Electrifying Oceanic Conference of the South China Seas
Victoria Memorial Hall, Singapore (Photo credit: needpix.com)
This story is on the highly historical Oceanic Conference of the South China Seas held at the Victoria Memorial Hall, Singapore from 1 to 3 January 1971, and includes the author’s personal reminisces. This Conference was one of the nine Continental and Oceanic Conferences called for by the Universal House of Justice during the Nine-Year Plan period. Initially, the Supreme Body had wanted this Conference to be held in Jakarta, Indonesia. Then came a communication from that Supreme Institution saying that the event may be held in Kuala Lumpur. While an appropriate location was found, the government permit was not forthcoming, owing to the security problems stemming from racial riots that took place in Kuala Lumpur in May 1969. Therefore, the Conference was moved to the Victoria Memorial Hall in Singapore, the very venue where the Inter-Continental Conference of 1958 had taken place. The venue in Singapore: Victoria Theatre at left, and Victoria Memorial Hall at right (Photo credit: needpix.com)
Preparatory Works in Malaysia
When the news was first broken there was an air of excitement sweeping across communities in the region. The early believers, very few in numbers, were fortunate to have attended the Inter-continental conference in the same spot in 1958. For the vast majority of the first generation Bahá’ís, this was a major international conference to be convened at their doorstep. As the request to hold this international gathering was rather at a short notice, resources had to be mobilized quickly. Several committees, institution individuals played their remarkable roles. The National Coordinating Unit of Malaysia came out with a checklist of all the physical arrangements. As Singapore lacked human resources, Malaysia had to take the lead. Mr. Inbum Chinniah, Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of Malaysia was the Director of Operations. Inbum Chinniah sent a few individuals to Singapore to get the local logistics working. The dynamic Mr. Yin Hong Shuen was the Director of Publicity for the Conference. In September, Yin Hong Shuen with his journalistic background organized a Proclamation Seminar at the National Bahá’í Centre in Kuala Lumpur. One of the main topics discussed was the proclamation strategy for the Oceanic Conference.
Days rolled by quite fast, and new strategies were worked out to ensure that the expected conference fever became widespread. A few months before the conference, all letters posted from the National Bahá’í Centre in Kuala Lumpur had the announcement of the conference stamped on the envelopes to serve as constant reminders. What a proclamation as well! Several Bahá’ís reported that many postmen had become curious enquirers when delivering the letters, wanting to know more about the Conference and the Bahá’í Faith. In mid-1970 Dr. Sydney I. Dean and his wife came to West Malaysia, and on the request of the national institution, they went around the country to encourage believers to participate in the conference, and finally went to Singapore to assist in the physical arrangements. Mr. Bhaskaran Sangaran Nair, member of the National Spiritual Assembly based in Alor Gajah town in Malacca state, had to make several trips to Singapore to keep track of the progress.
The excitement of the Conference was enhanced when the Hand of the Cause of God Dr. Muhájir sent a telegram on 12 September to the National Spiritual Assembly suggesting Malaysian Bahá’ís carry out extensive teaching and proclamation prior to the historic Oceanic Conference. Some days later he himself arrived and met the members of the national institution, national committees, and key believers and suggested a Herculean task of distributing close to half a million pamphlets in Malaysia and Singapore to serve a form of pre-conference proclamation. He further proposed one thousand Bahá’ís participating in the Oceanic Conference, of whom five hundred would be new believers. The national institution took the challenge and worked out the finances and other details to carry out this request.
In December, the National Coordinating Unit quickly went around the country organizing regional conferences to encourage the Bahá’ís to attend the Conference. On top of the National Coordinating Unit had to organize the distribution of the pamphlets in Malaysia and Singapore. The Asli teachers went into the Malayan jungles to encourage the aboriginal believers to attend the conference. The national institution provided a subsidy of Malaysian dollars 15 to needy individuals to attend the conference. Finally, news reached the community that Hand of the Cause of God Mr. Enoch Olinga would be the official representative of the Supreme Body and, Mr. Collis Featherstone would also be attending. This glad tiding became a great motivating factor for many more to attend. The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Malaysia immediately appointed Dr. M.M. Sreenivasan from Butterworth in the north to be Officer in Attendance for Mr. Olinga. Wishing to make this event etched in the memories of the participants, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Malaysia, for the first-time printed diaries based on Bahá’í Calendar and the Gregorian calendar.
