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Crying out for a changemaker

Publication Date : 10-01-2014

 

There I was, fresh from an eye surgery, a patch over one eye, and reading the newspaper again after a break of a couple of days.

And the news wasn’t good. Then again, maybe it was.

There was the sad controversy that’s coming to a boil in the country as religious leaders have a falling out over what to call God.

It’s a controversy so intense that it threatens to completely overshadow the more important bread-and-butter issues the country is facing — like how Malaysians are going to cope with the price hikes that are already beginning to hit us.

The price of mandarin oranges has gone up; coffee and tea are costing more. Even the mee (noodle) sellers are smacking their lips, and it’s not because their food is oh so tasty.

But, like I said, there was good news.

There was Marina Mahathir and Co, standing up for what they felt — and I agree with them — was right. That we should not be fighting each other over religion.

Religion has always been about peace, about civilising the wild hunter-gatherer Man, not about one being greater than the other. Only God is great.

And then, there was news of a group called Science of Life Studies (SOLS) 24/7 or ChangeMakers, whose aim is to teach English to those who lack the skills.

They are roping in young people who have just finished their SPM (Malaysian Certificate of Education, o-level equivalent), giving them training and sending them out to teach in communities near their homes.

It is a noble effort — and one that brings back a flood of memories for yours truly.

I, too, was roped in to teach English after completing my SPM. A girl — her name was Elizabeth — asked me to and I agreed, not so much because I wanted to teach but because a pretty girl had asked.

The classes were held in Jalan Sungai Pinang, a narrow road in Penang that then had cowsheds, flats and shanty homes fighting for space with shophouses, a school and many other buildings.

And there was the church. A little church by the side of the road, blanketed out by the many buildings around it.

It was here, at the Church of St John Britto, that the lessons were held. The parish priest was Father Arsene Rigothier, a Frenchman who had settled in Malaysia and learnt the local languages. I am told he even conducted mass in Tamil!

The students, incidentally, were mainly poor Indian Muslims from around the area. Many of them have now gone on to become successful businessmen (one of them is a chicken trader in Ipoh, last I heard).

Some of the students came for classes not because of the lessons but because of the bread, biscuits and Milo that were served during the class break. They were that poor!

So, there we were — a Hindu teaching Muslims English in a Christian church run by a Frenchman who spoke Tamil. It can’t get much more mixed up than that.

Yet I don’t think any of us were “confused” — a term that seems very much in vogue these days. I believe that every one of those children who attended classes at the church remains a Muslim to this day.

I have also, on occasion, helped to cut the wafers for the holy communion but have never received it.

You see, I too remain an “unconfused” Hindu. Come next week, I will be among the thousands of kavadi-bearers who will be fulfilling their vows at the Waterfall Hilltop temple in Penang.

It wasn’t just the church that opened its doors to others. The Sungai Pinang mosque was — and is — just a stone’s throw away. And during Hari Raya Korban (we called it Hari Raya Haji), cows and goats would be slaughtered.

The mosque members would then hand out the meat to the poor. First, though, they would ask if you were Hindu or Muslim. The Hindus got the chevon (there’s your English lesson — goat meat is called chevon, not mutton) and the Muslims got the beef.

That was the almost utopian Malaysia that I grew up in, one that now seems lost to us forever.

Today, there are those who would fight over the name of God, the nameless one and the one who has an infinite number of names. And there are those who would use any kind of force to have others submit to their will.

There are those who will never agree to disagree and then, there are the politicians who have to jostle for positions to be on the right side of their vote bank.

Meanwhile, the country goes down a dangerous road. It would do us all much good to have strong-willed leadership on both sides of the divide to take us away from this slippery slope.

 

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