Last night I was again outside the Malaysian Police headquarters. I keep wondering why I went. It’s as if I’ve been possessed. I know I will not enjoy anything else I attempt to do between 8pm and 9pm nightly. I’m struggling to understand myself. Things came to a head last night. I was asked to speak on why I was at the vigil. I declined. I was embarrassed to say I didn’t really know (39). …
I am attending the vigils because I have been radicalised by the Messiah. My attendance is my verdict on the abuse of power. My standing there is my running away from the cowardice which permits evil to reign. My presence there is power for others (45).
That’s Rama Ramanathan writing in The Bible and the ballot: reflections on Christian political engagement in Malaysia today. Published by Graceworks and Friends in Conversation, The Bible and the ballot is a slim volume of thoughtful essays by Malaysian Christians on why they care and what they hope for.
It’s always encouraging to hear from people who sound like reasonable human beings while affirming things that you sometimes feel crazy for believing. For me, that category of beliefs includes both Christian truth claims and Malaysian democratic aspirations. So The Bible and the ballot puts me in the position of a chorister who enjoys the preaching.
But there’s a more symbolic reason why I found this book encouraging. A few years ago I remember hearing a politician speak in a seminar in PJ about how he gets flak for his chosen form of public service because his fellow churchgoers disdain all of politics as corrupt. He was from a ruling-coalition party that I would never support, but I did agree with his argument that Christians in Malaysia need to engage in politics more — but also more responsibly, prayerfully, and humbly.
It’s comfortable to rest in high-minded but unexamined notions of dirty politics and the separation of church and state. Politics may be somewhat dirty, but most sociopolitical things are — and everything is political. We cannot imagine (or pray) away the fact that we have to respond to how our governments wield power. Growing up with three energetic siblings has given me a knee-jerk reaction against the platitude that “silence means consent” — but silence is an action. Neutrality is a choice and, while it’s often a good choice, it’s not always the best one.
And while I fully believe in the separation of church/mosque/temple/gurdwara/shrine/meditation garden from state, that does not mean that membership in one negates constructive participation in the other. It does mean that each has sovereign rules in its own domain, and that the friction of overlaps must be negotiated with the consensus of the wider public body. And even though the wider public body comprises assorted individuals who can and should let their assorted philosophies shape their actions, their arguments in the public sphere must speak to civic interests. Just like how it would be silly and arrogant of me to speak in physics jargon (which I am no longer fluent in) or Malay in an English-medium comparative politics class. (Not that I’m necessarily lucid in seminar even when I’m speaking the right language.)
Given all of that, it’s lovely to see The Bible and the ballot make a measured, multifaceted, unflinchingly visible, and pleasantly formatted contribution to the discourse on these issues. Take that, pious squeamishness.
That said, the parts of The Bible and the ballot that I enjoyed the most were the accounts of personal experience and motivation, rather than the more general arguments or factual expositions. (This is probably because I spend most of my time reading general arguments and factual arguments for class, although I probably should be reading more of those, instead of e.g. spending the evening blogging). So here’s a bit from Tan Soo Inn:
I am under no illusions that any human government this side of heaven will be free of problems. Indeed, the fact that human governments constantly fail us reminds me that the perfect government awaits the return of the King to usher in the new heaven and the new earth. It is precisely because I know up-front that no earthly government will be perfect that I am freed from cynicism, and this allows me to do what I can. Often, this means that in choosing between two candidates, I am choosing the lesser of two evils. But this too needs to be done. We need to curtail evil as well as promote good. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is right when he reminds us that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”. We fool ourselves if we think that we are always right and the other side is always wrong. All things being equal, in a particular choice, I must try to discern which candidate is a little bit closer to the side of the angels’ (23).
In sum, The Bible and the ballot is definitely worth the SGD7/RM15. Because both the Bible and the ballot have immeasurable worth. Haha. But really.
Just one gripe: of the six essayists, five are Chinese and all are men. Mitigating factors: first, Sivin Kit acknowledges in the afterword that the book would have been richer had it included more gender, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Second, although Sivin is the only one of the (mostly Chinese anglophone male) contributors whom I know personally, I’ve heard good things about all of them, and their stories bear that out. Third, the writers affirm multiple voices and multiple forms of expression, which presumably includes emo blogs.
Here’s part of my story.
