It was not mere allurement using money or sex, something of the usual stuff we link to “temptation” these days. It sounds cliché, but the devil is more subtle than that and the dynamics of temptation is more profound.

The tempter began with the most basic physiological need of a person, food and climbing up Maslow’s piramid, he offered power and then skillfully, a chance for Jesus to realize his mission as a god-sent messiah.

The devil is a master in psychology, he posed a challenge to Jesus on what it means to be a human being. It was not something out of the ordinary; no, the devil did not appear and offered a Faustian deal, giving us an out-of-this-world ability. Instead, it was something more down-to-earth (and that’s often dangerous because we will be looking somewhere else), he challenged the idea of our personhood, how we find fulfillment in life and the enjoyment of our being.

Jesus did turn stones into breads (Luke 9), he did claim, by deeds and words, to be god’s messiah-king, not least through his actions of judgement in the temple and most notably the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18). So these things in themselves, are not evil. There’s nothing evil in finding satisfaction in our lives and the enjoyment of our being.

These things, in themselves, are not evil but the devil knew they pose a potential threat to our humanity. Our problem begins when we decide that there is no other dimension to our self except being an “individual” and thus negating the others.

I believe the strength of Jesus’ response to the devil in the temptation story does not lie in his bible-quoting but rather in his awareness of the “relational” dimension of our personhood. In other words, he was aware that to be human is to be relational.

He realized that “no man is an island”, because if we are created in the image of god who exist in an eternal fellowship of Three, then we are made to communicate, to embrace, to interact, to relate to god if not to one another, though I strongly believe to one another as well because, if someone cannot “love his brother whom he sees, how can he love the god whom he cannot see?” (1 John 4:20).

The rejection of the others is but a symptom of our rejection of the ultimate Other. To deny our relational dimension is to deny our own humanity. This is not only disfiguring the image of god in us, but it is also self-destructive.

Sin comes in when we reject the others in search of the fulfillment of our being. Money, power and sex become evil when we enjoy them individualistically, independent of, and denying and negating the joy of others in the process.

Indeed loving god and embracing god includes loving and embracing people, “you’ve got to love both” (1 John 4:21, The Message).

Originally posted in Steven Sim’s blog. Republished with permission.

The Collared Ones

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy…”

“Thus saith the LORD…” sermon in front of the city council building, reminds me of Jim Wallis and friends at the Capitol

A white priest and a black priest, yin yang harmony to counter the chaos of the world

Hot, but not MBPJ Idol. Joel did say, “…your daughter will prophesy”.

The collared ones have dedicated their lives as servants of the Most High, choosing a path of discipleship and servant-leadership as pastors of the people of God. At times, wearing the collar means taking a counter-culture stance of obedience to god than to the socio-economic or political trends of the day.

When the collared ones walk the street in public protest of a certain issue they are not advocating any party’s political biases, but rather, they speak as prophets of the Most High, condemning by their presence and words the injustice, the indignation done to fellow humanity by the powers that be. Their message is not socialism or laissez faire, neither left nor right, neither liberal or conservative, but rather, their cries were those of Jeremiah, who spoke on god’s behalf,

“Why do you contend with me?
    You have all transgressed against me, declares the LORD”

And their proposal is not to overthrow one form of government for another, at least that’s not the focal point, but rather, again speaking as god’s mouthpiece,

“Thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts and I will return to you…”

That is, not a coup de etat, but an offer of a new lease of life, a second chance with god the One that matters the most. And at times, with so many choices on the menu of political ideologies, perhaps this is what we needed the most, a fresh word about politics without party, justice without vengence, love without a price-tag and life, life in abundance.

March on collared ones…

Lord, I pray for the collared ones as they live their lives in obedience to you in their vocation. May Your servants prosper, Amen.

