A Discussion with Lim Teck Ghee, CEO, Center for Policy Initiatives

November 23, 2009

Background: The context for this discussion is preparation for a consultation on faith and development in Southeast Asia, held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia December 14-15, 2009. The consultation was an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Luce Foundation and the University of Cambodia. Its aim was to take stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith, but more important, to explore the policy implications that emerge from their interactions with development organizations.The interview was conducted by email exchange between Lim Teck Ghee and Michael Bodakowski. Lim Teck Ghee is presently CEO of the Centre for Policy Initiatives in Malaysia. In this interview he reflects on the contemporary role of religious issues in Southeast Asia, and especially Malaysia. He focuses both on the assets that faith brings and some of the pitfalls that are on the immediate horizon.

Can you tell us about your journey to your present position, and how you were inspired to do the work you are doing?

Following my Ph.D. studies, I returned to Malaysia in 1971. Whilst teaching at the University of Penang (as it was known then) I was also engaged in activist work with fishing villages in Penang, which at that time had the largest Free Trade Zone in the world. The uncontrolled run off from the FTZ factories had resulted in pollution of the coastal waters and the destruction of the livelihoods of the fishing communities. This was one of the earliest community-driven struggles for change in the country and it had a considerable impact in bringing to people’s attention the need to prioritize the environment and vulnerable communities in development work. I was very much involved with working with the Kuala Juru fishing community fight for their rights over a 10 year period. This experience has shaped my thinking on many issues, including the importance of listening closely to and working with the poor and dispossessed.

For those readers who are interested, more information about this work can be found in Denis Goulet's article in the Human Rights Quarterly.

Can you speak some about your present position? What work are you doing, and how does it intersect with religion?

I am still basically involved in policy reform work. This means not only engaging with the government and authorities that plan and implement policy but more importantly, working with stakeholders from the larger community, especially the voiceless and powerless.

Many of the policy distortions and abuses in Malaysia increasingly impinge on the socio-cultural and religious practices and rights of the minority population. Hence, the intersection between my policy work and what happens in religion is clear. However, it is a difficult and sensitive area to work in because the majority of Malaysia’s population is Muslim, and Islam is in many ways the pre-eminent religion in the country. How to ensure that the constitutional pre-eminence of Islam does not lead to the infringement of the religious rights and freedoms of the other religious communities is one of the biggest challenges the country is facing.

Malaysia is a diverse nation, both ethnically and religiously. How has the issue of faith influenced development in the country, and what is the most challenging aspect of working in the development field in Malaysia?

Faith has influenced Malaysian development work in many ways: through the establishment of religious schools, through charitable work, through the values and beliefs it has imparted to individuals and communities, etc. This influence has been mainly indirect and I feel it should remain so.

The most challenging aspect of development work is that Malaysia is a religiously diverse country. Hence, the intrusion or insertion of religious interests into development work—unless done judiciously and carefully—could lead to divisions and conflict. It is important to also note that Malaysia has a liberal democratic and secular-based constitution which needs to be respected and protected.

Islamic religious zealots (and political opportunists) have been trying to push for a greater adherence to Islamic laws, practices, and norms in the public sphere. This is a dangerous trend which needs to be resisted. There are, of course, also zealots from other religions that are similarly pushing for their own religious interests and agenda in areas where they may be able to exert influence. All of these should be resisted. If a greater role for religion in public life is deemed necessary, this should be filtered through a process of open and democratic public discussion in which the issues are fully ventilated.

I see you have also done substantial work on education policy in Malaysia. What is the role of faith and faith-inspired organizations in education in Malaysia?

Mission and Islamic religious schools have been a major educational force in the country in the past. The former Christian-based schools however have now been absorbed into the national educational system. The same process of absorption into the national system is taking place with private Islamic schools too.

Today, the major concern is that the national educational system is being infiltrated by Islamic elements and practices in the form of changes in the curriculum content, school culture, etc. This is because the great majority of teaching and senior management positions are staffed by Muslims who see the need to change the character of the schools to be in conformity with their personal religious affiliation. This issue of the role of religion in the educational system of a multi-religious society is one that also needs to be openly discussed, though in a civil and rational manner.

Apart from your work in Malaysia, you have extensive experience working in Southeast Asia with International Organizations, including the United Nations and the World Bank. Can you speak to the role and influence of international organizations doing development work in the region, and what is their interaction with faith-inspired organizations?

International development agencies play an important development role in many of the poorer countries and they do, from time to time, work together with faith-based organizations. This is almost always done on an individual and project oriented basis rather than as a central thrust of these organizations.

Clearly, if better project outcomes can come about through work or synergies with faith-based groups or individuals, it would be a myopic or clueless project manager that does not try to leverage on it. However, it is also clear that most project managers do steer away from embracing or trying to implement a “religious approach” to development. Whether this concern that religion is too sensitive or complicated and gets in the way rather than facilitates development work is justified can be debated. The onus should be on all professionals who work in the development field to make use of all the resources available—human, intellectual, and spiritual—to bring about the changes that can improve lives.

What, in your view, is missing on the development agenda with regards to faith, and what should be added?

What are often missing are the intangibles such as community solidarity, good governance, empowerment of the poor, commitment and stamina, and focused and targeted idealism rather than technical inputs. Also corruption and leakages plague many projects.

Can faith provide these missing ethical ingredients? Perhaps it can. Even if faith-based groups or organizations claim they can contribute positively, we need to examine these claims and the integrity of the groups that are making them. If legitimate, we should work with them to ensure that they are successful. At the same time, we cannot have two sets of standards—a less transparent or less accountable or less rigorous one applying to faith-based work and a different set for non-faith work.

Looking forward 20 years, what do you see as the largest development imperatives in Southeast Asia, and what will be the role of religion and faith?

The biggest development imperatives have to do with meeting rising expectations of a good life (especially of the present under-classes), ensuring environmental sustainability, and making sure that social cohesion is not undermined by widening socio-economic disparities and differences.

Religion and faith can play a moderating role in helping prevent excesses and abuses in societies and bringing about a higher level of individual and public consciousness and ethical behavior in meeting the challenges of the future. But this will also require that religious leaders and organizations recognize the limits of asserting the religious agenda in public life and refrain from claiming that religion has the answers to the problems of society. When the latter claim is politicized by extremists and zealots, then we have a new set of problems that can rapidly spiral out of control especially in societies where the transition to modernity has not yet been effected.

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