Cardinal Soter: A model of courage and unconditional love

Cardinal Soter Fernandez in 2015 - Photo: Anil Netto

Kua Kia Soong pays tribute to the late Soter Fernandez at his memorial on 28 November 2020.

At the outset, let me declare that I am not a Christian – our family have always been ancestor worshippers, and I would also describe myself as an animist and humanist.

As a parent and social activist, I have always upheld unconditional love and mutual respect as the basis for human and intercultural understanding. Thus, I am more concerned with the capacity for unconditional love and mutual respect we show toward others of different faiths. Unconditional love precludes any attempts at converting others to our creed.

This was my first impression of Cardinal Soter when I saw him at public meetings during the 1980s and it became a lasting impact of a man who believed in truth and justice and was a model of unconditional love.

I could sense his sincerity and genuine mutual respect for people of different faiths. Although he was already archbishop, he struck me as a most humble man without an ounce of haughtiness about him.

There were three distinct episodes in Cardinal Soter’s life which left an indelible mark on me.

1. Leading the MCCBCHS against religious intolerance

My first contact with Cardinal Soter was during the formation of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism (MCCBCHS) in 1983, dedicated to promoting goodwill, harmony, and unity amongst all Malaysians irrespective of creed, religion, race, culture or gender.

The decade of the 1980s in Malaysia was a tempestuous time for Malaysians who were non-Muslims as Umno and Pas leaders tried to outdo each other in introducing Islamisation into the administration and the so-called “National Culture Policy” into Malaysian society. In 1985, then PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad said “we should go gradually forward in implementing Islamic principles”.

The constant prevarications by these government leaders led Archbishop Soter to declare: “True peace can never be sustained for long if it is not built upon truth and justice. How can there be trust if we were to say something now and then contradict what we have said at another time and place, or if we were to say something and then do another thing?”

The MCCBCHS pointed out the constitutional right of all Malaysians to freely practice their respective religions in Articles 3(1) and 11(1) and quoted Tunku Abdul Rahman who said in 1958 that “this country is not an Islamic State as it is generally understood, we merely provide that Islam shall be the official religion of the State”. Regarding the application of Sharia on all Malaysians as had been suggested by Umno leaders, the MCCBCHS categorically rejected this proposal.

The consultative council also pointed out the various ways in which non-Muslims had been discriminated against in the school curriculum, allocation of places of worship and restrictions on their religious practices, It warned of further discriminations if the Sharia was to be imposed on all in Malaysia.

Then-Archbishop Soter called on Malaysians of all religions to have mutual respect for each other’s religions and cultural practices. National unity, he stressed, could only be achieved through the principle of unity in diversity: “Instead of trying to impose one’s law on another, let us all work together to erase the evils of society and of humankind; put right what is wrong, protect the weak against the powerful, narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, fight against corruption and social crimes that deplete the wealth of our country…” (“Why the MCCBCHS rejects the application of the Syariah on Non-Muslims”, MCCBCHS 1989)

Through the years of controversies faced by the council since 1983, Cardinal Soter demonstrated unflinching courage by promoting unity and interfaith dialogue despite the numerous challenges posed by an authoritarian state.

2. Standing up to authoritarianism during Operation Lalang, 1987

The second time Cardinal Soter stood up against the authoritarian state under Mahathir was during Operation Lalang when the government arrested and detained, among others, activists belonging to the National Office for Human Development/Catholic Welfare Services (NOHD/CWS) and published scurrilous allegations against these organisations in its White Paper, “Towards Preserving National Security”.

As the chairman of NOHD/CWS, then-Archbishop Soter responded with indignation at the allegations that they were carrying out “Marxist” activities and were under the influence of Marxist ideology: “The organisations of the Catholic Church named in the White paper fully subscribe to the teachings of the Vatican on the ‘Theology of Liberation’ and not to the Marxist concept… To construe these issues as endangering national security is a complete distortion of the truth … the NOHD/CWS stands for eradication of poverty and injustice among all Malaysians. It has constantly advocated social and religious harmony.” (The White paper on the October Affair and the Why? Papers”, edited by K Das, Suaram 1989:63-66)

3. His Eminence visiting us in our humble abode in 1989!

Perhaps the measure of the man for me was when he paid us a surprise visit at our humble home in Taman Cuepacs, Cheras soon after my release from Kamunting Detention Camp in 1989.

At the time, he was recuperating at the Cheras Convent. One of the nuns there, Sister Emily was our children’s music teacher, and she brought the archbishop to our house knowing full well we were not Catholics. His concern for my incarceration and the injustice of Operation Lalang was enough for his desire to express his solidarity with us.

Perhaps, my deepest appreciation of Archbishop, and now, Cardinal Soter was that, throughout my communion with him, not for a moment did he try to convert me to Christianity. To an ancestor worshipper and an animist, that is the quintessential expression of unconditional love.

Rest in peace, Cardinal Soter. Malaysia is so proud of your ascension by the Vatican. Your gracious example will surely serve as the model of true interfaith harmony in our troubled land.

Dr Kua Kia Soong is the adviser of human rights group Suaram

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