Interview with Eugene Yapp and Mable Leong

Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM Coalition)

Eugene Yapp is the National Unity Program Director of the arm of GBM that addresses issues of national unity. He is also the Director of Religious Freedom and Liberty Partnership in Malaysia. Eugene was part of the original cohort that helped make SEAN-CSO that network it is today.

Meanwhile, Mable Leong has a background in law and currently serves on a legal council in Kuala Lumpur. She is a GBM Coalition Project Executive and has been involved in various projects over the years.

Q: Would you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do as part of GBM Coalition? 

EY: Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM) is a coalition of 27 local civil society organisations coming together under one banner. Founded in 2009 GBM is the largest independent mixed faith-based civil society coalition in Malaysia. Our focus and work on creating national unity and fostering religious harmony is fairly well known. The organisations that make up the coalition are a mix of faith-based groups, human rights advocates, community service providers, think-tanks, and educational organisations.

GBM  focuses on preventing violent extremism (PVE), but more in relation to the concept of “hateful extremism.” The phenomena of hateful extremism is something that is prevalent in the context of Malaysia.

Our three main objectives are as follows:

1. To create and strengthen common platforms and spaces for interaction, mutual understanding, and collaboration among groups and communities of different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.

2. To develop and forge public consensus on the vision of the country that will unite all Malaysians and be acceptable by all Malaysians.

3. To effect changes to the policies and legislations in favour of the promotion of national unity and racial and religious harmony in the country.

To further our broad objectives, we have a 3-prong strategic approach via a special purpose vehicle called “GBM Coalition.” The strategies are as follows:

1. Bridge-building narrative — unity in diversity and standing in solidarity with all.

2. Advocacy — contributing to policy and legislative changes on unity in diversity and national harmony.

3. Community intervention programmes — holistic approach of offering community services to address poverty and marginalization issues that hinder unity in diversity and national harmony.

The context in which we implement this strategy is within local communities. Unlike some Human Rights organizations which confine their work mainly to policy advocacy and legislative change, we extend beyond and work with local communities.

Our community services are undergirded by the core values.

-Looking at national unity holistically as the well-bring of all people

-Intersect with other aspects of human life and interest in a broader frame towards sustainable development

-Affirming and upholding fundamental liberties and rights in a practical concordance rather than hierarchical manner

-Collaborate with institutions and uplifting systemic capacities for efficient deliveries

-Maintaining shared moral values and ethical resources to undergird unity in diversity

Some past projects and activities include:

-Organized a statewide harmony football tournament

-Worked with the previous PH government in the setting up of a National Reconciliation and Mediation Commission pursuant to the NUCC Blueprint

-Collaborated with business entrepreneurs, corporations, municipal councils. JPNIN, KRT committee members, local ADUNs and MPs, residents associations, and local communities in several key areas of need such as PPR Kota Damansara and Desa Mentari to re-paint dilapidated buildings, promote environmental care and cleanliness, transforming dump-sites into sustainable vegetable gardens, establish crime watch and security, celebrate religious festivals, and hold roundtable dialogues with resident to flush out root causes of hate and hateful extremism

We are also a unique coalition because we incorporate the concept of religion and spirituality into our development agenda.

Now, how does all of this tie up to the work of CVE, PVE, and hateful extremism?

We believe that our strategy of bridge building advocacy and community intervention programs will create a movement, and produce a counter-narrative that will prevent violent extremism and address the issue of hateful extremism. If we can address hateful extremism, it will lead to less violent reactions.

Q: You mentioned that GBM is one of a few entities that incorporates religion and spirituality into the work that you do, how has that helped the coalition with its objectives? 

EY: Two things. One is that we are able to use religious values such as compassion, mercy, love for your neighbors, sensitivity to those around you, and mutual understanding. We mobilize these values and virtues into the community to build solidarity. As a group builds solidarity, they then come to know each other and that builds up trust and confidence in one another. As you build trust, confidence, and solidarity, it will reduce the likelihood of hateful extremism. Hate is thereby minimized, if not negated. When hate is reduced, the likelihood of VE or an extremist reaction will also be minimal.

Overall, our work is to build solidarity and build common trust and confidence and understanding within the local communities.

We focus on local communities because they are sites of personal grudges and contestations of race and religion. Tensions are highly charged and sensitive. Muslims don’t mix with the Chinese. Some Muslims will say the Chinese are snakes, and cannot be trusted. The Chinese will look at the Muslims, within the context of the recent incident in France, and say they are terrorists, they cannot be trusted. This creates anti-sentiment against each other. We try to reverse that. Religion then becomes a powerful factor to mobilize us and a powerful motivation to create this solidarity, confidence, trust, and understanding we are striving for.

