Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mission Accomplished

"That's it, it's split, it can't recover
Just frame the halves and call them a whole
And chip at the bricks and fill up your pockets
With the pieces of the wall that you stole"

Call Them Brothers (2011) by Only Son and Regina Spektor

This is an informal POV account of the May 11 meeting.
For a more official report, you can read Chan's piece on the Malaysian Atheists webpage.

All the previous meet ups of the Malaysian atheist community I was able to participate in had been social in function. They are often peppered with half-baked echoes of the ghost of an agenda, but the strong individualistic personalities that had allowed us to break from hand-me-down beliefs of our families and society actually work to our detriment because none of us can ever agree on anything. We are not followers by nature. We consider it beneath us to dance to the tune of wannabe catherds.

This time however, I travelled with a purpose and a direction, and while I wasn't optimistic that anything substantial could possibly be borne out of an informal meeting with politician and member of the government, I recognise that that's the very attitude which had defeated most of what we as a community had been trying to achieve. So, I stowed it away and just went with it in the venturous spirit of "Who knows?" Hard to do for a know-it-all, but I did it.

The bloke with the straw hat, bow tie and malignant facial growth is Chan Ju Ping.
The be-scarfed bald chica is Cheryl Cheah - y'know, just in case you couldn't figure it out.

The three of us, Chan, Cheryl and I first assembled at my go-to hangout on the island, Ingolf's Kneipe, for a pregame huddle. While getting our agendas straight and presenting a unified front is crucial for any special interest platform, I was looking forward to it more as an opportunity to meet other members of our "core group" for the very first time; screen names I have only ever interacted through social media and mailing lists. Chan is based in Penang where he is currently freelancing as a thesis proofreader, Cheryl's working in Singapore as a business journalist while I have to fly in from Kuching.

You can't say we aren't committed.

Team Awesomesauce
Now, I wish I packed my eye-patch and peg leg with me. I'm so ordinary.

We may or may not be inebriated by the time we returned to our hotel room slash command center where we freshened up before walking to our nearby rendezvous point in the Georgetown heritage zone. We were punctual and so was our host.

I am still uncertain just how much I can disclose about the person we met but I'll say this much: he is affiliated with the current ruling party, the Barisan Nasional. I will also say that he shattered the stereotype I have in my head of a Malaysian politician completely, which wasn't hard because I tend to picture them as scheming, semi-literate parasites. In my defence, most people do. Mr T (which is how I would be referring to him for the rest of this writeup) is intelligent, erudite and surprisingly insightful - a sentiment shared by other members of our little delegation. Through the power of observation, he deduced that I'm a doctor and also the company Guan works for. Impressive.

Hobnob Central
From left to right: Cheryl, Chan, Guan, yours truly and Mr T.

"I came because I wanted to see for myself - a group of people who voluntarily call themselves atheists," he told us candidly. "In my experience, freethinkers are only found in mental asylums and amongst people who have not considered religion seriously. To make a positive announcement of non-belief, that's new to me."

This is representative of the kind of misconceptions the man-on-the-street have about the atheistic worldview and it's something we strive to correct in this opportunity handed to us by simply turning up and showing him what atheists are really like. We are often people who had considered religion seriously - perhaps far more seriously than people who actually believe in them - and is well-versed in the teachings of most faiths, and one must also remember that the overwhelming majority of atheists started out as believers. If our delegates are any indication, we tend to be be free from psychoses as well.

Mr T also brought up two other popular derogatory misconceptions about atheism, the no-atheists-in-foxholes myth (that unbelief is a fair-weather stance and a person would turn to religion in the face of adversity) and the lack of any moral compass (because he apparently thinks that religious scriptures is the sole source of moral values). From sheer practice, I reflexively demolished the first by pointing out that there are in fact a hell lot of atheists in foxholes, and suggested that foxholes tend to create atheists rather than deconstruct them. I also explained how people can make moral judgments without the need for dogma by illustrating how modern Christians selectively chooses to follow certain Biblical values, while ignoring antiquated commandments like abstinence from pork and shellfish due to their ethical irrelevance - so evidently, people are following an internal, rather than an external, code of ethics when they cherry-pick from their holy books.

Seeing that Mr T is Buddhist, we made a gift of a framed print carrying a passage from the Kālāma Sūtra for him. In a way, it is also an answer to his question about morality: it's not about what one can or cannot do but rather, it's about how one can know the difference. It's also a deliberate message of critical thinking and scepticism which we endorse wholeheartedly.

