April 2014


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I spent this past week somewhere in Mindanao, at a beautiful private resort high up on the slope of Mt Apo; the highest mountain in the Philippines. The facility was built by a Filipino man as a private get-away for his family but he allows select groups to use it, free of charge for ministry purposes. The majestic views, peaceful surroundings and lush gardens were really quite astounding with plenty of quiet little gazebos and sitting areas to think and pray. It is beyond the end of the maintained roads and definitely “off the grid” so there was no electricity, only a generator that was turned on a few hours each evening, to pump water for showers. Unfortunately, the water hose to our room was damaged so we only managed to fill a small bucket with water, for three women to share for bathing and flushing each day.

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The event was the first meeting of the Sub-regional CHE Working Group, consisting of representatives from Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, to explore more effective ways to work together to reach our respective communities. The conference was very well organized with a nice balance of year end updates, new learning, spiritual retreat as well as practical demonstration through a visit to a developing organic farm managed by our host from Well of Life. As I work largely alone, it is always so encouraging to spend time with others who share my burden and passion and have much wisdom gained through many years of experience in community development.

In terms of practical learning, we worked our way through a curriculum on Disaster Preparedness and Mitigation developed as in-service training for the Peace Corp. The modules provided processes for identifying hazards, risks and vulnerabilities in order to prepare for potential disasters, as well as short and long term interventions to be implemented during and after a catastrophic event. These will be adapted to CHE lessons to train front line workers and community members in for the vulnerable communities in which we serve.

This was not an easy trip in that it required a full days travel in each direction, but was well worth the effort. When I look at the needs of so many in SE Asia, it is easy to be overwhelmed by my own total inability to address the situation and it is equally distressing to look at the failed efforts of the powers of the world to address needs in the well publicized “War on Poverty”. We were reminded by the guest speaker of the story of the Burning Bush in which God showed up and addressed Moses by name, creating a holy place in which Moses was reminded of God’s commitment to His people. God’s nature was revealed in the fact that He has heard their cry and is aware of the suffering of the oppressed and promises deliverance.

Ironically, God chose Moses, a weak and fearful individual, to go to Pharaoh and lead the people to the place freedom and provision. God also promised to strengthen, guide and protect Moses in the task before him. It is only as God steps in that the real needs of the people can be addressed and this is what gives meaning and hope to the work of CHE in this region and keeps me going.
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IDEAS ( Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs ) was founded in 2010 as a Malaysian think tank dedicated to promoting market based solutions to public policy challenges. One of the major initiatives supported by this group is IDEAS Academy and last evening we enjoyed a fund raiser for the Academy which was held at the home of the Dutch Ambassador to Malaysia. The Academy recently received endorsement and support from the UNHCR which has a goal to have 1 million stateless and refugee youth worldwide in secondary school by 2016.

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IDEAS Academy well open in August as a secondary learning center for the under privileged youth in the core of KL many of whom are stateless and thus not entitled to education in this country. This is one of the projects that Taylors, Steve and a number of the Canadian staff have been involved with, providing input into curriculum development. When the center opens some of the Canadian teachers will volunteer their time to teach core curriculum and mentor local teachers.

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We thoroughly enjoyed the evening on a gorgeous patio and yard with an actual lawn, sharing ideas with others from many organizations who share our passion to change the future for young people and families in this country. This is a huge problem, not just in Malaysia, but many countries in this part of the world as economic and politic refugees flee poverty, oppression and violence in the country of their birth. Malaysia has half a million registered refugees, and probably four times that number who are flying under the radar. It is also home to a large and growing population of expats who are looking to do some good in the world. Hopefully we can be part of getting those two groups together.

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Andy Crouch, editor of Christianity Today, and author of Culture Making makes the point in his book that changing culture can only happen at the community level. May I respectfully disagree? I know I don’t have the qualifications of Dr Crouch, nor the background in cultural studies, but I would like to contribute my own thoughts on this subject.

I have read through this book and I do agree with the author that Jesus was a cultural confronter and a culture changer on a national level. But what I see in the gospels is the amount of time that Christ put in to changing individual people. Every confrontation was a confrontation with an individual. It might have been a person in cultural authority, but it was a person. His disciples were people, chosen by Him, and these are the people that He changed. It was through these people that cultural change came about, first in Jerusalem, then throughout the Roman Empire.

