27 August 2015

I’VE been noticing a disturbing phenomenon recently among my brethren. It is a type of mob behaviour where groups of people will attack a person online, usually female, accusing her of immorality based totally on something superficial, usually her dress.

It happened with the gymnast who was criticised for her regulation gymnastics leotard instead of being cheered for her gold medal. And it happened again when a seven-year-old girl was taken to task for wearing a two-piece bathing suit while on holiday with her parents.

To attack a little girl with an as-yet-unformed body who was holidaying with her parents seemed to me to be beyond reason. There is something else going on here besides the apparent self-righteousness.

If one wants to seem devout and to admonish someone for supposed unIslamic behaviour, there are recommended ways to do it. Online slut-shaming isn’t one of them.

I’m no psychologist but it is interesting to me that as our society gets more “religious” (at least by some people’s definitions), there is increasing mob behaviour against anyone deemed to not fit into those definitions.

Sadly our authorities’ idea of religiously correct behaviour involves more restrictions every day. Their key word is “don’t”, rather than “do”. Thus, people are told every day of the things they must not do if they are keen to end up in heaven.

Apparently there is a list of 70 major sins that we can do to ensure that we go to the wrong place. Odd, considering I was brought up to understand that Islam is a very easy religion with very few major sins, defaming people being one of them.

When people are told daily that they cannot do so many things, and yet they see that some people can freely do them, then resentments mount. How is it that some people can wear what they want but I cannot? How is it that some people can do what they want but I cannot?

What we thus have is an inequality of freedoms, and I believe this is closely tied to the inequality of wealth in this country.

If you have money, you are likely to go to better schools, have more job opportunities, travel more and buy whatever you want. The world is pretty much open to you.

If you don’t, then you have none of these options.

The income inequalities in this country are well documented.

Not only is there a huge swathe of people with very low incomes in this country but the gap between them and the very wealthy is getting bigger. But not a lot is being done to narrow these gaps, apart from giving the poor handouts which are one-offs and unsustainable. Besides, as the saying goes, they don’t teach a man to fish.

Thus, the way to assuage the feelings of those at the bottom is by telling them that while they may not have much, their advantage is that they are more likely to go to heaven. Rich people are apparently more prone to sinning, so be happy that you are poor but heading in the right direction. Hence the poor spend what they have on the right rituals, the right clothes, making sure their children are well educated religiously if nothing else. They will be rewarded some day, they are promised.

But meanwhile the bills need to be paid. The kids are getting nowhere because the schools are not preparing them for a productive life.

Food and public transport are getting more and more expensive. GST hits them harder.

Still our politicians and ulama tell us salvation is at hand if only we keep on that straight and very narrow path.

It’s hard going but we believe in them. Even when it’s clear that there’s not much joy in our every day lives.

Meanwhile, how is it that some of our brethren have the freedoms that we don’t have? How is it that they can go on holidays abroad and buy fancy clothes, not all of which are syariah-compliant? How is it that they can smile and laugh with impunity? Aren’t they afraid of going to hell by enjoying heaven on earth?

Thus the mob behaviour happens. How to justify someone else’s freedoms except to cast them as being sinful? It doesn’t matter if they are innocent children, they have to be as suppressed as our children are. Only then can there be equality in oppression, the logic goes.

Politicians may not notice this, and may even encourage this as a cover-up for their failures. But if the inequalities in income are not addressed, the inequalities in freedoms will continue to breed ever-greater resentments and who knows where this will lead to.

Something to ponder on this August 31. Are all our people equally merdeka?

14 August 2015

I RECENTLY attended a conference where the keynote speaker, a renowned academic, talked about science and conscience. One of the slides he showed was a quote from Sophocles, the Greek “tragedian” or playwright (496-406BC) which went: “There is no witness so terrible and no accuser so powerful as conscience which dwells within us.”

In most people, the conscience does play a big part in directing the way we behave.

It may come from the values our parents or teachers instilled in us or maybe it is something inherent in us, but the conscience is that little nagging voice in us that makes us feel guilty or ashamed when we have done something we shouldn’t have.

From childhood, that voice tells us that taking something that is not ours is wrong, or cheating in exams is unfair, or calling people names is hurtful. It’s that uncomfortable feeling when we’ve done one of these things and then didn’t own up to or apologise for it.

Everyone has a conscience in one way or another. Some psychologists say that we are born with an innate sense of fairness that either develops or lessens, depending on what happens in our lifetimes.

In any case, people have enough of a conscience to realise that some actions are regarded as anti-social behaviour and therefore must be hidden from others if done.

Consequently, nobody openly declares that they are going to steal, cheat or do anything that common sense says we should not, especially if we want to live among other people.

Our conscience is also that nasty feeling in our stomachs when we tell a lie.

