Man of the Year 2014

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This website has one purpose: to document the entire episode of the raid on the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) by Selangor’s Islamic enforcement department (JAIS) and their seizure of 321 copies of the Malay language and Iban bibles on 2 January 2014. This website’s job was almost completed when the story of the return of the bibles by the Sultan of Selangor on 15 November 2014 was published (story here).

There is one last thing to do: to name the Man of the Year for 2014.

The award of malaysianbible.net’s Man of the Year 2014 goes to the Malaysian Christian who has made the most significant contribution to the cause of the Malaysian Bible in 2014 and who more than anyone else reflects and exemplifies the principles and values taught in the Bible.

This website’s Man of the Year for 2014 is Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok.

Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok

Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok

The Anglican Church’s official website describes him as “Archbishop of South East Asia & Bishop of Kuching.

Bolly, as most Christians call him, was not involved at the start of this incident. Neither was he a member nor an officer of BSM. In August 2014, the Sultan of Selangor in his effort to resolve this incident, decided to return the bibles out of state. It was then that BSM’s new president, Anglican Bishop Datuk Ng Moon Hing, requested Bolly to receive the bibles in Kuching on behalf of BSM.

All went well from the negotiations right up to the royal ceremony at the palace on 15 November 2014 when the bibles were symbolically handed over by the head of MAIS (Selangor’s Islamic Council) to Bolly.

A few weeks later, news broke that the released bibles were stamped by MAIS. Christians protested. Muslims rallied in defence of MAIS. The Sultan had the final word when he made it clear in an interview that he knew and approved of the stamping of the bibles. The issue died down immediately. To further protest the stamping would be to challenge the Sultan himself. However, mouths may be silent but hearts were restless.

It was at this time that Bolly rose to provide spiritual leadership to Malaysia’s Christians. The Star on 13 December 2014 carried this report:

 “Sarawak Archbishop Datuk Bolly Lapok said there was no intention on the part of the authorities releasing the said Bibles to desecrate them or be otherwise disrespectful to the Christian community.

 “In this holy season of Christmas, which Christians, celebrate God’s ultimate generosity to mankind, let us rejoice that this matter has been settled and go forward together to build a future for our nation, which embodies unity, peace and hope,” Bolly said in a statement here yesterday.

 The association, he said, viewed the Sultan of Selangor’s intervention in gaining the release of the Bibles as a demonstration of the muhibbah spirit and an earnest call to Malaysia’s diverse religious communities to live in harmony together.

 “Change is necessary as nations grow and develop.

 “The process must involve continuing dialogue and have it conducted in a manner which affirms mutual learning and respect – the principle of muhibbah,” he said.

This was a brave statement. It did not go down well with Christians brandishing knives in their demand for justice and satisfaction (link).

However, Bolly showed that the spirit of forgiveness and peace was truly in his heart when he preached his Christmas sermon one week later saying:

“We should not be mistaken that the shepherds [in the Christmas story] were oblivious to the politics of the day. They were troubled by political oppression and injustice from the Roman colonisers. I can imagine that in the face of such injustice, their discontent would have been mounting and anger boiling in their hearts at their own helplessness.

“But God intervened with the startling proclamation that a Saviour was born for them. The shepherds did not dismiss this encounter. Instead it moved them to act, to go and see the thing that had happened, and it transformed them into the first evangelists of the church.

 “We too have our own burdens and concerns. It could be harsh political realities, or a constant struggle to make ends meet, or relationship issues. For some the situation could be so hopeless that there is nothing left to live for.

 “Yet Christmas talks about a Saviour born, God with us. Because God is present in the world, there is no person so lonely, no place so forsaken, that God cannot offer forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and mercy, healing and hope.”

 “God’s presence in the world means that nothing could separate us from his love.”

 “Let us rise from our present concerns, fears and burdens and, like the shepherds, be moved to go and see the wonderful thing that has happened.”

