Pope Benedict XVI greets Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak during a meeting at the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, on July 18. Archbishop Pakiam was part of Mr Najib’s interreligious delegation. CNS photo

Archbishop Murphy Pakiam of Kuala Lumpur speaks about the Malaysian prime minister’s visit to the Vatican in this interview

When did you first get to know that Malaysia would establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See?

They have been working at this for many years now. The apostolic delegate had discussed it over many years. This is the fruit of many, many efforts coming together. But the decision to establish relations came rapidly in the end. I knew just a few days before coming here. I was pleasantly surprised.

Who invited you to come to the audience with the pope as part of the Malaysian delegation?
The request came from the government; a minister personally contacted me and then sent the invitation in writing. But since Vatican protocol does not usually allow for a bishop to come with the state delegation to meet the pope, I said, “Not!”

I think they then contacted the Vatican, and I was given notice that the Holy Father said my name could be included in the delegation. So it was the request of the Holy Father and I respect that.

What happened at the audience? Did you go in with the delegation at the end of the private audience between the pope and prime minister?

Right. I went in with the other members of the delegation; they all had great respect for the Holy Father.

What was the prime minister’s reaction afterwards, and what was your own feeling?
He was happy. The atmosphere was very cordial indeed. All the ministers and officials who accompanied him were very impressed. I too was really very happy for this meeting, and for the establishment of diplomatic relations.

The prime minister is known internationally as a voice of moderation and harmony; he initiated a global movement of the moderates and spoke of this at the United Nations, at Oxford, and at ASEAN.

By coming to the Vatican, this voice of moderation encountered the Holy Father, who is the voice of peace, justice and fundamental rights, as well as being the voice of reason in matters of faith.

By meeting the pope who stands for moral values, Prime Minister Najib has made a thrust for the future, for the family, for democracy and for the rights of every individual to be respected. He signalled the direction in which he wishes to lead our country.

I pray that this encounter will bear fruit and will echo strongly in our own country and in the other countries we are linked to, our special friends, as well as in countries that are experiencing the radicalism of whatever religion and feel the need for moderation.

Hitherto, it has been difficult to have an official dialogue between Muslims and Christians, or indeed between Muslims and the other religions in Malaysia. Will such dialogue happen now?

I don’t think it will be easy to get that going, but I hope it can take place. It is part of the request that the Catholic Church has made to the government. In the past, the inter-religious council [of all the other religions in the country except Islam] has tried to get this dialogue, but some Muslim groups do not agree to it.

Now, I hope this can take place because there is a real need for such a dialogue and for greater understanding. Asia is the birthplace of the world’s great religions, and for Malaysia to be truly Asia there is a need for dialogue between the leaders of all these religions, to promote harmony and peace.

The Prime Minister repeated this in his “1 Malaysia” concept, but it requires time.

– Archbishop Murphy Pakiam of Kuala Lumpur

He has put it into practice by having people from these great religions accompany him to his meeting with the pope. The delegation included a Catholic minister; a Buddhist minister, a Catholic bishop, the president of the Fatwa Council and the Minster for Islamic Affairs, and other ministers or officials who are Muslim.

The prime minister has given this significant leadership in Islam by meeting the pope, establishing diplomatic relations, and by having this interreligious delegation accompany him on this visit.

Did you have a chance to talk to the prime minister or to the Islamic leaders during the visit?

Not much. But I arranged visits for them to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and PISAI – the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, as well as the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.

The Minister for National Unity, Dr Koh Tsu Koon, was able to visit the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and speak with an official there, Fr Markus Solo, and he was very enthusiastic about it afterwards.

He also spoke with the rector of the PISAI, Fr Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, for two hours, and was very keen to know about the institute’s work. He expressed the wish that the rector could come to Malaysia, and when he learned that he had in fact had already planned to come to preach a retreat, he said he wished to meet him during that visit. This was also very positive.

What are the other concrete results of this visit?

I think this whole visit has shown good will. It has a symbolic value. It shows where the prime minister wants to move the radical or fundamentalist groups within Islam who would pressure for a very narrow Islam. It enables them to see where his leadership wants to move, the direction he wants to go in.

Now, much depends on how far other groups are willing to move in that same direction. It will take time of course.

This whole visit also has a value for our country on the international level. By establishing diplomatic ties with the Vatican, it shows we are a moderate Islamic country, not a Taliban country. It shows the political leadership of this country wants to go in the direction of moderation.

We hope that the different groups in the country will collaborate and work for this vision too.

When you return to Kuala Lumpur will you try to open a dialogue with Muslims at an official level?

We try of course to have friendly relations with these people; in fact that was the main request in asking for the Inter-Faith Council [in Malaysia]. It was not just something for the Catholic Church alone; it was a request for all the other religions and communities too.

The request is for more than tolerance, it is for respect for other religions and races, and for acceptance so as to have harmony and build the “1 Malaysia” that the prime minister has spoken about. Of course he has a big struggle to make within his own big group to get all the different … people to accept his progressive attempt to achieve this.

