Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #19

By Bakri Musa

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

The European Reformation

The Reformation refers to the religious revolution that took place in Western Europe during the 16th century. The pivotal event occurred in October 31, 1517, when the German preacher, Martin Luther, publicly posted his Ninety-Five Theses challenging the authority and practices of the Catholic Church. Needless to say, the Pope was not amused. Luther’s aim was to reform the institution; instead his protest ended up splitting the church, hence the terms Reformation and Protestant.

Luther was not the first, nor the only one to protest against the excesses of the Church. To understand why there was such widespread discontent among Christians then, an account of the behaviors and practices of the church establishment at the time is warranted.

The Church during Luther’s time was more than a pan-European religious institution. It was also the unchallenged social, political, and even economic power. Having wielded unchallenged authority for so long, it was inevitable that corruption, nepotism (or to put it in modern political term, cronyism), and other unsavory practices would emerge among Church leaders.

A few examples will illustrate the decadent state, both with personnel as well as practices. The clergy was less concerned with ministering to the spiritual needs of the faithful than being powerful potentates indulging in the material offerings of their followers. The masses and the educated disliked the clergy class, offended by both their lifestyles and theological practices. The clergy class reserved unto themselves the sole right to interpret the bible, written as it was in the ancient and dying language of Latin. Mere mortals need not partake in such intellectual and spiritual exercises. Suffice for them to listen to the Sunday sermons and pithy wisdom dispensed by the priests and bishops.

While the peasants were struggling, the Church continued to use its funds to build ever larger and grander churches in Rome and elsewhere. Egregious abuses of power by the clergy were rampant. One Cardinal John of Lorraine, for example, received his first religious appointment at the tender age of three! No less scandalous, his nephew received the archbishoporic of Rheims, a significant position, at age 14. Church properties and titles became possessions of great families to be dispensed at their pleasure. One prelate, Albert of Brandenburg, spent his time traveling in style, attended by his mistresses tactfully dressed in male costumes. Well, at least they were not the choirboys!

The Church was no less ingenious in raising funds. Apart from the standard solicitation of gold for church appointments and dispensing repentances for the princes and other aristocrats, it initiated other novel schemes of extracting wealth from the masses. One such practice is “indulgence,” where the clergy would dispense pardons for the presumed sins of the faithful (or their loved ones), all for a fee of course. We are familiar with the Catholic confessionals, where every Sunday the faithful would confess their sins to and receive repentance from the priest sitting behind the closed curtain. Presumably the slate would thus be swept clean, ready for the following week’s transgressions. The only problem was that there was no exchange of cash or coins, but this was soon corrected by the avarice of the clergy. Enter the “indulgence” box.

With the tinkling of every dropped coin into these boxes, supposedly the doors to heaven would open for the salvation of a designated soul, or so the faithful were told. It was a sophisticated theological rendition of the old “wishing well” idea. The concept was a resounding success, with the rich and poor rushing to deposit their gold coins to save the souls of their departed loved ones. I can imagine at the end of the day the bishop coming home with the boxful of glittering gold. If he had not been tempted before, he would certainly be by now. Besides, he could always blame the devil for tempting him!

As a revenue-generating scheme, the indulgence box was pure genius. It certainly beat taxes and tithes where you would be forced to cough up the money. With indulgence boxes, the faithful willingly parted with their gold. The ploy was even better and more lucrative than church-sponsored bingos! With bingo there are eager participants too, but there will only be a few winners; the majority will receive nothing. With indulgence boxes, perversely all the participants felt that they were winners as they parted with their hard-earned coins. One could not concoct a better scheme than that! No wonder it was so popular, especially with the clergy class.

The indulgence boxes epitomized the corruption and depravity of the church that so enraged Luther and others. When he nailed his Theses on that church door, he was frontally challenging the establishment. He enumerated the egregious abuses and outright fraud perpetrated by the priests, a long list eloquently spelled out in a common language understood by the masses, and not in some obscure fancy Latin. The results were electric: the masses overwhelmingly supported him. The Church in turn demanded that he retract his accusations or face excommunication. Or worse! Luther did not budge but became even more strident in his denunciations.

