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Peace in the name of God

Published in The Sun on 3 February 2014

IN THE current Allah controversy, no logical, legal or constitutional arguments can appease the Christians and Muslims who believe their religious rights have been violated. Each side will stubbornly argue that there has been an encroachment into their particular religious territory by the other. They believe their faith is being threatened.

To the Christians, the ban on the use of the word Allah in the Malay Bible is unacceptable as, historically, the Malay-speaking Catholics of Sabah and Sarawak have always used the word in their practice and worship of Christianity. Among them, the ban is widely seen as an unconstitutional move to curb the religious freedom guaranteed in the Federal Constitution.

To the Muslims, the word Allah exclusively defines the oneness of God in Islam. They cannot accept that it can be extended to refer to the trinitarian concept of God in Christianity. Generally, Muslims are taking the stand that it is their right to defend an Islamic doctrine.

Public discourse in the English media is inclined towards the argument that the word Allah is a generic Arabic term to refer to the universal God of all religions.

The evidence quoted is that the word has been used by Arab Christians and Arab Muslims for centuries and is not exclusive to Muslims. That the Bible uses interchangeable terms such as “Father”, “The Lord”, “God Almighty” has not been highlighted.

Malay Muslim discourse, on the other hand, upholds the exclusivity of Allah in referring to God in Islam. It is argued that in Malaysia, the Arabic word Allah has acquired a specific meaning. It has become the term Malay Muslims use to refer to God not only in their readings of the Quran in Arabic but more widely in their prayers and worship of Islam in Malay. Thus their objection to the use of Allah to refer to the Christian God.

At the root of the impasse is the inability of Malaysian Christians and Muslims to understand one another’s sensitivities. The confrontational approach in seeking a legal redress over the matter will only lead to greater bitterness as each side is seen to be losing or winning. To the Muslims, lifting the ban would be sacrilegious to their religion. To the Christians, disallowing the use of Allah is a violation of their constitutional rights.

It does not help that the officials and religious leaders representing Christianity and Islam have been adamant in their respective stands. Their uncompromising attitude has opened the door to the most belligerent among their supporters to stage protests and demonstrations.

Religious leaders on both sides must be prepared to engage one another in a more magnanimous and compassionate manner to come to a compromise. Muslim leaders must acknowledge the historical evidence that in Sabah and Sarawak, the Malay-speaking Catholics use Allah in their reading of the Indonesian Malay translation of the Bible and should be allowed to continue doing so. Christian Catholic leaders, on the other hand, must see to it that the Bible translation is updated and edited to ensure there is no confusion in the references that arise from the use of Allah in a Christian text or area of worship.

Malay Muslims should not feel intimidated, rather they should feel honoured that Christians want to refer to the Christian God as Allah. They should see this as an opportunity to clarify the doctrine of monotheism in Islam in contrast to the concept of the trinity in Christianity. A show of compromise and magnanimity by Christians in Selangor is perhaps to concede that out of respect for the Sultan’s ban on the use of Allah, the congregation of East Malaysian Catholics can be persuaded to revert to “Tuhan” (God) or “Bapak” (Father) as terms which are interchangeable with Allah. Out of this peaceable compromise, both Muslims and Christians will be better educated in the doctrines and beliefs of one another’s faith.

It’s obvious that compromises are reached more easily among the better educated and exposed. It is apparent, too, that not everyone has the same level of knowledge and reasoning to be able to understand complex religious matters. The most belligerent among religious followers are usually those that are either ignorant or have been led astray, advertently or otherwise, by religious leaders.

Closed-door meetings and small-group sessions can pave the way for larger, more harmonious engagements between Muslims and Christian. Community and religious leaders must come together at a retreat or an interfaith convention where issues surrounding the Allah controversy are discussed in a peaceable manner.

When people are able to engage openly, much of the suspicions and prejudices will be removed. They can then try to convince their community of followers and supporters to approach the subject rationally and peacefully. It goes without saying that the moderators and mediators must be people who are highly respected members of the community.








Published in The Sun on 6 January 2014

THE government has announced 11 cost-cutting measures to manage its ministries and departments more prudently. Trimming down on the lavish spending of public money is long overdue.

While cuts in the entertainment allowances, travel and toll entitlements of the higher grades of civil servants are exemplary, they do not add up to much in terms of government savings.

The government’s cost-cutting measures are thus seen by some as merely cosmetic, being too little and coming too late. To many, they are moves to allay the people’s unhappiness and fears.

