Sunday, 23 December 2018

Pope Francis' call for Never Again.

Christmas is two days away, so what do you think of this Pope Francis’ promise to the believers: -

”The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case. Let it be clear that before these abominations the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes.”

The vicar of Christ and the head of the Catholic faith is serious this time. He knows that the “litany of child sexual scandals has rocked the Roman Catholic Church, which has 1.3 billion followers worldwide.” 

The Pope is therefore dropping the guilliotine on these offenders. He is calling for “those who abuse minors” to “convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice.” 

The justice Pope Francis demands are both on earth - human justice - and in heaven - God’s wrath. That might smack of double jeopardy on a life, but jurisdictionally speaking, it is not. For a believer, it is not inconceivable that both realms deliver justice to those who have been suffering silently from priestly depravity under the church’s watch. 

Lesson? One.

It’s the season's greetings and somebody had better tell me to stop writing such things that dim the Christmas spirit and send gifts of wet-blankets to the adults waiting by the Christmas tree to unwrap presents for their kids. 

But I think I didn’t get that message this morning as I continue to speak my mind starting with what Pope Francis has to say about the duplicity of the faith. He goes: -

“(There were still) consecrated men...who abuse the vulnerable, taking advantage of their position and their power of persuasion. They perform abominable acts yet continue to exercise their ministry as if nothing happened. They have no fear of God or his judgment, but only of being found out and unmasked. Often behind their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces, they shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls.”

That in a nutshell is the unveiling of the great hypocrisy of our age, and of all ages. But let me be candid here and say that they don’t always start off as wolves amongst sheeps. I believe most of them enter the ministry with good intentions and well-meaning goals. 

In other words, they were truly - to a large extent - exuding and presenting “boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces” with the utmost sincerity. As far as they are concerned, at the inception of it all, they want to do good, make a difference and leave an enduring legacy behind - pathological leaders with evil desires excluded, of course.  

But having started in the spirit, they often ended up in the flesh. That is as much the story of mankind as Christ is the story of Christmas. 

These prodigal sons of the Kingdom abused their powers and satisfied their lusts with impunity because they were given easy access to them, that is, the positions, the protection and the pardons.

The church is definitely in complicit here, for as long as that one lone wolf got away with what he did when Peter first placed the cornerstone to build the church on the rock of Christ. 

From that time onwards, every time the church turns a blind eye to their own priest’s egregious deeds in order to keep the dirty robes and linens from public airings, these prodigal ministers got bolder and mutate into greedier wolves with insatiable appetites that they themselves could not control. 

I think Gibbons puts it best when he talks about the papal pornocracy during the young Holy Fatherhood of Octavian who changed his name to John in 955: -

“...we read, with some surprise, that the worthy grandson of Marozia lives in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran Palace was turned into a school of prostitution; and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female prilgrims from visiting the shrine of St. Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor.” (pg 76/77 of The Popes by John Julius Norwich).

Needlessly to say, Pope John's pornocracy would never have survived in today’s rule-based, swift-justice institutional framework.

So, going back to the complicity of the church as a whole, as the ordained priests grant indulgences to believers in a bid to reduce the amount of punishment for their sins, the Catholic order grants indulgences to the offending priest to hide the punishment he has to face before the court of human justice. 

It’s a classic case of “I scratch your back so your deeds won't cause a dent on the reputation of the sacred order”. 

This brings me back to Pope Francis’ rather urgent call for the condemnation of sex offenders in sacred robe.

He said: “It is undeniable that some in the past, out of irresponsibility, disbelief, lack of training, inexperience, or spiritual and human short-sightedness, treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due. That must never happen again. This is the choice and the decision of the whole Church.”

Never happen again? Fingers crossed there, because if there is any lamentation worth offering at the Church's doorstep, it has to be that since the time Jesus promised Peter that upon the rock He will build His church to our modern time unveiling the worst publicised sexual scandals in the history of the Catholic Church, you can’t be faulted for feeling that the whole Great Commission has been somewhat a great disappointment.

You would have thought that a divinely appointed sacred organization founded on the foundational stone of the messiah who became God would have gotten it right by now, that is, really living up to the exemplar of Christ; or at least, stands out as a city on the hill shining brighter than the other secular organisations out there.