As December was drawing to a close, the immigration departments across the country were crowded with Bahá’ís rushing to apply for travel documents. The conference became an occasion for many to step out from their homes to enter a foreign country- Singapore. The Asli (aboriginal) friends were gathered in the State of Perak and brought down to be accommodated in the National Bahá’í Centre in Kuala Lumpur. The following day they were taken to the immigration department in Kuala Lumpur to apply for restricted travel documents to enter Singapore. That was a rare sight for the immigration officers. The Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur too was equally packed with Bahá’ís who needed visas to enter Singapore.
The Singapore Scene
The Singapore Bahá’í Centre at Frankel Estate became a hive of activities, with volunteers and helpers working round the clock to ensure no stone was left unturned. Details of the logistics were meticulously handled, not without any pain. From Malaysia, many travel teachers and helpers had arrived in Singapore some nineteen days before the Conference and were accommodated at the Bahá’í Centre. The helpers had to perform numerous tasks – answering phone calls, receiving believers from abroad, accommodating them, and providing meals. There was always a group of believers, including Bahá’í children folding and bundling the pamphlets to be taken away and distributed all over Singapore, under the supervision of the National Coordination Unit. As days of the Conference approached, they worked even harder. Many were exhausted and some fell ill. Yankee Leong, the first believer of Malaya was there to serve tea and keep their spirit high. The hard work was rewarded with the postmen bringing to the Bahá’í Centre several reply cards. Cooking in the kitchen went round the clock, with Miss Lean Beng Liew as one of the helpers. Accommodations were also arranged in the immediate neighborhood. A house behind the Bahá’í Centre was arranged as a temporary office, which kept Inbum Chinniah on his toes.
Folding Pamphlets. L-R: Kenneth Mak, Auxiliary Board member Betty, Gina Leong, Koh Ai Leen, and Khoo Swee Thay.
Some helpers and volunteers at the Singapore Bahá’í Centre. L-R: Dennis Chee, Muthiah, Maheswaran (at the back) Stella Ong, Evelyn Ng, and Moy Chin.
Close to the conference, more than 1,000 commemorative books called “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” by Stanwood Cobb were printed and distributed in person to the people of Malaysia and Singapore. Copies of the same were mailed to the high-ranking dignitaries. Thousands of pamphlets were distributed inviting the locals to a public talk entitled “A Ray of Hope” by Mr. Enoch Olinga, and an exhibition by Dr. Chellie Sundram. The advertisement for the talk by Mr. Enoch Olinga was placed on public buses in Singapore. For close to one-week Singapore was awash in a sea of publicity.
Media and VIP contacts
Yin Hong Shuen oversaw media publicity worked very hard to get the widest publicity. An early report in The Straits Times, dated 9 December 1970, flashed the news that 1,000 friends are expected to participate in this Conference and mentioned about the exhibition and that Mr. Olinga would be giving a public talk. Mr. Olinga was expected to arrive on 27 December, but there was no news of his arrival. The organizers of the conference were very concerned. But he had quietly arrived and settled in his hotel. Then on 29 December, a call came from Mr. Olinga that he was already in Singapore. Inbum requested N.S.S. Silan, Chairman of the National Coordinating Unit of Malaysia to fetch him from the hotel. Silan drove in his Volkswagen car (WX 3434) and took him to the Proclamation Seminar that was organized by Yin Hong Shuen. Meanwhile, Yin Hong Shuen sent out invitations to every single newspaper and television station in advance for a press conference, followed by telephone calls. Two reporters turned up and a photograph of Mr. Olinga, Mr. Featherstone, and Mrs. George Lee was taken. Invitations were also sent to the Prime Minister and his Ministers to attend a VIP official reception arranged with the Hands of the Cause of God, but unfortunately, they could not come.
Pre-Conference sessions were also held two days before the Conference, mainly in the Cultural Centre of Singapore to adequately prepare for the conference sessions. A special Proclamation Seminar was organized to enable participants from the various countries to give suggestions on how to make the conference a success. The Universal House of Justice gave directions for the conduct of workshops on Child Education, Holy Days, Teaching the Chinese, University Societies and the Bahá’í Funds. The second day of the seminar was also graced by the presence of the Hands of the Cause of God Mr. Enoch Olinga and Mr. Collis Featherstone who had arrived in Singapore a few days in advance. Also present were the Counsellors, Auxiliary Board members, and representatives of the various National Spiritual Assemblies.
