RELA Raids: Futile Exercises of Power that Further Traumatize Refugees

May is terrified. A RELA (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat, Malaysian Volunteers Corps) raid is happening around her. They are storming down corridors, shouting at residents to demand entry, threatening to cut the locks. She just got back from the border after months in a detention centre. When she was deported to the Thai border, she had to pay RM1,900 to traffickers to be released and sent back to Malaysia. Otherwise, she might have been sold to a brothel. May fled from Burma after soldiers raped her. If she is arrested, the nightmare begins again. Only this time, she may not be able to raise the money required to buy her freedom. She is already in deep debt.

Kyaw was arrested in 2007. He was kept in different detention centers for two months, and then brought to court. There was no interpreter. He was sentenced to 5 months imprisonment and 2 strokes of the cane. He was extremely afraid of the whipping. He was stretched out on a rack with his buttocks exposed. The pain from the first stroke was so intense that he blacked out. He stayed in jail for another 2 months, and then got deported. He too, had to pay traffickers to come back to Malaysia. He couldn’t go back to Burma, where he is afraid of the junta military. He will carry these scars on his buttocks for the rest of his life – Malaysia has branded him for his time here.

The RELA raids happen all the time; as I write this, a raid is going on in Ampang Lembah Jaya, with refugees trapped in their homes, afraid that RELA personnel patrolling outside will bang on their doors. They sms their fear. In 2007, the (previous) Home Affairs Minister said that RELA conducted between 30 to 40 raids a night. Detention centers have become overcrowded, packed beyond what their facilities are able to provide. Women, children, and babies, are detained as well. Ex-detainees say that the food is meager; that they get sick often. There are no special provisions for babies and children. The say it is unbearably hot, that it is dirty, and the toilets stink. They sometimes don’t have place to lie down at night, because of the overcrowding. Tensions are high; they are desperate, not knowing how long they will be forced to stay. They fight lice and mosquitoes. I have seen fungus growing on the skin of ex-detainees. They are sometimes beaten badly.

What is the point of arresting refugees and stateless persons? They can’t go back to their homelands, even though most of them desperately want to. Malaysia is obligated under international customary law not to deport them to Burma – doing so would be an act of refoulement, returning them to where their life and/or liberty are threatened. Instead, we keep them in our detention centres and prisons (which are already hopelessly overcrowded) and then deport them to the Thai border, where they are handed over to traffickers.

This is futile exercise of power, a waste of taxpayers’ resources. Migrant Care, an Indonesian NGO states that each RELA raid costs us about RM25,000. Add to that the costs of maintaining prisons and detention centers for people who do not belong there, as well as the time and resources of the Police and Immigration, which are better spent catching real criminals rather than vulnerable people fleeing persecution.

What is the point of arresting refugees and stateless persons, deporting them, and feeding the trafficking industry?

Malaysia, like other civilized countries, need to play our part in ensuring that vulnerable populations are protected rather than further traumatized and harassed. We have obligations to protect under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which we are signatories. Both the Committees – who oversee the implementation of these conventions in all member countries – have strongly urged Malaysia to put into place refugee status determination procedures so that refugees are legally recognized and given protection. However, Malaysia has not been responding to these calls by the international community.

Granted, enacting domestic laws takes time. However, there are immediate actions that can be done to protect refugees and to stop the waste of government expenditure. Firstly, RELA and Immigration officials can recognize identity documents produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which identify which individuals are asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons. The Police recognize these documents, but RELA and Immigration don’t. Secondly, they can give the UNHCR access to all asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons in detention centers and prisons, so that they can verify if their claims for asylum and protection are genuine. Thirdly, the Malaysian Government can formally exempt asylum seekers, refugees, and stateless persons under Section 55 of the Immigration Act, which has been recommended by the Committee on the Rights of the Child. These are simple steps, in line with international obligations, that have tremendous power to reduce suffering amongst the persecuted.

In a raid on Wednesday in Klang, two days ago, we hear that fifteen children were arrested. They are from the Rohingya community, ethnic minorities from Burma, who are stateless. By accident of birth, and by acts of political power outside their control, they are ‘illegal’ everywhere they go. What will happen to these children? Will they too, stay detained in detention centers for months, and then get deported to the Thai border? Who will pay traffickers for their release? Will they be sold to brothels or to individuals who will keep them, use them – for sex or as forced laborers – and re-sell them to other ‘private owners’, as has happened to others in the past?

It is within our power to help these populations in distress. We are able to, we are obligated to, and we should.

So We Voted For Change… But Have We Changed?

The dust has yet to settle after the 12th General Elections when the question of ethnic quotas raised its ugly head again. While observers seem to think that the Malaysian electorate has finally had enough of ethnicity based politics and were willing to give the alternative a try, we saw Umno organised demonstrations against the newly elected state governments for allegedly not having enough Malays in their EXCO lineups, folks upset because certain parties were not given their due rewards in terms of representation (I read it as having not enough Chinese), and now in Malaysiakini’s Vox Populi today and apparently e-mails sent to KeADILan’s HQ (so I heard); people upset that the Makkal Sakthi movement was not rewarded with enough Indian representation in the Selangor EXCO line up.

Granted that due to the fact that we have had to endure more than half a century of ethnic identity based politics, certain contructs remain difficult to dismantle overnight. A lot of these contructs are embedded in our constitutional setups (like the requirement for a Malay Muslim to be appointed Menteri Besar in the Malay states) and many more remain embedded in our psyche. Many still find it impossible to fathom the possibility that perhaps a Malaysian would stand up for the rights of another Malaysian who happens to be of a different ethnic or religious background.