Yet, two thousand years have come and gone, and after splitting bitterly into hundreds of denominations, all competing to present the best version of the truth, the in-fightings, the ugly leadership battles, the sexual abuses, the financial corruption and the hypocrisy of the closeted priesthood still persist today. Go figure...

But having said all that, I still feel that there is a silver lining in the looming clouds. So, let me end with this silver lining that the story of the prodigal son is as much the story of the prodigal Father - taking prodigal here to mean “wasteful extravagance” or excessive-ness or extremity in action. 

You see, however extreme is the failings of organised religion, there is always its countervailing force in the story of love that is equally, if not more, extreme. And this extreme love was once personified or incarnated in a man.  

As a Christian, I always feel that Jesus is an extremist for this love and here is what I mean as fleshed out in Dr Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail": -

"“...was not Jesus an extremist for love: "love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and prosecute you.”

Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." 

Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." 

Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." 

And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience."

...So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?... 

In the dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime - the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment."”

On Christmas day, that is and has always been the message of human redemption - not about human achievements, its bragging rights, earthly prominence and the garlands of praises from transient sources. It is however about how the worst in us can be redeemed by  a love that goes all the way. Extremity for extremity, hate for love and sheer darkness for abounding light. It is beyond transactional, it's transcendental.

For only a prodigal Father can match deed for deed the prodigal son at the crossroad of his life. The heart of compassion, the embrace and kiss, the finest robe, the ring and sandals and a feast to celebrate his son’s return are all defining acts of extreme love, truth and goodness, or wasteful extravagance. Only grace of that extremity could carry such hope of transforming even the hardest of hearts. 

That has got to be the great consolation or empowerment for the Great Commission, despite the disappointment one may feel about the church’s failings time and time again. Amen. 

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Phey Yew Kok - a man on the run, a man on the mend.

MLK once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. This is true of most lives that I know and read about. 

Take former NTUC chairman and MP Phey Yew Kok for example, he is at last a free man. He has paid his debt or sins to society. Once a fugitive, prisoner of conscience, now he is a former inmate, a person at liberty to live his life by his own will and choices. 

Mr Phey spent 36 years on the run overseas because of an act he did in December 1979 as the appointed NTUC president and chairman. It reports that “he was accused of misappropriating more than $200,000.00 in supermarket goods and taking money from the International Metalworkers Federation and Boon Teck Education Centre.”

He was out on bail then, and was expected to return to court on January 7, 1980. “But on New Year’s Eve, he took a train to Kuala Lumpur and went to Bangkok, evading attempts to track him down.”

For 36 years, he remained a wanted man in Bangkok, and when asked about his life in Thailand, he could only reveal that he had to work to “earn (his) living to survive.”

You must be wondering, why bother to return then? Why not stay where he was for the reminder of his days? 

At 80 plus, how many years are you left with anyway when you have already spent 36 years adapting to a life that takes into account all the misdeeds you have done in the past? Why not die a fugitive instead of returning to the shame you have left behind? 

Well, when asked why Mr Phey surrendered himself in 2015, being a man of few words, he said: “I knew that I was wrong and at the right time, I decided to come back.”

With that terse revelation, Mr Phey was kept in custody since June 23, 2015, while he waited for his “60 months’ sentence for criminal breach of trust, abetting the fabrication of evidence and intentionally omitting to appear before a court.”

For good behaviour, Mr Phey was allowed to spend the final year of his sentence in home detention. Mr Phey said: “I must apologise and accept what I did was wrong.”

Lesson? Well, I have just two.

The first is what he had said earlier - “I knew that I was wrong and at the right time, I decided to come back.”

It appears to me that there is a gap between knowing that one is wrong and waiting for the right time to face the music. Knowledge is one thing, resolution is another. 

Alas, it took 36 long years for him to come to terms with what he had done. The circumstances that filled the 36 years are too murky (or complex) for tracing or dissecting (for what’s the point, right?), but it is safe to say that Mr Phey never forgotten what had done. His past still haunted him. 

For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in good or bad health, with a stained or broken conscience, his struggles within himself very much coloured all his work in Thailand to earn a living to survive. 

This reminds me of a saying that you do not drown by falling into the water. You drown by staying in it. 

Mr Phey’s life was not over because of a mistake or wrong he had committed about 40 years ago. In fact, if he had surrendered himself in 1980, he didn’t need to live his life as a fugitive for the next 36 years. 

