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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #19

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

The European Reformation


The Reformation refers to the religious revolution that took place in Western Europe during the 16th century. The pivotal event occurred in October 31, 1517, when the German preacher, Martin Luther, publicly posted his Ninety-Five Theses challenging the authority and practices of the Catholic Church. Needless to say, the Pope was not amused. Luther’s aim was to reform the institution; instead his protest ended up splitting the church, hence the terms Reformation and Protestant.

Luther was not the first, nor the only one to protest against the excesses of the Church. To understand why there was such widespread discontent among Christians then, an account of the behaviors and practices of the church establishment at the time is warranted.

The Church during Luther’s time was more than a pan-European religious institution. It was also the unchallenged social, political, and even economic power. Having wielded unchallenged authority for so long, it was inevitable that corruption, nepotism (or to put it in modern political term, cronyism), and other unsavory practices would emerge among Church leaders.

A few examples will illustrate the decadent state, both with personnel as well as practices. The clergy was less concerned with ministering to the spiritual needs of the faithful than being powerful potentates indulging in the material offerings of their followers. The masses and the educated disliked the clergy class, offended by both their lifestyles and theological practices. The clergy class reserved unto themselves the sole right to interpret the bible, written as it was in the ancient and dying language of Latin. Mere mortals need not partake in such intellectual and spiritual exercises. Suffice for them to listen to the Sunday sermons and pithy wisdom dispensed by the priests and bishops.

While the peasants were struggling, the Church continued to use its funds to build ever larger and grander churches in Rome and elsewhere. Egregious abuses of power by the clergy were rampant. One Cardinal John of Lorraine, for example, received his first religious appointment at the tender age of three! No less scandalous, his nephew received the archbishoporic of Rheims, a significant position, at age 14. Church properties and titles became possessions of great families to be dispensed at their pleasure. One prelate, Albert of Brandenburg, spent his time traveling in style, attended by his mistresses tactfully dressed in male costumes. Well, at least they were not the choirboys!

The Church was no less ingenious in raising funds. Apart from the standard solicitation of gold for church appointments and dispensing repentances for the princes and other aristocrats, it initiated other novel schemes of extracting wealth from the masses. One such practice is “indulgence,” where the clergy would dispense pardons for the presumed sins of the faithful (or their loved ones), all for a fee of course. We are familiar with the Catholic confessionals, where every Sunday the faithful would confess their sins to and receive repentance from the priest sitting behind the closed curtain. Presumably the slate would thus be swept clean, ready for the following week’s transgressions. The only problem was that there was no exchange of cash or coins, but this was soon corrected by the avarice of the clergy. Enter the “indulgence” box.

With the tinkling of every dropped coin into these boxes, supposedly the doors to heaven would open for the salvation of a designated soul, or so the faithful were told. It was a sophisticated theological rendition of the old “wishing well” idea. The concept was a resounding success, with the rich and poor rushing to deposit their gold coins to save the souls of their departed loved ones. I can imagine at the end of the day the bishop coming home with the boxful of glittering gold. If he had not been tempted before, he would certainly be by now. Besides, he could always blame the devil for tempting him!

As a revenue-generating scheme, the indulgence box was pure genius. It certainly beat taxes and tithes where you would be forced to cough up the money. With indulgence boxes, the faithful willingly parted with their gold. The ploy was even better and more lucrative than church-sponsored bingos! With bingo there are eager participants too, but there will only be a few winners; the majority will receive nothing. With indulgence boxes, perversely all the participants felt that they were winners as they parted with their hard-earned coins. One could not concoct a better scheme than that! No wonder it was so popular, especially with the clergy class.

The indulgence boxes epitomized the corruption and depravity of the church that so enraged Luther and others. When he nailed his Theses on that church door, he was frontally challenging the establishment. He enumerated the egregious abuses and outright fraud perpetrated by the priests, a long list eloquently spelled out in a common language understood by the masses, and not in some obscure fancy Latin. The results were electric: the masses overwhelmingly supported him. The Church in turn demanded that he retract his accusations or face excommunication. Or worse! Luther did not budge but became even more strident in his denunciations.

In truth Luther was not the first to be incensed by the excesses of the Church. Two centuries earlier, England’s John Wycliffe too rebelled against the tyranny of the clergy. For that, he and his followers were persecuted. John Huss of Bohemia amplified on Wycliffe’s ideas and ended up by being burned at the stake. The risks to reformers then, as now, were indeed severe.