What needs more drastic pruning is the big-time allocations given to ministries and departments to organise public events and programmes. Government departments must adopt more cost-effective ways of organising their activities and stop doling out unnecessary entertainment, food, drink and other goodies.

The government machinery will run more productively if office meetings, in-house workshops and seminars are uninterrupted by breaks for refreshments where food and drink is served. Off-site training programmes and study visits at home and abroad must be kept to a minimum and stringently approved.

Huge official delegations with accompanying entourage on overseas missions contribute to government overspending and must be reviewed.

The wastage and mismanagement revealed in the Auditor-General’s Report seem even more reprehensible now as the rakyat face rising living costs.

To the public, announcements of cuts in subsidy, toll hike, increase in quit rent and electricity tariff coming in quick succession mean only one thing – the spiralling cost of living with the expected increase in the cost of goods and services.

To the average person this means big dents in personal and family budgets; to the lower-income groups this spells great hardships as they struggle to put food on the table.

More special schemes must be put in place to distribute food and basic necessities to the needy. In India, for instance, the central and state governments work hand in hand to provide food security to the poor through public distribution schemes.

Those eligible are given ration cards or stamps to buy food at below market prices. By collaborating with established humanitarian organisations such as Red Crescent Malaysia and Mercy Malaysia to manage distribution, the schemes initiated by the government can be properly run and supervised as in the recent flood relief efforts.

There can be many more special funds for the needy which calls for donations from the more affluent public to contribute to what can be looked upon as a humanitarian cause.

In support of the government’s call for prudence, the GLCs and corporate sector should also adopt cost-cutting measures in company spending, including for travel, entertainment, food, gifts, etc.

Company events such as product launching and award giving can continue but with less fanfare, pomp and ceremony. To show that they are sensitive to national issues and empathise with the plight of consumers hard-hit by rising costs, their CSR priorities can be channelled towards schemes that provide aid for food and other basic necessities.

This will ensure that in the short term the most vulnerable groups are cushioned from the blows of the nation’s financial and economic woes.

For the average income earners, the new year also means adopting cost-cutting measures in managing our personal and family budgets.

More prudent spending will require greater financial discipline as we look for cost-saving options. We have to change some of our habits and lifestyle patterns to become more discriminating and selective consumers.

This means comparing prices and shopping around for the best bargains for food and clothing and managing household utilities more carefully.

Household electricity consumption, for example, can be reduced by analysing our usage and cutting down on unnecessary use and wastage. Switch off electrical appliances including televisions and computers when not in use. Use energy efficient lights such as fluorescent lights or energy saving lamps.

Train ourselves to be informed consumers who read energy labels and ask for assistance in choosing the right energy saving equipment. In buying a fridge for instance, make sure we get the right size and model to suit our family’s needs. A good habit is to follow the energy saving tips that come with every electrical appliance.

This year can be seen as a wake-up call for Malaysians to be more frugal as the country faces financial challenges. Admittedly, some of them are caused by years of overdevelopment and indiscriminate spending.

The euphoric, feel-good factor created by abundant economic opportunities has created a society which is profit-driven and materialistic, where a person’s worth is measured by economic success.

Perhaps 2014 will mark the beginning of a new era when Malaysians take stock of their priorities and change their ill-gotten habits and values. Perhaps we will become less greedy as we face the challenge of making our ringgit and sens meet.





Published in The Sun on 23 December 2013

MORE and more, inter-faith and inter-religious dialogues are being organised to bring together leaders of the world’s major religions to address ways of promoting peace and unity among mankind. While a major part of the discourse centres around identifying commonalities across the religions and focusing on the universal values and ideals, there also arises the need to pinpoint the uniqueness of each faith and belief system. Often the outcome is an impasse as spiritual leaders and adherents speak about the exclusiveness and autonomy of their own religion.

What deserves a more definitive approach is an explication of the underlying oneness that all religions teach ie its core spirituality. Religion relates an individual with his or her specific community; but its core spirituality relates us all.

Core spirituality is the basis of shared human values and must form the basis of a shared value system. Without being anchored in spirituality – as opposed to religion – the teaching of human values lacks meaning and depth.

An important aspect of the inter-faith and inter-religious heritage that has been overlooked despite its great significance, is the spiritual heritage of mankind. Humans are inherently imbued with a spirituality that leads them to search for greater meaning in life than just the physical and tangible. People across the world have this common goal and must come together in its pursuit. It is a significant gap that has to be bridged in the interest of promoting peace and harmony on earth.