Let me bring this down to a personal example. I watched my wife as she interacted with our young children, and again now as she interacts with our grandchildren. I think she is a culture changer. I don’t think she would come to the attention of Dr Crouch, or anyone outside her own family but she has my attention. I watched how she would take a cranky, unmanageable child, and turn him incrementally into a loving and capable little boy. There is nothing she wouldn’t do to bring this about.

It was my wife who taught our children a sense of adventure; that learning to splash in the water was fun and not something to be afraid of. And when they cried when they got wet, she would cheer and encourage them so that they learned to deal with the small bit of adversity they faced until the next challenge. Then she would scold and nudge and cheer and encourage them through that as well. She was patient and comforting when they were upset, but she would never smother them, teaching them that they could face a bit of distress and learn how to manage it. When they were injured she would tend to them competently, but she would never make big deal of it and taught them to face pain with humour and courage, as she herself did.

She taught them how to read and how to take enjoyment in learning. It was never a chore, but always a joyous adventure that she enabled, cuddling them in her lap and delighting in their discovery. She always let them take the lead in learning, suggesting and directing their attention, never forcing anything upon them that wasn’t their natural inclination. She empowered and supported them as they grew, giving them safe boundaries. She taught them how to deal with being unhappy, and refused to allow them to develop sour or demanding dispositions, keeping them thinking and acting in positive directions.

In my humble opinion we do not give women enough credit for the cultural change agents that they are. In some countries women are denied education and work opportunities and saddled with large families which they must raise almost single-handed. The result is a culture of ignorance and repression; male-dominated cultures marked by oppression and violence. In cultures where women are free to obtain an education and are themselves empowered, they empower children that bring about educated and empowered societies.

Perhaps I misunderstand the point that Dr Crouch is making about cultural change, and he is certainly well qualified to write on the subject. But then again, perhaps he is missing what is so obvious in front of him as well. Through whom did God announce the birth of His Son? And to whom did Christ reveal Himself after His resurrection? In both cases was it not women? In a male dominated culture, was not God saying something fundamentally important about the role of women in changing culture? Are we missing the obvious?

malaysia-airlines-mh370Malaysia has suffered a severe blow to its national pride with the loss of MH370 and all its 239 souls on board. Although tempers have flared and accusations have been fired at the end of the first month little has helped the friends and families of those aboard to understand not only what happened, but why Malaysia allowed it to happen. The plane left its scheduled flight path. It flew back across Malaysian airspace.

Would the military authorities who are tasked with the oversight of Malaysian airspace have allowed the plane to fly into the Petronas Twin Towers without questioning its altered flight path or seeking to intercept its flight? Doesn’t their lack of knowledge indicate a huge failure to exercise their responsibility? And if they did know that the plane deviated from its path but didn’t let other nations know, doesn’t that make them responsible for allowing other nations to conduct a fruitless search in the South China Sea for a week at the cost of millions of dollars and precious time wasted while the black box pinger lost battery life?

Acting Transportation Minister Hashammuddin has been doing a creditable job in dealing with the fallout on national television every night. He is thoughtful and compassionate, and – most unusual for this country – he can think on his feet and respond to questions without having to refer to the government approved script. But Hashammuddin shouldn’t be in a hurry to leave his day job, for while he is Acting Transportation Minister, his permanent ministerial job is Minister of Defense, heading the same department that either failed to notice or failed to notify other nations that the plane had left its course and had flown back over the country!

Now there is an encouraging lead regarding the black box pinger. If the plane is found as a result of this lead, it would be a most fortuitous event for the pinger is due to expire any minute. It would allow families to gain some closure for their grief, and perhaps might even allow the rest of us some insight into why this plane went missing in the first place. For my speculations on what happened – and I caution that they are just that, speculations and nothing more – read my post from a week or so ago. I would be interested in your thoughts and speculations as well. See: https://spwise.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/mh370-flight-plan/

I had occasion to pay my respects yesterday at the wake held in the home of Irene Fernandez just around the corner from the College. It was touching to see and read all the comments left, especially from the Bangladeshis who are most shabbily treated in this country. They considered her their ‘mother’ and wonder what will become of them now she is gone. I can think of no finer tribute to this heroic human spirit than to republish her last article on the issue of domestic labourers, written just a few months ago:

December 23, 2013, The Malay Mail.