Every now and then, God brings challenges to His Church in Malaysia. At the centre of each crisis is a man of God’s choosing, one divinely selected to represent the Christians of Malaysia to not only manage the crisis but also to show the true face of Jesus Christ to Christians as well as the rest of Malaysia.

Bolly could have protested the stamping of the bibles and he would easily have the support of Christians. But that would mean another collision course with the Muslims of Malaysia. Bolly instead chose forgiveness and reconciliation. To some, this was an act of weakness and cowardice. But people who think that have no understanding of Jesus Christ and his teachings. Forgiving requires strength and character. It is not the human thing to do. Forgiveness comes from God and the man who forgives is doing the work of God.

The year long bible issue needed a closure that would not open old wounds again. Bolly’s gestures ended the saga with grace and dignity that was unmistakably Christian and Christlike. Even the head of MAIS was later to admit being touched by Bolly’s magnanimous gesture. Would this be the seed of healing long needed between Muslims and Christians?

Bolly did not preach peace 6 months earlier when he reflected on the assaults by some Muslims on the Christian community. In his Easter sermon on 29 March 2014, this was what he said:

 “Today, we are gathered here in Bandar Sri Aman, a town whose very name means peace. This is indeed an historic assembly. History will surely judge us by what we say and do from today henceforth. We are on a prophetic threshold as children of God.

The Bible reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3:8 that there is a time for war and a time for peace. It seems a paradox that we are called to be peacemakers by our Lord and Saviour Christ Jesus (Matthew 5:9). Yet at the same time we are also to brace ourselves for war. Herein lies the mystery of living out our faith in obedience to our calling as Christians and to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

In the words of a highly respected clergyman, “Because by the grace of God we are defined as family with a call to action in reconciliation, then we have to find not only the call but also the means of being reconcilers, when our instincts and passions often lead us in the opposite direction.”

If the Church is not a place both of conflict and of reconciliation, … it is a failing or failed church. It has ceased to be the miracle of diversity in unity, of the grace of God breaking down walls.

Turning the other cheek is not the right answer in this situation.

With its multi-ethno-religious makeup, Malaysia can present itself as a model to be a miracle of diversity in unity. Unfortunately, the scourge of that ethno-religious strife is fast approaching its flashpoint with extremist elements of political Islam relentlessly stoking the fire of hatred and bigotry.

How then do we live? Some among those who mean well have suggested that when slapped on one cheek we are to offer the other.

 This is half-baked theology if turning the other cheek tantamounts to sending a wrong message to the provocateurs and extremists in political Islam that we are willing to abandon our calling to being peacemakers and reconcilers.

These extremists among political Islam are, in fact, a tyranny by the minority while the rest of us including peace-loving Muslims and non-Muslims, have been sucked into the spiral of silence only to become the suffering majority. Ultimately, it is for all Malaysians of goodwill to ensure that Malaysia is not hijacked by the deluded minority.

To turn the other cheek in these circumstances is indeed to bear false witness to the Gospel of reconciliation itself. This we will not do.”

The Bolly of 29 March was different from the Bolly of 12 December. The important point is this: the evidence of true humility and obedience to God is the willingness to change. It is said that the higher a man is, the harder it is for him to change. A man of courage and conviction has nothing to be ashamed of when the change is a result of following Jesus’ example and His teachings.

Archbishop Bolly Lapok, you are a man called by God to lead His people in Malaysia in the paths of peace. You have acted and spoken admirably in difficult times. You have shown Malaysians who Jesus really is. You have also shown Malaysians that Christians are builders not destroyers and that we have within us the spirit and love that will help this nation overcome its even greater challenges in the coming year.

You are my Man of the Year 2014.

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Recollections: How Did We Get Here? (Part II: Laws and Bans)

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In early 1976, Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, passed away in London when undergoing medical treatment. I remember the date as the university examinations were postponed as a mark of respect. Tun Hussein Onn succeeded him as Prime Minister. Later that year, Hussein Onn announced on live television that he had appointed Dr Mahathir Mohamed as the Deputy Prime Minister. I remember the Prime Minister broke down at one point and wept as he said, “I hope I did not make a mistake.”

