By Rama Ramanathan (Proham Secretariat)
Over two hundred people attended the launch of the Human Rights Week in Malaysia today.
The office of the UN in Malaysia was the main organizer of the event, with Proham as one of four other organizers.
In her opening speech, Michelle Gyles-McDonnough, the United Nations Resident Coordinator for Malaysia, reminded the audience of Malaysia’s membership of the UN and agreement with the fundamental principle that human rights are inherent to all humans, independent of nationality, race or gender.
The week was formally “launched” by Senator Datuk Paul Low, Minister for Governance and Integrity, after he delivered the keynote address.
After the event many participants repeated the sentence with which he concluded his address: the greatness of a nation is reflected in how it treats its minorities. Many also noted his stress on consultative government. He said the Cabinet is serious about engaging with Civil Society Organizations, and that we should expect changes in the way government engages with the populace.
The launch was followed by an interfaith panel discussion titled Harmony in Diversity: A Human Rights Based Approach.
Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, CEO of the Global Movement of Moderates Foundation (GMMF), moderated the discussion. Members of four religious groups were on the panel. Each panellist was given five minutes to speak on the topic.
Dr Ayang Utriza who teaches at the State Islamic University in Jakarta, spoke for Muslims.
Dr Ayang said the primary purpose of interfaith dialogue is not to convert others, but to enrich others. He said inter faith dialogue is most successful when it builds respect rather than tears others down. He encouraged Malaysia, a country of many religions, to issue a Kuala Lumpur Message, to go beyond the already very laudable Amman Message of 2004 of which Malaysia is a signatory.
Most Revd Julian Leow, Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur spoke for Catholics.
Revd Leow reiterated the teaching of Jesus: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and your neighbour as yourself. He said for Christians, the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas about love underpins interfaith dialogue: love is willing the good of another. He said the Catholic Church’s openness to dialogue should not be viewed with suspicion, since Vatican II’s momentous declaration just 50 years ago that Catholics are free to leave the church, even to reject God. He urged Malaysia to allow freedom of choice of religion.
Sister Barbara Yen Yoke Wah of the Buddhist Maha Vihara spoke for Buddhists.
She said that in interfaith dialogue a Buddhist strives to express respect for the other because of acceptance of this teaching of the Buddha: speaking badly against people is like throwing sand in the wind – it will come back and hurt the speaker. She said interfaith dialogue will be fruitful if it is based on the values of moral shame and moral fear, values which are common to all mankind. She said counting on the moral similarity of humans – and the difference with animals – will assure harmonious dialogue.
Professor Suresh Kumar, President of the Sathya Sai Baba Central Council of Malaysia and himself a Hindu, spoke for the non-religious Sai Baba movement.
He said harmony and mutual respect springs from a right choice of analogies for discussing religious beliefs. He recommended thinking of a garden: the flowers are many, but the garden is one; and thinking of the sky: the stars are many, but the sky is one. He urged people to focus less on discussing glorious truths, and more on celebrating and working together. He said good, kind and honest people should coalesce and even export inter-religious diversity.
There was a vigorous question and answer session. The most obvious question was the one which was least satisfactorily answered: why, in Muslim-majority Malaysia, is it necessary to bring in a speaker from Indonesia to speak for Muslims?
Datuk Saifuddin suggested that the discussion yielded three key thoughts. Firstly, the religious must interpret their religions in a progressive manner. Secondly, those who have religious convictions must strive to do social work together with those who have different religious convictions. Thirdly, we must have a governance framework to deal with those who cross boundaries and generate turmoil and ill-will.
The week will continue with a series of events including a discussion of what we should expect to change in Malaysia now that Malaysia is a member of the UN Security Council and a debate in response to the question “Can Law Safeguard Harmony in Diversity.” You can find out more by viewing the calendar of events for the week.