Zeny Leon of the Philippines speaks at the Proclamation Seminar on 30 December.
Seated are Mrs. Shirin Fozdar and Mr. Yin Hong Shuen.
They finally arrived
Most of the friends had arrived by the evening of Wednesday 30 December 1970. Mr. Chong Boo Haw chartered a bus from Alor Star at a fare of M$38 per head. This bus had a big banner reading, BAHÁ’Í OCEANIC CONF” that proclaimed the Faith all the way from Alor Star to Singapore and back. Mr. A. P. Arumugam chartered a bus for the state of Selangor while Mr. G. A. Naidu chartered one for the believers of the state of Negeri Sembilan. One bus from Laos that started on 26 December had some tribal believers who had never stepped out of their villages. They were joined by some believers in Bangkok. It had a proclamation banner giving publicity for the Conference as it passed through Thailand and West Malaysia all the way to Singapore. Not surprisingly it was the Bahá’í songs that were sung in all these buses all the way, interspersed by prayers that banished fatigue. Mr. G. Kuppusamy from Negeri Sembilan who had pioneered to Sarawak led nineteen Iban believers by a boat. Many pioneers in the region too arrived in Singapore. Some Bahá’ís hitchhiked to Singapore from various parts of Malaysia. I myself hitchhiked from the northernmost part of West Malaysia right up to Kuala Lumpur. On reaching Kuala Lumpur, Mr. Chong Boo Haw, offered me a free seat on the bus he had chartered, enabling to continue my journey to Singapore and back to the north. Some believers with limited means, rode on motorcycles all the way from the northernmost communities travelling through bumpy, narrow and winding roads, and sometimes travelling on dangerous stretches, while carrying knapsacks on their back- and with no safety helmets. Those Bahá’ís who did not have much financial means were accommodated at the Singapore Bahá’í Centre.
The busload of friends from Alor Star. Standing at the extreme right in short pants is the author.
It appeared that some volunteers and helpers just could not contain their enthusiasm to see Mr. Olinga at the conference proper. While having dinner at the eating stalls, an idea occurred to go to the hotel to meet up with Mr. Olinga. So did a group went to the front desk of the hotel where Mr. Olinga stayed and said they wanted to see him. The message was passed to the room of Mr. Olinga. A short while later, he came down, welcomed them with a warm smile and took them to a corner in the hotel lobby. He asked about the proclamation activities going on. They appraised him on the status. Mr. Olinga mentioned that those teaching experiences would prepare them for international services in the form of pioneering to other countries, perhaps hinting that they should become ready for international pioneering. He mentioned that countries such as India, Africa and in many other countries in Asia and South America people were thirsty and curious to hear and learn new ideas and they can, step by step, become attracted to the teachings of the Faith. After some inspiring conversation, the friends returned, and some boasted of this privilege they had. The natural reaction was, “You too Brutus? You left me out?” kind of remarks!
The friends who had checked into their places of accommodation were familiarizing themselves with the roads leading to the conference venue. I was with the group from the State of Kedah and were accommodated on at a modest hostel in Geylang area. We all went for lunch on Thursday 31 December 1970. As we were crossing a junction we spotted Hands of the Cause of God Mr. Enoch Olinga and Mr. Featherstone crossing the road ahead of us. No words could express our feelings. Chong Boo Haw asked me to rush to greet them. I ran fast and greeted “Allah-u-Abha” to both the Hands of the Cause of God. Mr. Olinga bent down, hugged me and kissed on my cheek, while Featherstone shook hands with me. They looked across the road and saw my group of Bahá’ís waving at them. The Hands of the Cause of God waved back with so much radiance. Just then the traffic signal turned green, and the Hands of the Cause of God had to cross the road, and off they went, waving back to us. When I walked back to join the group, Chong Boo Haw told me, “You have got a spiritual kiss. Make sure you do not wash your face for a week.” I almost took that seriously at that tender age of 15.
