When I left university and joined the teaching profession, I was immediately faced with the issue of teachers’ pay. My colleagues in the staff room were engaged in animated debate between classes. The NUT (now NUTP- National Union of Teaching Profession) man was signing up members. Another new Christian teacher had strong views that Christians should not associate with a union which was advocating for higher pay and in favour of picketing to achieve that objective. I was too green and raw and eventually went along with her stand. Several months down the road, NUT won the battle for higher pay and eventually the new pay cheques arrived.
I distinctly remember how I felt when I was handed my pay cheque with the increased amount. Rotten and hypocritical. As others celebrated, I was bent over a pile of exercise books pretending to be occupied with marking my students’ essays.
I had taken no part in bringing on this cause for rejoicing for my colleagues throughout the land. Unlike me, many of them had cast in their lot with NUT and organised and campaigned hard. They took the risk. They won. It was their hard-earned, long-awaited victory. Yet, it was I, a new teacher, who gained the most from their efforts.
This experience went deep into my psyche. It taught me many things. I learned about myself. I learned about my colleagues. I learned about the trade union movement. I learned about the needs of others far far greater than my own. I learned from those who were committed about fighting causes which have ramifications for others.
I learned about myself and others of us who said we were committed to our religious faith but as it turned out have not learned our responsibilities for others who have just causes and just needs. I relearned my civic responsibilities. I relearned my faith, that faith without action, according to the bible, was futile and impotent.
I recalled all the Christian books I had read, all those biographies of Christians who waged long and hard battles against slavery, against poverty, against social injustice. Going further back, I recalled buying my first copy of the bible and the hours upon hours of reading from my own copy of the bible. About the prophets who went against the establishment and spoke up for truth and justice. About John the Baptist, a voice willing to cry out in the wilderness, speaking honest truth about the structural endemic sins of the powers that be and how he had spoken even to the high and mighty, which eventually cost him his life. Talk was not cheap. About Jesus Christ who went through a mistrial and was subjected to the most humiliating and agonising physical beatings and mockings before been nailed to a cross between two criminals.
I had all the necessary education. From my upper secondary school days, through university until I arrived at my first ever posting as a teacher, I had read about apartheid in South Africa, the Tibetan issue, the international arms trade, trade in illicit drugs, the gross discrepancies between east and west in the international trade agreements, etc.
I had all the necessary education. But as it turned out I did not have the necessary resolve, courage, integrity and concern to join a just cause. The day I received my upgraded pay cheque, on hind sight, I realised that I could at least have joined the union. Then as a member, I would have been placed in the position to make further choices within the union as they become necessary. I could have first become a card-carrying member, and even if I had felt (rightly or wrongly) that I could not on points of conscience participate in every one of its activities, I could have at least contributed in other ways to the cause.
Instead, I let down the Christ I professed to follow and just sat and sat on the fence. I chose in effect to be merely an arm-chair critic but nevertheless profitted from the labour of others.
Is that what it means to be a follower of Christ? Stay away. Stay clear. Stay safe. Serve yourself and let others and their problems be. Make your claims of your non-eligibility, non-involvement and non-participation on “religious” grounds. Keep your hands clean. But ever willing receive your upgraded pay cheque! Is that what it means to be a follower of Christ?
Fast-forward two decades from that moment of truth I had faced in my school staff room to that momentous time in the nation’s history when the deputy prime minister was summarily sacked. Still haltingly and hesitantly, I nevertheless cast my lot with the victim and with those who sensed that the opportune time for change for the nation had come. Enough was enough.
I got off the fence and made my own adult decision. I met up with the victim. I started to write, to speak, to act. I joined another senior Christian to start a series of prayer vigils. I started to write according to my conscience and posted my reflections online (at a time when I didn’t yet know about the term “blog”). I met up with an ever-increasing group of reform-minded Malaysians. I was involved.
I became a card-carrying opposition party member. I served in the supreme council of an opposition party.