Seeing gripes about not having a Hindu Tamil represented in the Selangor EXCO is dumbfounding. What would happen if I started griping that there’s no Protestant Christian Teochew Chinese represented (we did; after all; embark on a public education campaign to get our fellow Christians [about 2 million of us of the Protestant expression] to vote wisely) or if someone else were to remark on the lack of representation of Taoist Hainanese, Theravadist Ceylonese, Mahayanist Foochows, Pure Land Hokkiens, Bahai Eurasians, Ahmaddiya Bengalis, Sikh Punjabis, yadda yadda yadda.

So I reckon that just because Teresa Kok is a Roman Catholic Hakka she won’t stand up for the rights of this Lutheran Teochew? Or that Yaacob Sapari is a Sunni Muslim Bugis (I’m just taking a wild guess here) that he won’t stand up for the rights of Hindu Telugu vegetable farmer?

I have shared some concerns earlier about how ethno-religious movements like HINDRAF could end up playing the same game; perhaps inadvertantly; as Umno. I hope that this isn’t true but the increasingly knee jerk reactions from people who are using HINDRAF as a bargaining chip seems to indicate otherwise.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not very happy about the fact that M. Manoharan was not given any positions in the Selangor state government. I did, after all, help campaign for Mano way back in 1995 when he stood as a candidate for the DAP in Kampung Tunku and remembered him sharing candidly his experiences with the late V. David and how he considered V. David his mentor and example.

However, I am not upset because Mano did not get selected due to his ethnicity or his religion. In fact, I think I’d be more upset if he was selected just to fill in an ethnic quota. I am upset because I know Mano has put in his all for the downtrodden and would be a great holder of the public trust in whatever role he is put in and the Selangor EXCO is so much the lesser without his contribution.

I think its wonderful that a good 46.75% (or 3,796,464 to be exact) of the voters who came out on polling day voted for change. Its just a pity that some forgot that change first has to come from oneself. The politicians we elect merely reflect the attitudes of the electorate. If we cannot start the change within ourselves, do we honestly expect the politicians to change?

A Response To Grace Under Fire

If one has not read the feature interview with Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Grace Under Fire, (link restored) in the Star today, I would encourage you to read it now.

Tears were welling in my eyes as I was reading it, but they were the tears of joy for sure. The interview tells the transformation of a low-key Malaysian doctor-cum-housewife into a reluctant politician, and then into an inspiring opposition leader in her own right!

But why should I, a keen watcher and commentator of Malaysian politics, be so deeply moved by the story of one of the most famous women in the country? Should I not have known it well by now?

Kak Wan’s journey over the last ten years is certainly not new to me. But it is her simpliciy, humility, perseverance and fortitude that distinguish her from other politicians.

Here is a political wife who was, all at a sudden, made to endure state persecution and media attack of myriad forms against her husband. She could have chosen to weep in her room (which I am sure she must have on occasions), but decided to put on a brave face and to seek justice not only for her husband, but for Malaysians of all races as well.

Ten years on and all her efforts have not been in vain. But what has always struck me most is her sheer willingness to forgive.

I remember not long after Anwar Ibrahim was released from the Sungai Buloh jail, Kak Wan stated that she had forgiven those who were behind the conspiracy. Now, she refuses to criticize Chandra Muzaffar who had made damaging remarks about Anwar on the eve of the 12th General Election. Instead, she is gracious enough to acknowledge Chandra’s contributions in the early days of Parti Keadilan Nasional, as the party was then known.

Reading Kak Wan’s interview, I cannot help thinking about Tun Mahathir Mohammad, our former prime minister.

The man was, as we know, once so powerful and high-handed. When he arbitrarily declared Malaysia tan Islamic state, much of the Christian community was deeply concerned but was too timid to speak out.

I still hold to my view that the plethora of religious controversies over the last two years did not happen overnight; they were the indirect outcomes of the failure of the churches to make a clear stand when Mahathir practically chose to dishonour our Federal Constitution on that fafetful day of 29 September 2001.

But look at the man now: he is bitter, resentful, insecure, and obstinate as ever. He has been going around the country seizing every opportunity to chatise Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi over various issues, while refusing to face up to his own wrongdoings when he was in charge. He is also adamant that he was not in the wrong when it comes to the sacking of Tun Salleh Abas as Lord President in 1988, which started the rot in Malaysia’s judiciary.

Of course, our former prime minister also does not think he had acted unjustly against Anwar in 1998 either.

I must make it clear that I hold no personal grudges against Mahathir; in fact, I still respect him for some of the things that he has done for the country, such as giving the nation a vision, and having demonstrated his valour to rein in the sultans.

But we cannot run away from the raw fact that Malaysia became more divided and segregated under his administration, not to mention the manipulation of the judiciary to serve his own agenda.

Being part of the Mahathir generation, I sincerely hope the former prime minister will come to terms with his own failings and mistakes, and to earn back the status of a statesman that he will then rightfully deserve.

Really, I am not too sure if he is a happier man now than when he was in power. Compared to Kak Wan’s positive and optimistic spirits, Mahathir’s bitterness and resentment are just all over the place. Every sarcastic word and smile of his testifies that.

As Christians, surely we should pray earnestly for all the leaders, past and present. And I would dedicate my first Micah Mandate prose to the man who is still finding it hard to let go of power nearly five years after he stepped down.