So, he was free only to the extent that he was not externally bound. But within himself, he could not run away from the prison bars of his conscience. It presumably casts a looming shadow on whatever that he did in the 36 years. 

You can say that by falling into the water, you still can get out of it by paying for your wrongdoings. But you can also choose otherwise and stay in the water for years struggling with that drowning sensation until you pull yourself out of it. 

That was what Mr Phey did, eventually. But like he said, there was a right time for that. For Mr Phey, that right time took him 36 years. 

Alas, it bears repeating that knowledge must thus come with a personal resolution to want to change. Or else, what you know, the projection of that knowledge to ”wow“ the crowd, is all just but a show - a magic show to an audience of one, that is, your deluded self. 

And the second lesson is in his plea for a second chance. Mr Phey said that “he was sorry for what he had done and hoped he would be given a second chance.” 

He added that “second chance means that if I am still physically and mentally strong and fit, I will be allowed to do what I can do. I am a trade unionist.”

We all cry out for second chances. Some of us cry for more because life has a way to test us until we come to a point or crossroad where we can distinguish clearly between what is conviction and what is pretension. 

Somehow, life has its own way to punish a soul for pretension. But it liberates the same soul for conviction. 

It reports that when the electronic tag was removed from him on Tuesday, signifying that his sentence had formally come to an end, Mr Phey felt the lightness of being because he said he didn’t feel “the stress of rushing home to comply with the terms of his detention.”

Mr Phey also acknowledged that he “feels and looks healthy”. He said with a smile: “In my first press picture after my return, I looked haggard, like a sick old man.” 

I guess there are always two kinds of freedom that we fight for (or struggle with), and the external one, the bars outside of us, will not give us the enduring peace we need to flourish (and not just surviving) as compared to the one that sets us free from within. 

So, the arc of the moral universe is indeed long; and for some of us, it may take longer to come back full circle. 

But having said that, let me add that the arc not only bends towards justice, it also bends towards redemption. It is the redemption of a truly transformed life. And no riches, fame and power can do that except a heart that surrenders to the conviction of what is right, what is true and what is unqualified repentance.

And I guess the only thing Mr Phey is rushing home to now is to a clear, restored and free conscience. Cheerz.

PM Lee's "broad church" of diverse views towards "ping qi ping zoo" resilience.

I can’t say that PM Lee’s message is not inspiring. I felt that in some ways he had pushed all the right buttons. He shared about leadership renewal, unity, centrism, broad tent or broad church, inclusive politics, and human touch. 

It was also a creative speech to the PAP mass gathering of ministers and members (more than 3000) at the weekend’s party conference. 

He shared that there were definitely differences of opinions like “some want to keep the Primary School Leaving Examination while others favour scrapping it, and some want to retain Section 377A...while others want to repeal it.”

This is what he meant by having a “broad tent” or “broad church” of diverse views. He said: “We may not be able to reach a consensus on all issues, all the time. But we should always try to find common ground, and more importantly, maintain a shared space where the different views can be aired constructively, where we can engage in a way that does not erode trust and social cohesion.”

Unity also means taking a centrist approach to political philosophy. Centrism prevents the politics of extremes. He warned about the zero-sum game where it is “organised along fault-lines in Singapore society, and such politics would only make the fault-lines deeper.”

The recent 377A debate is one such fault-line where moral sentiments mix with religious fervency risks erupting into political fanaticism. 

He doesn’t want a situation whereby politics divide people such that “people would be forced to take sides, you are either for me or against me.”

At this point, PM Lee has got a point. Look at American politics, between the blue and red, the Democrats and Republicans, you would notice that it is no longer about the good of the people, but vindication, ego-takedowns, vengeful politics, mutual recriminations, and extremism. Sometimes you wonder whether Trump is leading a United States or a Disunited States of America. 

PM Lee said: “(US) politics is so deep that when families gather, they cannot talk politics. And it is reaching a point where marriages between Democrats and Republicans are frowned on. It is like between Romeo and Juliet - different clans, different tribes and different nations.”

He added: “So when we talk about maintaining cohesion and centrist politics, it may sound ordinary and dull, but, in fact, it is vital for Singaporeans and very rare in the world. It is the key reason why we have done better than most.”

Then, there is the human touch. 