Coming back to our subject, why did Terengganu pass an anti-propagation law in 1980?

In 1980, Terengganu was ruled by Barisan Nasional. The Prime Minister at that time was Hussein Onn who was also the leader of BN. However, Hussein Onn’s popularity in UMNO was at a low ebb (Wain, Malaysian Maverick, pp. 39-40). He was also very sick and in early 1981 had to go to London for medical treatment prior to his retirement. In his absence, Dr Mahathir was acting Prime Minister. Terengganu was a backwater state and the state legislative assembly was made up of Muslims. The passage of that law went unnoticed.

In 1980, the country was in transition. It was preparing for a change of leadership. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 gave a new leash of life to many Islamic movements in Malaysia primarily PAS, the Islamic opposition party which back then agitated for an Islamic state. UMNO responded to the claims of PAS, as later events would show, by portraying itself as the true champion of Islam in Malaysia instead of PAS. Later on, the challenge of the country’s most radical Islamic youth movement, ABIM, was neutralised by Mahathir co-opting its leader, Anwar Ibrahim, into UMNO and the Government. In the 1982 general elections, Anwar defeated PAS in their own backyard to win a parliamentary seat.

The passing of the Terengganu law in 1980 was the first demonstration of UMNO’s credentials as Islam’s champion. The war to protect the honour of Islam had begun. The following year in 1981, Kelantan passed a similar law. Kelantan at that time was under the rule of BN since the declaration of emergency in Kelantan in 1977 (by doing so, the Federal government was able to kick out the PAS-led state government).

The next stage was the banning of the Malay Bible. Thus, at the end of 1981, the Home Minister issued an order under the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) to ban the Al-Kitab on the grounds that it was prejudicial to the security of the nation. Why? The Al-Kitab contained words which contravened state laws. An outcry from the Christian community in 1982 led to the Government modifying the ban into a partial ban. Thus, in 1983, a new order was issued by the Home Minister banning the Al-Kitab except for use by Christians in churches.

Thus, the passing of the Terengganu law was necessary to criminalise the Al-Kitab’s use of certain words and provided the justification for the Federal Government to impose a nation-wide ban on the Malay Bible. By doing so, the UMNO-led government would be clearly seen as the champion and protector of Islam in Malaysia.

In 1987, the nation tottered at the brink of communal violence due to an UMNO-MCA dispute over Chinese vernacular schools. Hundreds of people were detained without trial under the ISA. One of the groups of people detained were Christian evangelists accused of propagating Christianity to Muslims. It was in this atmosphere of religious paranoia existing in 1988 that the states of Kedah, Malacca, Perak and Selangor passed laws similar to that passed by Terengganu in 1980. Pahang followed suit a year later and in 1991, Negeri Sembilan and Johor also passed this law. It would be 20 years later in 2002 when Perlis became the the latest state to adopt this law.

By the time the Federal Government took action to systematically restrict the importation of the Al-Kitab in the mid-2000s, they were able to argue that the words in question had been banned for a long time and the Christians had no business using it in their Malay Bible. Furthermore, this argument had been repeated so often in the Malay and Islamic media by UMNO politicians that in the minds of most Malays the word Allah was without doubt the sole preserve of Muslims. A recent survey by the Merdeka Centre showed that 77% of Muslims believe that Christians should not use the word Allah.

Some pointers can be drawn from the above historical treament. Firstly, the ban on the use of the word Allah is the result of politics. Secondly, the danger of non-Muslims using the word was an idea manufactured by a political agenda and implemented by laws and governmental orders to convey the appearance of illegality. Thirdly, the anti-propagation laws were passed by BN-ruled states. Fourthly, when these states fell into the hands of opposition parties (eg. Kelantan, Selangor and Kedah), their was no interest or commitment by the opposition parties to undo these laws or to alleviate its harsh effects.