In truth Luther was not the first to be incensed by the excesses of the Church. Two centuries earlier, England’s John Wycliffe too rebelled against the tyranny of the clergy. For that, he and his followers were persecuted. John Huss of Bohemia amplified on Wycliffe’s ideas and ended up by being burned at the stake. The risks to reformers then, as now, were indeed severe.

To appreciate why Luther succeeded and did not end up being burned at the stake as others before him were, it is necessary to examine other parallel events occurring at the time. He was helped considerably by four converging trends. First, the excesses and abuses of the church had been going on for centuries and that sooner or later they had to end, to implode. Luther appeared when conditions were just ripe, resentments and anger had reached a critical stage. Second, there appeared throughout Europe universities that were outside the influence of the church. At such centers like Oxford there emerged the new movement of humanism that emphasizes the centrality of man and his ideas. This directly challenged the hegemony of the church that hitherto felt it had the final and sole authority to interpret everything.

Third was the ready availability of the printing press that enabled ideas to spread far and wide, and very quickly too. Luther took full advantage of this new medium to disseminate his ideas. With the masses now able to read and reading materials widely available, the clergy no longer had the monopoly on knowledge or information. Last, with the emergence of the political idea of nation-state, Luther was able to capitalize on the national sentiments of the Germanic people against those of Latin Europe, in particular, Rome. Luther was greatly helped when the local bishops shipped off the gold (after their have taken their generous portion) to Rome for building yet another monument there.

What are the relevant lessons from the Reformation? The first is that institutions and people with entrenched and unchallenged power will inevitably be corrupted; the greater the power, the worse the corruption. It matters not who these individuals are, for even the most pious are not immune. Second, the more entrenched the power, the more difficult it would be to eradicate the abuses without dismantling the whole structure. The European Reformation resulted not only in the formation of many breakaway Protestant sects but it also spawned a counter reformation within the Catholic Church.

Third, Luther had been through and excelled in the system; thus he had great credibility when he challenged the existing order. Fourth, he personified the very opposite qualities for which he criticized the Church. Where the clergymen were ostentatious, Luther was modest; while they hid behind their obtuse Latin, Luther used the language of the common folk. Being highly educated, Luther was facile with Latin but he chose to communicate in the language of the masses. Additionally he had a complete and viable alternative program ready. He had written not only his Ninety-Five Theses but also a whole set of sermons, hymns, and catechisms for his new church so that when he was expelled from the Catholic Church, he had a ready alternative. Luther did not have to scramble from scratch.

By far his most important strategy was to align his movement with the emerging new ideals. He shrewdly capitalized on the burgeoning nationalism, effectively exploiting the “us versus them” theme – the “them” being the distant church in Rome and the Italians. Similarly, he aligned himself with the growing humanist movement of the day. All these convergences helped him succeed.

When I compare Luther’s reformation with the Malaysian reformasi, (at the risk of flattering Anwar Ibrahim, its leader, by comparing him to Martin Luther!) a number of glaring differences emerge. Like the Catholic Church in the Middle Age, Malaysia’s ruling party is also burdened by corruption and cronyism, a consequence of being in power for so long. Like an overripe jackfruit that was still hanging, UMNO is ready to fall anytime. Unlike an overripe jackfruit which gives off a sweet smell, an overripe ripe gives off, well, an overripe smell!

Anwar however, is no Luther. For one, his reformasi forces aligned themselves with foreign elements rather than domestic ones. It was as if Luther was trying to co-opt the Italians for support instead of his own German followers. For another, reformasi activists did maximize the use of the new medium of the Internet to galvanize support and to discredit the ruling Barisan government as Malaysians generally were not quite savvy with this new medium. At least not yet then! [Note: Things changed materially by the time of the 2008 general elections with Internet penetration reaching a critical mass. No longer having control of information, the ruling coalition suffered its greatest loss.]

While Luther’s Theses was detailed, articulate, and down to earth, Anwar’s Permatang Pauh Declaration (its “Mission Statement”) was brief, pompous, and pretentious. Luther’s views were well known as he had articulated them well and often. He even put down details of his church services right down to the hymns and sermons. He wrote voluminously.

In striking contrast, reformasi and the political party it spawned, Keadilan was not quite ready for prime time. Undoubtedly, Anwar’s jailing took the momentum away from the movement. Without him, the party was fumbling with such pivotal issues as the role of religion in a plural society, inequities within and between races, and special privileges for Bumiputras.

