Never Ending Journey of Life through the Valley of Search
Dr. Jimmy Seow-Australia
The steed of this Valley is patience; without patience the wayfarer on this journey will reach nowhere and attain no goal – Seven Valleys, Baha’u’llah
My name is Jimmy Seow Ewe Huat originally from Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. Hopefully my story brings you joy and happiness and perhaps even humour and light heartedness in a world now of much despair and lost of hope for many. My family and I consider ourselves to be very lucky to be living in Australia where there it is relatively secure, clean environment and stable government compared to many less fortunate to us living in conditions of constant turmoil, exploitation and inhumanity. It seems so unfair and unjust. It is for those reasons that Baha’u’llah came to give humankind His Divine Healing.
I salute those people whether they are Baha’i or non Baha’i or even without religious beliefs in those localities as they persevere, not losing hope in humanity and working for a better future for all irrespective of religion, ethnicity, social standing and material well being.
We all can make a difference even by simply sharing our personal narratives and stories as a first step to bring about understanding, reconciliation and collective vision for goodness. Everyone has a story to tell. We just have to learn to listen.
This is my story – I hope you like it.
How my journey began
It was during a time of much restlessness and yearning for a better world – the hippie movement, the Vietnam war, the Cold War, the Beatles experimenting with Hindu mystics and marijuana smoking (though I did not smoke nor inhale) that I came across the Baha’i Faith in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia in 1969, at the age of 14. It was brought to my attention by my eldest brother Bobby Seow and his wife Lily, as they had earlier become Baha’is through the efforts of the late Dr. Chellie Sundram.
I remember at Penang Free School my schoolmates would discuss the above events as detail such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam, the Soviet geopolitical adventurism, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, who may be experimenting with marijuana at school, America as a superpower to bulwark against marching communism and not least the Beatles in particular John Lennon peace messages. Interestingly some of those classmates would have dialogue with me in later years about the Baha’i Faith and impressed that I am still a Bahai and that it was not a fad I went through trying to mimic the spiritual experimentation of the Beatles with Hinduism. Remember George Harrison song My Sweet Lord which was a big hit. Certainly the musicians of those days had an effect upon me and I would say many youth and young people of protest and peace minded songs – Dylan, Baez, Lennon. Even tried to be a pseudo hippie of wearing beads, peace pendant and tie dye T shirts and pants. What a laugh, and better sense of dress decor eventuated much to be dictated by my parents. Oh yes trying to be Groovy. We did not use the word cool but do believe our generation invented coolness – make no mistake.
Mine was a generation of hope and change and aspiration to be different from our parents in the way we would want to think, behave and forging new beliefs. I also remember thinking in this confusion that there must be some sense to all this events and changes. Surely there must be something better which will work and meaningful to believe. Have we not learned from WW 2, the Vietnam and Korean Wars. How would we address poverty and ill education. This is was very real for me having grown up in then 3rd world Malaya (now West Malaysia) having seen and witness first hand poverty and human misery and next door to the Vietnam war. Then I came across the Baha’i Faith smack on unplugged.
Is the Baha’i Faith for real ?
I was brought up in traditional Chinese religion, which really is rather eclectic as it incorporated Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Menciusism and the worship of Chinese saints and deities. Because of those events and happenings, I was drawn to investigate the Baha’i Faith for one and half years by attending many meetings and social gatherings. At those meetings many a time I would challenged the Baha’is on their beliefs, as I tried to grapple with its revolutionary concepts such as oneness of God, oneness of mankind and oneness of religion. I remember thinking to myself, “How can that be?” as all my life I was brought up to believe in the many Gods, saints and deities of the Chinese religion. I found other religious beliefs were different from mine and irreconcilable. How can it be possible- this universal spiritual reconciliation? I felt it was all contrived and man-made for its own self-serving purpose. But the Baha’is patiently and lovingly answered all my questions and cleared my challenges. After much thought and reflection I finally decided to declare as Baha’i at the age of 15 at the residence of the Dr. Chellie and Mrs. Shantha Sundram at 42 Peel Avenue, Georgetown. That was in 1970 although I cannot remember the exact date. The daughters of the Sundrams,Padma and later Susheel also declared that year.
The Tipping Point
The tipping point for me to become a Baha’i was the spiritual awakening and realization, after much questioning and debate, that Bahaullah’s messages and teachings were the answers to the changing events and happenings around the world. However my journey was not straight forward. People had doubts of my search. In fact, comments were made that the Baha’is were wasting their time and effort to try to teach and covert me to their Faith. They believed I will not become a Baha’i and was just merely asking questions for the sake of it , and drawing attention to myself. That interaction shaped my thinking on teaching, as I would often tell Baha’is that if the Penang Baha’is had not persisted and taken my questions seriously and showed me love and patience, today I would not be a Baha’i. To this day my experience with the Penang Baha’is who lovingly taught me the Faith enormously shaped my approach to teaching the Faith to all and sundry, as I would always take their questions posed to me seriously and with respect. We need to recognize that when a seeker is in the Valley of Search, that seeker is exploring truth, at many levels and searching. Their posed questions may at times be confronting, challenging and or even insulting and disbelieving.