PM Lee said that the party’s key objective is to let the people know that “the Government understands your concerns, that the PAP is working with you to tackle problems together, and that whatever your diffculties, in Singapore you will never walk alone. To do that,” he added, “we have to complement good policies with a human touch.”

This is what human touch entails: “You are not just helping to write letters and send them off to the Housing Board or Central Provident Fund Board or some other government agency. You are offering residents friendship and encouragement, so that they identify with you and confide in you - help you to help them more.”

If there was ever a Jericho chant by PM Lee, this has to be it. This is the rallying call for unity in diversity and equality amidst inequality is these words: -

“But we are all here today because we count it a privilege to serve. Each person we succeed in helping, and whose life we make better - even by a little bit - makes it all worthwhile.”

Lesson? One. 

I find that PM Lee has just outlined for the 4G leaders what it takes to bring the nation to the next level of “happiness, prosperity and progress” for all. 

And if anyone has caught the leadership baton well, it has to be Chan Chun Sing, where he recently called the leaders to “build a sense of stewardship” and “to be a force of good.”

His tall order is in this Socratic inquiry: “How do we bring about this concept of stewardship and imbue that into the next generation, where the definition of our success is not how well we do for ourselves here and now, but the definition of our success is how well we enable our next generation to do even better than us?”

Chan’s next line of questioning is more pertinent. He asked: “How do we build a system that allows the human potential to flourish? How do we build a meritocratic system of talent and trades where each and every individual’s achievement is determined by his talent, effort and commitment, and never by his language, race, religion, ancestry or family ties?”

Here are my thoughts...

In a speech or a podium address, the PAP has got the political rhetoric all down. The fundamentals are definitely sound. The government’s blueprint on multiculturalism, meritocracy and economic development (to be the first in all areas) cannot be faulted. 

You cannot expect a speech of this nature addressed to 3000 prominent members and pitched nationwide to be one that is short on idealism since at the top, that has always been the touchstone of a resilient government for, by and with the people. 

The unspoken goal is always to aim for the stars, within pragmatic limits, so that the political marathoners run a good race that is worth the prize they deserve at the finishing line. 

This is where a generous injection of loftiness is always prudent to keep the government on their toes and the governed on firm footing. 
But inevitably, and this has to be said, as we progress down the many layers of society, idealism at the top always gets watered down when it confronts the realities at the bottom. 

There may no doubt be consensus solidified, which is forged by the charisma of the leadership at the top, but it is always the grassroot that experiences the raw effects of promises kept and unravelled to varying degree. 

That is, not everyone will enjoy the benefits of policy reforms and the utilitarian bend for the government is always to ensure that those at the top secure the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people below. 

Ultimately, for all practical reasons, it is about the principle of utility or the number game. And CCS spelt it out most honestly when he said this: -

“There will be winners and there will be losers, and there will be people who win a lot, and those who win relatively less. There are differences in absolutes and there are differences in relativities. How a society manages the disparity between the winners and the losers, between those who win more and those who win less, will have domestic political implications with global significance, and we have seen this happen in the last few years where the domestic relativities, when not well managed, translate into a global backlash against the natural forces of integration.”

Alas, he is right you know. There are indeed differences in absolutes and relativities, and most of the time, if not all of the time, it is the gap in the domestic relativities that results in either revolution (regime change) or disillusionment (regime decay). 

Let me end with the words of PM Lee. Here goes.

“That is what our meritocracy is about - helping each other reach the best of our ability, and not holding back each other’s with potential to do better than ourselves. We cannot cut tall poppies down. We must encourage every poppy to grow. We will be different colours, different heights. But we will be one community, one Singapore succeeding together.”

He ended using the Chinese saying “ping qi ping zuo” - “We sit together, we rise together, we are on the same level. We feel the kinship and comradeship.”

Let’s hope also that we sit on the same chairs and rise on shared platform so that the rhetoric of the government over the podium is not just about flourishing ideals, but flourishing reality too. Cheerz.

Azlin Amram - an empowering narrative.

Self improvement books are fine. Talks or seminars held on it are fine too. But when it happens to you, when you face a life-changing accident one unsuspecting day, you need more than self-improvement books or talks to lift that crushed spirit. 

More relevantly, you need strength to advance from today to tomorrow with unrelenting hope. 