Many people say, let’s build confidence and trust through institutions, through infrastructures. Let’s get rid of poverty, provide more education to kids, better support systems, and social entrepreneurship opportunities. Once all this is in place, they won’t hate each other. We go further than that by addressing religious and spiritual aspects such as compassion and blessings to others, that will help to build solidarity. We take a more holistic approach.

Q: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges you face in building solidarity amongst different groups? 

EY: We have to look at it in terms of layers.

At the civil society layer, the challenge will be this notion of, “we believe in the separation of state and religion.” Rising from this notion, the question here is, “Why do we want to talk about religion?” Because if you bring in religion, religion divides. Therefore, leave religion out of this whole engagement cycle. That’s the first challenge.

The UN has a 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which highlights 17 Sustainable Development Goals. However, within this agenda, the focus is always on the infrastructure, on the systemic issues, the policy issues, but there is nothing that indicates the role religion and spirituality can play in accomplishing these targets. But religion does play a role. However, the UN and many practitioners in this development agenda, sort of neglect and marginalize that reality. In essence and in truth, religion and spirituality are central, but they are not in the picture. Why? This is because of this frame of thinking. Religion ought to be separated from state matters.

From a civil society layer, that is the challenge that we face. We need to persuade partners from civil society organizations to reform this thinking and say that the strict separation of religion from state affairs should not be the case. We should be in the light of the new global era where people are beginning to acknowledge that religion is an important component of everyday life.

Within the layer of the community, the challenges are different. Most people in Malaysia are religious or if they are not religious, their lives are informed, consciously and unconsciously, through a religious worldview. The challenge then is how do we bring religion, not so much the dogma of religion, but how do we translate the precepts into understandable chunks. Many people in Malaysia are illiterate or are on a low literacy level.

The challenge is to translate the precepts and values of religion and communicate it to people. And the information must be conveyed through what I call “true-life languages.”

I could tell you “this is what the Quran says, or this is what the Bible says” but that wouldn’t be very useful. It is more effective to translate the content into life languages. That way people can identify how to live as a compassionate person and loving person within their religion and Malaysian society.

Q: Would you elaborate on your point about how religion informs peoples’ lives? 

Religion plays a role in Malaysian governmental affairs, even more than people care to admit, but that’s the reality. In the context of Malaysia, by constitution we are a Muslim majority country. We have an official state religion, because our constitution says that Islam is the religion of the country. Rising from this constitutional provision, some Islamic groups and individuals have asserted that since Malaysia is an Islamic country, we are therefore an Islamic state. Now that is purely looking at it from a perspective rooted in Islamist thinking, the Quran, and the context of Islamic history.

Now I am not saying whether this is wrong or right, but if you are looking at the constitution from this perspective, you will arrive at the conclusion that because the constitution says the Islam is the religion of Malaysia and because Malaysia is a Muslim majority country, it stands to reason that Malaysia is an Islamic state. And if Malaysia is an Islamic state, then Islam should be above all other religions and all other religions should be subordinate to Islam. What we have in Malaysia today is the notion of the sovereignty of Islam.

Now anyone in Malaysia knows this and if you live in Malaysia long enough you will become accustomed to this phrase. That’s a perfect example of what I mean by the convergence of social realities, constitutional provisions, and political systems. One could say, if Islam is sovereign, then churches and Buddhist temples should not be built higher then mosques. From a political perspective, if Islam is sovereign, then you cannot have a non-Muslim prime minster because we are an Islamic state. On an economic level, if we are an Islamic state, there should be more provisions made in terms of budget and benefits for the Muslim community. The non-Muslim community can exist, but they should be checked.

ML: We are very accustomed to this whole concept. We call it “kedaulatan Melayu” which translates to “sovereignty of Malay.” I am of Chinese descent and from a young age, we know that you have to study hard because you are not going to get into national university. We  definitely do not live in a meritocracy system. If you are not Malay, it will be very challenging for you to find work in the civil services even if you really want to serve the country.

Some of my friends and I are extremely blessed that we got to study abroad, but many people really want to come back here.  I had a conversation with a friend who had specialized in pediatrics and cardiology in the United States. He came back because he wanted to serve in Malaysia, but because of various policy restrictions, he was unable to find work in government hospitals. He couldn’t get any job in care in Kuala Lumpur, so he ended up applying to jobs in Singapore and moved there.

