Dr. Yap Kim Hao: From ordinary small town boy to 1st. Asian Bishop of the Methodist Church
Dr. Yap Kim Hao’s life is a monument to the indomitable human spirit. After a normal, quite carefree childhood spent in Kampar, his family moved to Ipoh where, as a 15 year old youth, he attended ACS Ipoh after World War Two.
Those who were his classmates or who knew him, may recall how he suffered an unfortunate childhood tragedy, yet drew on his incredible courage and strength to overcome it, proceeding to a lifetime of many achievements.
As anyone who has read his autobiography ‘A Bishop Remembers’ would attest, his is a story of how you can beat the odds no matter what they are – provided you have the discipline, determination and a ‘never say die’ attitude.
The pinnacle of his career has to be his consecration as the 1st. Asian Bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore in 1968. For those unschooled as to why this is significant, it probably helps to understand the context of those times. Up until then, that venerated position had traditionally been held by a Western missionary, usually American, like Bishop Hobart Amstutz or Rev. Robert Lundy who was the pastor at Ipoh Wesley Church, the anchor church of ACS Ipoh.
But the times they are a-changing as the song goes, and with the cry for the independence of Malaya catching fire, it would naturally spill over into other areas including religion. On how the election of Dr Yap as Bishop came about will be recounted later but for now, let’s look at the piling on of his credentials.
Some of the highlights of his career that shone a torch on his abilities following his tenure as Bishop were his appointment as General Secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia, 1973 and then Visiting Professor of World Christianity, Perkins School of Theology, at the Southern Methodist University located in Dallas, Texas,1988.
In recognition of his contributions, he was also presented with many awards including being conferred an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Baker University where he earned his first degree in Biology and Chemistry; a Distinguished Alumni Award by Boston University School of Theology; and the Order of Jerusalem Medal presented to him by the World Methodist Council.
Today, at the age of 84, this “little ordinary boy from a small town” continues to serve the Christian community through his involvement in the Council of Inter-Religious Organisation and as Pastoral Advisor in the Free Community Church of Singapore. Continuing his compassion for the poor and marginalised which began in his school days when he collected old magazines to give them to the Salvation Army, he openly supports this church which was founded by a group of gays and lesbians.
Not only that, he is Chairman of the Chen Su Lan Trust which supports the NGOs working with migrant workers, sex workers, the physically handicapped, people with HIV/AIDS, women’s rights, sex education for youths and needy children.
Making up for the busy years in the past when his time was spent in the ministry and serving the community than with his own family, Dr. Yap and his wife are now doting grandparents spending much of their retirement years with their children and grandchildren who are mostly abroad in the United States.
But to start from the beginning…
The court interpreter’s son
It was in Port Dickson that Dr Yap came into the world in 1929, the first born of a court interpreter and his wife. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Kampar where he attended primary school – ACS Kampar – from 1935 while his older sisters were in the same secondary school. In addition, he attended a traditional Chinese school in the afternoon which he continued through the years, even passing the Senior Cambridge level in the Chinese language.
On the home front, aside from being taught to be friendly and polite by his mother, Dr. Yap forged deep and lasting bonds with the family’s Tamil driver and a Chinese maid. As he recalls, “they took good care of me and became part of the family.”
(Though having the services of these retainers may sound privileged by today’s standards, it was commonplace enough even among modest, middle class families then).
In the case of the family driver with whom the relationship continued until he passed away, the youngest grandson recently traced Dr. Yap through the Internet. The grandson is Gani Selvanayagam Kailasam who practises law in Ipoh – and an ACS Ipoh alumni, to boot.
The maid, in recounting the story of a poor farmer grinding a steel rod into a needle, taught Dr. Yap “to persevere in spite of hardships in life.” Another lesson learnt at her knees was the importance of education, exemplified by the tale of a student “who has to study at night by the light of the glow worms.”
With visits by his cousins and romps in the outdoors, Dr. Yap’s early childhood passed happily enough until the Japanese invasion when they lost their home. In a rented house, Dr Yap’s mother helped out making and selling cakes while he himself tried his hand as a young ‘petition writer’; peddling local fruit; working in a cigarette factory to roll cigarettes; and helping out at gambling stalls set up in an amusement park.
It was at the amusement park where he had gone to watch a movie that bad luck hit. One of a group of Japanese MPs sitting behind him decided for no apparent reason to beat him up severely. Although his father attempted to protect him, it was to no avail.
By the time the MPs got tired of their game, Dr. Yap’s leg had been broken. He was brought home but Chinese traditional treatment did not help and he was in great pain until the end of the WW2 with the return of the British forces.
It was almost a year after the fracture before he underwent surgery and suffered 3 agonising months as he lay in bed to recover. The result was that Dr Yap has lived since then with one leg 3-4 inches shorter than the other. Tellingly as a measure of the man, he declined efforts by various well-meaning people regarding how he could disguise his handicap while lesser folk would perhaps have succumbed to vanity.
The surgery was carried out in Ipoh where the family had moved to and Dr. Yap entered the Secondary Three (nowadays, Form Three) class of ACS Ipoh, a bright student but one unable to participate in the outdoor activities due to the pain in his leg.
Earlier, through his friend Yip Yat Loong, Dr. Yap had been introduced to the “peace and meaning of Sunday worship services” in Kampar and later, in Ipoh, he joined the Methodist Youth Fellowship. It was the warmth of the MYF members, particularly Festus Havelock, who visited him regularly while he was recuperating in hospital that convinced him of “the attractiveness of the Christian religion.”