At last, came the long-awaited moment. The friends gathered on the evening of Thursday, 31 December 1970 with a Unity Feast held in the hall of the Cultural Centre. Dr. Sreenviasan introduced himself to Mr. Olinga as Officer in Attendance for him, and was with him throughout the days of the Conference. Some five hundred attended. When the Hands of the Cause of God appeared on the stage they were greeted by thunderous applause. Following prayers that were read in various languages, Mr. Olinga addressed and inspired the Bahá’ís. As a representative of the Universal House of Justice, he conveyed the loving greetings of the Supreme Body. The session was short and yet generated much joy. When the talks were over, the Bahá’ís mingled in a magical atmosphere and were extremely thrilled to meet friends from various backgrounds, far and near. There was no word to describe the electrical atmosphere-a new spirit, as never felt before, permeated the hall. The Hands of the Cause of God Mr. Olinga and Mr. Featherstone met as many as possible in the crowd of Bahá’ís from over twenty-two countries that were present.
Hand of the Cause of God Mr. Enoch Olinga, representing the Supreme Body, addresses at the Unity Feast.
On the request of the organizers, the Bahá’ís came dressed in their traditional costumes. The tribes from Laos and the aboriginal believers from Malaysian jungles, as well as Iban Bahá’ís of Sarawak – all came in their tribal dresses. Kanagaratnam, an Asli teacher who brought the Asli believers came in the Asli traditional dress. The Asli friends were visibly the most joyful when they felt part of the big Bahá’í family, especially when the urban believers and believers from overseas hugged them with so much Bahá’í love. Even one elderly believer from Kuala Lumpur, Mr. Steven Davidasan Manoharan came dressed in dhoti, like an Indian bridegroom.
Inbum Chinniah greets Mr. Olinga at the Unity Feast. To his left are Krishnan Sinniah and Leong Ho Chiew.
Some Asli (aboriginal) believers from the jungles of Malaysia with Munusamy at the extreme right, during the Unity Feast.
There could not have been a piece of more compelling evidence that we were truly “flowers of one garden”. In the innermost corner of my heart, I was more than convinced for the first time, that world unity was not an utopia. It was a great feeling to see the pioneers in different parts of the world turning up at the conference. Greetings of “Allah-u-Abha” filled the air. There were hugs and tears of joy trickling down the cheeks. There were radiant faces with broad smiles everywhere. This spirit was simply beyond description. All man-made barriers fizzled off and vanished in thin air, and it would be no overstatement that all believers were indissolubly welded and joined in heart and soul. The excited press, ever hungry for news had gathered outside the hall, wanting to absorb on whatever they could. Mr. Jack Davis, a pioneer to the Philippines had to sacrifice his presence in the hall to attend to the reporters.
By the eve of the conference, all teams, task forces and individuals assigned to ensure the smooth running of the Conference were on maximum alert. The Information Officers trained by Yin Hong Shuen in Kuala Lumpur were told to take their positions in welcoming the guests and attend to the needs of the participants. Mr. S. Nagaratnam and Mr. S. Bhaskaran were ready as rapporteurs to record the proceedings of the conference. On the morning of Friday, 1 January 1971, the Conference took place in the fully carpeted and air-conditioned Victoria Theatre
Hall. The time had come for receiving Hand of the Cause of God and representative of the Bahá’í World Centre, Mr. Enoch Olinga. Mr. Inbum Chinniah was with his walkie talkie, connected to some workers behind the scene. Mr. Leong Ho Chiew who was holding a high position in the Royal Malaysian Police Force was in charge of security matters. He and Mr. Ganasa Murthi Ramasamy were monitoring and reporting that everything went well to ensure a flawless opening of the Conference. Through prior arrangements, the organizers had lined up, at the entrance, some representatives from various countries to officially welcome the Hand of the Cause of God. Dr. John Fozdar, Chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Malaysia, and himself a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh welcomed Mr. Olinga at the ground floor where he alighted from a car that was arranged for him. Everyone was seated, waiting for the official opening.
Dr. John Fozdar, a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh welcoming Mr. Enoch Olinga, “Father of Victories”.
Inbum Chinniah, Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of Malaysia greets the Hand of the Cause of God. Looking on is Nagendran Nagalingam.
Mrs. Shirin Fozdar from Thailand greets Mr. Olinga. Between them are Vicente Samaniego from the Philippines and Mr. Loi from Vietnam. At the right is Counselor Yankee Leong, first believer of Malaya.
