YOU CAN’T BEAT THEM YOU JOIN THEM…
That’s how I became a Bahá’i. It all started with my wife and children accepting the Bahá’i Faith, and in stages I became a believer.
Lalitha Nambiar, my wife was searching for a religion for our children. I remember telling her that she could not choose any of the existing old religions. At that point in time, I was an ardent agnostic and felt that the upbringing of children could still be done with proper non-religious, universal ethical and moral values. She disagreed. I found the older religions not relevant to today’s world, and felt they were the cause of many worldly woes and has become somewhat anachronistic.
Lalitha’s brother, Venugopal Nambiar, now living in West Malaysia, was already a Bahá’i when he was studying in England. He gave her some books and asked Malaysian Baha’is in Singapore to contact her. That was the beginning of her journey to enquire about the Bahá’i religion, and thereafter ended up embracing God’s latest Revelation.
As an enquirer, I chauffeured her to firesides at Shirin Fozdar’s place at Chancery Lane, and various other Bahá’i homes. Once, Wong Meng Fook, a Baha’i asked me in, but I declined. Instead I left Lalitha in his home and went to the former Bukit Timah campus to meet my old staff members and partake of my favourite ginger tea at the Farrer Road Hawker Centre. This went on for some time. While driving Lalitha around she would mention to me about the beauty of the Bahá’i religion, its teachings and principles.
After a period of investigation, she decided to declare her faith in the Bahá’i religion, but did not inform me. But somehow I realised she had already embraced the new religion, but I did not object. She began reciting prayers with our three children, Nadya, Jordan and Katyana. I found the prayers simple, understandable, relevant, precise and moving. Next, she started reading daily selections from the Baha’i holy writings, just prior to going to school. I too, participated in the daily readings. Sleepily, we would all read a few paragraphs of ‘The Dawn Breakers – Nabil’s Narrative’ every morning before rushing for the school bus.
One fine day, it was her turn to host a ‘Nineteen Day Feast’ at our residence. She told me since I was not a Bahá’i, I could not be at the Feast, which means I could not be at home. She told me there were some foreign Bahá’is coming for the Feast. Somehow I agreed to her request and I left when the Feast was about to start. It was a blessing in disguise, as that was how I started off long distance walking exercises on those Feast days – when I was not to be in the house.
Then I started meeting the Bahá’is. But there were far many of them. The foreign Bahá’i was this particular family – the Tosifs from Perth, Australia. They were the ones who had attended the first Feast that Lalitha hosted. That triggered off another series of work for me. I had to drive Lalitha to the weekly firesides at the Tosif’s located at The Estoril, Holland Road. That was a drive I did not mind, as the Persian food was very good, and halfway through or sometimes even before the talk started I would retreat to their children – Shidan and Shervin’s room to sleep! My sleep pattern has not changed much; falling asleep around 9 in the evening.
By this time, I myself started inviting a few non-Bahá’i friends to the Tosifs’ firesides. Surely, they enjoyed the Persian food and the company, but were not able to understand and grasp the beauty of this Revelation, relevant for today. Then I was given another added responsibility. I had to drive the three children to children’s classes and Bahá’i activities that were held in various locations such as Lorong J Telok Kurau, Cooling Close, Lengkok Saga and other places around Singapore. Lalitha has a driving licence but was reluctant to drive, as she had her licence many years back from Port Klang, a small town in West Malaysia. So I ended up the chaffeur. When at work, she had no alternative but public transport. So, I issued an ultimatum that she must drive to enable her to ferry the children to various school and Bahá’i activities. Jenny Puroshotma, now residing in California came into the picture and gave Lalitha driving tips. She performed well. As the children were also growing wider and taller, I sold my cherished Volkswagen beetle that had a manual transmission for a good profit, and bought an automatic Japanese car. Since then driving was made much easier for the two of us, and there was more room for the children.
Slowly and consciously or unconsciously I was pulled into Bahá’i activities. I was asked by Mojgan Tosif to help in organizing Naw-Ruz celebrations. I got the Guild House in Kent Ridge. For the first time, it was not held in a Changi Holiday Bungalow or someone’s home. That event was a resounding success with our eldest daughter, Nadya Melic who was 10 years old then, reciting the Tablet of Ahmad to the audience. I was the Treasurer for the celebrations and for once, the Naw-Ruz celebrations made a profit of thirty dollars. I remember the chuckle and surprise look on the National Treasurer, Kelvin Koay’s face when I handed him the accounts with the cash.