“By agreeing that recruitment agents should be given the power to resolve the deep-rooted issues surrounding the recruitment of domestic workers, the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia have demonstrated that they believe that the lives, dignity and rights of Indonesian women should be placed in the clutches of agents and recruitment companies whose main purpose is to maximise the amount of profit they can make through the trade of women’s labour. According to the reports in the Malaysian media both governments maintain that market forces should determine the recruitment and wages of domestic workers, and that the details of the process should be handled by recruitment agencies.

“If we had any doubt that domestic workers have been turned into commodities for export, the doubt is cleared in the following statement by the Malaysian Human Resources Minister, Richard Riot: “The government-to-government method did not seem to work and (the problem would) be better handled at business-to-business level as the factor here is the money”.

“How can money be the deciding factor when this entire process affects the rights and lives of women? Are domestic workers now “on sale”, to be bargained and traded as commodities to the highest bidder sanctioned and approved by the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia?

“Recruitment agents have been key culprits in violating the rights of domestic workers. They have:
● falsified the age of young girls so that they can work “legally” as domestic workers;
● stripped and searched domestic workers upon arrival in Malaysia to ensure they do not have information of support services or organisations they can contact for help on them;
● threatened domestic workers with arrest, detention and deportation if they do not remain subservient to their employers even when she is abused;
● failed to produce clear contracts between the domestic worker and the employer so that both are clear of their responsibilities and rights.

“Domestic workers rescued by Tenaganita have told us how agents will cut their hair short, tell them that they cannot wear any earrings or accessories, and that they shouldn’t spend more than five minutes on themselves; the identity must be stripped, and it is reinforced that their sole duty is to serve their employer. To say that there are “good recruitment agents” is to deflect from the violence embedded in the system, the tacit approval granted to agents and employers to do as they wish with the women working in their homes.

“Nothing of substance has changed in the legal environment that domestic workers in Malaysia have to exist in. Domestic workers are still not recognised as workers but are instead deemed as servants under the Malaysian Employment Act. There is no standard contract, they do not enjoy even one day off a week, and their passports are kept by the employers. In short, the Malaysian government has created a fertile work environment for abuse and rights violations of domestic workers and placed the domestic worker in a very vulnerable situation.

“From 2012 to 2013, Tenaganita received 313 cases involving domestic workers, with over 1,200 forms of rights violations including non-payment of wages, withholding of passports, isolation, denied the right to communicate with anyone out of the home, physical, verbal and sexual violence, food deprivation and forced extension of contract.

“It is frightening that 32 per cent of the women alleged sexual abuse and rape; 30 per cent of the domestic workers when rescued were severely malnourished due to denial of decent and sufficient food; 80 per cent had their wages not paid for more than six months; many workers complained that they were forced to work beyond their two-year contract as employers found it difficult to get replacement, and in 100 per cent of the cases their passports were held by their employers.

“These cases and the trends and patterns that we can draw from them reflect how domestic work is a form of bonded labour in Malaysia. This information has been consistently shared with the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia for the past five years at least, and yet it is still ‘money’ that drives their decisions, and not the human rights of the women who work in our homes.

“The Malaysian government ratified the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1995, thereby agreeing to the global standards on rights protection and equal treatment for all women, including enacting and enforcing laws and policies that will ensure substantive equality and enjoyment of rights for all women within Malaysia, regardless of nationality or immigration status. The Pontius Pilate act of washing one’s hands of responsibility and accountability in protecting domestic workers’ rights goes against the commitment to meet the basic standards of the Convention they have committed to.

“The end to forms of slavery and violence against domestic workers can only be realised when governance of recruitment and placement of domestic workers is determined by recognising domestic work as work, by protecting fundamental rights of domestic workers and by ensuring a system of employment where there is decent wage and decent work with respect for dignity of all persons. Women’s bodies are not commodities to be traded. The work of domestic workers needs to be valued, respected and protected. Governments which fail in doing that must face the severest consequences of their actions.”