Mr. Anthony Louis greets Mr. Olinga, with Inbum Chinniah between them. At the right is N. S. S. Silan, Chairman of National Coordinating Unit, Malaysia.
Mr. Firaydun from Laos greets Mr. Olinga, with Mrs. Grete Fozdar between them. At the right are Mrs. George Lee (Singapore) and Mr. Rusi Irani (pioneer from India to Brunei). At the extreme left is Mrs. Shirin Fozdar.
Sabapathy, Malaysian pioneer to India greets Mr. Olinga. To the left of Sabapathy is Narayanasamy from Sungei Petani town in Malaysia. Smiling at extreme left is Mr. Appu Raman, member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Malaysia.
As all were seated both on the stage and in the Theatre, there was for a moment a deafening silence. Taking to the stage in an atmosphere of charged excitement, Dr. John Fozdar welcomed the local participants and Bahá’ís from over twenty-two countries including Turkey, Alaska, Ethiopia, Arabia, Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, Iran, Thailand, India, Indonesia, and Laos. He then gave a concise account of the history of the early days of the Faith in the region, bringing to the fore names of some pioneers who had been immortalized in annals of the Cause through their indelible services. He underscored the pivotal role of the beloved Guardian who was a guiding force in shaping the destiny of the region and the entire world through his Ten-Year Plan. Dr. John spoke with such erudition, that there was pin-drop silence. Dr. John then introduced the Hand of the Cause of God Mr. Enoch Olinga as the “Father of Victories”, a title that was conferred upon him by the beloved Guardian. After thunderous applause from the audience, Mr. Olinga, with great humility read out the special message from the Universal House of Justice. The message highlighted the remaining goals of the Nine-Year Plan and concluded with the need to elect the National Spiritual Assembly for Singapore by Ridván 1972. This news was welcomed with thunderous applause. Until then Singapore was part of the Malaysian Bahá’í community.
An emotionally charged official opening session.
After the official opening was over, a highly charged atmosphere permeated in the Hall. The believers adjourned to the main hall of the Victoria Memorial Hall to proceed with the Conference. The Conference that had a well-prepared program had several touching moments.
Exhibition of Par Excellence
One of the highlights of the conference was the public exhibition held in the Victoria Memorial Hall on the theme “A Ray of Hope for Everyone” from 1 to 3 January 1971. All participants of the conference visited the exhibition during conference break sessions. That was the product of brilliant emanation from the mind of the multi-talented Counsellor Dr. Chellie Sundram of Penang, Malaysia. His wife, Mrs. Shantha Sundram informed the author of the details of how Dr. Sundram visualised and developed the exhibition. Dr. Sundram carried out intense research to visualise what would be the final product. The exhibition materials were designed, constructed, and prepared with assistance coming from a small band of devoted believers in Penang. Finally, each piece was transported to Singapore a few days earlier by the multi-talented Counsellor Dr. Chellie Sundram from Penang. They reached the destination despite police and customs red tapes. He had calculated every screw, nut, nail, panel, etc. When they arrived in Singapore, he found no necessity to get any additional part. Then they were assembled. Twenty-five large exhibits covered several aspects of the Faith. As one entered the hall, a beautiful presentation of the Unity prayer invited the visitors. At the other end of the hall was an impressive ten-foot-high mural of the Shrine of the Báb. The Central Figures; Selected Writings; Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh to the Kings and Rulers, accompanied by the photos of those Kings and Rulers; photographs of the six Intercontinental Conferences held in Africa, Australia, America, Panama, Europe, and India; the United Nations and the Bahá’í Faith; photographs of the Thirty One Hands of the Cause of God with a short history on each; copies of the Malaysian Bahá’í News Magazines; and the global growth of the Faith were highlighted at the exhibition. There was also a special booth for prayers presented in special decorative inserts. Another section was on Bahá’í Children’s art, displaying colorful selections of paintings by children between the ages of three and ten. There was also the continuous screening of a series of different scenes on a back-projection screen displaying Bahá’u’lláh’s “Blessed is the Spot…” prayer. A continuous slide program was also going on, featuring thirty-six selected Bahá’í Writings. The film “New Wind” was screened daily at specific intervals. The number of visitors from the Singapore public was not that encouraging. But the Bahá’í visitors to the exhibition found themselves entering a new world altogether, and they left completely impressed with awe and wonder! This exhibition is yet to be paralleled by another as it was manifestly an exhibition of par excellence. Mr. Olinga himself commented, “I have not seen anything in the world to compare with it. I am sure the designer had been guided by the Holy Spirit to produce such a magnificent, dignified and beautiful exhibition.”
