Report #1 from Kuala Lumpur

6 October 2011

After almost 33 hours of travel I arrived at KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport), a large very modern, handsome and efficient airport, went through immigration and customs smoothly and boarded the KLIA Ekspress train, also very modern, handsome and efficient, directly to its downtown KL station where I was met by Dr. Amir Farid Isahak, the host of the URI gathering here and one of three URI Global Council Trustees in the SEAPac Region. We hailed a taxi for the 15 minute ride to our hotel, the Pearl International, a “three star” hotel by KL standards – perfectly adequate for our purposes but not three stars by Western Standards.

The Pearl is attached to a very modern 4 story shopping mall that sells almost anything you can imagine. In the lobby of the Pearl is a Starbuck’s with Wi-Fi access, from where I will do my communication as the Pearl does not have any internet connection from the rooms.

I find that Malaysia is predominantly Sunni Muslim, the official country religion, but is relatively liberal in its practice of Islam. In my brief experience here, my observations are that most women cover their heads but very few wear burkas. Women work and are very visible even in official immigrations and customs positions at KLIA, and are well educated, too. More on this as I learn more. It is humid here – average temperatures here this time of year are a low of about 75 degrees and a high of 90 and average humidity at about 85%. It is cloudy and we expect rain and thunder/lightening most of the time we are here.

Amir is Muslim and is a gynecologist turned highly regarded specialist on issues associated with aging and slowing aging. He has been active in interfaith activates for many years even prior to getting involved in URI.

Upon arrival at the hotel, Amir and I met with Shakun Vaswani, the SEAPac regional coordinator based in the Philippines. After discussing the plans for the evening and the next several days, we checked into our rooms and freshened up (after the 33 hours of travel, I needed freshening up!) briefly before boarding vans with the representatives from URI’s Youth Leaders Program (YLP) who are here in conjunction with the SEAPac Regional Meeting to attend a Sikh service and dinner at a local temple about a 45 minute drive from the hotel.

The 30 participants in the YLP are all under probably 25 years old, are a mix of males and females; are Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhists, Christian, Baha’i and indigenous; and are from Australia, the Philippines, Bali, Indonesia and Malaysia. They all are heavily involved with interfaith activities in their communities and either are or are planning to become active in URI Cooperation Circles (CCs). Riding to and from the Sikh service and at dinner we began to get to know each other and, by asking them some questions, I got an outpouring of their feelings about organized religion, modern communication/social networks making young people around the world aware of the potential for better lives without violence, particularly religiously motivated violence, and how they are trying to make a difference in their communities and why they are involved in URI. More on all of that as I get to know them better over the next couple of days. But for now, the message that comes across loud and clear from these amazing, dedicated young people is that doing interfaith work amongst their young peers is often lonely and isolated but they see URI as the key for them in that it ties them to a worldwide community of people of all ages who are working to accomplish the same objectives – through URI they can learn together, share best practices, and invigorate and strengthen each other.

The Sikh temple (a “Gudwara”), service and dinner are worth talking about. The temple is in a very local, poor by Western standards, town called Shah Alam about a 45 minute drive from downtown KL. The temple itself looks more like a converted home with the main alter and prayer area outside under a cover, with a low platform from where the services are officiated and the participants mostly sitting on mats on a concrete floor. The service is conducted by Di Singh, the husband of Jessiee Kaur Singh, one of URI’s Global Council Trustees here – the Singhs were raised in KL and have many Sikh friends though they now live in Australia. The service is comprised of talking (in both the local Malaysian language  - Malay - and English) and some chant-like music led by Di accompanies by a drummer, a player of a wooden flute-like instrument, and Jessiee’s 30 year old daughter, who is also active in interfaith and URI in Australia. As part of the service, Jessiee’s husband acknowledged URI and welcomed all of the URI visitors. He said that, while he is a practicing Sikh, he does not proselytize his religion but talks with others about bringing people of religion together, to understand each others’ religion, and learn to cooperate and communicate with each other without prejudice because of their religion and summarizes that that is what URI is all about. He encourages all of the parishioners (if that is the right word…) to attend the URI function that is open to the public 2 nights hence.

The service is attended by about 300 Sikhs, both males and females of all ages including teenage boys, there with friends and seemingly not forced to be there by their parents. Everyone’s head is covered, shoes removed and hands (and feet of many) are washed before entering the temple. It was like a rock concert with all the parishioners singing along with enthusiasm. After the service, everyone was invited to have dinner that was set up in a tent across the street from the Gudwara in what looked like athletic fields in a public park. Every one filed through a buffet line and helped themselves. We could not have felt more welcome. It was a marvelous for all of the URI young leaders and for me.

I made it to bed at about 10:30pm Malaysia time, 40 hours after I started my journey from Moraga having had almost no sleep. Yet I felt invigorated by the new experiences I am embarking on, the enthusiasm of the young people I am with and the generous welcome I felt from the Sikh community and everyone else here.