The question is this: Why has such an important aspect of human civilisation and advancement been ignored? Religion after all transcends material culture, resonating with man’s deepest needs, providing guidance and hope and relating to meaning systems that lie at the very core of his existence.

The reason for such an omission could well be that religion has largely been perceived to be the private concern of the individual, especially in the West. A particular religion and its teachings have for too long been seen as the exclusive concern of individuals or groups professing and claiming “ownership” of their respective religions.

There is a need for a more concerted effort to articulate the essence of man’s oneness, to reach out, educate and influence people to use their religiosity/spirituality for the collective advancement of human civilisation. It is a choice that people have and it is important to guide the choice, as religion is a double edged sword that can be used either to advance or destroy our civilisation. It can be used either to ennoble the human spirit, or fill it with hatred and violence.

As we know, the result of religious divisiveness is turmoil and warfare. The world is said to be on the brink of annihilation at a time when the scientific and technological means for world peace and unity hold unprecedented promise for a glorious future. The widespread sectarian animosity, violence, persecution and killings in the name of religion have assumed catastrophic proportions lending weight and credence to the fear that today, religion which has science and technology at its disposal for achieving good, poses the greatest threat to world peace and human civilisation.

Since this is a choice that will determine the fate of mankind, it cannot be a choice that is simply thrown to the people or their religious and political leaders in the name of democracy. The choice must be initiated, guided and monitored by a movement that will take the discourse several notches higher in order to establish a fuller, deeper understanding of the notion of “spiritual heritage of mankind”. By exploring the universal values of spirituality underlying Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and the other religions, a consensus can be reached as to what constitutes the core spiritual values that effectively foster peace and unity among mankind.

To the sceptics grown weary of too much talk which has not been translated into action, I say there’s hope yet if there are enough of us who care to sit down at ground level to share our common experiences. To the critics wary of the growing divisiveness across and within religious communities, I say do not perpetuate the “slam and damn” culture by adding to fear and suspicion.

The cure for society’s ills lies in its spiritual transformation where the traditional ethics and moral codes of our religions amalgamate and form the basis of our national ethos. A vital part of our quest for peace and unity lies in spiritual values such as love, kindness and compassion which all religions teach must be revitalised into contemporary forms which people can translate into their everyday life. The spiritual transformation of society starts with the individual who lives out these values which then permeates his family, community and the outer society.






Published in The Sun on 9 December 2013


EARLY next year I’m hoping to launch rather belatedly a book, an autobiography published in 1982 and revised almost 30 years later in 2011.

Why the bother some will ask since it has already passed its expiry date? Who would be interested in reading the memoirs of a man who is not in the public eye? Why the need to revive an old publication when the author is long gone and the narrative history?

Well, the simple answer is that it is the very elements of history and heritage in the book that make it worth a second run and a second read.

A few things about the book are interesting. First, the author started writing his memoirs on his 71st birthday, long after retirement when he had more time to reflect on his life and remember the significant moments.

This was when there was uninterrupted quiet for long periods to tap painstakingly on the old typewriter and keep the tales coherently organised, the facts correctly referenced and the language meticulously checked.

Second, a memoir written late in life has a much mellower flavour and is richer in its contents. It represents a collection of old world experiences and retrospective insights into the life and times of people from a past era.

Third, it provides the backdrop to much of the old values and traditions and connects it with the new. So to those who are planning to write their life stories, be inspired that it is never too late and that your narratives are indeed relevant.

Dr Mohamed Said: My Early Life will therefore appeal to readers who appreciate the sense of history the book evokes. Set against the background of tiny kampung Linggi at the turn of the 20th century, the first half of the book recounts traditional Malay life with all its vicissitudes and shortcomings, yet filled with the dignity and honour of the folks who inhabit it.

It offers us a glimpse into rural Malay life with its myriad customs and traditions at a time when Malaya was an undeveloped British colony. The author vividly describes the socio-cultural and religious milieu of the era and helps us to understand better the shaping of the psyche of a small community of Malays.

To those unfamiliar with rural Malaya then, the book depicts with much candour and directness the minds and hearts of orang Bugis Linggi in their everyday concerns. It would not be wrong to say that it accurately describes the life of other groups of rural Malays in modern Malaysia today, a century on.

The stories told may be mundane to some and dismissed by others if not for the author’s superb use of the English language which makes the writing worth a study in itself.

