Last Sunday, CAFE LATTE CHAT had an interesting conversation with Christian leaders and Politicans on how they viewed the involvement of Christians and the Church in the politics of Malaysia. A group of us were not invited, but we thought it might be a stimulating exercise in creative non-fiction to have some voices from the ground interacting with what was talked about … Of course, I do not have the editorial back-up of the Star Newspaper. And I do not have the skill, so what’s coming out from us will be pretty raw. I’m glad to bring together two active on the ground concerned Christians Steven Sim (a twentysomething in Penang), Bob Kee (a thirty something in Kuala Lumpur) and two pastors, Pastor Raj Singh (who’s church is a member of the NECF) and my self (who’s church is part of the Lutheran denomination which is a member of the council of churches Malaysia) for added virtual interaction. Of course, we cannot represent the bigger institutions we are part of but we are part of the wider church family. Just to be clear we’re adding to the conversation, all our parts will be in blue. ðŸ™‚ So here goes … enjoy the ride …
ACCORDING to the Malaysian Census 2000, Christianity in Malaysia is practised by 10% of the population, the majority being in Sabah and Sarawak, where they make up 40% of the population in the two states.
In the urban areas of Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Penang, Ipoh and Johor Baru, the profile of a typical Christian is one who is middle-class, English-educated, professional, conscious of issues, articulate and critical. And they will certainly play a crucial role in the coming general election.
There is no single Christian group that can claim to represent all the Christians in Malaysia but the major denominations include the Roman Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, and independent charismatic churches.
Church groups like the Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM), the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, and the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) are the constant voices that speak out on Christian issues in public.
In this session of Cafe Latte Chats, we bring together Seputeh MP Teresa Kok, Subang Jaya assemblyman Datuk Lee Hwa Beng, Balakong assemblyman Datuk Hoh Hee Lee, secretary-general of the National Christian Fellowship (NECF) Malaysia Rev Wong Kim Kong, and Council of Churches Malaysia secretary-general Rev Dr Hermen Shastri to ponder on the issues that are of concern to the Christian community and how these will impact on the general election.
Christian voice: (From left) Datuk Hoh Hee Lee, Rev Dr Hermen Shastri, Datuk Lee Hwa Beng, Datuk Wong Chun Wai, Teresa Kok, and Rev Wong Kim Kong in serious discussion during the Cafe Latte Chat at Menara Star.
For those of us participating in blue, we are invisible ðŸ™‚ (please don’t read too much into what I just wrote!)
Christian perspective on the elections
Chun Wai: The typical profile of a Christian in an urban area is likely to be middle-class, possibly English-educated and one who is very conscious of issues. Datuk Lee, Datuk Hoh and Teresa fit into this profile. We are beginning to hear of more churches organising activities and dialogues relating to the general election. What are the churches doing about the elections?
Steven Sim: If you ask me, the majority in the Church are concerned about certain situations in the Country such as economy, political stability and natural disasters, and yes, there are prayers for the political leaders and all, though usually this means those in the “government” , but we are still struggling to put politics in its place within the Christian religion.
There are also certain groups which, like Chun Wai mentioned, are organizing activities to interact with the issues of politics and general election but these are still far and between. More in fact could be done by the Christian community to promote awareness and take more active stance in this area.
Kim Kong: The general election is very important for all citizens, Christians included. The government is one of the institutions ordained by God for a very definite purpose to do good, to maintain law and order, as well as ensure what is right for the well-being of the nation.
Most churches will pray about the elections. Christians look for spiritual guidance as to what is God’s plan for the nation. It is inevitable for pastors to preach on issues relating to good governance like justice, righteousness, fairness and moral principles.
Bob Kee: How common is it actually to see churches pray specifically for the elections? Or for any other “temporal” needs in the first place? In my own experience having been with a few churches, it isn’t as common as one would think. Even rarer is to actually hear principles of good governance being preached from pulpits.
Steven: I agree with Bob to differ with Kim Kong, things like this are not very commonly preached in churches. I doubt most pastors are well informed enough to communicate this kind of message to the congregation.
Pastor Raj Singh: I agree with Steven that most pastors are not well informed enough about issues in order to communicate it to the church. Partly this is due to a lack of transparency in the reporting of these issues in the mainstream media. That is where the newsletters and press statements from CCM and NECF play a crucial role in informing Christians. I also would like to say that the general profile of Christians as mentioned by Chun Wai is a very narrow one and ignores the fact that there are a lot of Christians in non urban areas and are not middle class English educated.
Rev. Sivin Kit: I think it’s high time for churches, church leaders and pastors to discover a more proactive role when it comes to the elections and the democratic process in our country. This would mean tapping onto a variety of resources from more official voices like the Christian Federation Malaysia to Christians who are involved in politics but I think it also involves a listening ear to civil society groups and also other independent voices especially non-mainstream perspectives.
It’s good to see more forums and dialogues organized to discuss issues surrounding the elections, I get the sense issues surrounding religious freedom usually is the door in which churches naturally feel drawn into the debate whether through prayer or some form of protest.