But Ms Azlin Amram (“Azlin”) did just that after she “suffered a severely damaged spinal cord, fractured pelvis, punctured lungs and terrible abrasions to her face that the nurses advised her not to look into the mirror for a month.”

Today’s article by Theresa Tan is about that life-changing day and the post-traumatic growth thereafter. 

This is what Azlin recalled. 

It was typical day like any other. She “stepped into the escalator at Tanah Merah MRT Station” and “there was no barrier blocking the entrance to it to signal it was under maintenance.”

Azlin did not notice that “the cover of the third step was missing before she fell into the escalator pit.”She was “stuck in the waist-deep pit for about 30 to 45 minutes before the Singapore Civil Defence Force arrived and rescued her.”

She said: “I had trouble breathing and there was a lot of blood. I cried out for help and prayed it would not be my last breath.”

Theresa wrote that “overnight, (Azlin) went from being a carefree soul who loved the outdoors and travelling, to one who had to depend on others for the most basic of tasks, like going to the toilet.”

And this was where this news sunk her heart. The doctors told her ”the probability of her walking again was 3 per cent”. 

Azlin was hospitalised for three months and she said: “I felt imprisoned in my own body. I couldn’t think of how life could go on when I could not even do the most basic things on my own, like getting out of bed or taking a shower.” 

She prayed every day for a miracle and hope to see the day she could walk again. But for now, life goes on. 

Azlin took “a few years to come to terms with how her life had changed” and said that “the thing that worked for me was being open to doing things in new ways and to stop feeling stuck in the past.”

She joined SPD’s Transition to Employment programme, “which helps people disabled from an accident or illness rejoin the workforce through therapy and job placement aid.” She herself went through physiotherapy, occupational therapy and counselling and grew stronger. 

Being open to new ways of doing things helped to distract Azlin from her own disability, and she ultimately found meaning in her employment with SPD. 

She said: “Before the accident, I led a carefree life but there was not a lot of meaning to tie together. After the accident, I felt there was more purpose because of the work that I do. Every day, I meet people who acquire physical impairments and I enjoy journeying with them as they learn that being happy and going back to work again is possible.”

Lesson? Just one. It’s in Azlin’s own words and it struck me deeply. 

She said: “In the first year after my accident, I cried when I spoke about my past, present and future. My past became something that was endearing, my present was something I resented and my future, something I feared.” 

Her past was indeed memorable. After she left her administrative job, Azlin travelled to South Korea, Malaysia and Nepal. Naturally, she missed those days. 

After the accident, things however changed for her. Yet, her fight to regain her confidence, perspective and hope led her to live in another way that is no less meaningful, if not more. 

Personally, I always believe that our life is made up of moments, thousands and millions of them, all interconnected and interdependent on each other from birth to death, and the moments that have the greatest impact on our life is now, that is, the present. 

But sadly, we have this tendency to draw moments from the past and live in regrets or imagine moments of the future and live in fear. 

We make ourselves so “available” for the moments we are not living in (because they are either gone or have yet to come), and thereby make ourselves totally unavailable for the moments we are actually living in, that is, the present. That is the irony of a life shortchanged or sabotaged. 

There is a saying that reminds us not to allow yesterday to use too much of today and to light tomorrow with today, and the truth is, the greatest hope of personal change is not to cry over moments that have passed or moments that have yet to come, but to decide to live with resolve the moments in the here and now. 

And that was exactly what Azlin did and somehow, with that spirit of perseverance and hope, life opens new doors for her. Things she could never imagine possible became possible because Azlin “refused to let fear overcome her.”

Not only have she found meaning in her job of helping others, it reports that she has also found love. “She met her husband, a 32-year-old IT designer, online” as she was looking for a friend. 

Their relationship blossomed and they affirmed their love when they walked down the aisle two years ago. 

This is what Azlin said at the end of the article. “It’s OK to feel broken for a certain amount of time, but do not allow circumstances to control how you live your life. You are in charge of your own narrative and you can tell a better story.”

Indeed she has, and love, meaning and hope are just the right plot for a better story to unfold after one unfortunate chapter ends. 

And one truth about a narrative or story is that the author has full control of how it is written. For the vocabulary of an overcoming life is about completing one sentence at a time in the same way that we live one day at a time, making ourselves fully engaged and available in the present. 

So, kudos Azlin, can’t wait for the next chapter of your inspiring story. Cheerz.