(The priests shown in this post are the Reverend Anthony Loke and the Reverend Sivin Kit. The lady speaking behind the mike is Tricia Yeoh. These photos were taken at the PJ Anti-ISA Vigil on the 23rd November 2008 – courtesy of the Reverend Sivin Kit)

Originally posted in Steven Sim’s blog. Republished here with permission.

A Drama By Immigrants, About Immigrants, In A Nation of Immigrants

The grandson of an immigrant family from India decided to remind everyone that the Chinese were “penumpang,” rightly or wrongly. Then a journalist from a Chinese press did her job and reported what was said because the statement by the grandson was made in a public forum.

It naturally created an uproar in the country because we thought 51 years after Independence, we have gone beyond the issue of who is a “pendatang” or “penumpang” and everyone is a fellow Citizen building a new and progressive Bangsa Malaysia.

The deputy prime minister, Najib, who can trace his blood to Indonesian seafarers, the Bugis people, apologized on the behalf of that grandson. The Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is also the president of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) and whose paternal and maternal grandfathers were of Arab and Chinese descent respectively thought that the grandson of Indian immigrants was going overboard with his statements.

Then came Tun Dr Mahathir, our former Prime Minister, whose grandparents came from India as well. The Tun chided UMNO leaders for apologising in this issue, questioning the need to do so.

The Indian immigrants’ grandson (the first one, not the Tun) was unrepentant and called for one press conference after another justifying his statement, denouncing everyone in his way and even issued challenges, threats and warnings to others not to provoke the Malays. One Barisan Nasional leader, Koh Tsu Koon from Gerakan was suddenly thrust into the limelight when the grandson singled him out in one of his press conference labelling him a hypocrite and calling him incompetent. One of the supporters of the grandson in a moment of rage smashed a frame carrying Koh Tsu Koon’s photo and tore the photo into pieces.

After the issue boiled for several days, the grandson was given a hibernation period of three years by UMNO. The grandson was still unrepentant – I will be back, he warned.

Just when we thought the whole drama has ended, the Government of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi arrested three citizens in one day under the draconian law of ISA, inherited from our former Imperial masters – the British.

The journalist from the Chinese press who reported what the Indian immigrants’ grandson said was arrested. Raja Petra Kamarudin, who is from the royal family (also of the Bugis ancestral lineage) was arrested. YB Teresa Kok, a parlimentarian and a Selangor State council member, was arrested.

The journalist was released the day after she was arrested. Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar, the son of Arab immigrants, first said the arrest was to “protect” her. Then he said it was because the journalist had provoked racial sentiments by her article (which one must remember was a factual quote of the Indian immigrants’ grandson’s statement). Then he said he had no idea why the police had used ISA on her. He presumably had forgotten that as Home Minister he had to sign off any arrest made under ISA – did he just signed the papers ordering arrest of an innocent Citizen without finding out why?

On YB Teresa Kok, it was alleged that she had caused a racial uproar when she sent a petition to lower the volume of the loudspeakers of a certain Mosque during azan (call to prayer). Teresa had denied vehemently she did that. The party involved in the petition had came out to clarified that Teresa was not involved and that the petition was not about the azan. Even the authority of the Mosque had stepped forward to deny Teresa’s involvement. So who made that charge? Khir Toyo, former Selangor Menteri Besar and yes, the son of immigrants, from Indonesia. The Utusan Malaysia, an UMNO owned newspaper, carried the news day in and day out.

In Raja Petra Kamarudin’s case, being one concerned with the state of his Country, fellow citizens and religion, he was a sensible and internal critic of his own people and Islam. He got arrested.

And thus in this latest episode of Malaysian life, we have a story of immigrants, sons and daughters of immigrants and grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants trying to assert their presence in this blessed land of abundance. Is this not what Malaysia is all about?