Reverse Psychology
I threw this together a few hours before I flew to Penang.

The bulk of our discussion banked heavily on the machinery of politics because as much as we I would like to consider ourselves above it all, it's the game we have to play in order to be heard. As he pragmatically pointed out to us, no one would champion our interests if we do not represent a competent electoral voice. Though ideally, the rights of the majority should never be derived at the expense of the minorities, we are realists and recognise that we do not live in an ideal world.

Mr T also asked a few more hard questions which, if we are to generate any traction at all within the public's mind, had to be answered first. Concerning the primary human rights endeavour of our group - the championing of the right of the murtadin to leave Islam - how do we convince the Malay Muslim majority of this country that we are fighting for additional freedom and options for them, and do not actually present a threat to their faith? In a country where most Malays flipped the fuck out when a Christian group wanted to use the Arabic word Allah in their Malay language publication, this poses a formidable challenge indeed.

What looms most direly in our eyes as atheists and apostates of Islam is the creeping Islamisation of Malaysia, a country which is secular as per our constitution even though it confers Islam a special honorary position. There used to be a time where the most powerful constituent of the reigning party, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), champions a more moderate and liberal form of Islam while PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) from the Opposition Coalition tugs from the conservative end. In recent years however, this had decomposed into a full-frontal fundamentalism arms race from either pole in an attempt to out-Islam each other and win the loyalty of the voting Malay Muslim majority. In just the past one month, PAS had made it unlawful to challenge or question any fatwa issued by the Mufti or Fatwa Committee, effectively conferring unlimited power to the clerics chairing said committee, while the National Fatwa Council operating under the auspices of the ruling government had issued a fatwa saying that it is haram or forbidden for Muslims to participate in "unlawful assemblies", a clearly politically-motivated counterpoint against the Opposition-supported Bersih 3.0 rally which shook the foundations of our capital city a couple of weeks ago. I do not see piety at work here - only strategic machinations which are both bad for politics and bad for Islam. I've seen the animated film Persepolis which tells the story of how Iran, a formerly liberal Muslim country, was plunged into fundamentalism through their Islamic Revolution. I am seeing it happen before my eyes in Malaysia and I am afraid.

"The trick is selling the idea to the Malay Muslim majority that advancing a more liberal form of Islam actually works to their benefit," said Mr T. Another difficult question he posed was how we propose to do that? And in attempting to answer his own question, he gave us the idea for our next project, and it was damn fine one. The biggest surprise of the night came when he volunteered a substantial (RM 5000) amount of funds he commands, which he is free to bestow on any non-governmental organisation undertaking he considers to be beneficial to the public he serves, should we choose to pursue his suggestion.

"I consider your group and your aims to be something of a sociology experiment," he told us, twinkling. "I like to see how this pans out."

While I personally profess to no party loyalty, I would honestly be glad to give my vote to Mr T in his next run for office. Yeah, you heard me. As for the Malaysian Atheists, we got our work cut out for us. Let's get to sewing this mother together.

P.S. We have a tight-knit core working group. If you would like to join our super special secret online club meetings, let me know. I'll teach you the secret handshake initiate you into our mailing list. If you're only interested in meeting other like-minded individuals, you can join our original group on Facebook, the Malaysian Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers - we have recently reached a member count of a thousand.

k0k s3n w4i


Ec5618 said...

I am looking forward to see where this leads. And it's good to know not all politicians are as you initially described them.

nicoletta said...

congratulations. sounds like it was a success, and there's even the prospect of funding. it will be interesting to see the next step for the group. maybe becoming an official registered society/group? if Malaysian Atheists isn't already one.

Anonymous said...

I smell the BN trying to win freethinkers' votes for GE2012/3. B4 they circumcise me, I would rather castrate myself - totally! Yup, nothing left of my holy trinity! Deny BN 2/3 majority for the 2nd time!

k0k s3n w4i said...

Ec5618: me too.

nicoletta: as a matter of fact, we are looking at official registration status. after that, we got a couple of projects lined up. i really hope they pan out.

Anonymous: the godless vote is very, very small and very, very split. any politician who tries to butter us up in hopes of winning our allegiance is an idiot, and the guy we met didn't strike me as one.