Parents Supported My Belief
I was fortunate my parents were not opposed to me becoming a Baha’i, after all my eldest brother also became one. This was unlike other youth I knew during that time who experienced condemnation, disapproval, isolation and even physical beatings on becoming a Baha’i. However, I remember my maternal grandmother, Madam Khor, was rather apprehensive. She thought I had joined a Muslim sect. When I told her the fundamental teachings of the Baha’i Faith viz a viz, that premarital sex, intake of illegal habit forming drugs, consumption of alcohol or indulging in gambling are not allowed, she was much relieved. Her acceptance of me becoming a Baha’i was also assisted by the fact that I still accompanied her as a dutiful grandson to the Chinese temples to pray for our ancestors and engage in ancestral worship. Ancestral worship is a deep spiritual obligation of the Chinese. The duty falls especially upon sons and male descendants. I remember she would pray in the traditional way, using joss sticks, and I would chant a Baha’i prayer. I would explained to her that Bahai have prayers for the soul of the departed which she found comforting. To this day I still visit my late father Seow Soo Keat and mother Khoo Gut Aie grave sites, who themselves became Baha’is at ages 75 and 69 respectively, during the Chinese Spring grave cleaning ceremony or Cheng Meng to pray. I would still accompany my relatives and Chinese friends to pray at Chinese temples or even accompany relatives and friends to churches, synagogues, Hindu temples and mosques for devotional worships which came to be much appreciated by them. I felt so deeply about this that I even asked whether I would still be allowed to do this before I signed the Baha’i declaration card. Another question I personally needed to address was whether I needed to change my Chinese name to a Persian or Baha’i name. When teaching the Baha’i Faith to the Chinese, those questions often come up as it is known among the Chinese, for example, that should you become a Christian you need to do away with ancestral worship and change your name to a Christian name. This is a very real issue for the Chinese and, if not handled properly may deter them from becoming a Baha’i. But after going deep into the Writings, I became much enlightened on the best approach to commune with God directly and saying prayer for the departed. It is a matter of gaining deeper understanding of the relationship between oneself and our Creator may it be called God, Allah, Jehovah or other transcendental names or spiritual titles.
By way of interest, I was called Jimmy not because I come from a Christian family but because my grandfather, Seow Eng Guan, was of an Anglophile Chinese having worked for the British colonial government which was then of high status. Hence myself and my other siblings all had Christian names.
Consorted with all as one Family
I thank Baha’ullah for thrusting me into several areas of experience and exposure. Since accepting the Baha’i Faith in 1970, I have the bounty, joy and privilege to converse, meet and socialize with both Baha’is and non-Baha’is from all walks of life; from the very educated to illiterate, rich to poor, famous to unknowns and radicals to conservatives in many countries, and in all sorts of settings – the deep jungles of Malaysia, deserts, city slums and other places you don’t want your children to go or even think of approaching. I was fortunate to have also been involved in several sorts of activities from village and street teachings in Malaysia, Singapore and south Thailand, and other countries, and served on various Baha’i committees both local and national in Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia.
I had the bounty to participate in many Baha’i musical firesides in Malaysia, south Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. Perhaps one of the most memorable teaching trips I undertook was spending 3 nights with my Musical Fireside colleague Felix Ong in the deep jungles of Sarawak with the Ibans in 1974. If only we had mobile phones those days (as it would make great Facebook photo shots) as try to imagine two of us walking with the Iban Baha’i youth in the jungles with our guitar and suitcase and then for 3 days had for breakfast, lunch and dinner only boiled cucumber and rice ! And top it off doing a Musical Fireside for the village where English was hardlyl spoken or not even spoken at all! Rather bizarre thinking back but the spirit to share was confounding. Priceless experience to cherish to this day and story told many a times.
As for teaching and proclaiming the Baha’i Faith at higher institutions of education, I was involved in many activities at University Malaya, Waikato University and University of Western Australia. In all these three universities, somehow I ended up as Chairman of the respective Baha’i Societies. I must say it was intellectually stimulating and provoking as I had dialogues with all sorts from Marxist, self indulging party goers, aspiring student politicians to religious fundamentals hell bent on saving my very soul. University campus is certainly where ideas and visions for a better society are debated of which one should not shy away but take that challenge and discourse. I was also privileged to be involved in various teaching activities of the Faith in Southeast Asia, China, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, and to a limited extent in Europe, United Kingdom and the USA. What kept me safe and protected thinking back to those places of risk to personal safety is perhaps cultivated and learned street smartness and total reliance on the Almighty for his protection and providence. What gave me strength and ability to engage and converse meaningfully was the inspirational writings of the Bahai Faith applicable to today’s societies. And lastly “Be a Bahai, and love and serve humanity” which had always been my catchword.