His connection with the Methodist Church took root and on Easter Sunday 1948, he was baptised by Rev. Ralph Kesselring and received into the Wesley Church, Ipoh.
Unlike today’s fiercely religious charismatic pastors, he recalls his conversion in quiet, simple, down-to-earth terms. There were “no blinding light, no mysterious vision appeared, and no sanctified voices were heard. I was not slain. I did not speak in tongues. I was not prayed over. Just the simple act of compassion of a Christian led me to Christ.”
From small town, Malaysia to small town, U.S.A.
After completing his secondary education, the next step for Dr.Yap was university but what and where? Although he was attracted to law, the cost that would be incurred through spending three years at the Inns of Court in London was beyond his family’s budget. So he turned to the U.S. where he heard it was possible to work while studying.
He applied to a few universities and was accepted by Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, which waived his tuition fees and gave him a chance to work on the campus to earn his keep.
Baldwin City, as he describes it, is “a small centre in the rural wheat and cattle-farming area of Kansas. It is almost frozen in time for little had changed when I visited it again fifty years later.” Here, in this ‘lily white’ community, the young Dr. Yap “cleaned floors, scrubbed bathroom and toilets…tried working on a farm…and I went to sell soft drinks during the American football games.” Nothing was below him and he talks about the dignity of honest labour, no matter how lowly.
When the term opened, Dr. Yap enrolled in biology, physics, chemistry as well as the arts, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology. Juggling a work schedule to earn his keep as well as attending lectures, he managed still to score well in the top ten per cent and he graduated second in a class of 102.
What the medical world lost (for Dr. Yap found he could not afford the cost of medical school), the Methodist world gained as Dr. Yap decided to enter the seminary at Boston University.
After 6 long years away, he returned to Malaysia as the first post-war overseas seminary graduate coming home to serve, initially at Wesley Church in Klang and then in Singapore. Three years later, Dr. Yap – with his wife whom he married while in Klang, and his two daughters and an infant son – spent two years pursuing his doctoral programme at Boston University while serving as pastor in East Bridgewater.
When he returned to Kuala Lumpur, he was appointed the first full time Asian pastor at Kuala Lumpur Wesley Church, breaking the tradition of American missionary pastors. It was “the first flush of independence of the country. The cry of Merdeka…was in the air and it was necessary for the church to keep up with this rapid political change,” he recalls.
Despite his full work load at the church, he forged a deep connection with Dr Tan Chee Khoon, the Opposition Leader in Parliament then. This connection “gave me the opportunity to be in touch with political developments in the country and region. I was able to raise with him concerns, particularly those affecting the church and provided him with religious perspectives on public issues.”
Meanwhile, within the church, the nationalistic feeling was growing apace. In the 1964 election for Bishop, the issue of autonomy had been raised but those who backed it lacked courage to carry it through. Instead, it fell back to the true and tried of electing Rev. Robert Lundy who would be the last American Bishop here.
Through a myriad of negotiations and discussions on what autonomy would mean, elections were finally held in 1968 and Dr Yap became the first Asian Bishop at the young age of 39 when previous American Bishops had been in their 50s and 60s. From then on, it would be a journey of widening experiences and responsibilities for Dr. Yap, too numerous to recount here.
From being Bishop, his career segued into the larger circle of the Methodist family. With his involvement in the Christian Conference of Asia, he travelled extensively throughout Asia, Europe, even far flung islands of Barbados, Curacao, Guyana, the Pacific islands as well as parts of Africa and Russia. He became, in his words, “a global person”.
Answers to difficult questions
The words we speak (or write) are a reflection of who or what we are. Dr. Yap epitomises this in his book, revealing a thoughtful, deep thinking and compassionate cleric who ‘wears his learning lightly’, as they say.
No posturing, no display or falling back on the old brick wall of “we-can-never-understand-God’s-will” that usually put an end to a dialogue. Instead, through his Study Groups, Dr. Yap has answered many questions relating to faith and the Christian God, often in a refreshing way. Here are some of his pithy answers to some common questions that plague even those with a rigid hold on their faith:
On Prayer: “Prayer is too easy. I am reminded of Henri Nouwen’s statement on prayer – ‘prayer without action grows into powerless pietism and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation’. Prayer must necessarily be followed by action.”
On power and freedom: “God has granted freedom to human beings. God will continue to persuade and lure people to do God’s will. God will not force or coerce us. God will continue to influence and guide, but human beings with the God-given freedom have to make the decision.”
On the omniscience of God: “God knows how we will probably decide but God does not know what we will finally decide at the time when we make the decision. Otherwise, God determines the very decision that we make and we are no longer free. People want to feel comfortable with the idea that God will take care of us and whatever happens to us, even to the date and time of our death. God has given us the freedom and the responsibility to decide our future. The future is always open.”
On whether Christianity is the one and only way to salvation: “It is God who saves and as far as I know, I believe in faith that the Christian way of faith saves me. This is what I believe and that is why I remain a Christian and want to share my faith with others. At the same time, I have to respect religious differences.”
Here is another example of a life well lived, of how an ordinary person has the wherewithal to excel. These lessons for the young – including those at ACS Ipoh these days – show that keeping the faith (in oneself and the Almighty you believe in); hard work physical or mental, that is known never to kill anyone; and a will to prevail despite any handicap will get you there.