This week I wish to deliberate considerably on a simple act that can have huge ramifications for political change. It is also what I consider the noblest act of spirituality.
This act came from a talk that I heard recently from one of my closest friends and colleagues, the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of academic affairs at my university. The greatest thing I owe him is the trust he has in me to change the university and our country, Malaysia.
My friend recently gave a motivational talk to my faculty on his own initiative; I think he did not give this talk to other faculties – as he was previously dean of this faculty, I think he still considers it his “baby” and keeps a special eye on it. I am told it is the biggest faculty and the one that brings in the most income.
Now, I come from a public university background and I am used to talks at the beginning of the new year by vice-chancellors. These talks are called “amanat” in Malay (mandate) and I never heard one that was meaningful or inspiring. There is usually a fanfare of red carpet for the VC to walk in on, then accolades and praises expressed, followed by an hour-long lecture on how everyone in the university must “jaga nama universiti, lonjak nama universiti” (roughly, preserve the university’s good name, raise its profile) and also try to get the Nobel Prize in Technology. All the past 24 years of these talks are complete and utter nonsense to me and my agenda to bring significant change to my race, religion and country. It was all about the university and it simply meant to make sure the VC comes out looking rosy all the time so that he or she can receive the titles, perks and other lucrative government positions after retirement.
My friend was different. There was no red carpet entrance for him. I thought I would be the earliest in the lecture hall but when I arrived I saw someone was already there fiddling with the computer and the video system. Yeah, he was already there. It was 15 minutes to the session and he was setting up the hardware himself.
When the hall was full, he began the 90-minute talk and I sat unmoved during the whole period. Unlike the VCs of public universities that I was used to, my friend did not talk about high impact journals, Nobel Prizes, MOUs with prestigious universities, pleasing the Education Ministry or anything close to academia. Instead, he talked about instilling change in ourselves through two ways: reading books and helping another person.
Now, the first thing about reading was, of course, new to 99% of academics who usually don’t read books at all. I had no problem relating to that, though, because I read to change and better myself too. What struck me flat was the second part of his talk that concentrated on how he had helped three people last year through their personal and professional tribulations. He told how the three tools that he used were patience, constant encouragement and prayers.
My friend is a devout Christian. At the end of the talk, he shared handwritten letters from the three people he had helped that expressed their gratitude. None of the three was a Christian, they were from three other faiths. I believe he shared the letters not to make himself look like a prig but to create an emotional and human connection with the message of the talk.
When I went home, I sat quietly in the corner of my glass anjung (porch) and pondered the incredible message. As a person who keeps writing and thinking and talking about change in the country, I have always emphasised changing ourselves as citizens. No point praying for change in politicians as they mostly tend to be self-serving. The key is us, we, ourselves. My focus in my writings is how and towards what should we change.
But my friend showed me the oldest, most noble and effective way I had never thought of: just help one person a year. If one million of us helped one other person in the most meaningful way, we have changed two million people. Why two million? Because every time we change others, we change ourselves too.
Now, if the other was one of a different faith and race, what impact do you think it would have? If a billion people helped one other person in one year, we would have change of global proportions.
Helping the other is the most selfless deed that offers the highest form of spiritual growth. Most religious rituals of pilgrimage, prayers, fasting, giving alms are all self-directed and in some ways “selfish” even. Many spiritual masters and teachers have advised that helping others is a way to tame and manage the ego of self-praise and self-aggrandisement that is common to all of us. When we help others we shower precious care on “not I” or “not us”. In our nation all races are guilty of “self-centredness” of “everything me” and “always I”.
Thus, we do not have to demonstrate on the streets or shout in the media or write harsh social media messages to make our voices heard seriously to change our nation and our situations. Just focus on helping one person a year, and the country will right itself in the most meaningful way possible. Simple, right?
Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.