Musical Firesides – oh yes we had a good time
One of the highlights of my youth activities must be the Bahai Musical firesides. The musical fireside group started in Penang and consisted mainly of the Penang youth such as Padma Sundram, Susheel Sundram, Malini Sundram, Lim Li Swan, Tan Gaik Bee, Khoo Kim Poh, Wong Cheow Wing, the late Tan Lee Soo Hock who passed away in 2015 in Perth, Felix Ong (guitarist) and Sonny Lim (guitarist). We also had guest singers from other towns such as T. K. Lee, Layli Caldwell from Alaska. We even had non Bahai friends from school such as Christina Soon and Shirley Yap. This group was well supported by the Alor Star Bahais – Chong Boo Haw, Teh Teik Hoe, Remala Nagaratnam, Teh Hong Choo, Wong Siew Lee, Oon Guat Ngoh, Tan Boon Tin, and Chandrasegaran. Chong Boo Haw and Teh Teik Hoe were both singers and guitarists. Chong Boo Haw was even called the Malaysian Elvis Presley. He and Teh Teik Hoe had been singing and composing songs earlier, and the Penang Bahais decided to combine our resources and talent with the Alor Star Bahais to form the musical fireside group for teaching and consolidation. It came about after the Nine Day Institute conducted by the late Jenabe Caldwell in Penang in 1973. Teaching teams were formed to go out street teaching, followed by consolidation in the cities and villages in Malaysia, South Thailand and Singapore. The Group would sing at all sorts of venues and places from halls, rented venues, Baha’i Centres, old folk homes, open parks. They also appeared on TV in Hat Yai in South Thailand. They performed in the Summer school in 1973 in Ipoh and the Winter school in Port Dickson in the same year. The Musical Group was not only well received and supported by the Bahais. It attracted many youth due to the spiritual vibrations set by the captivating and meaningful music. Songs were carefully chosen to convey the teachings of the Faith. Each song would be introduced by the singers. At times we felt like Bahai ‘rock stars’ as I recalled the Bahais would carry our guitars . I remember good old auntie Lily Ng carrying my guitar in Ipoh, and the Bahai gave us first preference for food and transport as we had at times several ‘gigs’ to perform in the same day. Interestingly the daughters of the Sundrams and Cheow Wing who now live in Perth now formed the backbone of the famous Perth New Era Singers. It was indeed a privileged and honour to sing and play with the Group. The Group even made a recording of the songs we sang at the musical firesides called Notes of Love. The song cassette was rather popular with the Bahais. I would say it formed the launching platform for other youth musical fireside groups in latter years and they indeed continue where we left off. The development of the Musical Group and involvement in the Musical Firesides have been a very special part of my Baha’i life and is so nostalgic.
Baha’i Musical Fireside, Malaysia 1974 – Jimmy at extreme right, strumming the guitar
I was also much involved in Chinese teaching when China was opening its door in the 1980s, which then inspired me to publish a book in 1992 on the early Baha’is in China, South-East Asia and the Far East. The book was named “The Pure in Heart” and was sold in many countries and was even listed as one of the books to read for friends wanting to travel teach or pioneer to China. At one time it was available in Amazon.com. Oh yes China a different ball game as it is a country of the future as said by Abdul Baha and Shoghi Effendi and it has 1.3 billion people almost a quarter of the world population. It is now published in pinyin Chinese and available free as en e-book. I said in the closing remark of my book The Pure in Heart that the world has not really seen the entry of the yellow race (the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans) yet in large numbers and it is like the last remaining flower of the garden of humanity which has yet to blossom. It still gives me goose bump each time I ponder upon it.
Co-authored a book with Professor Richard Bell Murdoch University called “The Environment: Our Common Heritage” in 1988 when a member of the Australia Association for Baha’i Studies. Am still very much involve in the environment as after all my current professional work is in the field of environmental protection. Was rather privileged that in 1995 the Bahai World Centre asked Paul Hanley from Canada and myself to represent the Baha’is at an International Conference on Religion and the Environment in Japan whereby we both delivered papers on Baha’i viewpoint of nature and the environment.
