Sunday, February 17, 2008

Christian Engagement in Politics

By Ong Kian Ming (Source:

Politics? Mention this word in polite Christian company and you’re likely to elicit two kinds of responses - Cynicism, disdain and condescension on the one hand and apathy, ignorance and indifference on the other. The sanitized and white washed walls of the Malaysian church seem too pristine for politics to have any relevance in its midst. And yet, can we be true to our calling as Christians to be ‘salt and light’ to the world if we continue to ignore an area that affects so many aspects of our lives?

Locally, municipal councilors and state assemblymen ensure that rubbish is collected, water is flowing, and drains and roads kept clean. Sometimes they can make a difference whether a dioxin-spewing incinerator is built in our backyard or somewhere less hazardous. Nationally, MPs and ministers are responsible for good governance, political stability, economic development and social welfare. On the religious front, protection of the constitution safeguards our freedom to assemble, to worship and to express ourselves. Yet, we often take these things for granted.

Cynicism that leads to criticisms without action or indifference that discourages positive engagement will result in the continuation of the status quo – where politics is untouched by possible ‘salting’ influence of God’s people.

Why do Christians in Malaysia fear to engage themselves in this arena? Marvin Wong, in his recent book 'Between Friends,' argues that the Malaysian church has remained passive about politics because Christians fear being persecuted. Christians fear sharing the truth, or standing up for the minority, if this means going up against the ruling elite. ‘The result of this is a church that tends to engage with the government only in narrowly defined spheres, namely areas that directly impact itself,’ writes Marvin. ‘But a continuation of this trend will eventually destroy the church’s witness to ‘the world’ and her credibility to speak on behalf of others for truth and justice.’

Indeed, in my own church, which had a negative encounter with the law during ‘Operasi Lallang’ in 1987 where one of our pastors were arrested under the ISA, any talk of political engagement is quickly toned down and the presence of Special Branch officers and the heavy hand of the law often cited as reasons for caution.

The first step to encourage positive engagement in the political arena is to raise the level of awareness on the need for such engagement. And I hope that some of the examples used in the first part of this article have at least tickled your curiosity to think and pray more on this issue.

But perhaps I can afford to be a bit more optimistic when I say that the level of political consciousness among Kairos readers is slightly higher than that of the normal Malaysian Christian. Perhaps the next question that many Kairos readers are pondering is this: ‘How can I make positive contributions and engage in the political arena?’

Great question. There are more ways than people initially reckon to engage constructively and positively in the political arena in this country. (I defined political engagement in this article as engaging with any government authority be it at the local, state or federal level) Indeed, with the proliferation of new technology, the channels open to us to engage has increased to our advantage.

Firstly, we can start positive engagement in our respective workplaces where possible. Many of us work in jobs that require us to deal with government departments and sometimes even politicians. What kinds of standards do we demand of ourselves and of our government counterparts in our engagement with them? Do we acquiesce to the under the table ‘demands’ in return for a speedier processing of our applications or do we stand firm in obeying the letter of the law? Are we tempted to gain an unfair advantage over our competitive rivals in bidding for government projects? How we behave when we deal with government officials is a direct reflection of how much we are ‘salting’ their world.

Some of us might be civil servants ourselves in positions to control how government expenditure is channeled and how government policies are designed in our respective departments. How do we use or abuse these opportunities? Do we take hold of this chance to put in place structures and policies that ensure transparency, good governance, responsiveness, efficiency and checks and balances?

A Christian brother who is a senior civil servant in a policy making arm of the government showed me a plan to enlist the residents in a particular municipality in a major Peninsular Malaysian town onto a website aimed at increasing the responsiveness of the local authority to problems in that area such as clogged drains, fallen tree branches and potholes. If this pilot works, it would drastically improve the service levels currently provided by the municipal councils and local authorities in our areas. Note that this salting effect does not seem to have any obvious ‘spiritual’ contribution to God’s kingdom. Rather the effect is to bring the local community and the local authority closer together.