There were consequences in taking such a step. I was obliged to resign from positions in which I was serving in several Christian institutions. To some quarters, my getting off the fence was considered inappropriate, improper, even unclean. Disapproval came in different forms- scandalised voices and looks, giving way eventually to silence and isolation.
Somewhat overstated perhaps but I believe till this day that had I affiliated myself instead to a party of the ruling coalition, or stood with the powers that be in condemning the victim, the reaction would have been somewhat more circumscribed than what it had been. Indeed we are a feudal society with feudalistic instincts and mindset. It was okay to identify with the ruling parties but not the opposition. Somehow the ruling parties were reckoned to be more legitimate than the opposition.
Yes the establishment of the Christian community was right on principle to stand on neutral grounds. But alongside that principle, I suspect there was also an element of fear. Fear of the powers that be. Perhaps even the fear of losing some “favours” considered important to the Christian community. But neutrality is not an excuse to see, feel, think or do nothing about issues of nation-building, justice and peace. (These and other issues I hope to address in future postings.)
But a few long-term friends understood, a few others were willing at least to withold judgement. I got a card from someone important to me which said, “Do you know how special you are?” at a time when I was certainly not feeling special at all!
Having divested myself from most of the offices I held within the Christian institutions, I went deeper into the movement with my new-found friends, my new responsibilities, my newly-added mission.
The effect of this was that I was no longer just reading about the news, I was with my friends in the know of what was making the news, knowing the truth behind the headlines.
I always thank God and praise Him for the privilege of meeting so many reformists, fellow strugglers, fellow Malaysians of all races, religion and occupation from all over the land. We are friends forever.
But being green and raw and perhaps somewhat ill-advised we were humbled at the 1999 general elections followed by a membership adjustment when a whole lot of colleagues left us en masse upon the decision to merge with another party.
Then followed the 2004 general elections where we were humbled even further. By which time, the analysts and commentors and the ruling coalition were ready to scornfully proclaim us as dead and irrelevant. In fact on hindsight it was a rather useful time for our movement to rediscover, rejuvenate and reinvent itself under the radar as it were.
Fast forward again and just weeks ago, my wife and I was in some seaside kampung sitting beside the new MP of Kuantan and her husband and grandchildren, meeting with thousands of ordinary folks from all walks of life who came to greet her and receive her thanks for their support.
Malaysian democracy has advanced several rungs up the ladder. We now possibly have the beginning of a two-party parliamentary system. In the federal parliament, the government will be without the two-thirds majority which hitherto had allowed them to amend the federal constitution at will. Five state governments have been formed by the opposition.
Indeed, the terms “opposition” and “government” no longer mean the same thing in every state.
Glowing, excited and ecstatic remarks have been written and published about this new formulation and new dynamics in Malaysian politics. (Even by previous nay-sayers and detractors.) New possibilities have suddenly emerged and despite the few hiccups that have cropped up here and there, it seems certain that the reform agenda will have practical outlets in both parliament and at least the newly-captured states.
Amidst this euphoria of triumph (however limited), perhaps it is appropriate to observe that this time round, for some individual Christians, pastors and churches, this recent 2008 general elections have been a special milestone whereby they had consciously got off their armchair and their hands-off policy and got themselves involved with individual campaigns waged by candidates of parties on all sides taking various roles. Win or lose, they got involved. They stood up for their convictions. Not contented with merely receiving information (or misinformation) from the news media, they went behind the headlines as it were and saw how the actual dramas were unfolding.
Change for the better is good for all spectrum of the political divide. Change for the better must come to all political persuasions, all political parties, even the political process itself. Our parliament and state assemblies must have the interplay of government and opposition forces, the checks and balances, each pushing the other to higher and higher standards of governance and responsibility to the people.
Malaysians of all walks of life, all ethnic origins, all religious persuasions can now reflect on what their roles should be. They can sit and wait to benefit (or lose out) from the labours of others, or they can leave the spectator stands and work to achieve their aspirations and dreams.
The lesson I learned in my school staff room remains with me. The principle remains true. If I want something or believe in a cause, I must put my shoulder to the plough and join with others to make it happen. This way the outcome is more meaningful, the result is that much sweeter.