My Baha’i belief has also certainly shaped my professional life over the years in Australia as a CEO of an environmental technology company, oil and gas environmental manager, business owner, researcher and now as an Associate Professor at Curtin University and Senior Government servant for the Western Australian government responsible for emergency response to chemical incidents and emergencies. In my work and profession I endeavor to apply Baha’i teachings and principles to ensure ethics, fairness, compassion, empowerment of women and the disadvantaged and seeking truth through consultation and dialogue. I believe one can make a change in whatever you do no matter how small it can be.
My wife Mona is Persian, though she was born in Jakarta as her parents Dr. Manutschehr and Mrs. Malihe Gabriel pioneered to Indonesia during the 10 Year Crusade period from 1953 to 1963. They then migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1962 to become the first Persian Baha’i family to reside in Australia. I met Mona at the International Baha’i Conference in Canberra in 1982 whilst I was working in Singapore as an oil gas geophysicist and were married the next year on 16 July 1983. We have two daughters, Layli and Zarinne, and a son-in-law Tom Hosking married to Layli. One of the highlights of our services together would be have weekly Chinese teaching firesides at our home between 1987 and 1990 . I was also honoured to have the opportunity to go on the teaching trips to several countries with Mona and my family as mentioned above. Mona’s story and services are eventful and inspiring themselves, and they need to be told by Mona herself.
An Unforgettable Encounter with a Bahai Family
There is one unforgettable encounter which I wish to share with all, as it is deeply seated in my heart. It is about Rowshan and Ulfet Mustapha. Rowshan originally from Egypt pioneered to Libya in 1952 a few months before the inauguration of the 10 Year Crusade. In 1954 he was expelled from Libya because of his Faith and pioneered to Tunisia. He has since lived in Tunisia, except for one month of July 1995, when he was deported from Tunisia again because he was a Bahai. Ulfet, his wife whom he married in 1956, comes from a Bahai family. Her father was one of the first believers of Tunisia and torch holder of the Faith in North Africa for some four decades. Her father was a personal friend of the first president of Tunisia Habib Bourguiba which implemented some of the teachings of the Bahai Faith upon becoming a president such as education of women.
They have two sons: Olinga,59 years old and Balsam, 54 years old. Olinga was born on the 12th August 1957 which was 66 days before the message of Shoghi Effendi of October 17, 1957 announcing the appointment of Mr Enoch Olinga, amongst 7 other names, to the rank of Hand of the Cause. They proudly say that his son is the first Bahá’í born Olinga.
Muhammad Mustapha Soleiman, the father of Rowshan, accepted the Bahai Faith at 16 in 1914 in Egypt and passed away in 1981 in the service of the Faith. In 1953 Muhammad Mustapha pioneered to Spanish Sahara becoming a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh and also has the bounty of receiving three tablets from Abdul Baha. Rowshan’s sister, Laila, pioneered to Tunisia in 1954 and his brother, Nabil, pioneered to the south of the Sudan in 1956. His youngest brother and mother had to stay at home in Egypt as his mother was denied a passport because her Bahá’í marriage was never recognized.
Rowshan who is now 87 is writing a biography history of his father and the history of the Faith in Egypt, Tunisia and North Africa. It was indeed a bounty and privileged to know Rowshan and Ulfet and to stay with them at their house in Tunis which served as the Baha’i Centre for the Regional Spiritual Assembly of North Africa and later the National Spiritual Assembly of Tunisia.
This is the family that shall ever be etched in our hearts.
Another dear old cherished friend and ‘spiritual’ mother no doubt would be Mrs Shantha Sundram. I will not attempt to even tell her stories as it will take a whole book to write about it and I do no justice to her and her family writing cursory stories here. But cherished to include her photograph in my story to share with all who may know her or know of her.
My wife Mona Gabriel-Seow and myself with Mrs. Shantha Sundram
My Wife, My Inspiration
Friends would ask me: of the many people I have met in my journey, who had inspired me the most? I would say there were countless I met in my journey, and I cannot really point to a singular moment or person who had shaped my life and thoughts. There have been many Baha’is and non-Baha’is I have met who have inspired me, influenced my thoughts and outlooks of life, or even changed my life in the way they loved others, or practiced patience, kindness, steadfastness and justice, or live cleverly as pioneers, or by their professional and work achievements as a Baha’i, or their ability to maintain balance of family life and other lessons of life. But my main source of inspiration and encouragement I say would definitely come from my wife Mona and my family to this day, as they are truly my fortress for well-being.
It has been a wonderful and pleasant journey so far with stories enough for a book – that journey continues and will continue with the same fervor and enthusiasm… though hopefully ever deepening wisdom! I hope you like it.
My wonderful family
My family L to R – Son-in-law Tom Hosking, eldest daughter Layli (married to Tom), Mona, second daughter Zarinne and myself
Associate Professor Dr Jimmy Seow
1 January 2017