New York Times tribute: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/02/world/asia/irene-fernandez-champion-of-oppressed-dies-at-67.html?_r=0

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Malaysian human rights activist Irene Fernandez died this week. You can be forgiven for not hearing about this among all the news coming from this country about flight MH370, but it is significant nonetheless. She was important not just for who she was and what she stood for, but as an important marker in this country’s long and difficult road towards decency and fairness.

Ms Fernandez was born shortly after the war and grew up in the heady days of Malaysia’s independence from Britain. Believing in the power of education to change lives and develop the young country she loved, she became a high school teacher, and would perhaps have remained so had the country continued in a humanitarian and positive direction. Unfortunately that was not to be the case.

The ruling Barisan National Party or BNP was determined to maintain its hold on power and determined also to use its new found offshore oil to become a wealthy nation. Importing cheap migrant workers to work the rubber and oil plantations seemed like the way to go. Using the same policies that has seen the country blacklisted by all its surrounding neighbours for its abuse of domestics, Malaysia not only allowed widespread abuse of these migrant workers, but through their iron grip on the media forbade the reporting of that abuse.

Irene Fernandez, a devout Catholic who cared deeply about the less fortunate, was herself the daughter of an Indian migrant, who had come to Malaysia seeking work in the rubber plantations. Sensitized to the issue from her own heritage, Fernandez became aware of the abuse of foreign migrant workers under BN rule and sought to relieve their distress. Her Christian compassion led her to social action, as all truly Christian conviction must, and setting aside her own educational ambitions, left teaching to form Tenaganita (Women’s Force). This group, formed in 1991, advocated for the rights of migrant workers, victims of domestic abuse, trafficking victims, refugees, and asylum seekers.

In 1995 two investigative reporters from a local daily, barred by a craven press afraid of government reprisals, came to Ms Fernandez with a carefully detailed and researched story about the systematic physical and sexual abuse of migrant workers in detention camps. Malaysia has not yet signed the 1951 United Nations Agreement on the treatment of refugees, so migrants, although useful to the Malaysian economy, have no legal status in the country. Ms Fernandez agreed to help. Using her position as co-founder of Tenaganita as a platform, Fernandez began denouncing the policies and practices contained in the report. Local papers, using the formula “Ms Fernandez says…” were then able to report the news.

Rather than address the issue of widespread migrant worker abuse that had begun drawing worldwide condemnation, Malaysia opted to persecute Ms Fernandez instead. Beginning a legal process that was to last 13 years, the BN government charged Ms Fernandez with “malicious publication of false news” under the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984. Although eventually cleared by a judiciary as craven and supressed as the local media, the harrassment of Ms. Fernandez never abated. She stood for justice and the rights of the oppressed. Worse still she was a Christian. That is plenty of justification for a lifetime’s worth of persecution in Malaysia.

Further afield the situation was different. Irene Fernandez was recognized internationally for her compassion for the oppressed and her gentle, yet firm resistance to authoritarian tyranny. She was the recipient of the Human Rights Watch award in 1996, the Amnesty International Award in 1998; the International PEN Award in 2000; the Jonathan Mann Award in 2004; and the Right Livelihood Award in 2005.

She came to speak at our College last year in our Hear Us Out conference. Crippled and walking slowly with a cane, Irene Fernandez looked the least likely advocate for human decency. But once she was seated comfortably her kind features and warm smile led you irrevocably into her world of compassion. It was a world populated by the most despicable treatment of other human beings possible. Make no mistake; the government didn’t persecute Ms Fernandez so relentlessly for sport. She was clear-eyed, articulate and fearless. She took all the worst abuses that this country perpetrated upon its most vulnerable and held them up for all the world to see. No wonder the government hated her so. No wonder her death merited less than a hundred words on its official news organs.

Her death, and the way this government has failed to honour her life, speak volumes about its true nature and its treatment of migrants, refugees, orphans and indigenous people. Irene Fernandez was one of Malaysia’s most admirable citizens; a champion of all that is decent and worth valuing in life. The fact that her own country so devalued her life is a stronger condemnation of this country than the nightly parade of misinformation and incompetence we see on the news regarding the disappearance of flight MH370. Those 239 passengers are not the only ones who have gone missing in this increasingly intolerant country. Now one who championed their plight has passed away as well. The country is a poorer place without her.