First published in MalayMail Online 

By Tunku Abidin Muhriz, (c) 2016, MALAYMAIL ONLINE (c) 2016

On Saturday, Rotaract District 3300 (Malaysia) asked me to be their patron for the year. It is the first time they are appointing one and I look forward to participating in their activities.

Rotaractors are members of the Rotary-sponsored service, leadership and community service organisation for 18-30-year-olds.

I was not a Rotaractor but I grew up with an understanding Rotary was a good organisation which helped the less fortunate. My father was a member of the Rotary Club of Kuala Lumpur DiRaja and my mother was a member of the Inner Wheel. Now, my father is Royal Patron of the Rotary Club of Seremban.

My interactions with Rotary in Malaysia properly began in 2011 when several Rotary Clubs asked me to speak to them about my writing and the activities of Ideas. Subsequently, I became an honorary member of the Rotary Club of Pantai Valley.

I was also invited to address an Interact Conference in Port Dickson and a Rotary Youth Leadership Awards in Sungai Petani. Perhaps the greatest honour for me was accepting the Rotary Youth Integrity Award in 2013, where I said: “I hope to live up to the expectations of the award … if ever I commit an act that is counter to the principles, then please revoke my award.”

By speaking to Interactors, Rotaractors and Rotarians — but more importantly by observing on the ground some of their community work in orphanages and low-income residential blocks — I have come to understand the long association and positive impacts of the Rotary family in Malaysia.

What has impressed me throughout is that Rotarians come from diverse backgrounds. While members generally need to be financially stable in order to devote some of their time and resources to volunteerism, they come from every race and faith. Similarly, the beneficiaries of their programmes are always the disadvantaged in society, regardless of ethnicity and religion.

Despite this history of service to communities in Malaysia, I have encountered some negative assumptions about Rotary, primarily the notion it is (along with Lions and Freemasons) somehow “unIslamic.” This is despite the fact Rotary has had a strong presence in many Muslim majority countries for decades, where the members as well as the beneficiaries of the programmes are overwhelmingly Muslim. Additionally in Malaysia, many Rotary Clubs have had royal patrons for a very long time.

I concluded my speech on Saturday highlighting the selflessness of Rotarians, who never expect any reward for their contributions. Unfortunately, such humility can be inadvertently damaging in an age when people rely on social media as an indication of a person’s or organisation’s activities, and when politicians have no qualms about taking credit for the generosity of others.

Indeed, on at least one occasion, the donations of Rotarians towards flood victims were instead advertised as a contribution from a politician.

A more recent hijacking which I observed first-hand concerned a medical camp for low-income families. This is where a Rotary Club sponsors and arranges for doctors to spend the day in a housing area so residents can receive check-ups and even on-the-spot treatments.

This particular event had been months in the planning, and by way of routine courtesy, the local Member of Parliament was invited to observe it.

Unfortunately, the office of the elected representative concerned then put out a poster making it look like the event was being co-sponsored by the MP, and worse, on the day itself, the politician’s staff arrived wearing party T-shirts. I felt sorry for the Rotarians whose good intentions were sullied by this political stunt.

But that was not all. On the day, it transpired out of the blue another medical camp was being organised several hundred metres away. And it was being sponsored — surprise, surprise — by an opposing political party. And so, residents with long-standing medical ailments suddenly had two medical camps to choose from within walking distance, all because of political grandstanding.

For the Rotarians, it also meant the time and resources of the volunteers were not used efficiently, since the expected numbers of patients was effectively halved.

There was another, more violent incident I wanted to share, but on the advice of a fellow Rotarian, I won’t write about it for now, since a solution may yet be found.

It makes me admire even more the patience and dedication of Rotarians in making contributions to the society they live in.

Looking at the numbers of active Rotaractors, I am hopeful a majority of citizens will realise it is possible for citizens to do good with no political intentions whatsoever.

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