Arriving at the Exhibition Hall. L-R: Dr. S.I. Dean, Mr. S. Nagaratnam, Mr. S. Bhaskaran, Mr. Enoch Olinga, Dr. Chellie Sundran, Mrs. Shantha Sundram (at the back), Yankee Leong, and Dr. John Fozdar.
The two happy Hands of the Cause of God at the Exhibition.
Tan Boon Tin, a new believer from Alor Star, Mr. Featherstone and Dr. Chellie Sundram at the Exhibition.
The two Hands of the Cause of God congratulating Dr. Chellie Sundram for a fine job done. L-R: Mrs. Madge Featherstone, Mr. Olinga, Dr. Sreenivasan, Dr. Chellie Sundram, Yankee Leong, Dr. Astani (Indonesia) and Mr. Featherstone.
Dr. Sundram introducing to Mr. Olinga some who had helped him in preparing the exhibits. L-R: Susheel Sundram, Nirmala, Jeannie Seow, and Bobby.
It was later learnt that Counselor Momtazi from Japan who saw this jaw-dropping exhibition was so taken up that he offered to buy every piece of the exhibits from Dr. Sundram to be taken back to Japan to be displayed there, but Dr. Sundram politely declined. By any measure that was a jaw-dropping exhibition.
On Saturday, 2 January 1971, we woke up to be greeted with news of the conference that was flashed in The Straits Times. Part of it read:
YOUTH HAVE LITTLE TIME FOR RELIGION: LEADER– Youth today have little time for religion, a religious leader, Mr. Enoch Olinga said today. “But I don’t blame them for turning away from their religions. They have my sympathies,” he said. “They want to see unity in the world, and therefore break away from constrictive religions which prevent them from mixing freely with others from other religious ethnic groups.”
All were gathered at the Conference Hall early in the morning, and on time. A cable was sent to the Supreme Body as follows:
“JOYFULLY INFORM HOUSE CONFERENCE COMMENCED GREATLY INSPIRED SPIRIT GENERATED UNITY FEAST. OVER 500 BAHAIS GATHERED 22 COUNTRIES ISLANDS INCLUDING TWO HANDS OF THE COUSE, 5 COUNSELLORS 11 BOARD MEMBERS 35 ASSEMBLY MEMBERS REPRESENTING 14 COUNTRIES.”
One moving moment was the introduction of the five Continental Counsellors, eleven Auxiliary Board members and the thirty-five members of the fourteen National Spiritual Assemblies. They all came up the stage, and Mr. Olinga introduced each to the conference. The five Counsellors, only four years since holding the position, were already leaving indelible traces in their respective areas. As they walked up the stage, they were welcomed by the thunderous applause from the Conference.
Counselors with Hands of the Cause of God. L-R: K. Payman, Vicente Samaniego, Mr. Olinga, Mr. Featherstone, Yankee Leong, Momtazi, and Dr. Sundram.
Equally thrilling and moving was the session where Mr. Olinga called upon the pioneers to come on the stage. It was an unexpected and shocking pleasure to see the huge number of pioneers crowding the on the stage. Mr. Olinga called upon a few to talk about their pioneering experiences. Two handicapped believers – Mr. Bounmy from Laos came in crutches and Mrs. Louis Calley from Japan came in a wheelchair. They appeared on the stage and spoke of their experiences. They drove home a powerful message that being handicapped was never an obstacle to pioneering. In calling for pioneers Enoch Olinga said, “If you have the desire to pioneer that is sufficient. Do not worry about your problems. Bahá’u’lláh would guide you…We must be light as the air, not heavy, we must be detached from all things save God.” After he made the call, more than sixty believers came up the stage to volunteer for pioneering. Inbum Chinniah went up with his whole family to pioneer and was warmly greeted by Mr. Olinga. It was Mr. Luke Lee Sim Poi, the only blind believer of Malaysia who had hitchhiked for the Conference from Alor Star, on whom the crowd focused when he too arose to pioneer. A very moved Mr. Olinga embraced him with much love and asked him to address the Conference. As Mr. Luke spoke in his mild voice, several friends were moved to tears. Later several friends took a photo with him. Unable to believe what they saw, members of the local press interviewed Mr. Luke Lee. The next day, The Straits Times of Singapore carried an article about Luke with a photograph of him feeling the artwork at the Bahá’í exhibition with his hands. Some background details of him were also flashed in the paper. That was one of the sessions that is forever stamped on my memory.