But the most critical lesson is how to prevent the government and other institutions in Malaysia from degenerating into a medieval Catholic Church. Distressingly Malaysia today is acquiring many of the unsavory characteristics of the medieval church. Malaysian institutions are under tight government control. Additionally, the government is a significant player in the economy, controlling many major corporations. As a result corporate decisions are influenced less by market factors than by political calculations. The most glaring example is Malaysia Airlines, which stumbles from one major crisis to another. Despite that it continues to be led by less-than-competent political appointees. Current political leaders in Malaysia are control freaks, unable or unwilling to relent.

The differences between the medieval Catholic Church and the Malaysian political establishment today are merely quantitative, a matter of degree. Unchecked, Malaysia too will meet the same fate as the medieval Catholic Church.

Next: The Meiji Restoration

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 17 June 2010 - 1:28 pm

    This one I will give Dr.Musa credit. Its pretty good comparison down to criticism of Anwar and PKR. Unfortunately it has no suggestion on how to move forward except to wait for inevitable collapse.

    The next article on Meiji Restoration I pressume will suggest something but its not probable.

    In the end, we just wait for everything to come close to falling apart before anything is done.

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Thursday, 17 June 2010 - 2:32 pm

    Bumiputera Entrepreneur Awards 2010
    Any award given 2 d global family of Sarawak Chief Minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud?
    Successful megabusiness in Canada, excellent role model of Bumiputera entrepreneurs

  3. #3 by boh-liao on Thursday, 17 June 2010 - 2:44 pm

    Racist MMK talked cork, what Malays under siege?
    Shld learn fr d global rent-collecting family of Sarawak CM Taib
    Also, where got MMK’s sons n daughter under siege one? Millionaire n billionaire
    Another rich rich Malay tycoon “Ibrahim Promet” died – Malays under siege ah?
    Mayb we will read abt his wealth if his family members fight over d huge wealth he left behind, just like other late Malay tycoons

  4. #4 by baochingtian on Thursday, 17 June 2010 - 3:54 pm

    Taib- another sick man with no moral values.
    Bangkitlah Sarawakian! enuf is enuf!

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 17 June 2010 - 4:35 pm

    There’s nothing much to compare between Luther’s Reformation and Anwar’s Reformasi for any lessons to be drawn beyond the common denominator of Lord Acton’s famous dictum – “Power Corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” applicable whether to Catholic Church/establishment in Rome during medieval times in Rome or contemporary South East Asian governments ranging from semi democratic to downright despotic in both cases corrupt expending its resources not on people but on things and monuments!

    Obvious differences between Medieval Reformation and contemporary Reformasi are that:

    Luther’s war was spiritual; it was to challenge Catholic Church Orthodoxy that contributors to Church’s coffers for indulgences would “buy their way into heaven”. Luther had a set of doctrines in 95 Theses – 14 sentences of which he refused to recant and was was ex-communicated. In wider sense Luther stood for religious liberty against persecution based on religious convictions that threatened vested interest tied to the religious order of the day just like the way Jesus himself was persecuted for threatening Jewish orthodoxy and refusing to recant his teachings before the Roman Governor pressed by Jewish priests to punish him instead of Barabbas! Copernicus & Galileo too were persecuted from saying that the world was round and not flat and so was Socrates forced to drink hemlock for poisoning the young’s mind. The persecuted – whether Luther. Jesus, Copernicus, Socrates or even present Anwar or even Mandela or Au Yong Syu Ki – persecuted whether for religious or political convictions – are the same only in that they threaten vested interests of the day beyond that Reformation and Reformasi have no point of convergence/similarity.

    Reformasi is not spiritual or even intellectual. It is political. It is an urban middle class movement in South East Asia (starting in 1986 in Manila when students & Middle class took to the street against Marco’s despotic and corrupt regime). Then came “eye opener” the Asian Currency Crisis where countries whose governments were identified with gross mismanagement corruption cronyism and deficit financing had their currencies attacked plunging populace to financial despair. So in Jakarta students/middle class thinking that ballot system was so rigged that Suharto’s government could not be removed by vote took “Parliament” to the street by mass demonstrations ala Philippines style earlier, which inspired response in streets of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur!