By this time I got deeper into Bahá’i activities. Among other things, the Bahá’is asked me to obtain permits for them to hold public talks; to be in charge of security during the World Religion Day in 1995. This event was spearheaded by the Bahá’is and since then, the nine religions in Singapore came together annually in a spirit of harmony and amity. As to how the Bahá’is got into the Inter-Religious Organization is another interesting episode in the history of the Faith in Singapore.
I was asked to host Dr. Vahid Rafati who was giving an institute on the principles of the Bahá’i religion. There was also Dr. Hossein Danesh who was in Singapore to promote Bahá’i concept of governance and conflict resolution to several government departments and NGOs. I was enlisted by the Bahá’is to find a new place as the old place at Lorong 16 Geylang was located in the midst of an area of ill-repute. A few Bahá’is – Julie Pau, Yeo Yew Hock, Jamshed Fozdar and myself went house-hunting that culminated in the sale of the properties in Geylang and Cooling Close and the move to 110D Wishart Road. The new National Centre became a hive of activities with children’s classes and Nineteen-Day Feasts being held there. During feast days, I would come later to join in the social part and to drive the family home to nearby Gillman Heights. I undertook these ‘chores’ for the Bahá’is, when I had yet to officially declare.
VISIT TO THE HOLY LAND PRIOR TO BECOMING A BELIEVER
In May 1993, I was in Belgium for a meeting with the European Community. Lalitha casually told me several weeks earlier, that since I would be in Europe, why not stopover in Haifa to see the Bahá’i World Centre. We realized that the timing of my presence there coincided with the five-year cycle of the International Convention for the election of the Universal House of Justice. It meant that the gardens and the Shrines would be closed for non-Bahá’is.
The National Spiritual Assembly of Singapore wrote a letter to the Universal House of Justice for special permission for me to be in Haifa at the same time. The Universal House of Justice responded in the affirmative. I went to the airline office in Singapore to collect my ticket and enquired if I could extend the ticket to include a side trip to Israel. The counter staff took a long time to respond; she had to consult her supervisor and the latter came out and told me that it could only be done in Brussels.
Off I went to Brussels and during break time, I went to see the travel agent there who happily arranged the additional sector from Europe to Israel for a few more hundred Belgian francs. It wasn’t much but till today, I have not paid for the ticket!
At Ben Gurion airport at 4am an Israeli friend was kind enough to send a driver to convey me to Haifa which was about 100 kilometres from Tel Aviv. I checked into Haifa Tower Hotel where several members of the Singapore National Spiritual Assembly were staying. I bunked in with two of them, William Hui and Mehrdad Tosif. The three of us squeezed into the tiny room and I slept on the floor.
To enter the grounds and attend the Convention, I had to register similarly as with the other Bahá’is. I went to the Convention Centre which was then at Merkaz HaCarmel (Carmel Centre). I walked to the door, but was stopped by the security guard and confidently told him I just arrived and that my card was waiting for me at the door. He let me through. Of all the doors, I went to the one where the only remaining card on the tray awaited me! Members of National Spiritual Assemblies had blue-coloured badges and Counsellors had beige-coloured ones. To my surprise mine was beige too! So, I was the only non-Bahá’i attending the election for the Universal House of Justice. I was ferried on several occasions by the security guards in their minivans from the Convention Centre to the Shrine of the Báb, while the other Bahá’is were attending the proceedings. I had the Arizona Gardens and both the Shrine of the Báb and Abdu’l Bahá to myself. Terrace ‘Ten’ where the Shrine of the Báb is located was undergoing major construction work to build the underground storage building for the future terraces and gardens. I walked around the International Archives Building and the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, looking into the beautiful and tasteful decor.
1993 was the year the Kitab-i-Aqdas was translated into the English language and I had that opportune time to read it when many other Bahá’is hadn’t. William Hui loaned me his copy and I took it to the two Haifa Shrines to read.