I would like to end my sharing with Hebrews 12:15:

“See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

Rightful Rule: Romans 13 For Today

“Read Romans 13!” wrote a Roman Catholic layman to a newspaper as he chided Jaime Cardinal Sin for being critical of the Marcos government.

“Read Romans 13!” wrote back a Baptist leader when asked to endorse “A Call to Repentance,” issued by Diliman Bible Church in September 1983, two weeks after Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was assassinated at the Manila International Airport.

The “Call” included a litany of “Philippine realities”–widespread poverty, rampant graft and corruption in government, militarization, a suppressed press, unfair elections, uncertainty over succession, a subservient parliament, a Supreme Court losing its credibility, etc.

Both letters illustrate the pivotal importance that Romans 13 held in the attitude of Bible-oriented Filipinos–Catholic and Protestant–toward their government and the political situation. This was true all throughout the Martial Law years (1972-81), as well as during the more recent events that culminated in the February Revolution of 1986.

On the other hand, Oscar Cullmann, referring particularly to verse 2 of Romans 13, wrote some years ago: “Few sayings in the New Testament have suffered as much misuse as this one” (The State in the New Testament, pp.55ff.). He cited particularly its misuse in justifying uncritical submission to the dictates of totalitarian governments.

What does Romans 13 actually say? What did it mean for the saints in Rome (at the time of writing)? What does it mean for Filipino Christians today?

An Exposition Of Romans 13

Here is the text of Romans 13: 1-7 in the New International Version:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time in governing. Give everyone what you owe him; if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

This passage teaches four vital principles concerning the Christian and the State :

  1. Power and authority are not the same.
  2. We submit to authority because it is God-given.
  3. The authority of rulers is limited.
  4. Rulers are given authority for a purpose.

Power and Authority Are Not The Same

The Bible clearly distinguishes between power and authority. Power is dunamis, from which we have dynamite, while authority is exousia, from the verb exesti, meaning it is lawful. Power is might, the force of an army or the strength of an Arnold Schwarzenegger. Authority is power rightfully held and lawfully exercised, as that of a parent over his child, or a just

judge over a criminal. Power is simply might, while authority is might that is right (see “Authority,” New Bible Dictionary, pp. 111-113).

Paul is dealing with authority in Romans 13, or rightful rule.

We Submit To Authority

The reason we submit to our rulers is our recognition that their authority comes from God Himself. We submit to Him by submitting to them. We cannot rebel against them for that is to rebel against Him. To rebel here is literally to be anti-what-God-has-established.

A subtle distinction can be made between submission and simple obedience. To obey is to do what one is told while to be submissive is literally to rank oneself under another. Perhaps the reason Paul uses submission is to show that our obedience is not blind but is qualified by God’s law. He may also be stressing the needed attitude: we are to willingly submit to our rulers in recognition of their God-given authority over us. It is for the Lord’s sake that we submit (cf. 1 Peter 2:13).

The Authority of Rulers is Limited

Our rulers do not have absolute authority. When Jesus was asked the tricky question about paying taxes to the imperialistic Roman government, His reply was: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). Some have seen here a reference to the tithe (which belongs to God), but if this is so, then some governments which get more than ten per cent in taxes are getting more than God! What Jesus meant rather is that Caesar is entitled to be supported with taxes, but only God deserves absolute loyalty! When Caesar claims allegiance that belongs only to God, the Christian has no choice but to say no.

When rulers give orders which are contrary to God’s law for example, by ordering infanticide (Exodus 1) or the worship of idols (Daniel 3), or by prohibiting evangelism (Acts 5), then Christians must say: We must obey God rather than men! (Acts 5:29).

Rulers Are Given Authority For A Purpose

Governing authorities exist in order to promote good and restrain evil. In fulfilling this divine design, rulers function as God’s servants(or ministers, literally as deacons in verse 4 and liturgists in verse 6).

Caesar may not be aware that this is what he is doing, but this is biblical teaching that goes back to the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 10: 5-11 concerning Assyria, and Isaiah 45: 1 regarding Cyrus).

It is extremely important to understand the divine design. God delegates His authority to human rulers (verses 1 and 2) and the purpose is for them to promote good and restrain evil (verses 3 and 4). These two parts of the one paragraph must not be separated from each other. We must not understand the delegation of divine authority apart from the divine purpose for which it is given. This is basic hermeneutics.

Reflections On Romans 13

Do rulers lose their right to rule? Do rulers ever lose their right to rule?

Certainly. When they reverse the divine design by promoting evil and restraining good, rulers frustrate God’s purpose for human government and lose their right to rule.

This is a difficult judgment to make, and some Christians simply refuse to make it. They argue that whatever government there is is God’s provision–a de facto government is the de jure government as a matter of course.

They admit that government exists to promote both order and justice(equivalent to restraining evil and promoting good) but order is more important than justice. Order is a prerequisite and therefore prior to justice. Anarchy is the great evil so that unjust government is better than no government. The Christian is in fact the exact opposite of the anarchist who says that all governments are bad and some are worse than others. In contrast, the Christian says that government is God’s provision for social good (order and justice), and even bad government is to be preferred to no government. Anarchy cannot be God’s will for human society(cf. Judges 21:25).

There is merit in the argument against anarchy. However, to conclude that whatever government there is is God’s provision is to interpret verses 1 and 2 of Romans 13 without the context of verses 3 and 4. It is to overlook or ignore the purpose for which God delegates His authority to human rulers: to promote good and restrain evil. To simply accept a ruler who oppresses us, or steals us blind, or deceives us constantly–because he is God’s provision–is illogical. The most we can say is that God tolerates such a ruler, not that God has installed him to do us evil! That is to make God a partner in wickedness! What a ridiculous conclusion. If God delegates His authority to rulers so that they may promote good and restrain evil, how can we say that He also installs certain rulers who do exactly the opposite of what He wants?