I have lots of other similar examples. Some say the younger generation does not work hard and that we do not care, but there are plenty of people who really care. However, we are limited by all of this institutionalized racism and government supported practices. They call them “affirmative policies,” but affirmative policies sometimes do more harm than good, even to those who are Malay. I know many people who have left Malaysia because they were offered excellent opportunities overseas.

EY: Imagine in the long run, these discriminatory sentiments bottle up and create hateful extremism. Then, this hateful extremism leads to violence. We saw this process in France last week. It did not begin with the display of the cartoons, rather the anti-sentiments were already there.

Q: Could you share about the work that you do together? 

ML: We drafted a bill that proposed the creation of a National Reconciliation and Mediation Commission that was subsequently brought to the Minister of National Unity. We spent many months preparing everything and our bill was going to be debated in Parliament. However in February, there was a change in government from the Pakatan Harapan Party to the Perikatan Nasional Party. As a result, all the work that we had done, came to a halt because of the political instability.

Eugene was a practicing lawyer before he began his civil society work. That is why we work together on various projects. He also helps with a Christian lawyers group.

EY: As we talked about before, GBM Coalition has three strategies, bridge building, advocacy, and community-empowerment. The legal side would be useful for advocacy purposes.

When the previous government came into power in 2018, we worked with them to promote national unity. We felt that within local communities there were a lot of grievances because of ethnic and religious tensions. We proposed the creation of a commission, recognized by an act of Parliament. This commission will empower the setting up of mediation roundtables in local communities. The commission will aid in compelling parties to attend these roundtables to talk and hopefully resolve their differences without going to court and or having to make police reports.

Our idea was to encourage mediation rather than contestation or confrontation. The commission would not only bring parties to a more amicable settlement but also promote mutual understanding and solidarity between citizens. The previous government had agreed to work with us, but then there was a turn of events and we have a new government. This new government has elected not to proceed with our plan.

The whole matter is now in abeyance,  but it is a good example of how we were able to incorporate civil society advocacy skills and legal skills. In the process of preparing the Bill to be tabled to parliament, we roped in groups of lawyers to assist with the whole preparation and drafting process. It took about 1 ½ months. The commission, if it materializes in the future, will become a government instrument to address issues of hateful extremism and contribute to PVE.

Q: Was this project where the two of you met or did you know each other beforehand? 

ML: We met before then. We’re both Christians and Christian circles in Malaysia are small. I got to know Eugene because of his religious freedom work. The bill was just another project that we have worked together on.

EY: Another one of my areas of focus, which is related to what I do with GBM Coalition, is related to religion in the public arena and how religion can play a major role in what I call the “transformation agenda.” Within the ambit of religion bringing a transformative agenda, whether in the development circles or political economic circles. I also look at issues surrounding freedom of religion. You can’t talk about religion without freedom of religion as a human right. This field is so broad so I branch into various circles. I wear many different hats.

Q: What is one piece of advice you have for your fellow Malaysian citizens? What do you hope your society is like in the future? 

ML: Recently, we did a mapping exercise where we looked at different issues that affect national unity. I interviewed some religious leaders and some members from both right-wing and liberal groups.

One of the main things that came out of these discussions was that even though Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country, there is a lot of stereotyping. My group and I were discussing how to move forward with these exercises, and I think that sometimes we overcomplicate these matters. At the end of the day, the best way to understand one another is to do things together. It is innate in us as human beings to desire for relationships. We do not always need to strategize how to get to know someone or how to talk to our neighbor who may have a different background than our own. These skills are in us. What I encourage people to do is engage with their local community. Reach out to people and use the influence you have to promote positive change.

For example, in the past people were not very interested in voting. I remember hearing someone say, “Everyone knows at least ten people. If every person in Malaysia got ten people to vote, that would make a huge impact!” Change starts with ourselves. Before we can change the world or change our community, we have to change ourselves. We must confront our own stereotypes and perceptions of other people. We do not always need to complicate everything or produce big projects. Yes, funding is important and we need strategies too, but a lot of things are simpler than we make them out to be.

For me, what I want to see in my country is for people to be more intentional. I also think that everyone, both everyday citizens and those who lead Malaysia, should try and put our own self-interests aside and help each other more.

EY: I would like to end with a simple phrase and that is: have better understanding, build solidarity, create trust and confidence so that we can all unite and become a better nation.