So you really believe Najib is committed to changing the dynamic and introducing more harmonious relations between the different religions and ethnics groups in the country?

I take him at his word. I know what he has said. Surely it is not easy as a prime minister who is beholden to his own electoral constituency and groups within his own party, and all that he has to listen to, and the tensions. He has to lead and direct them.

So much depends on the electorate and those who are influential within society, such as the NGOS and so on. They have to keep raising their voices for democracy. So a lot has to be built up from the grassroots.

We in the Churches have our own part to play. The Catholic community is made up of many different ethnic groups, including those of Chinese origin, the Tamils, the natives originating from East Malaysia, and so on. We have to work to build one community of God’s people, and we have to accommodate people of different origins, with a mixture of languages, and we have to do this especially in our worship.

It requires a struggle for tolerance and mutual acceptance, and that effort has been going on in the Catholic community for many years now, and it is bearing fruit. But it is a long process and we have to keep working at it and in this way we too contribute to the “1 Malaysia”.

Do you see the visit and the diplomatic links as an important step in the process of creating a more harmonious and integrated society in Malaysia. No other Malaysian leader has moved in this direction.

Yes, this surely is an important step. There have been attempts in the past by other governments, though perhaps not formulated in these same terms. Moreover, the problem has been that the governments have been formed of very racially based parties, which gave concessions here and there but the predominant groups can override the others.

Over these years, some efforts have been made to have integrated, non-racial parties, but that didn’t work. The alliances began to take religious overtones.

The NGOs and so on make requests, but this sometimes upsets the fundamentalists who speak about the supremacy of race and the supremacy of religion. That’s upsetting.

So you consider the visit as a real attempt to break away from, or overcome the present situation?

Yes, I think so, and even though this is more on the international scene, it is nevertheless symbolic and indicative of where we need to go.

Much has to be worked in the political conscience of every citizen, to be upright, to abide by civil rights and so on. It needs to be worked out progressively, and this is a long, necessary journey.

The Church is committed to playing its part by promoting moral and human values and contributing to help eliminate such things as corruption in society.

Corruption is a disease that has crept into nearly every country, including our own, and we have to work to overcome it for the good of the whole of society, but this cannot happen in a day or two. We have to affirm and promote moral values.

That’s why one of the requests that the Church made of the government is that it can be very much in the forefront of the educational system. We had very good missionary schools. The prime minister himself is from the mission school.

We need to regain that special Catholic ethos in education, that’s why one of our big requests is to regain the ability or licence to have a Teachers’ Training College, so that we can form teachers very much in this value system, and thus make a contribution to our nation’s schools and the whole of society.

You have not had this possibility for decades, right?

We had that some 20 or 30 years ago, when Religious Brothers and Sisters were running the mission schools. But when the vocations to the Religious life decreased, they thought they would form lay Catholic teachers, and others too, for this same college system, but it was stopped.

So now we have made this request again, that we be given the opportunity to have the Teachers’ Training College. We await the government’s response.

The government gives grants to mission schools, both Catholic and Protestant; albeit it’s not the same as what the other government schools get, but allocations have been given in recent times. We believe it is very important that we can train the teachers, who can transmit moral values as well as academic excellence in the schools.

In this content, it is indeed interesting to note that Prime Minister Najib is a product of the Catholic schools, as he told the pope, and he is the one who has pushed to meet the pope and establish diplomatic links and wants moderation in the country. Is that your understanding?

Yes, I would think so. He had been in a Catholic school, St John’s Institution, the De La Salle School in Kuala Lumpur from Standard 1 in the elementary school to Form 3 in lower secondary school [roughly from seven-15 years of age].

It was a Catholic school, where there were crosses in every classroom, and there were prayers, Mass, and other services, but the students were free to attend, there was absolutely no compulsion here.

It was not a residential school, but he met the Brothers every day, and he knew them personally. He takes pride in coming back to his alma mater.

When he came to the tea party that I hosted last Christmas, he told me that he has “happy memories” of this school.

Would you say that his visit here and the establishment of diplomatic relations is considered also a very happy moment for the Church in Malaysia?

Yes, but it is not as if from now on everything is already what we want changed. There are many things that we have to work hard for with the state institutions, respecting the constitution, and speaking up.

But it will encourage people to know that a majority-Muslim state has established diplomatic ties with the Holy See.

Yes, it is a majority Muslim state but with a very significant [40 percent] non-Muslim minority that includes many Christians [around 10 percent]. Religion is becoming fundamentalist in many countries. Openness is what we have to cultivate more ardently.

The Churches are trying to do this, and the Catholic Church in particular is seeking to promote this unity amid diversity in its own worship with different ethnic groups – Chinese, Tamil, English and Malay, and different languages and so forth. We have been working at it for some years now.

The history of Malaysia up to now has shown that the Malay community has dominated the political life of the country. Are you now confident the situation can change?

It will take time. It will require effort. That is why I see this visit and the establishment of diplomatic relations as a signal from the leadership, but a lot of work has to be done by all groups, from the base upwards.

By Gerard O’Connell, VATICAN INSIDER