Six Grades of Government

When we reflect on historical experience and the contemporary scene, we discover that most governments are a mixed blessing. Some are quite good, others do some good, and there are regimes that are particularly evil. None is perfect. We may range them thus:

  1. Perfect government will come only when Jesus the King returns to establish His kingdom in all its fullness.
  2. Just government is possible where full participatory democracy is in bloom so that the people elect good leaders, and replace them as necessary.
  3. Mediocre government takes place if less than the best people are chosen to rule.
  4. Ineffective government happens in places where rulers are changed too frequently or the people are ungovernable for some reason.
  5. Corrupt government develops when rulers assume public office mainly for private gain.
  6. Wicked government ensues when those in authority are particularly wicked, unjust and oppressive.

Christians as well as other people have made the judgment on Hitler as a wicked ruler. Many have made similar judgments on Idi Amin of Uganda and “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti in more recent times. And Pol Pot of Kampuchea.

Filipino Christians have been more hesitant to come to the same conclusion regarding Ferdinand Marcos. Hitler has been easier to judge because historical hindsight gives us 20/20 vision. We cannot now plead myopia when what we are viewing is up close! Uganda and Haiti are not only far away; often the only news we get is bad news.

Marcos was a clever propagandist who knew how to use the media. During the early years of Martial Rule, he cleaned up the streets of garbage and loose firearms. He was friendly to evangelical Christians and imposed no restrictions on purely evangelistic activities. He rolled out the red carpet for Billy Graham when Graham came in 1977. He received Jerry Falwell as a V.I.P. in 1985.

The Christians who finally decided to class Marcos with Hitler and Amin and Duvalier came to their conclusion slowly and only in the light of mounting evidence.

What About Roman Rule?

What about Roman rule? Some Christians assert that Nero’s reign was wicked too but Paul did not tell the Roman Christians to reject it! We can respond to this assertion in one of three ways.

First, we can say that Paul knew that Roman rule was wicked but he still told the Roman Christians that it existed to promote good and restrain evil.

Paul was either a liar or an ostrich!

Second, we can say that Paul’s experience with Roman justice was actually good and he could testify that Roman rule existed to promote good and restrain evil.

He was certainly proud of his Roman citizenship and made use of it (Acts 16:37, 22:25ff). His appeal to the Roman emperor for his trial (Acts 25:11) was implicit confidence that he would be tried more justly in Rome than in Palestine. Furthermore, when he wrote the letter to the Romans–many scholars say in AD 57–Nero had been emperor for only three years. The Neronian persecution was to come later.

The third possibility is that Paul was not making any judgment on the quality of Roman rule at all. He was only explaining God’s design for human government in general.

Option two is attractive but option three cannot be ruled out.

Replacing Wicked Rulers

Suppose our rulers are wicked, how are they replaced? May Christians oppose such a ruler? May they join others in a “just revolution”?

Romans 13 does not actually deal with these questions. The biblical perspective as a whole however is clear: believers are to entrust themselves to God. It is His business to enthrone kings and depose them! (Daniel 2:21 for example; also Jeremiah 27:1ff). Even wicked peoples and rulers are under His sovereign rule and may be used by Him in judgment of others (Isaiah 10 and 45).

Jesus certainly rejected the zealot option of revolutionary violence (e.g. John 18:36, Matthew 26:52ff), even if it can be shown on other grounds that a nationalist attitude to imperialist Roman rule was just.

Reformed doctrine has upheld this view. Passive disobedience to unjust law is one thing; it is even mandatory when the ruler’s command is contrary to God’s law (Exodus 1, etc.). Armed resistance–even to an unjust ruler–is something else. Calvin could write: “Better that all the children of God in France should perish than that the Gospel be dishonored by the bloodshed of resistance…” (quoted in Vernon Grounds, Revolution and the Christian Faith, p.136). Luther, on the other hand, is described as one who “always sided with those who condemn rebellion against those who cause it” (Paul Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience, pp. 119,120).

The Barricade Question

To join or not to join, that was the question of the barricades.

On February 22, 1986, Saturday evening, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Deputy Armed Forces Chief Lieut. General Fidel Ramos announced over the radio that they were quitting the Marcos government, saying that Marcos did not win the February 7 election. They holed up in Camp Aguinaldo (later transferring to Camp Crame across the road), with only a few hundred soldiers to defend them. Over the Roman Catholic Radio Veritas the call was issued for a large number of civilians to surround the military camps to serve as a buffer between the rebels and the Marcos forces that were sure to come.

Many evangelicals were in a quandary. Can they respond to a call from a Roman Catholic radio station? Would not participation in the barricades be equivalent to armed rebellion against the Marcos government? Is it not better to simply pray in our homes and in our churches? As it turned out, for many evangelicals, prayer was the main or only response.

There were evangelicals who did not hesitate to join the barricades (see Christianity Today, April 18, 1986). They had no intention of toppling the Marcos government by force of arms. Their reason for joining the barricades was simple and straight-forward: by providing a civilian buffer between the Enrile/Ramos forces and the Marcos soldiers, a shooting war would be prevented from breaking out and a peaceful resolution of the conflict could hopefully be worked out. The barricaders knew of course that their lives were in danger should the Marcos forces decide to attack.