Perhaps, expressing himself in a neutral language allows the author to remove unnecessary emotional baggage, the yearning (rindu) which accompanies a lot of literary writings in Malay.

Reminiscing the premature death of his father at 35 when he was only five years old, he writes:

“Thus died a father whom I had not yet learned to love, but who, I was later told by my mother, loved me very much. Later as an orphan I gradually began to understand the disadvantage of not having a father to guide me and save me from the humiliation which I felt whenever well-meaning people gently rubbed my head in sympathy over my orphaned state.”

One wonders how this matter of factness would have been expressed if the author had written in Malay.

The second half of the book treads on more familiar territory – that of English education from where the author acquired his literary penchant and writing skills.

At 12 years old he was transposed to the world of an elite institution, the Malay College Kuala Kangsar, modelled in the tradition of the best boarding schools in England.

It was in this educational environment that rural boys like him were taught by dedicated schoolmasters whose vocation it was to instil in their young students the best learning experiences.

It was in the language and literature classes that his love for reading was nurtured and was translated years later into the desire to write in the best of English styles.

There is no doubt that it was this grounding in an education which stressed the importance of excellence not only in one’s academic pursuits but also in character, principles and moral values that bred several generations of outstanding Malayan/Malaysian public servants and professionals.

It was the role models and mentors in the persons of sympathetic and caring relatives and teachers described so vividly by the author that instilled in the young of his generation admirable traits and attitudes.

All in all, a sense of real history and heritage. All in all, a good read.




Published in The Sun on 25 November 2013

WHENEVER corruption in the public sector is talked about in Malaysia, the agencies that are perceived to be among the most susceptible are the Police, Immigration, Customs, JPJ (Jabatan Pengangkutan Jalan). The Fire Department and Income Tax Department are also named as are the various departments handling government procurement.

No prizes for guessing as these are the agencies and departments that have regular, face-to-face dealings with the public. They issue permits, approve licences and award projects, and in the case of non-compliance impose summonses, determine fines and execute raids and arrests.

A large part of servicing the public also involves handling appeals and reviews. Underscoring these transactions on paper are of course the monetary considerations, some resulting in great losses or huge gains for the individuals and their cohorts.

Public service involves layers of direct negotiations with the people where subjective decisions sometimes have to be made by the civil servant. It is at this point that his duty to assist members of the public may be interpreted as their obligation to reciprocate with thanks. This is where the open spirit of give and take underlying Malaysia’s multicultural traditions may lead to the clandestine giving and taking in the form of bribery and corruption.

While the overriding argument is that public servants have a moral obligation to carry out their work without fear or favour, the public have to be equally responsible by not tempting them with bribes. In the equation of bribery and corruption, the giver is as guilty as the taker. Unless and until Malaysians stop giving bribes, the culture of corruption will continue shamelessly. Who, then, do you point your fingers at?

I would like to share a perspective on corruption contributed by a young Facebook friend TZK:

“Many Malaysians claim the moral high ground by saying they do not practise corruption and hence have the right to voice out their grouses against the establishment for corrupt practices. They regularly cast aspersions on the effectiveness and efficiency of the MACC, the country’s anti-corruption agency.

“There are a few questions these moralists need to answer before condemning the MACC for not catching the “big fish”.

If you know that:

your friends and colleagues are involved in corrupt practices, would you turn him/her in to the MACC?

your superior/manager/director is involved in corrupt practices, would you turn him/her in to the MACC?

your family members, i.e. your siblings, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles are involved in corrupt practices, would you turn him/her in to the MACC?

And if you turn in all the above persons to the MACC, would you be willing to stand in the witness dock to testify against them in court?

“If your answer is “Yes” to all the four questions, you are indeed a moral person. If you have answered “Maybe” or “No” to any of the questions, you might want to reconsider your accusations before hurling them at the MACC.

“The MACC is the enforcement body tasked with fighting corruption, and its personnel as well as affiliated panels and boards ensure its independence and integrity in doing so.

However, much as the anti-corruption efforts are carried out officially at the level of reporting and investigating to come up with evidence and proof that a corrupt act can be ascertained, a lot of information still lies in the hands of the Malaysian public.

“The real problem is if the people themselves condone corruption by choosing not to cooperate with the authorities, is it fair to blame the enforcement agencies and the justice system for failing to put the corrupted Malaysians behind bars? The key witnesses in a corruption trial are often people who are close to the accused. If they are not prepared to testify in court there is a high likelihood that the case will be dismissed and the corrupted person will get away scot free.