However, a great challenge for many pastors and church leaders is to have a framework to see our role in the political process which affects all of us. And I think increasingly the challenge is how do churches encourage their members to participate more fully in the political process whether it’s from voting to more engaged postures (whatever their political persuasion or affiliation). This would require quite a bit of hard work on pastors and leaders to stretch themselves from more “religious” pursuits to see the role of religion for positive influence in politics. it’s not easy, and those who begin to speak up or try to make connections might be misunderstood.
Chun Wai: Some believe this election will be a very tight fight between the BN and the opposition, especially for the urban votes. Are churches being courted by both sides?
Hermen: I have not heard of political parties going to churches but I have heard of churches wanting to have dialogues with political leaders. The churches have taken it upon themselves to raise issues that are close to their hearts.
Chun Wai: Has the NECF been courted by political parties?
Kim Kong: NECF did not initiate any dialogue with political parties. However, Christians involved in politics have been extended the opportunity to meet with pastors and Christian leaders. Just a few weeks ago, an MCA contingent came to meet 100 over pastors. There was also a question-and-answer session. We continue to maintain an open door policy.
Chun Wai: Teresa, maybe you can share your experience as an MP from the DAP.
Kok: Not only in the past few months. All this while, we have been concerned about subtle religious persecution issues. We take the initiative to meet with the religious councils, especially when (former Prime Minister) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad declared Malaysia as an Islamic country. Sad to say, when I approached pastors back then, some of them said it was the job of the NECF and they did not want to meet us. They did not want to be involved in politics. I said it was just a closed-door dialogue but they still refused.
Chun Wai: Was it because you are from the opposition?
Kok: I think so. This is the kind of phobia for some pastors. However, times have changed. More pastors are now politically conscious of the present situation. Some of the charismatic churches I attended even hold special sessions to pray for every segment of the administration. So I think this is an encouraging sign.
Steven: I have personally encountered Christians who still think that being in the Opposition means you are going against the Bible, and this is really a sad untruth.
Raj: Unfortunately I agree that this is true. If a politician from the government approaches the church, most are very happy to accommodate them, but not when the opposition approaches them. This is partly a reflection of the churches situation where they are mostly interested in what the government can do to help them and this leads to an unhealthy situation for some where the churches are too closely tied into the government and then loses its voice in speaking out on issues affecting the nation.
Lee: To answer directly to Teresa, MCA’s view is that Malaysia is not a theocratic Islamic state. It is a secular state with Islam as the official religion. The Catholics have always been politically conscious, but lately the Methodists and the rest have also become more aware. We in MCA have taken cognisance of this.
Sivin: I think we in church leadership and church membership need to be secure, and be open to engage and dialogue with all parties whether those in power or those in opposition. And this engagement does not necessarily mean uncritical endorsement on any specific political agenda prematurely. I’d like to pull in again the need to keep a keen ear on the voices of those in civil society. There is a bigger picture here.
Chun Wai: Does being more politically conscious mean being more anti-establishment?
Lee: Not really, but Christians realise it is their duty to vote. They will look at the candidates and choose those who come closest to their Christian values.
Hoh: I never consider the church as a specific group of supporters. I treat them as I will the others in my constituency. If they need help, I try to assist. I am very careful not to bring the church into politics and I do not want the church to be involved directly.
Bob: I reckon it depends on how consistent to values such as integrity, justice, righteousness et al, the establishment really is. If one were to be conscious of the need to have their public representatives represent such values, and those that represent the “establishment” reflects those values, then it would logically mean that consciousness does not automatically bring about “anti-establishment” feelings. Of course, what the term “establishment” itself means is another open question. I don’t believe any single party can claim exclusive rights to being the “establishment”.
Raj: I believe that being more politically conscious is to be more aware of the issues facing the nation and what we as Christians can do about it. Its more about the issues and not the party we are aligned to.
Sivin: Tragically, to be seen as “anti-establishment” might be the immediate impression. Take the recent Bersih Rally for example, I know of Christians who participated in the event because of increased political awareness. And in agreement with Raj here, many Christians would probably start with a focus on an issue more than mere allegiance to a political party. The few I know who went for the Bersih Rally were not aligned to any political party but they believed in a clean and fair election and thus wanted to express that view in public with other like-minded people.
So, it was not so much of being anti-establishment for the sake of being anti-establishment as in unthinking anarchy, but a sincere desire and demand for the establishment to be kept accountable. In that sense, it was a move towards “a better establishment”. But then the Bersih Rally’s participants were painted by some in the media as being anti-establishment or used by the opposition. That to me seems to close the door to really talk about the issues that concern the Rakyat and an insult to the intelligence on those who are seriously thinking through the issues.
I believe being politically conscious is part of our Christian discipleship here on earth, because while our message as Christians is not primarily political in a partisan political sense, there are political implications for those who believe that God desires justice and mercy to be seen in our own lives and the society we live in. So, our faith while maybe deeply personal, it must not be privatized and devoid of public contribution for the common good. Another way of putting it is, we are for the establishment of what is just, good and fair for all. The route there would involve lots of listening, working through issues with those whom have different views, balancing respect as well as challenge of perspectives, trying to identify with one another’s fears and worries, …. this political conscious thing is hard work when it’s logical conclusion get’s set in motion. A lot of bridge building and constructive efforts will need to follow up after any form of justified criticism.