I decided to visit Bahji. I took a sherut but did not realize that being a Saturday, the Sabbath day for the Jews, fewer sheruts were operating. The driver refused to go beyond the old Akka bus terminus. I looked around for some directions, but none. I saw a burly policeman sitting under a tree and asked him the direction to Bahji which he did not understand. When I said Bahá’i Gardens, he understood and pointed his five fingers and waved from the bottom upwards towards the direction of Bustan Hagalil where the Shrine of Bahá‘u’llah is located. I started walking along the Akka-Nahariyya Road and arrived at the West Gate. No one was there. I shook the gate but it was so heavy, it hardly made any noise. Luckily, a security guard clad in blue came along. So I showed him my beige-coloured badge. He asked to wait while he obtained permission to let me in. After quite some time, he came back and told me that he had consulted his supervisor (several years later I found out it was Chris Vodden; we both had the opportunity to work together) and that I was not to be allowed in. After much bargaining, I failed. I asked him whether the Akka prison was nearby where I could walk to. He wasn’t sure. Without any guidance and direction, I walked back to the Akka bus station to catch the sherut back to Haifa. The lesson I learnt was clear; I have to be a ‘real’ Bahá’i to ‘meet’ HIM.
The visit to Haifa was also the first occasion I met Mrs. Shantha Sundram, who was a Counselor then. Swah Teck Cheng was at that time serving as a volunteer at the Bahá’i World Centre. She was staying at 115 Hameginim Avenue and she hosted a ‘mee goreng basah’ dinner for the Singapore National Assembly members and Mrs. Shantha Sundram. She looked disdainfully at me!
After returning to Singapore, I continued my relationship with the Bahá’is. Several months later, I started reading the many books Lalitha purchased and crowding the bookshelves that have sprouted since she declared. The first was ‘God Passes By’; the second was the four volumes of Adib Taherzadeh’s ‘Revelation of Bahá’u’llah’, Balyuzi’s ‘The King of Glory’, Julio Savi’s ‘Eternal Quest for God’, Dr. John Esslemont’s ‘Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era’ and so forth. Coming from a Muslim background, I found it easy to grasp the principles of this new religion. To me, the concept of progressive revelation is the most interesting one. I surmised that if one is a Muslim, one should not change his or her religion to be a Christian as Islam comes after Christianity. To do so, would be moving backwards. Learning from history books and from my uncle, Ibrahim Shariff, I had always felt that religion should be progressive and contemporary. My uncle also mentioned that Mehdi, the Twelfth Imam shall return.
The Ancient Beauty’s New World Order is the next most logical principle, as we are confronted with 21st century problems and issues and tackling it with 17th century socioeconomic political institutions. The principles of the Bahá’i Faith were very appealing to me as they made absolute sense in the context of the current world affairs. An international language, currency, tribunal and a new system of global governance are all in the pipeline. The equality of women and men was another attractive principle. The Bahá’i concept of the afterlife is refreshing. I love the notion of ‘nearness to God’. These principles were expounded more than a century ago and now we discern its fruition. Having devoured these materials, it began to seep into my agnostic head that this religion is different and worthy of being embraced. It has none of the trappings and quagmire of the old religions. Interestingly and surprisingly, there is no clergy – the bane of the older religions. Independent investigation of the truth is obvious.
It was also not without tests and tribulations that I decided to sign the card. My profession posed many tests, and working in the civil service was indeed a challenging and stressful one too. It is with spirituality that one would be able to surmount these tests. The difficulties may not go away, but armed with the Writings of the Bahá’i religion we are better equipped to cope with the situation. As Bahá’is we should also ask the question whether we should be exempted from tests. I was once told by another Bahá’i that as Baha’is, we will not be spared our share of tests and difficulties. He gave a simple answer that all the Bahá’is have in their possession is the Revelation of Bahá‘u’llah and that is our armour. It is something that others do not have. I also realized if I did not declare, the children would see the dichotomy between Lalitha and me. They also started enquiring that since I was already involved with the religion and community activities, what was still holding me back? Nothing! To ensure and preserve the unity of the family and that the children continue on this right-fold path, I chose an auspicious day to sign the declaration card. I declared on 12 November 1995, the Birthday of Our Blessed Beauty then.
The children were asking Lalitha what happened to her application for pilgrimage. When I had not declared she did not pursue it, as I was not able to go or I could go with limitations. She was praying that we would go as a family, a Bahá’i family. She enquired from the Office of Pilgrimage and her prayers were answered. They replied and offered us several options. As the children were schooling, the dates available were either June or December. The family decided on December as it was winter and that we would experience a different climate.