Many of them came to grips with this fact but were ready to lay down their lives. They knew that there would be safety in numbers, but their faith was in God. They were clearly unarmed.

As it turned out, the civilian barricade was so large (perhaps a million people surrounded the military camps by Sunday afternoon, February 23) that Marcos finally had to flee for his life, as defection after defection characterized his armed forces. A non-violent “revolution” finally toppled his 20-year regime!

The Evangelical Barricaders

Who were the evangelicals who joined the barricades?

The bulk of them came from churches where the input from the Inter-Varsity student movement had been significant. Even through the Martial Law years, many of these Bible believers were not comfortable with the simplistic interpretation of Romans 13 that said that whatever government you have is God’s provision.

They did not join the chorus that gratefully greeted the declaration of Martial Law in September 1972. They were thankful for some of the reforms that characterized the early years of Martial Rule. Nevertheless, from their study groups, the conviction slowly grew that Marcos was a very clever lawyer who used the law mainly for his private gain and that of his family and close friends.

At a conference sponsored by the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC) in June 1981, like-minded evangelicals took a hard look at “Philippine realities”–widespread poverty, corrupt government, etc., for the first time. It was inevitable that Diliman Bible Church–with many Inter-Varsity people in its leadership–would issue its “Call to Repentance” when Ninoy Aquino was killed, two years later.

Convinced that as Christian citizens they needed to be more involved in the political life of the nation, many of these Christians joined the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections or NAMFREL. It was their participation as NAMFREL volunteers or citizen watchdogs in the February 7 presidential election that finally convinced many of them of the wickedness of Marcos. As eyewitnesses to rampant cheating, vote-buying, intimidation and coercion, ballot box switching, etc., they could only conclude that Marcos had systematic well-laid plans to keep himself in power by any means.

They also came to the conclusion, like C.E.B. Cranfield (Commentary on Romans, Volume 2, p. 663) that their political duty as Christians in 1986 was more than simply to pray and to obey. They saw that Romans 13 needed not only to be interpreted faithfully in its original context (an epistle to Roman Christians in the First Century) but also needed to be translated into the situation of the present day (of Filipino Christians in the 20th Century).

Roman Christians and Filipino Believers

It was not right to think of ourselves as First Century Roman Christians who had no particular participation in the choice of our rulers. To do that was to turn back the clock, an impossible task!

The exegesis of Romans 13 has not changed. The four principles it teaches remain the same: power and authority are not the same, we submit to authority because it is God-given, the authority of rulers is not absolute, rulers are given authority for a purpose.

The new element in our time that distinguishes us from the Roman Christians is called participatory democracy. Democracy is a truism today. Even the East Germans call their state a “democratic republic,” in spite of the Berlin Wall. Lincoln’s dictum of a government by the people, of the people, and for the people is now everywhere embraced, in theory if not in practice.

Democracy is perfectly consistent with the biblical doctrine of man (see Chapter 11 in John Bennett, Christians and the State, pp. 146-162). If we are equal in dignity and worth before our maker, then no one has the right to enslave his brother or to impose his rule on another. Dictatorship, slavery, and apartheid are all wrong for essentially the same reason: they all trample upon a human being who is made in the image of God.

Participatory democracy is a historical development that should not be resisted and for which we should be thankful. To pretend that we are still in the first century may seem to make our political duty simpler, but it is a step backward. Today we can no longer say that the choice of rulers is entirely in God’s hands. In a democracy we have the awesome privilege of choosing those who rule over us. To opt out of this process on the ground that the Christians in Rome did not vote for the Emperor Nero is a cop-out.

It is to read Scripture simply as a book of precedents rather than as a book of principles. We might as well say that slavery should be restored, and the work of William Wilberforce and company was a mistake. It is to lend support to those in South Africa who defend apartheid and still call themselves Christians–as P.W. Botha does.

The modern declaration is to say that sovereignty resides in the people and authority comes from them. It is more biblical to say that authority comes from God, and he delegates some to rulers, who are chosen by the people.

Two Tests of Legitimacy

In other words, there are two tests of legitimacy. How do we judge rightful rule?

The first test we have already seen as conformity to divine design. If rulers promote good and restrain evil we may say that they have God-given authority to rule. It is to them–rather than say, a rival claimant or a shadow government–that God has delegated His authority. Such rulers do not have to do their job perfectly in order to qualify. However, when a regime becomes so bad that it reverses the divine design, it loses all moral authority to rule.

The second test that a government has the right to rule is that it has been freely chosen by the people. The corollary is that the same rulers may be replaced peacefully when the people decide that they are incompetent or insincere in promoting the public welfare.

This is why the ballot is precious, why it is a sacred trust. For the same reason, elections must be free and fair. Those who subvert elections, frustrate them, and install themselves in power by force or fraud are usurpers and have no right to rule. We must be clear that we are deciding something very important when we vote: who we should honor as rulers, to whom we should submit, who gets our taxes, who has the right to wield the sword in punishment of evildoers, etc. We are deciding who our rightful rulers are.

To the question, Who has the right to rule?, the Roman Christians had at most only half an answer. We however have no excuse for saying we don’t know! We have two clear criteria to go by.

Using both criteria, many evangelicals who joined the barricades were already convinced that Marcos had no right to rule. He had cheated in the February 7 election. If there was some doubt in the canvassing of the ballots at the Batasang Pambansa which was followed by the hasty proclamation of Marcos as winner, the massive throngs at “the revolution on EDSA” settled the issue. Marcos lost the election and no longer had a mandate to remain as president. The people had spoken.

