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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: http://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.

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It was during a speech by Idris Jala - former resident of Bario and rising star in the Malaysian government - that Taylor’s Education Group president and CEO Dato Loy Teik Ngan heard a call to help with the problems of education in remote villages. Although the government had built schools and hostels in the remote interior, many of these were now facing the end of their useful life. Dato Loy harnessed the considerable resources of his educational interests in Malaysia to raise the funds necessary for a new hostel in Bario that would allow the school to continue to serve the needs of the children in the remote villages in this part of the world. An architect was engaged, a project manager hired, a cost analysis conducted, and a fund-raising campaign was conducted – all pro bono – to meet the need for a new hostel.

DSCN5732By the time I stepped into the role as Project Coordinator for Bario much of this preparation was already either done or well underway. However, now recognizing that Bario was but one piece in a larger picture, I was taken on as coordinator for all community projects, numbering more than three dozen with more developing all the time. These added responsibilities for the larger picture of CSR are the reason why it was not until last week that I finally got to Bario myself, in the company of Evan Horsnell, the project manager for the build. Evan is an Aussie who came to Kuala Lumpur to help sort out a project, met a Malaysian who he married, and has now settled down in the country. He is your typical Aussie, friendly and garrulous with a distinctly colourful past, and we regaled each other for hours on things that we did in our youth that we probably should never have gotten away with.

In order to get to Bario you have to first fly to Miri, a town funded largely by the oil that is drilled off the Borneo coast in Malaysian waters, and then on Bario in a Canadian-made de Havilland Twin Otter over terrain that rose rapidly to 3200 feet over virgin forest that held few villages and fewer roads. The single dirt track that runs to Bario takes two days and 14 hours when it is dry, and is impassable when it rains. We were met at the airport by Dora Tigan, the headmistress of the primary school where the hostel is being built and John Tarawe, the local counselor most responsible for moving the project forward. With limited time for social niceties, we drove straight to the site of the hostel where Evan and Shep Bala the local contractor, walked over the build and made an assessment of its progress. Evan wasted no time in checking over the build with his experienced eye.

DSCN5737I spent my time collecting the stories of the participants in the project, chief among them Dora Tigan, a resident of Bario who like many others had to leave the village to get an education, but has then returned to contribute to the ongoing development of the village as a local cultural heritage center for the Kelabit people. There are two schools in the village: a primary school and a middle school, both of which have hostels to house the children from the surrounding villages. There is a medical clinic and a coming electrical project which will see the village get a solar array to reduce their dependency on expensive diesel fuel which has to be trucked in from Miri, and the small hydro-electric plant which is often hampered by insufficient rainfall.

Like most things in life, the hostel situation in Bario is hard to categorize in a single weblog post. It is easy to see how a larger and better equipped hostel would help the community to meet the educational needs of the surrounding villages. It is also easy to see how the project could get bogged down without regular technical oversight. I sympathize with my Aussie friend’s frustration at the rate of progress and difficulties with materials. I also recognize the desire of most in the village – many of whom are sincere and devout Christians – to use the vehicle of education to serve the needs of their community. It is that need that drives my own interest to see this project through to its conclusion.

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Our grandchildren give us such great joy and we miss them incredibly. The only thing that makes our being so far from them manageable is the confidence that we have in their amazing parents. This week Greg, Liz and Russell formally announced that their little family will welcome a new member in early October. We are overjoyed.

 

In the meantime our other grandkids are growing up so nicely and we are delighted by the sweet, loving and creative young people they are becoming. Six years ago today we had the thrill of welcoming our first granddaughter and couldn’t even begin to imagine what joy she would bring into our family.

6th Birthday

Another amazing cake creation by Nicole:

Birthday cake

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In 1928 Charles Hudson Southwell, a recent graduate of both the University of Melbourne and Melbourne Bible Institute, sailed north to establish the Borneo Evangelical Mission. Like his famous namesake, Hudson had intended to go to China, but was challenged at MBI to go to the remote jungle instead. Establishing a mission in the Limbang District of northern Sarawak, close to the border with Sabah, Hudson quickly learned both the Malay and Iban languages. Returning to Australia to marry his childhood sweetheart Winsome, the two returned to Sarawak and settled into a ministry among the Murut people, who were eager to know about ‘Tuhan Isa,’ (Lord Jesus) who is mentioned in a favourable light in the Qur’an. Unfortunately their success among the Murut attracted the attention of the British overlords of that territory who preferred to keep missionary activity to a minimum and on occasion banned them entirely as it interfered with British territorial ambitions in the region.

Taking a strategic furlough in Australia, the Southwells returned quietly to Borneo in 1936 to the Miri area and began working among the Iban with equal success. By then American missionary John Willfinger had rendered the New Testament in the Iban language (one of the many ways that Christian missionaries have strengthened and preserved indigenous people groups has been to commit their oral language to written form) and the Southwells found that Christ’s parables rendered in their own language spoke to the Iban in a powerful way. The war loosened British hold on the territory, and staying in Borneo during the conflict the Southwells were able to renew their work with the Murut who themselves became evangelists to their neighbours. Driven further inland by the Japanese who had now landed in Sabah to the north, Willfinger – a brilliant scholar and gifted linguist who was now working on the Murut New Testament – and the Southwells continued to evangelise indigenous tribes as they fled, among them the Kelabit people of the highlands near the border with what was then Dutch Indonesia.

The Japanese, like the British before them, understood the dangers posed by an educated and empowered tribal population and targeted both Willfinger and the Southwells for immediate arrest. When they surrendered – rather than further endanger the local tribes people – John Willfinger was summarily executed and the Southwells and fellow missionary Frank Davidson were incarcerated in an internment camp where Davidson died of disease. Hudson’s previous education as a chemist allowed him to identify and use local leaves and berries for both food and medicine, and he and Winsome survived. In March of 1945 American parachute troops, led by Major Tom Harrisson, landed in the Kelabit Highlands, and organizing and arming the Kelabit people led them in a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese that left no escape from advancing American and Australian troops now attacking the coastal regions.

Following the war, Harrisson returned to Bario and began working among the Kelabit people, to whom he felt he owed much of his wartime success. He was opposed to the evangelical efforts of the Southwells and sought to restrict their influence. But the Kelabit themselves were in awe of the changes they saw among the Murut and many Kelabit turned to Christ in the years after the war. In the early 60s Sabah and Sarawak joined the new Malaysian Federation, raising the ire of the Indonesians who considered the provinces part of their territory. The resulting ‘Confrontation’ with Indonesia caused many Kelabit from the surrounding villages to flee into Bario where there was a Malaysian army base. This increased Bario’s population and importance which after the conflict led to the construction of first a primary and later a middle school to serve the children of the area.

The Southwells continued to minister in the Highlands until the 1980s, working among the Kelabit, Kayan and Kenyah people. Hudson developed a Kayan-English dictionary to preserve this indigenous language and established a Community Development Project far up the Baram River at Long Lama that provided technical training to improve local living conditions. A ‘moving of the Holy Spirit’ in Bario in 1973 led to the Christian conversion of the entire village and the construction of a local church. An emphasis on Christian morality and an understanding of the importance of education has led to the Kelabit being among the most well-educated people groups in Malaysia. Former Malaysian Airlines executive director and current minister in Prime Minister Najib’s inner circle Dato Sri Idris Jala is Kelabit, as are a number of Malaysian CEOs and Christian evangelical leaders.

Some research material from: With Pythons & Head-Hunters in Borneo (2009) by Brian Row McNamee. Xlibris.

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