I didn’t have a particularly politicised childhood. My father did have a T-shirt that said: “ISA: I Say Abolish”, but I was far more familiar with the Pevensie children, Asterix, and Commander Keen than I was with the Malaysian cabinet. When the economy crashed and Mahathir sacked Anwar, we were far away in a suburb of Chicago because my dad was attending seminary, and I was small enough that most of the news went over my head.
We got back to Malaysia in 1999. I remember some of my relatives holding some strongly anti-incumbent sentiments, and a few of my classmates mirroring their parents’ political loyalties.
In 2003, I went to Singapore for the O Levels. I don’t remember when I began to get angry at The Straits Times‘s biased coverage of politics at home, but I did. I don’t remember when I started praying with some friends for Malaysia’s public space, but we did — even if we spent more time praying about family or church or academic contentment or girl tiffs or boy angst.
In 2007, after my A Levels, I interned at a national daily and saw the political process in the flesh. I covered a bit of it, too. (The excruciating puns never went into the stories).
Later that year I left for college in rural Massachusetts, knowing that I was going to major in political economy. I don’t remember the genesis of that impulse — maybe there wasn’t a distinguishable one. It certainly took till my sophomore year for me to let go of the possibility of a shiny major in English or comparative lit or math or physics or philosophy.
Halfway through my freshman year, I turned 21. I couldn’t register to vote between my birthday and the March ’08 general elections because you weren’t allowed to register at foreign missions back then. But I think I still cried when the opposition won an unprecedented vote share, and celebrated with both dizzy and doomsday speculations in a conversation that evening with the one other Malaysian on campus.
Over the next few years, I registered as a voter in Malaysia; made unfruitful phone calls to consulates and embassies asking why they didn’t have the legally mandated procedures in place for full-time overseas students to register for absentee ballots; and wrote my thesis on a contentious Malaysian education policy.
Last July, I marched in the Bersih 2.0 rally. I ran from our law enforcers. I blinked away tear gas. By the time I blogged about the rally two nights later, it felt surreal. But indelible. I still can’t quite believe that my government shot tear gas into a hospital compound in front of all of us, but I will not stop believing in fairness and kinship we stood for that day.
A few weeks after Bersih 2.0, I attended a vigil for the Emergency Ordinance Six, the same unjustly detained activists whom Rama Ramanathan was supporting in the quote at the top of this post. A few months later, I left for this master’s programme in England.
I don’t fully understand how I have become a graduate student in political science, or how I have come to be entrusted with a monthly column on a public commentary website. Or how I have spent so many years in countries where it is really hard to buy a nonchurchy/boozy wedding card for my beautiful Muslim cousin who is getting married at home the day after Bersih 3.0. I also have no idea whether or not I will get to vote in the upcoming general election: the EC finally says they are processing my absentee ballot application, but they seem to have struck me from the electoral roll in the meantime.
But it would be both futile and ungrateful to discount any of these developments, just as it would be futile and ungrateful to deny either my Malaysianness or my Christianity. Not that I’ve never had the inclination — to present myself as less foreign, less religious, less personally invested in classes, at parties, or on this blog and Facebook — but both Malaysianness and Christianity are far too exciting to confine to pews and protests.
The Bersih 3.0 protests are symbolic. Voting itself is symbolic. But both Bersih and elections have as much practical impact as symbolic weight. And their symbolic weight is considerable.
Malaysia is not the sort of semiauthoritarian state where you do not speak up because you fear for bodily security. Which is a large part of why the political violence at the Bersih 2.0 rally felt unreal. This is not to trivialise the scores of people are abused or killed in lockups on an official’s whim — but to commemorate the many more who speak up.
Yet the incumbent government refuses to listen.
Still, as much as I-who-am-just-getting-used-to-a-smartphone-and-who-pretends-to-dislike-simplistic-observations hates to admit it, the internet has become an invaluable space for open discourse, journalism, and mobilization in Malaysia. Not least because the government retains a formidable grip on mainstream media. And just as the internet as subverted a lot of that chokehold, many of us eager to subvert our pseudodemocracy. Even if it takes hundreds of thousands of rakyat protesting in 80 cities around the world for tanah tumpahnya darah kami, and several more elections fought on highly skewed ground. Not just insha Allah, but because Malaysia boleh. And I’ll be in front of the Malaysian High Commission in London on Saturday.