While Waiting For the King

The people power revolution at EDSA was like a cool breeze at the end of a long hot summer. It not only gave the Filipino people a sense of hope, it has also restored their pride. We recovered not only our freedom but also our dignity.

Nevertheless, we do not put all our hopes in human government. Several months after the wonderful experience at EDSA, the problems of the Filipino nation remain serious. This is the morning after, and the arduous task of nation-building has barely begun. Reversing twenty-years of misrule is no picnic.

The communist insurgency has shown few signs of abating. The economy is still in the doldrums (much aid has been promised but little has actually come). A new Constitution is being written and its approval is vital for the needed transition “from revolutionary to constitutional government.” The appointment of local officials has generated much controversy that may be resolved only by elections. The recovery of the Marcos billions is a slow process, though some progress has been made. Often there is wrangling in the Cory Aquino cabinet. The problems are serious indeed.

All this is no cause for despair. It is a call to prayer on behalf of the nation’s leaders–that they may fulfill their God-given task of promoting good and restraining evil. It is a call to greater participation in the life of the nation–Jesus says: Christians are preserving salt and guiding light (Matthew 5: 13, 14).

It is also a needed reminder that the perfect government will not come until the return of the Lord Jesus. It is upon the shoulders of the Baby of Bethlehem that the kingdom of peace, righteousness and justice will be placed (Isaiah 9:6). Then the kingdom of this world shall become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. And He shall reign forever and ever! (Revelation 11:15).

Meanwhile, as we wait for the coming of the King–and His kingdom in blazing splendour–we can still pray as He taught us to pray: Our Father…your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

We can be the sons of the kingdom who hunger and thirst after righteousness and who shall be filled (Matthew 5:6). We can be those who are zealous for justice to roll on like a river, and for righteousness to flow like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24).

by Dr. Isabelo F. Magalit
Diliman Bible Church
Quezon City, PHILIPPINES
16 August 1986


Dr. Isabelo Magalit was in the staff of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship in the Philippines for almost 20 years and later served as the president of the Asian Theological Seminary

To Defect Or Not To Defect and Other Post 388 Musings

I must admit to some level of ambiguity here. A few weeks ago, I was quite certain that defections would do no good for a few reasons: the electoral pact between the three main opposition parties was still freshly minted and required some time through the fire, the new opportunities gained by the erstwhile political Opposition need to be tried and tested and the quality of defectors may leave a lot to be desired. However with the current developments on both sides of the political divide, I’m becoming much less certain of where I stand on this.

Retrospective observation plays a role in this. With the type of abuse and neglect that has occurred after decades of hegemony by Barisan Nasional (BN) and later by UMNO, the non BN parties really can’t do any worse. And with the recent developments towards formalising an alliance, known for now as the Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Pact/Alliance, the non-BN parties may actually be more ready than we give them credit for.

Of course the leadership of the Pakatan will still need to exhibit wisdom in dealing with their grassroots. Certain constructs come with its own in-built panic buttons and self-destruct sequences. For instance, “secularism” (in the mainstream Malaysian understanding of the term) is a four letter word for many sincere and conscientious Muslim Malaysians the same way “islamic values” elicits similiar responses from many sincere and conscientious non-Muslim Malaysians.

Politicians who have made their careers preaching reform and change should be the first to bridge this false dichotomy and promote mutual understanding as well as explore new frameworks to establish a more civil discourse on these matters. Reacting to grassroot sentiments only betrays the politician’s inability to rise above the circumstances and exhibit true leadership.

A lot of traditional myths were broken post March 8 2008 (known in some circles now as the 388 incident). The co-relation (urban legend?) between ethnic violence ala May 13 and the denial of 2/3 majority was one myth that was definitively busted. The perceived inability of the major non-BN parties to work across “ideological” and ethnic divides (are they really even ideologies in the first place?) was also busted—at least this time around—when we saw parties gaining support from non-traditional grounds. What was a real vindication to me personally was the breakthrough achieved by KeADILan in establishing a foothold in previously tightly guarded enclaves of influence, be they ethnic, religious or class.

We would, however, be badly misled if we continued to pat each other on the back and proclaim the demise of ethnonationalism in Malaysia. Au contraire, ethnonationalism can be much more resilient than we give it credit for and this is already evident in some of the post election disagreements both among the leadership and the grassroots: the perceived loss of the position of Malays, the perceived betrayal by some segments of the Indian community, the vocal rumblings between the “secularists” and “islamists” (whatever those terms mean). Major factors that have to be included into the equation of the Pakatan’s agenda would also be in the development and delivery of psychological, sociological and economic models to blunt the tendency of people to revert to ethnonationalism in periods of crisis.

As some sociologists like Ernest Gellner have observed, ethnonationalism did not develop in a vacuum nor was it a strange historical anomaly. Rather, it was propelled by some of the deepest currents of modernity. Competition between states created a demand for expanded state resources and hence continual economic growth Trillion-Dollar-Experiment . Economic growth, in turn, depended on mass literacy and easy communication, spurring policies to promote education and a common language —which led directly to conflicts over language and communal opportunities. So to those who look in nostalgia at the easier and less conflicted days of the 1950s and 1960s (which in themselves are probably more myth than reality), we must face the reality that those days are behind us and we have a new future to forge.

And this brings me to nation building and keeping the country running. The Barisan Nasional, and UMNO in particular, has generally been reactionary in the wake of March 8 2008. The administration, though technically and effectively not especially weakened despite the loss of 2/3 majority in the lower house (unless they too have fallen victim to their own myth weaving over the decades), is still trying to find its footing while parrying off attacks from within and political challenges from without.

