11 June 2013
Don't just vote, Jom Pantau!
By Rick Benjamin Lye and Vivien Chong
Alexa (back, standing) with a Pemantau team. NECF Youth Commission Executive Secretary Larry Lee (second, right) and NECF Research Assistant Mable Leong (left) were also part of the team.
Rick was team leader for the Pemantau group at Bandar Tun Razak, Cheras, in the 13th general election. With his wife, Vivien, they share their experiences as election observers and why they believe Christians must get involved in civil society. Rick and Vivien facilitate a home group for people exploring Christianity.
Q&A with Pemantau trainer, Pastor Alexa Ho of Community Baptist Church, Kota Damansara, Petaling Jaya.
NECF: What made you become a Pemantau trainer?
Alexa: After I attended the first Pemantau training, the organizer announced the need for trainers. Since my passion is talking and training people, I thought that I might as well sign up as a trainer and get churches involved.
NECF: What are the challenges as a pastor, in balancing your spiritual role as a shepherd and as an activist in society?
Alexa: It is a privilege to be in both roles. An activist promotes and advocates good causes, and in my case, it was to advocate for free and fair elections through the Pemantau role. A pastor should do no less. So, both roles complement each other. In any case, I really think social activism has enhanced my spiritual role to be a promoter of justice and righteousness.
NECF: How do you deal with accusations that pastors or Christians are becoming "too political"?
Alexa: I responded to this by posting a status on Facebook: "Many Christians still see politics as a dirty game and for this reason are disengaged from the political process."
To them, they reckon that the church must be apolitical at all times to be impartial. I differ with this view because not only am I not apolitical; I have also taken a partisan position, at least in a personal capacity. However, this doesn't mean I cannot be impartial. When pastors or preachers preach against injustice, they sometimes inevitably talk about politics or name the corrupt people, political party, or corrupt practice, but it doesn't mean that we are mixing religion with politics.
As a pastor/preacher, part of the mandate given to me is to educate the church about the responsibility we have to work with (and vote for) a government that is just and that mirrors God's ways of doing things. Of course, no earthly kingdom can mirror that exact level of perfection. But there are obviously better practices that need to be affirmed and corrupt ones that need to be exposed. If being too political means that we speak about and allow Kingdom values to inform, educate and shape political processes and public morality for the better, then yes, indeed we are being political. As Christians, we have a responsibility to bring God's standards of righteousness and justice to bear upon institutions, including the government, that shape our earthly lives. Someone is going to influence society. Someone is making laws and policies to regulate how we live. Someone will dictate the culture of our times. Why not Christians be that 'someone' to wisely and boldly speak and act for the greatest good of others and fulfil our role as salt and light?
As the columnist Michael Gerson observes, 'The alternative isn't to not do politics. The alternative is to do it better." So, shouldn't our faith transform politics too?
NECF: Post-GE 13, what do you believe churches ought to be doing in terms of public engagement beyond Sunday Service and internal programmes?
Alexa: I believe the church ought to first be educated about the importance of public engagement because for far too long we have confined God's word within the church's four walls. We need to redefine our missions and nation building concepts to include our role as salt and light in the public square. Second, know the issues of our day. Get informed and promote what is right in whatever capacity we have been given. Start creating safe spaces where Christians can engage one another in dialogues, forums and healthy conversations that touch on everyday issues that concern us such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, human rights and equality, politics and governance, education, economy, journalism, and so forth.
Following that, we can engage other NGOs and the public to collaborate for the common good. I think it's a healthy trend to see more Christians participating in politics and governance, by either becoming activists or being involved in various areas of public service. Many are even holding public office. I believe the church needs to support them in prayer, and encourage more young people to participate in the political process.
AFTER a full day of Pemantau work from 8am to 5pm on polling day, we were physically exhausted, but our hearts were satisfied. Not just because we had accomplished our tasks as election observers, but because we had also seen churches mobilizing volunteers to take up this important role. To our knowledge, there were at least 300 believers from 10 churches who participated in the Pemantau programme.
Following the election, there were plenty of allegations of fraud in the results. Some friends have asked us, what was the point of being observers without any authority to catch and stop fraudulent practices?
Our answer is that we are just at the beginning of a very long journey as a citizen watch movement to improve the election process in our country.
Pemantau took a preventive approach. Its purpose was to create a public presence to reduce acts of fraud as much as possible, and also to send a message to the authorities that the rakyat want clean and fair elections. We volunteered because we felt that we had a role to play as citizens. And for the next election, the GE 14, citizens again must play their roles to improve democratic processes in Malaysia.
There is a biblical worldview behind all this. As Christ Followers, we believe that the Gospel of Salvation is not just limited to evangelism (Ephesians 1:13) but also includes declaring the Gospel of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is here and now. God's people have been set free to be salt and light and to fulfil their roles for the good of Malaysia. This includes improving the electoral process as part of the "good works" God has prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2: 10).
We also believe God is love. He loves Malaysia and Malaysians. So do we. God is just and truthful. Therefore, we want to play our part in ensuring a clean, fair and free election. And we believe in prayer. But we also believe in taking action and in being obedient to the wisdom that says, "Evil triumphs when good men do nothing".
Pemantau was formed in January 2013 and is a citizen-based campaign under Bersih 2.0 that focuses on election observation. There is also the Pemerhati group, which is accredited by the Election Commission, while Pemantau isn't. Despite this, the work of Pemantau is the same, with the only difference being the lack of access to enter polling stations. We could only conduct monitoring of the situation outside the voting centres.
When we first heard about election observation a year ago, it was a new thing for us. We had no idea what it was all about. We then learned that while it was basically a simple task to observe the election proceedings and make a report, it was a very important one. As we embarked on training and recruiting more observers, we were privileged to work with Pastor Alexa Ho, a Pemantau trainer, and her husband Gary Ng.
Our observation work started during the campaign period. It involved attending ceramah and monitoring various aspects of the campaign. We heard and saw lot of different things, but just like how it is with Facebook, we had to be discerning and not to take everything as the truth.
On the eve of the election, we couldn't sleep, and on the morning of 5 May, we rose early, as if it was our wedding day!
Here's what we observed throughout polling day:
- A lot of "free transport" to ferry voters was provided by political parties on both sides, and more so by the ruling party.
- The police were polite and friendly. In our zone at least, there were no hostile incidents.
- Some voters were aware of the role of election observers and they took the initiative to talk to us and lodge complaints about the indelible ink which washed off easily. Some of them also mentioned their appreciation and thanks to us for volunteering as observers.
- There were Malaysian youths who had organised themselves into groups to look out for illegal and foreign-looking "voters".
One of the best things during our duties was the chance to talk to people of different races and backgrounds. A beautiful thing about this GE was seeing all the races united in their desire for clean, free and fair elections.
"Will all these efforts work?" many have asked us this question.
To which we answer that we must do whatever we can and leave the rest to God. "Doing whatever we can" means that we must follow through from our Pemantau experience and continue our engagement in the public sphere. Reforming and improving processes for the next election must begin now. For one, we can educate and invite more of our friends and relatives to be observers in GE 14.
So what's next? There are at least two broad areas we are thinking about:
Engagement: Prepare yourself to engage with your elected representative, community and people of other races.
Reconciliation: This can only happen if we take the initiative to engage others. Let's discover the things we have in common with each other. We may be of different racial and religious backgrounds, but all of us love and want the best for Malaysia.
For the church, it must empower members to be active citizens. Many young people care about the future of Malaysia. As spiritual leaders, we should do our best to help them discover biblical truths to apply to our contemporary Malaysian context, so that they can interpret the current situation through a Godly lens and act accordingly.