Pioneers who came for the Conference in a group photograph with the two Hands of the Cause of God.
Mr. Enoch Olinga congratulates Nabil Chinniah and his siblings for arising to pioneer with his parents Mr. and Mrs. Inbum Chinniah.
A very moved Mr. Olinga requests Luke Lee to say a few words.
Trans-Continental Telephone Call
While the Oceanic Conference was in session at Singapore, a Continental Conference of the West and Central Africa was being held simultaneously in Monrovia, Liberia. On this second day, an international telephone call was arranged to speak to Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum in the Liberia Conference. However, at that material point in time, the Public Announcement system failed. Ravichandran went up the stage to fix the technical glitch, but there was not much to be done. The audience was unaware of what was going on in the stage. Inbum Chinniah quickly called upon Anthony Louis of Malacca to go up the stage and explain the situation, which he did well in his usual loud booming voice, which enabled even the last row in the conference to hear him loud and clear. But Dr. John Fozdar managed to speak on the phone and convey the love of the participants from the Singapore Conference. Then Mr. Enoch Olinga spoke to Amatu’l-Bahá and Dr. Muhájir in Monrovia. Later Mr. Olinga conveyed the content of his conversation to the Conference participants in Singapore. Trans-continental Telephone call. L-R: Dr. John Fozdar, Inbum Chinniah. Mr. Featherstone, Mr. Olinga and Mr. S. Ravichandran.
Professor Bausani from Italy was the Chairman at the Public Talk by Enoch Olinga. The attendance was good, owing to the ample publicity given.
The Hand of the Cause of God Collis Featherstone spoke on the “Individual in the New World Order”; Professor Bausani of Italy spoke on “Principles of Education from a Bahá’í Point of View”; and Philip Marangella from Japan spoke on “A New Race of Men”; and Mrs. Shirin Fozdar spoke on the Bahá’í Fund. Contributions in cash and pledges amounted to S$38,000.
Other Interesting Moments
The Bahá’ís who came from different parts of the world brought along gifts to be shared with Bahá’ís present. Dr. Astani, a pioneer from Indonesia made hundreds of badges of the symbol of the Greatest Name and distributed to the friends. The Bahá’ís of Saigon brought Bahá’í Calendar bearing a colour photograph of the Shrine of the Báb in the background and distributed to the friends. These calendars adorned many Bahá’í homes for years later. Malaysian Bahá’í diaries printed in Malaysia and brought at the last moment were also distributed. I was a recipient of the badges, calendar, and the diary. The friends found such joy in mingling in the colourful crowd and taking photos. The two Hands of the Cause of God were their target. Everyone flocked to them to have photos taken. Different friends and groups lovingly “dragged” Mr. Olinga to meet them. He had a sing-along session with the Malaysian believers and special sessions with all the tribal friends from abroad. In all the gatherings he started with “Are you happy? Are you really happy?” Upon getting the response from the friends he would say, “The Master has said that if we are not happy at this season what season are we waiting for?”
Mr. Olinga at a sing-along session with friends, mostly Malaysians. L-R: R. Ganasa Murthy, Choo Yeok Boon, Jami Subramaniam, Sri Krishnan, Mr. Enoch Olinga, S. Satanam, Yin Hong Shuen. Laos and Thai friends. Standing third from the left is Mr. Pol Antipolo from the Philippines, with Meo and Yau tribes and native believers from Laos. Squatting second from the left is Mr. Dawood, Mr. Firaydun, Mr. Faiz Yagenagi, and his wife Meungma at his back with their baby.
Vietnam friends with Professor Avaregan in the middle.
Truly “Flowers of One Garden”. Standing at the extreme left is Philip Marangella, with Betty next to him. Squatting at the extreme left is Khoo Swee Thay, and squatting at the extreme right is Counselor K. Payman. Standing at the extreme right is Shirin Fozdar. Standing 3rd from the right is Mr. Eshetu from Ethiopia.