To the Pakatan’s credit, they have been less concerned with trying to destabilise Barisan Nasional post-elections and more focused on consolidating their electoral gains and establishing stable administrations in the states that they control. There is a vested interest in making sure they succeed in delivering the goods as this unprecedented gain could just as unexpectedly be wiped out as it was gained.

So while I don’t envy the position that the Prime Minister is in right now, he has to start showing some resolve and get the country running. It isn’t the opposition to his party and coalition that’s destablising the nation now, but the general lack of momentum that’s been exhibited by the newly formed Government and the challenges that he is facing within UMNO himself. In all honesty, if he continues to show a complete lack of resolve and commitment towards moving the country forward, I’d be less inclined towards retaining a negative view of defections to the Pakatan to form a new government. And I’m pretty sure many other Malaysians would share such sentiments.

The problem that is Mahathir will remain but perhaps it might be good to remember what an observer has speculated as far back as 20 years ago. I don’t exactly remember where I saw this (I was relatively young then, still in secondary school) but the observer opined that with Mahathir’s tendency to focus power on his office, (whether for efficiency’s sake or some other more sinister purposes), through the whittling down of institutions that exist for checks and balances, he would either lead UMNO towards implosion (either due to his absence or interference if he’s no longer in the power heirarchy) or lead the country towards instability (the benefit of hindsight allowed us to see an almost similiar dynamics that occured in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe). It would seem that the former scenario is starting to unfold and the latter scenario starting to look like a possible path that we might end up in.

So, to the present government, “Buck up. If you can’t get your act together, the nation and 27 million Malaysians are way too much to gamble and a government-in-waiting is in place to steer this ship.”

Apology: Our Future Lies In Redeeming Our Past

Education Minister Hishamuddin Hussein says he’s sorry for brandishing the Malay keris at three Umno Youth general assemblies in a row that offended non-Malays. Prime Minister Pak Lah Badawi has also issued what sounded like an apology for the scandalous sacking of the Lord President Tun Salleh Abas and other senior judges two decades ago and has offered them compensation. But his deputy Najib Tun Razak suggests this is a non-apology.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad says there’s no need for him to say sorry, as it was not him but the tribunal that sacked the judges and it was done according to the law. Mahathir has also said he won’t apologise to his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim for calling him nasty names. Anwar sued for defamation but the court concurred with Mahathir by saying he is protected by “qualified speech” – he can say what he likes as long as he’s qualified. Chandra Muzzafar, JUST chairman, has also said he won’t say sorry to Prime Minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim for saying that Anwar would be an unmitigated disaster if he became PM. Like Mahathir, he’s claiming right to speech.

Apology, I’m sorry to say, is a troublesome word indeed.

Dictionaries have defined the word “apology” in a variety of ways. It is also akin to the word “Sorry” which can mean, “feeling sorrow, regret, or penitence.”

The original sense was, painful; hence, miserable, sad. Grieved for the loss of some good; pained for some evil; feeling regret; now generally used to express light grief or affliction, but formerly often used to express a deeper feeling.

In legal parlance, apology can be a defence for unintentional defamation, where the defendant innocently and without negligence defamed the claimant but has offered a suitable correction and apology and has paid compensation.

The word takes on an extended nuance and is associated with other synonyms. Hence, “apology” applies to an expression of regret for a mistake or wrong with implied admission of guilt or fault. “Apologia”, however, does not imply admission of guilt or regret but a desire to make clear the grounds for some course, belief, or position e.g. China’s position on Tibet is an apologia for its foreign policy. Therefore, the one who says sorry is an “apologizer”, while the person who strongly defends his position is an “apologist.”

Let’s come back to our sorry state of affairs.

Which definition does Hisham fall under? The Star headlined his apology as: “Hisham regrets wielding keris. He apologises to all Malaysians.”

The report says, ”Umno Youth chief Hishamuddin Hussein has admitted that his raising of the “keris” was among the causes for the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional’s poor performance, in the country’s recent general elections.”

Apologising to all Malaysians for his action, he said, ”If it affected anyone, I cannot run away from the reality of it. I apologise to non-Malays and the Malays. To the non-Malays because of the fear of a symbol which was not my intention. And to the Malays for not being able to uphold their symbol of heritage.”

He has unreservedly admitted to his culpability and has taken responsibility for it. However, on scrutiny of his choice of words, one can detect a sense of “conditionality” by using the phrases, “if I had offended” and “not my intention.” It sounds like a “plea.” But one cannot accuse him of trying to find an “excuse”, or a “pretext.” Hisham is sorry for what he has said and done. He has acknowledged his wrongdoing, showed regret and remorse, taken responsibility for it and has elliptically assured us, this is unlikely to happen again.

Hisham is therefore, an apologiser. But prior to that he was an apologist – where he tried in vain to defend his brandishing of the keris as a legitimate expression of upholding Malay culture. Pak Lah, as well as his deputy Najib, agreed with him and the matter was closed to public debate without an apology for the serial offence. Those so offended remedied the situation by venting their anger through the ballot box.

Now that the Umno Youth leader has apologized, we should respond by extending grace to him and not try to impute any ulterior motive to his apology.

As Anwar Ibrahim has pointed out, the apology should be accepted but, “Not only the keris incident must not be repeated but the political arrogance as well as the use of ethnic and racial issues in the nation’s politics must also be stopped.”