To appreciate why Luther succeeded and did not end up being burned at the stake as others before him were, it is necessary to examine other parallel events occurring at the time. He was helped considerably by four converging trends. First, the excesses and abuses of the church had been going on for centuries and that sooner or later they had to end, to implode. Luther appeared when conditions were just ripe, resentments and anger had reached a critical stage. Second, there appeared throughout Europe universities that were outside the influence of the church. At such centers like Oxford there emerged the new movement of humanism that emphasizes the centrality of man and his ideas. This directly challenged the hegemony of the church that hitherto felt it had the final and sole authority to interpret everything.

Third was the ready availability of the printing press that enabled ideas to spread far and wide, and very quickly too. Luther took full advantage of this new medium to disseminate his ideas. With the masses now able to read and reading materials widely available, the clergy no longer had the monopoly on knowledge or information. Last, with the emergence of the political idea of nation-state, Luther was able to capitalize on the national sentiments of the Germanic people against those of Latin Europe, in particular, Rome. Luther was greatly helped when the local bishops shipped off the gold (after their have taken their generous portion) to Rome for building yet another monument there.

What are the relevant lessons from the Reformation? The first is that institutions and people with entrenched and unchallenged power will inevitably be corrupted; the greater the power, the worse the corruption. It matters not who these individuals are, for even the most pious are not immune. Second, the more entrenched the power, the more difficult it would be to eradicate the abuses without dismantling the whole structure. The European Reformation resulted not only in the formation of many breakaway Protestant sects but it also spawned a counter reformation within the Catholic Church.

Third, Luther had been through and excelled in the system; thus he had great credibility when he challenged the existing order. Fourth, he personified the very opposite qualities for which he criticized the Church. Where the clergymen were ostentatious, Luther was modest; while they hid behind their obtuse Latin, Luther used the language of the common folk. Being highly educated, Luther was facile with Latin but he chose to communicate in the language of the masses. Additionally he had a complete and viable alternative program ready. He had written not only his Ninety-Five Theses but also a whole set of sermons, hymns, and catechisms for his new church so that when he was expelled from the Catholic Church, he had a ready alternative. Luther did not have to scramble from scratch.

By far his most important strategy was to align his movement with the emerging new ideals. He shrewdly capitalized on the burgeoning nationalism, effectively exploiting the “us versus them” theme – the “them” being the distant church in Rome and the Italians. Similarly, he aligned himself with the growing humanist movement of the day. All these convergences helped him succeed.

When I compare Luther’s reformation with the Malaysian reformasi, (at the risk of flattering Anwar Ibrahim, its leader, by comparing him to Martin Luther!) a number of glaring differences emerge. Like the Catholic Church in the Middle Age, Malaysia’s ruling party is also burdened by corruption and cronyism, a consequence of being in power for so long. Like an overripe jackfruit that was still hanging, UMNO is ready to fall anytime. Unlike an overripe jackfruit which gives off a sweet smell, an overripe ripe gives off, well, an overripe smell!

Anwar however, is no Luther. For one, his reformasi forces aligned themselves with foreign elements rather than domestic ones. It was as if Luther was trying to co-opt the Italians for support instead of his own German followers. For another, reformasi activists did maximize the use of the new medium of the Internet to galvanize support and to discredit the ruling Barisan government as Malaysians generally were not quite savvy with this new medium. At least not yet then! [Note: Things changed materially by the time of the 2008 general elections with Internet penetration reaching a critical mass. No longer having control of information, the ruling coalition suffered its greatest loss.]

While Luther’s Theses was detailed, articulate, and down to earth, Anwar’s Permatang Pauh Declaration (its “Mission Statement”) was brief, pompous, and pretentious. Luther’s views were well known as he had articulated them well and often. He even put down details of his church services right down to the hymns and sermons. He wrote voluminously.

In striking contrast, reformasi and the political party it spawned, Keadilan was not quite ready for prime time. Undoubtedly, Anwar’s jailing took the momentum away from the movement. Without him, the party was fumbling with such pivotal issues as the role of religion in a plural society, inequities within and between races, and special privileges for Bumiputras.

But the most critical lesson is how to prevent the government and other institutions in Malaysia from degenerating into a medieval Catholic Church. Distressingly Malaysia today is acquiring many of the unsavory characteristics of the medieval church. Malaysian institutions are under tight government control. Additionally, the government is a significant player in the economy, controlling many major corporations. As a result corporate decisions are influenced less by market factors than by political calculations. The most glaring example is Malaysia Airlines, which stumbles from one major crisis to another. Despite that it continues to be led by less-than-competent political appointees. Current political leaders in Malaysia are control freaks, unable or unwilling to relent.

The differences between the medieval Catholic Church and the Malaysian political establishment today are merely quantitative, a matter of degree. Unchecked, Malaysia too will meet the same fate as the medieval Catholic Church.

Next: The Meiji Restoration

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