Two particular professions need to be highlighted because of their unique position in engaging with government actors – lawyers and journalists. Both are in a unique position to bring up cases where injustice has occurred, where abuse of power has taken place, where good corporate governance has not been followed and the list goes on. They can act as checks and balances on the different arms of the government machinery. They can lobby on behalf of those whose voices will not normally be heard. But to do so in the context of Malaysia where there are some existing constraints will require much Godly wisdom and courage. I am encouraged by the example of some Christian lawyers who have not been afraid to work on apostate cases, who speak out for good corporate governance and to stand up against injustice where it has occurred.

Secondly, we can get more involved in the affairs of our local communities to improve our living conditions by cooperating with and keeping accountable our local service providers such as Indah Water, Alam Flora and our local municipalities, just to name a few. Christians should not restrict themselves to the four walls within the church building but should venture out to serve in their ‘Rukun Tetanggas’ (RTs) and their Resident Associations (RAs). I am encouraged by the example of the president of my own Resident Association who is a brother in Christ. He works actively in his own church helping children with learning disabilities and also works tirelessly to look after the needs of the residents in his area by engaging with MPPJ, the local police as well as the local political representatives.

Thirdly, we can voice our own opinions on issues that concern us as individual citizens and as Christians. I observe some familiar names in the letters section of the New Straits Times, The Star and online newspaper whom I know to be brothers and sisters in Christ sharing their opinions on a diverse range of topics from teaching Science and Math in English to the state of tourism in Malaysia to human rights and many others.

I am seeing more and more Christians coming out to share their views in an unapologetic and unashamed manner. More seem to be aware of their rights as citizens and are not afraid to voice them out, many of them through well written and well thought out letters. The recent ban on the Iban bible (which has since been lifted) prompted a barrage of letters on the website criticizing the move. The proliferation of emails, and the Internet has also allowed ordinary citizens including Christians to organize themselves in cyberspace. I set up a petition at as a means to make more Malaysian Christians aware of this issue as well as giving them a channel to voice their concerns. In one week, the number of signatories had increased to 1500. By sending out emails to friends and through yahoogroups, news about this petition spread overseas prompting many Malaysians living overseas to sign up and share their views.

The proliferation of ‘blogs’ or online journals has also made it easier for Christians to post their views cyberspace on issues that concern them ( Yahoogroups allow special interest Christian groups to exchange information on the latest news updates, prayer points and organize meetings online.

Fourthly, we can join NGOs in areas of engagement which we feel most passionate about. These NGOs may or may not be run by Christians or organized along biblical principles. These can range from social concern (Malaysian Care, Malaysian Aids Council) to human rights (SUARAM, HAKAM, ERA Consumer) to women’s issues (AWAM, NCWO) and so on. Kairos itself is a Christian NGO that tries to provide resources for people to think about how to engage with wider society. NECF too provides resources and research in areas and policies that affect the church and beyond.

Fifthly, we can take the step of joining political parties and engage in the political process directly. It is not possible for everyone who joins political parties to be state assembly representatives or Member of Parliament nor should Christians go into the political process thinking they can only contribute if they are YBs. Christians who enter into the political process should have their eyes wide open. They should constantly examine their motives on why they feel called to contribute to the political process directly. They should be serving a wider agenda, not only of their own narrow political interests or that of the party that they belong to. That agenda should be God’s agenda or what He has impressed on these individuals to do for Him in their respective political parties.

I’m encouraged to see committed Christians such as Lee Hwa Beng (MCA), Tan Kee Kwong (GERAKAN), Teresa Kok (DAP) who are involved in the political process as either state representatives or MPs straddling different political beliefs. I’m also encouraged to see a crop of younger Christians who feel called to serve God in this area.

Sixthly, and lastly, we should continue to uphold our political leaders in prayer. We should pray that God would continue to give them wisdom in the administration and running of the country. We should not just restrict ourselves to praying for the leaders in government i.e. the BN although the burden of running the country sits heaviest on them. We should also pray for the political leaders in opposition including PAS (which runs the states of Kelantan and Terengganu), Keadilan and the DAP for them to exercise their wisdom in their role as opposition representatives.

And if you are convicted of the need for Christian engagement in the political arena, pray too that God will show you how he wants to use you in this area.

About the author:

Ong Kian Ming currently works for a non-profit think tank that does work in nation building. God willing, He hopes to do his PhD in political science in the US next year.


1 comment:

The Hedonese said...

Everything is politics but politics is not everything