Penang Chief Minister and DAP secretary general Lim Guan Eng likewise has welcomed the apology. “It is a little too late to apologise now but we still welcome his decision to admit his fault and apologise to the people.”

It’s hard to say sorry. One has to be big enough to apologise. With his apology, Hishammuddin has come of age.

It may be better late than never but it’s never too late to say sorry. A case in point is Australia. Despite the clamour for the government there to apologise for the ill-treatment of the Aboriginal people over the past 200 years by the White population, the previous John Howard government had for eleven long years refused to apologise to them on behalf of the nation.

However, almost as soon as the new Labor government came into power, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd lost no time in making the belated apology by way of tabling it as a formal motion in Parliament to a standing ovation from both sides of the house. The apology was peppered with the words “sorry,” “apologise, ” and “future.”

“I move that today we honour the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment… this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

“The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

“We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

“And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry. We the parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation. For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written. We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians. A future where this parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

“There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future.

“Our nation, Australia, has reached such a time.”

Our nation, Malaysia, has also reached such at time after 8 March 2008. The people has spoken through the ballot box. It’s about time for us to table a motion in Parliament to say how sorry we are for keeping our silence that has allowed Tun Salleh Abas to suffer the indignity of being ungraciously and unduly sacked as Lord President on 8 August 1988. We should also say sorry to Supreme Court judges Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman Pawanteh and Datuk George Seah who were similarly scandalised and sacked. And also to three other Supreme Court judges; Tan Sri Azmi Kamaruddin, Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader, and Tan Sri Wan Hamzah Mohamed Salleh who were suspended and equally scandalised by the injustice. For Tan Sri Eusoffe and Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman, who have passed away, such an apology is already too late. But it’s still better late than never in remembrance of their service to the nation.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahamd Badawi has made the first gesture in urging for a closure to the painful injustice in 1988. Malaysia’s future lies in the redemption of its past. All that it takes is a formal apology.

Who Did Jesus Vote For?

This is about one of the most anticipated time in Malaysian history. Yet, where would Jesus stand in all of this?

8th of March 2008 was an exciting day. It was International Women’s Day. It was Datuk Sami Vellu’s birthday. It was also my daughter’s third birthday. And it was Elections Day for Malaysians. I was seriously humoured when I saw the Mak Bedah from the Women’s Candidacy Initiative (WCI) looking for a candidate to nominate as an educational effort to the public on women’s issues. Talking with my friend who services our photocopy machine has awakened me to the heart issues boiling in his community made public by HINDRAF. Like it or not, with all the promises made by the politicians, I constantly wonder what kind of environment will my little Elysia and her brothers grow into in the next four years or 40 years.

So, for those who are voted, who did we vote for? And what was on our minds when we cast our vote? Some Christians might say, “How you vote isn’t going to change the world, but how you live.” Good point. I used to think that way and it does sound right. Surely putting our faith in politics to sort out our world’s problems is misguided. Jesus didn’t come to start a political party. Apostle Paul wrote about submitting to the government in Romans 13. So, perhaps we should just pray. Perhaps.

But then, in Mary’s song in the opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke, the vision of the Kingdom of God moves with the heartbeat of the child in her womb, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

The birth of Jesus sowed seeds of change that not only involved changed individual lives, but also the way people relate to one another in the world. The way Apostle Paul handled the case of Onesimus in the letter to Philemon is socially and politically subversive. So, there is more than meets the eye when we try to find guidance on politics in the Bible.

Politics is one of the ways we relate to each other—it’s here to stay, at least until the final chapters of history wrap up. As long as I’m still living in this world, I realized that “how I vote” will send a message to those who are aspiring to fulfill their promises of good governance the kind of values they should be operating with. It also reminds me to keep my end of the bargain in living up to the expectations I have on them. A more informed, prayerful, discerning vote reflects the changes in me, and how I want to live—mercy, justice, and humility are good starting points to echo Prophet Micah 6:8. These are also the words resonating in my heart when I cast my vote, and the lens which I view the candidates (as well as the political parties they represent).

So, I won’t put all my eggs in the basket of political promises of political parties. Change in Malaysia involves more than politics, but change in Malaysia cannot ignore the political processes and the environment where these changes need to happen.

In exercising my right to vote, the principles in Proverbs 31 also ring true. It begs us to question what kind of government would God want, and what qualities should politicians strive for? Also, how do we live, as the rakyat?

As Proverbs 31:4 states, those in authority should uphold justice, defending the oppressed and the poor.

Verses 8 – 9 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

The rest of Proverbs 31, although most often used to describe a good wife, is relevant to how we the rakyat should live. We should work hard at our job, make sound financial decisions instead of lazing around and blaming the government for our lack (Proverbs 31:16-19).

We too, must consider others and not just ourselves. Racial harmony is not just an abstract concept for the government to drum into our heads. We must live it in our everyday lives. Open our hearts and hands to those different from ourselves, take care of the underprivileged.

Verse 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.

I was ready to drive to the polling station on that day. It’s one vote. At least to me, I wanted to make it count—for equality and the dignity of all, for the marginalized and the poor, and for the future of our children. That’s where I see the heart of Jesus lies. That was my guide to vote, as a Christ-follower. That’s where I stand and can do no other.

Christianity can never be a personal matter. It has public consequences and we must make public choices. Many people think Christians should be neutral or that the church must be neutral. But in a situation of injustice and oppression such as we have in South Africa, not to choose is in fact to have chosen to side with the powerful, with the exploiter, with the oppressor.

– Desmond Tutu


This article was co-written with Selina Cheng