In accordance with the instruction of the Supreme Body several workshops were held before the conference and during the conference on a range of interesting topics. The resolutions were read out on the last day.
Sunday, 3 January 1971 was the half-day spent in wrapping up the Conference. We woke on the last day to read more news coverage. A half-page feature appeared in the Sunday Mail with the caption “BAHAI – a Rose by any Name.” Another short article on Luke Lee appeared in the Eastern Sun with the caption “Blindness does not dampen Luke’s Spirit.” Fanfare, a teenage magazine published a photo feature on Jack Davis entitled “A Killer in a Flower Garden.” “Singapore This Week” and “Singapore Travel News” the two tourist pamphlets carrying the news on the Conference, Exhibition and Public talk with the photo of the Hand of the Cause were widely circulated in the hotels in Singapore.
One more highlight of the Conference was the Youth Session on the last day. Representatives of the youths from all the countries represented were invited to the stage to speak. Nine resolutions were written down on a banner and sent to the Universal House of Justice. A pledge of loyalty was handed over to the Hand of the Cause of God Enoch Olinga to be forwarded to the Supreme Body. A prayer was also said for one of the most active Bahá’í youth, C. S. Maniam who contracted malaria while encouraging the tribal believers in the Malaysian jungles to attend the Conference. He passed away on 21 December 1970, just ten days before the Conference.
Youth Session. L-R: Carol Ang reading resolutions, A.P. Arumugam Chairman, and Govindasamy Secretary of the National Bahá’í Youth Council.
A. P. Arumugam with the Asli friends from the jungles of West Malaysia and Iban friends from Sarawak.
Mrs. Shirin Fozdar (center), and Yankee Leong (to her left) had every reason to be proud.
A cable dated January 3, 1971, from the conference to the Supreme Body read: “CONFERENCE PLEDGED FAR EXCEEDED GOALS PLANS. 60 PIONEERS AROSE INCLUDING 13 CHINESE. RESPONSE CALLS FUNDS OVERWHELMING. YOUTH RESPONDED MESSAGE HANDS PLEDGING DEVOTION SACRIFICE EXCEEDED GOALS PLANS.” The 641 Bahá’ís who attended left the conference had a take-home message from the Hand of the Cause of God Mr. Enoch Olinga. His message was this:
“Bahá’ís are important because the world needs the Bahá’í teachings. He who dedicates himself to the service of humanity is important. Those who are engaged in leading the people and nations to love and goodwill, they are important. This importance is not from us. It is bestowed on us by God, and we must strive daily to acquire the capacity to serve better. We must be humble before Him and if we surrender our will to His will, He will bless and guide us.”
As the conference was in progress, it was drizzling throughout, with intermittent showers. But on the afternoon of 3 January, when the believers started their return journey, they were shocked to see torrential downpour, causing heavy flooding. We witnessed the play of Divine Providence. It was only after all of us had reached our destinations that the flood escalated to the worst, with the government declaring the situation as a national disaster. Back home, the believers were rejuvenated with the newfound spirit and strength to serve the Cause with greater fervour. For many days after their arrival in their respective homes, it was this electrifying Conference that was on their lips. They went around sharing the joys and happenings of the Conference.
The Exhilaration Continued
On 4 January 1971, Mr. Olinga who was still in Singapore sent his personal cable to the Supreme Body: “OVERJOYED REPORT CONFERENCE HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL PROFOUNDLY INSPIRED MESSAGE SUPREME BODY STOP LOVE UNITY ENTHUSIASM PREVAILED THROUGHOUT STOP IMPRESSIVE BAHA’I EXHIBITION HEIGHTENED PUBLICITY PROCLAMATION FAITH STOP PRAYING SPIRIT GENERATED MANY ANIMATED LEAD DEDICATED FOLLOWERS BAHAULLAH TOTAL VICTORY.”
Thus, came to an end an electrifying Conference that evoked much spiritual ecstasy. For many, it was truly a once in a lifetime event. Close to half a century may have passed since this historic conference took place in Singapore. To this day this Conference and the spirit it evoked remains permanently etched within the souls of the participants. The mere reminiscing of the Conference evokes an indescribable feeling of immense joy.
For many, a once in a lifetime Conference, forever to be etched in their hearts.
(Story adapted from the author’s book JEWEL AMONG NATIONS, Splendour Publications, 2003)
30 September 2019