    Reformasi is then political – not religious – movement, middleclass and urban in character, believing in democratization by non violent means ie by dissemination of ideas and messages via technology of sms, blogs and internet and street peaceful demonstrations in the face of impotence before rigged ballot boxes. In that sense Anwar’s Permatang Pauh Declaration (its “Mission Statement”) suffices to galvanise against corruption and abuse of power. It is a harsh description – “brief, pompous, and pretentious” – by Bakri who should not in the first place try to compare apple and orange a political movement like Reformasi spawned in South East Asia (minus the red dot South) as against a mega religious Lutheran Reformation that spread over the whole of Europe challenging Catholic church orthodoxy and giving rise to Protestantism.

  6. #6 by habis on Thursday, 17 June 2010 - 5:47 pm

    Malaysia is not Malays only but we have our East Malayians Bumiputras to think of.Why our Katak and Perkasa keep on shouting and championing malay rights and not Dayaks,Kandazans etc rights .Malaysia is not malays only but orang asli etc.People like Katak should be behind bars.The govt neglected all these people.To progress our country first task to to make racial indentification a crime and ban all racial parties. All political parties must be multiracial than only 1 Malaysia becomes more meaningful.I for one would first like to be Malaysians only and forget about my racial origin although I am a 5th generation here.

  7. #7 by johnnypok on Thursday, 17 June 2010 - 6:52 pm

    After being raped and sodomised for 50 years, it is time for Sabah and Sarawak to say “Enough is Enough” and to pull out of the federation, so that E-Ali and his pekosa can continue to rape Malaya until the cow comes home.

  8. #8 by monsterball on Thursday, 17 June 2010 - 9:59 pm

    Johnnypok….you keep supporting change of government…for a better Malaysia….yet you keep hoping Sarawak and Sabah pull out of Malaysia…seems to surrender you hope of change to the devils.
    Why is you so fickle minded and so mixed up?
    For your information….Sabah and Sarawak will never pull out.
    Live with realities in life for once.

  9. #9 by lopez on Friday, 18 June 2010 - 7:16 am

    british malaya times also got stories where innocent people killed as then dead dressed in black and throw a rifle or two to make them look suggestive.

  10. #10 by monsterball on Friday, 18 June 2010 - 8:00 am

    Most of the countries in Asia were controlled by the British…100 years ago.
    UMNO B crooks are copying British out dated double standards and racist governing.
    For torturing and planting false evidences..these UMNO B crooks learn from the movies.
    Nothing that Mahathir or Najib are doing are original..all copied.
    The problem is they copy all the bad ideas and schemes…and apply them according to human weaknesses …to fool Malaysians…the are protecting our lives and securities.
    UMNO B government is crooked and time went by….because they are now pushed to the walls…from the 12th GE weak result for them..and Najib needs all sorts of ways and means to stay in power.

  11. #11 by johnnypok on Friday, 18 June 2010 - 8:44 am

    Malaysia will become bankrupt before 2019, and Malaya will be sold to Indonesia FREE of charge, and all the Malayans will be sent overseas to work as slaves and domestic servants. Sabah and Sarawak will form a new nation with Singapore and Brunei, and become the world’s 3rd biggest economy by 2020.

  12. #12 by dagen on Friday, 18 June 2010 - 8:59 am

    I wish johnnypok’s prediction (#11) comes true!

  13. #13 by on cheng on Sunday, 20 June 2010 - 12:22 am

    Malay under siege?? from who?? from ppl like kutty lah, who else, always divert attention, so dat Malay dont see the real problm country is facing!!

  14. #14 by good coolie on Sunday, 20 June 2010 - 12:53 pm

    Surely, “obtuse” (commonly used to mean “stupid”), is wrongly used by Bakri Musa to describe Latin. I think he means to use, “abstruse” (hidden, difficult to understand). Even “obscure” would have been better.

    I can’t help feeling that the purpose of Bakri Musa’s article is to make a tangential attack on the Catholic Church; notice the disproportionate focus (attention to details) on things embarrasing the Church. Notice also the caricature of Church practices, and darkly hinted generalisations, all intended to bring the Church into disrepute.

    Why should Anwar’s Reformation be tied to the Reformation within Christianity? The comparison is artificial, and stretched. It would do injustice to Anwar’s Reformasi.

    The article is in bad taste.

You must be logged in to post a comment.