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Return the denarii to Caesar

Christianity should not merely be seen as a spiritual process. There are also the social, cultural and economic dimensions involving the whole human person and his/her relationship with the community.

In the Old Testament, God dramatically intervened in human history to rescue His people from slavery and oppression.

Jesus heralded the reign of God in a more direct fashion. Inevitably, when we choose the side of the poor and criticise injustices, we run into conflict with the interests of the rich and powerful.

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Herald.

Jesus himself did not set about to upset the powers-that-be during his time. But his message that the Kingdom of God, God’s reign, was at hand was a slap against the sovereignty of Caesar, the Roman Occupiers and Israel’s own worldly rulers. The values that he proclaimed – love, compassion, justice – were diametrically at odds with the values of the Roman Empire (oppression, tyranny and greed).

Seen in that light, Jesus’ message to render to God what was God’s and to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s meant that we should give back to worldly rulers the ultimately worthless and futile pursuits (wealth, greed, ambition) symbolised by the denarii (money and the oppressive economic system). The denarii was to be given back to Caesar, while the people were to go back to their rightful “owner”, God. Through this separation of the tainted denarii from the people of God, it could be said that Jesus was bestowing economic independence on the people – an independence from the oppressive structures of the time.

And that independence was seen in basic communities from the time of the Gospel to the conversion of Constantine. They saw themselves as under God’s direct reign – a reign that, even though dimmed by the later worldly ambitions and oppression of political and church leaders, continues to this day.

In that sense, we are called once again to return to the Gospel in basic communities, to take stock of global challenges and begin the transformation at the local level. This time, the challenges – economic, political, social and cultural – and the oppressive economic system are a thousand times more formidable. Whereas the empire of the Roman world in the Gospels was confined to the known world, today the tentacles of Empire stretch across the globe in the form of neo-liberalism (and other policies which favour the rich over the poor, the capitalist class over the workers), militarism and the arms race, global trade injustice…

Old tram railtrack unearthed along Penang Road

The other day I was passing by Penang Road and I noticed some major road excavation work in progress. I looked more closely – and there it was: preserved like an elongated time capsule under the surface of the road were two parallel metal strips right smack in the middle of the road. The old tram track!

This section is probably a continuation of the 50 metres of tram track that was unearthed – and now kept visible – following road and pavement upgrading works in 2004 at the Chulia Street/Penang Road junction.

Let’s hope these discoveries will inspire our urban transport planners to look more closely at the system of trams, which first began running in Penang in the 1880s. These trams later became part of an integrated people-friendly public transport system in the decades that followed.

Reviving the trams will be timely – and it won’t cost much. In fact, Australian tram engineer Ric Francis, author of Penang Trams, Trolleybuses and Railways, estimates that half of the old tram track could be dug out and re-used. One tram could keep 55 cars off the road, he says. Plus it will conserve our fuel, reduce pollution and complement the new public bus service, RapidPenang.

Moreover, trams that blend with the old-world architecture of George Town will surely enhance the heritage value of the inner city, which has the largest collection of pre-war shophouses in South-East Asia.

This is definitely the way to go!

Listen to Francis speaking about Re-introducing the Tramways in Penang – A Proposal for Action on Saturday at 10 am at the Penang Heritage Trust (26, Church Street). For details, phone 04-2642631.

Be there for a fascinating glimpse of what could be possible.

1,800 turn up for MTUC picket in Prai

Just heard from Abdul Razak Abdul Hamid, the chairman of MTUC Penang, that some 1,800 workers turned up for the MTUC picket near the Prai Industrial Estate, adding their voices to the call for a RM900 minimum wage and a RM300 cost of living allowance.

This exceeds the turnout for the earlier 25 June picket, in which some 1,000 workers took part.

Razak said that a few more new groups joined in today’s picket. He added that similar pickets were also held in about half a dozen locations across the country – Ipoh, KL (in three locations), Johor, Sabah and Sarawak.

So the issue is not dying out – there is still disquiet among the low-income working class. And a general election is looming.

The ball is now in PM Abdullah Badawi’s court.