Common Values To Sustain A Common Destiny

In the light of the furor caused by the remarks made by Ahmad Ismail, it seems clear to me that the BN model, a coalition of mostly race-based political parties, has failed. There has never been room for true racial integration in Barisan Nasional’s communal politics. Each of its main component parties are only together to further their own personal and communal interests and in this sort of formula, it is hard to imagine Barisan Nasional being the way forward for our nation building and the development of a united Bangsa Malaysia. But now, the question we need to ask ourselves as Malaysians – Malay Malaysians, Chinese Malaysians, Indian Malaysians, Iban Malaysians, Kadazan Malaysians – in these critical and defining moments of our nation: what is the way forward?

I am convinced that the alternative is the only way, that is, in terms of politics, we need a whole new political agenda which must promise to divorce itself from the question of race.

Can we find in our shared experience as a Nation, 51 years and beyond (one must remember Malay, Chinese, Indian and other indigenous groups’ interactions in Malaysia go deeper into our history than just half a decade ago), a common value to sustain a common destiny?

I propose three considerations as the starting point in our search for such value:

Firstly, from our common history as a Nation. We have interacted with one another, going way back to the medieval times, possibly even earlier. Have we not learn to live with each other after centuries of interactions? Our languages, our cultures and customs are so intertwined that we have more affinity with one another than we can imagine. And then again, there are ample evidents to show that the founding fathers of our Nation had meant for the establishment of an independent, democratic and equitable Malaysia (then Malaya). In such a Nation, all of us will have hearts for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. There is no place for the spurious call for communal unity such as that called by UMNO over and against the total well-being of our race as One Nation, Bangsa Malaysia. We must come to realize by now that even as our history and cultures are intertwined, the destiny of Malay Malaysians are inseparable from the destiny of Chinese Malaysians and the destiny of Indian Malaysians cannot be divorce from the destiny of Iban or Kadazan Malaysians, to paraphrase and contextualize the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Secondly, from the common strands in our religious traditions. The Quran bluntly expressed God’s intention in the creation of different races of human beings: “O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another” (The Quran 49:13). I am no expert of the Quran but Commentators have taken the verse to be an injunction to practice human brotherhood. The Bible as well showed us the examples of Jesus Christ in welcoming all and sundry, the marginalized, the oppressed, the minorities into his friendship. There were exaltation of peacemakers, people who not just love peace, but who actively promote and make peace. There were injunctions to love, to love our neighbours, despite them being very different from us, and even to the extent of loving our enemies. In saner lights of interpretation, it seemed that to welcome and to love a fellow human being is not only encouraged but these are no less religious duties. If we can find in our religious traditions strands of the golden rule, and we know we can as has been demonstrated by Professor Hans Kung’s Global Ethics, we should be able to find the spiritual strength to commit ourselves to racial reconciliation.

Thirdly, and perhaps going back to the most basic of our being, our common humanity. It is easier to reject others when we put them in antagonizing camps, when we cease to think of them as merely humans and put them in categories. Can we escape from these little boxes of communalism which some unscrupulous politicans want to put us in by their rhetorics? Can we rise above the categories they tried to force on us and see one another not merely as the labels we were forced to wear, but as fellow human beings? I believe we can, if we try hard enough. After all, our affinity as human beings surpassed all other little categories. Each of us have one life, we tear, we laugh, we love, we hate, we feel pain, we fall sick and having one life, we will soon pass on from here. We can choose to see the other person as Malay and Chinese and Indian and Iban and Kadazan and thus risk perceiving her as something less than a human being. Or we can choose to see her as a fellow human being, who like us wishes to be treated with dignity and respect deserved as part of the human family.

Malaysians of all races must do better than Ahmad Ismail and Barisan Nasional for that matter, and there can be no better time. We can choose to play into the game Ahmad Ismail and BN-UMNO want us to play, that is, to be instigated against one another. But I am convinced that the alternative is the only way.

“It is absolutely important for the Malays (Chinese/Indians/Ibans/Kadazans) to obtain closer ties with the other people in this country. It is time for us to take the view wider than the kampung view. I ask of you, which will you choose? Peace or chaos, friendship or enmity?” – Dato Onn Jaafar (words in parentheses mine)