Preserving history as a new vocation?

The Royal Malaysian Police recently organised a prayer session for Christian officers at the Church of St Francis of Assisi, Cheras.

May 19, 2023

The Royal Malaysian Police recently organised a prayer session for Christian officers at the Church of St Francis of Assisi, Cheras. The relatively well-attended service, graced by Archbishop Julian Leow, and Minister of Youth and Sports, YB Hannah Yeoh, not only served to strengthen the bond between Christian police officers, but highlight the relatively smaller, yet significant role they play in the Royal Malaysian Police.

Perhaps more significant, or even surprising, were the responses on social media and outlets where the event was shared ? generally positive, with members of the public not aware that there were that many Christians in blue.

Although most of our current servicemen and women are Muslims, and therefore, religious associations and events in both the police and army tend to be Muslim in nature, both branches of our security services still do, from time to time, organise and participate in observations of other faiths, to their credit.

Catholic contribution to the nation’s security forces is a long and historic one. As many of the commanding officers belonged to the British government service, English was generally used then. As a result, the middle-ranked officers tended to be those well versed in both the British system and the language ? giving rise to the many Straits-born Chinese and Eurasians within the ranks. Non-Muslim officers of other faiths, for example, Sikh officers, too, formed a large bulk of officers ? police gurdwaras are often built alongside police camps.

Some military camps in Semenanjung, like Terendak Camp, Melaka, have chapels on the base camps itself.

This is more prevalent in Sabah and Sarawak, which has larger Christian and Catholic communities there.

Apart from the security forces, Catholic involvement in our schools, hospitals, facilities for the aged, special needs homes, and hospice care, many of which were pioneering initiatives, pepper our national history.

Many continue to fill still unpluggable gaps in the basic infrastructure our beloved nation was built on.
Yet, it is a struggle to maintain the Catholic identities of these institutions, unless something is done to arrest the decline.

For example, our schools.

Catholic mission schools produced, over the years, hundreds of thousands of graduates, including many leading Malaysians in business, politics, administration, and specialists in various fields.

Till this day, most of these schools are still operational through the undying, concerted efforts of the remaining students, parent teacher associations (PTAs), religious, alumni, dioceses, parishes.

It is a daunting initiative as many present trends work against the preservation of these schools.

First, the steep decline in the number of religious orders previously manning the schools. With so few religious left, the task of preserving the heritage is largely entrusted on secular alumni and PTAs.

Second, the low enrolment rates. Many factors contribute to this — some mitigatable, others less so.

Areas where schools built in the 60s and 70s are now experiencing rapid development, rising property prices and the conversion of housing areas into commercial ones, push residents out of these areas into other areas.

Another leading reason is the trend for parents to send their children to private or vernacular schools instead of national schools, which most Catholic schools operate as.

Some of these schools are then sold to private developers or converted into private schools.

In the case of the prior, often, great care is taken to preserve the historical aspect of our buildings, for example, St Jo’s @Gurney, formerly St Joseph’s Novitiate. In the case of the latter, the schools tend to strive to maintain its founding ethos in providing scholarships for those in need.

Both are great ways to preserve a small but sufficiently significant part of the rich history of these institutions, and to honour the sacrifices of those who built it.

Other Catholic institutions too, suffer similar problems of funding and staffing, forcing them to source for private contributions or surrender parts and portions of their organisations. To deal with rising costs, many of our hospitals are now serving as semi or fully private hospitals albeit with stronger charitable elements compared to for-profit ones.

Another related issue is the reducing number of Catholics in public institutions, who indirectly serve as ambassadors of sorts for our Church, sharing this with staff members who may not see the relevance, significance, or value in preserving any religious identity in now mostly secular buildings.

For example, teachers and servicemen.

As salaries remain stagnant in these professions and the private sector becomes more appealing, perhaps encouraging our young to include these as vocation considerations, or even providing some financial encouragement in the form of scholarships or stipends would help reignite interest in these fields.

Educating our young on the history of Catholic involvement in nation building, along with the rich history of the Church in Malaysia, could serve to inspire future generations of Catholics who may not be aware of how widespread the contributions of Catholics were before, during and in the years after Merdeka.

This could be a new programme, or even as part of present church groups, catechism activity, or ministries, or even as a special interest group across parishes ? like the Parish Integral Human Development Ministry or the Prison Ministry.

The historical value of Catholic contribution to our country, along with its institutions, but perhaps more importantly, those who gave life to those institutions, should not be allowed to disappear. By understanding it more, we could even create a new generation of flag bearers for our Church and nation.

(Emmanuel Joseph oversees IT as his 9-5 job and from 5-9, he serves a few NGOs, think tanks and volunteer groups. He serves as an advisor for Projek Dialog and is a Fellow with the Institute of Research and Development of Policy.)

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