Will a minimum wage drive away investors?

The MTUC resumes its nation-wide picketing calling for a minimum wage at 5 pm today.

I dropped by to check out the demo in Prai during the last picket on 25 June 2007. The turnout – a vocal crowd of close to 1,000 – exceeded the organisers’ most optimistic expectations. A large majority of the demonstrators were Malays with a smattering of Indians and Chinese – working class people. I found out from them that some factories in the area are still paying their workers a basic wage of less than RM400.

The government has said that investors will skip Malaysia if we were to introduce a minimum wage.

But check out this report from the OECD Observer website:

Minimum wages are a long-standing tradition in many other OECD countries. A minimum wage was first introduced in New Zealand in 1894, and followed a few years later by Australia. The US federal minimum wage was passed into law in 1938. Japan and Korea now have minimum wages, while in Europe, so do France, Greece, Portugal, Spain, the Benelux countries and many countries in central and eastern Europe. Ireland and the UK (not for the first time) introduced national minimum wage systems in the 1990s.

Today 21 of the OECD’s 30 member countries have statutory minimum wages, and in just over half of these countries minimum wages have risen slightly faster than average wage levels in recent years. Only in the US have the real earnings of workers on the minimum wage dropped sharply in recent years, and there is strong pressure to raise them again.

In fact, the hourly minimum wage in Ireland is 60 per cent of the net average wage in that country! That hasn’t stopped the Irish economy from booming nor has it driven away investors from Ireland.

If higher wages drive away investors, explain Singapore.

The Bank Negara governor has said that the one of the main priorities now is to boost domestic demand. Well, to me, the best way to boost domestic demand – and to ensure equitable economic growth for all – is to introduce a minimum wage so that workers can live in dignity.

The lower income group tends to save less and spend proportionately more of their incomes on essentials than wealthier Malaysians. Putting more money into the hands of the lower income group will surely boost domestic demand across the country – and spur economic activity in the most meaningful way.

It is time to introduce a minimum wage.

What does Najib mean by “Islamic state”?

When Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak declared that Malaysia is an “Islamic state”, he created quite a stir and quickly polarised public opinion between advocates of an Islamic state and those who believe Malaysia is a secular nation.

Much of the debate now is constrained by knee-jerk reactions to the labels. So let’s go behind the labels and look at the substance: what exactly does Najib mean by “Islamic state”?

An academic friend of mine shared these thoughts with me:

Does he (Najib) mean a state which:

  • has a constitutional monarchy,
  • espouses parliamentary democracy with an equal franchise for all regardless of religion,
  • has a plural system of laws (although non-bumiputera customary law has been eliminated), with the civil law based upon the Constitution as supreme and the final arbiter of our worldly affairs,
  • has no restrictions on who, in principle, can be the prime minister of the federation or the chief minister of any state in the federation, not unlike, say, (Shmu’el) HaNagid (993-1056), the leader of Andalusia’s Jews, who became, in 1037, vizier of the Muslim kingdom of Granada and commander in chief of its Islamic armed forces, second only to the king of Granada,
  • provides for equal rights for all citizens,
  • upholds equality before the law,
  • practises a single system of taxation for all,
  • provides for the free practice of all religions without discrimination?

OR, instead, does he mean a state in which:

  • non-Muslims must cede all secular power to Muslims,
  • non-Muslims are subject to discriminatory taxation,
  • non-Muslims live and worship only by the secular grace of Muslims,
  • non-Muslims cannot, in principle, hold any positions above a certain technical level,
  • a non-plural system of laws, defined by someone’s interpretation of sharia (see, Abdullah an-Na’im), is imposed upon all,
  • the Constitution does not represent the supreme law of the land,
  • non-Muslims are not free to live where they choose,
  • there is no concept of citizenship regardless of religion?

“It seems to me that if we can get a declaration of assent to the first set – that that is indeed what is meant by an Islamic state – then it would not quite matter what adjective is prefixed to our state. And if such a notion of an Islamic state gains wider assent, that would be a major positive contribution to the global battle.”