In December 1998 the five of us headed westward to the Holy Land. During registration time, Furio Favetti who was then a pilgrim guide mentioned how nice it was to have Singaporeans in his group. He enquired about my profession and I told him that I was in law enforcement. He said decisively that I should come and work in the Bahá’i World Centre and that I should see Personnel. I did not respond.
During the nine-day pilgrimage, he asked me on three other occasions at very odd locations including the toilet whether I had been to Personnel. It was two days before the end of the pilgrimage that I went looking for Personnel Office. On the way there, I was lost and Dale Rutstein brought me all the way to the Office of Personnel located at 60 Rekhov Hillel. There I waited for a short while and then Brigitte Aiff came and spoke to me and inquired about the nature of my profession. The conversation lasted quite some time and she handed me an application form.
She asked me to complete it and post it from Singapore. She also arranged a meeting with Ed Medlin, the Coordinator of the Department of Security. On the last day of pilgrimage, just before the visit to the House of the Master, we met and I was briefed on the nature of work in the department.
My family with Hand of the Cause of God Mr. Furutan during our first pilgrimage
After Haifa, we went to England to visit the Guardian’s resting place. Our son, Jordan Melic led the way to the site as he had been there in 1995 when he was, at thirteen years old, one of twenty young editors (the youngest and the only Singaporean) selected to work on a book entitled ‘A World in Our Hands’ published by Peace Child International and Paintbrush Diplomacy in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. The pilgrimage was fulfilling as we visited the resting places of the key figures of the Faith.
Upon returning to Singapore, I went about my work and the application form was still left in the suitcase. I remembered our daughter, Nadya asking me to fill up the application form and sent it to Haifa. That was accomplished in February 1999. Sometime in March 1999 after Naw-ruz, I received a phone call from Haifa. Delys Favetti enquired whether I could visit the Bahá’i World Centre for consultations which coincided with the Ninth day of Ridvan. I declined as I had to attend an ASEAN Conference in Hanoi, Vietnam.
A few days later she called again if I could come at the end of May. I agreed. Lalitha Nambiar and Katyana Melic were also invited. The policy was to have the immediate family members together while serving at the Holy Land. Katyana was still in secondary school (grade 8) and she had the opportunity to visit the school where she would spend four years of her school life in Israel. The consultations lasted eleven days and we had the opportunity to attend the Ascension of Bahá‘u’llah in Bahji. The consultations were most enlightening and both Lalitha and I met with several members of the Universal House of Justice. I remember telling the panel that it would take at least five months to obtain approval for early retirement. Just before the sherut took off for Ben Gurion airport, Delys Favetti handed a letter inviting me to be the Coordinator of the Department of Security for the Bahá’i World Centre.
At the same time back in my office, there were rumours that senior officers could opt for early retirement so as to make way for younger super scholars to move up the ladder. Armed with the letter that bore the letterhead “The Universal House of Justice”, I applied for early retirement. The HR officer told me that it would take about five to six months to process it, as it had to go through the formality of having the signature of the country’s president.
Lo and behold! It was approved within five weeks – the first of its kind. I was indeed one of the very few senior officers who obtained approval for early retirement as the floodgates were closed several months later. The two signatures required for the early retirement had their bonuses too – promotions.
Suddenly the family was up heaved. In October 1999, I journeyed again to Haifa to be the Coordinator for the Department of Security at the Bahá’i World Centre, Haifa, Israel. Assuming this position was another twist of fate. Assuming this position was another twist of fate. Lalitha Nambiar and Katyana Melic in their own capacities also partake the bounty of serving the Universal House of Justice. Nadya Melic also had the opportunity of serving for several months.
Katyana attended the American School in Herzliyya and on to Macalester College, St Paul, Minnesota for a liberal arts program, Nadya studied ocean sciences engineering at the University of Western Australia and Jordan at the Atlantic College in Llanwit Major, Wales attended the International Baccalaureate programme. Later, he returned to Singapore for national service and upon completion, pioneered to Rwanda for eight months.
You can’t beat them, you join them! When you join them, expect the unexpected and expect an unusual harvest!
“He who puts his trust in God, God will suffice him; He who fears God, God will send him relief”
Second Pilgrimage, 2016
Merican Melic, Singapore