“Corruption exists in every society to a lesser or greater degree. Corrupt people are found anywhere in the world – Singapore, Hong Kong, UK, US, Africa, China and Australia. The difference between Malaysians and citizens of the countries where corruption has been greatly reduced lies in the fact that they are better educated about the pitfalls of corruption. The main difference is that they are willing to cooperate with the enforcement agencies – not to break the laws but to reinforce them with a greater civic consciousness. They understand that to eradicate corruption, the people themselves must be law abiding in all aspects of their lives. The people’s will is all important.

“So before we judge others, look at the man in the mirror. If we are true advocates of a corruption-free society, play a positive role in the anti-corruption war as we are the real soldiers on the ground. If corruption-ridden Hong Kong can do it so can Malaysia”.





Published in The Sun on 11 November 2013

IT is tempting to look at “moderation” as the anthithesis to “extremism”, a term which in recent years grew to be associated more and more with religious extremism, in particular Islamic fundamentalism.

The spate of violent acts committed by people in and from the Muslim countries lent weight to the perception that terrorism was a religious phenomenon and that Islamic terrorism was a growing threat to society.

9/11 was the turning point when the whole world was focused on the dastardly acts of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists and their organisations.

Acts of extremism by a tiny minority of Muslims came to be seen as a reflection of the whole of the Islamic faith. Muslim countries including those in Southeast Asia which had a high number of Muslims were looked upon as the “nexus of evil” and as potential dens for harbouring these extremists.

The unprecedented rise of skepticism against Islam led, in some countries, to the backlash of witch hunting and persecution better known as Islamophobia.

Paradoxically, instead of allaying fears it led to greater religious bigotry as zealous adherents of all faiths set up protective barriers to insulate themselves against perceived threats, or to retaliate against real injustice.

Discrimination on the grounds of religious differences quickly became a 21st century reality unashamedly practiced by some of the world’s most advanced nations.

Among the victims, it ironically provided the most fertile grounds for greater extremism. As acts of violence committed by people from other denominations were publicised, it became obvious that zealotary was not the prerogative of Muslims.

It was spread across the most marginalised and deprived communities manifesting itself in violent uprisings among different religious groups. Indeed, poverty and dire need lead to dire consequences.

Extremism has made its way into the daily lives of people as they are defined by their religious, socio-cultural, political and economic status.

Following similar paths, different kinds of stances have emerged such as political extremism, ethnic extremism, environmental extremism, human rights and animal rights extremism each defining societal causes, each asserting its particular identity and each with its own potential for bigotry. Ultimately, any belief or cause can give rise to extremism when its proponents have closed minds.

A large part of the global understanding of moderation must therefore be embedded in the concept of reconciliation where the rejection of extremism is matched by a return to moderation. There is a pressing need to remind the world that moderation runs through the heart of the great religions.

In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad counsels that “moderation is the best of actions”; in Christianity the Bible says “let your moderation be known unto all men”; the Torah teaches people of the Jewish faith that moderation in all things is a “way of life”.

In the Eastern faiths, Buddhists are urged to follow “the middle way”, to the Chinese Taoists and Confuscianists, the “ying” and “yang” principles define life’s balance.

It has become imperative for the universal values of spirituality inherent in the philosophies of world religions to be propelled into greater prominence. Values in our common spiritual heritage must be revived and used as a positive force to mediate differences and dispute.

Ancient wisdoms in advocating harmony, equilibrium and balance must be used as the basis for moderation.

Lest the discourse on moderation becomes merely academic and tautological, the concept of “moderation” itself must be given a working definition to allow it to be developed at the more practical level of policy and programmes by governments and the organisations that champion the cause.

It appears as though the old middle paths of tolerance and accommodation, conciliation and cooperation are no longer sufficient to mediate major differences in ideologies and visions, values and principles.

To work strategically on the ground, moderation must be understood in terms of the principles of compromise and collaboration.

In resolving conflict and solving impasses at the socio-cultural, political and economic levels, the middle path is one of negotiating outcomes that are acceptable to the dissenting/competing groups.

Sometimes, it is necessary to come to a compromise where each group is prepared to concede in the short term in order to gain in the long term.

For deeply sensitive issues, it is best that mediation comes in the form of a spiritual commitment to peace, conscience and reason. There may be contexts where people’s beliefs are best left where they are. Perhaps Barry Goldwater was right in thinking that “on religious issues there can be little or no compromise”.

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