When we were kids, we knew what would happen if we were ever caught lying to our parents. We might tell them that we had not got our report cards yet but it was difficult to keep a straight face when they kept questioning us about it.

Eventually the pressure would become too much to bear and we had to shamefacedly hand over our red mark-filled card and wait for Dad’s fearsome wrath.

Those memories of the consequences of lying usually stayed with us until adulthood, training our conscience on the virtues of honesty. As horrible as it may be sometimes, it is usually better to own up when we’re at fault.

This assumes that the things we need to own up to are fairly innocuous things, like our age or the fact that we forgot to pay a bill on time.

But our conscience can only be burdened with so much; if you do something really terrible, then we need to stop that conscience pricking us or else we cannot sleep at night.

Thus we start inventing justifications for the terrible things we did, or start telling ever bigger lies in order to cover up what we did.

After a while, we start to believe our own lies and even that we never did anything wrong.

I have known some consummate liars and I often wonder how they keep track of every lie they tell.

Everything depends on keeping every story unimpeachable, and making sure that nobody is able to compare stories with anyone else.

It must be a terrible strain and at some point you’re bound to trip up. And that’s where things start to unravel.

When they do, there is a mad scramble to keep things together which necessitates more and more lies. That conscience, that nagging voice, that inner compass that tells us where true north is, becomes muffled and ignored altogether.

Yet it has a way of peeking out and showing itself in odd ways; the inability to look anyone in the eyes, a voice that isn’t convincing, a hand that is shaky.

They are signs that can be seen by a shrewd observer though perhaps not by those who prefer not to.

Luckily for societies, not everyone becomes devoid of conscience completely. Otherwise they would become totally lawless and dysfunctional.

By and large, most people still obey traffic lights because they know it is a good thing to do. And they also do get angry at people who don’t.

They may tolerate the odd person running a red light but not if it becomes an epidemic because obviously it becomes very dangerous for everyone. It is those people who still have their consciences who will save society.

Today when everything in our society seems to be crumbling, when our leaders have become the ones who run red lights, we have to rely on those traffic cops who still have the conscience to do their jobs correctly, without fear or favour.

If we get rid of traffic cops so that we can run red lights with impunity, then we might as well be a society before there were laws regulating our behaviour on the roads.

Imagine if our conscience stopped being our red light.

30 July 2015

SINCE everyone in this country is an expert in giving advice to everyone else, I thought I would join in and generously give my totally unsolicited counsel to all those aspiring to join cupboards or closets of any kind. Any likeness to anything familiar around us is naturally a complete coincidence.

First of all, please get it out of your head that you are wanted or needed because you have expertise of any kind. Who cares if you have a double degree in How to Make Anything Good and How to Make Anything Better? What you need is a PhD in How To Make Your Boss Feel Good, with a minor in How To Make Your Boss Look Really Good. It would also help if you have expertise in How To Clean Up Messes, especially if it involves getting rid of Messy People.

Secondly, you have to audition for the job. Don’t ever expect to be picked out of obscurity like some Cinderella. Let’s not forget that Cinders didn’t really get an invitation to the Ball – her ugly stepsisters did. And they worked hard for it by making sure they got noticed.

So find a way to get attention. Never mind if it means making a spectacle of yourself. Who cares if you look and sound like a fool as long as your potential Boss likes it? The path to position and lucre is strewn with puffery and pomp! Pledge loyalty, even if nobody asked you to. That counts as double points.

Thirdly, always be humble and say you had not expected this at all but it must have been Divine Intervention. Who in their right mind would question what the Almighty wants? And He must have spoken through his vessel, your soon-to-be Boss. George W. Bush said God made him President to do His will on earth. Surely if an American can claim that, we can too.

Fourthly, don’t be picky about what you are given. Just be grateful! What does it matter anyway? It all comes with nice perks like a nice house (there must be a renovation budget), a nice car with a driver, first-class travel for you and the Mrs, and all sorts of other things you’ve only heard about from others but can now experience firsthand.

So what if the work is crushingly dull? Someone else can read all those papers for you and give you a summary. And oops, if you miss a few things in there, there are lots of people you can blame, even despatch clerks. Why worry? You’ve hit the big time.

Fifthly, now that you’ve got it, your job is to smile and nod your head. Vigorously. All the time. Get yourself photographed with the Boss as much as possible, preferably looking at him with utter adoration. If you can hold up a suitably adoring placard, that’s even better. However, some have found that this is no insurance for job security. Maybe practise hand-kissing as an alternative.

Sixthly, let’s not forget that you are a package deal, which your spouse is a part of. Train her well because her job is as important as yours. Quite the opposite from you, her job is not to compete with her Boss.

So make sure that if you want to buy pretty expensive things for her (and now you can!), don’t let her wear them in front of her Boss, especially if she looks quite hot in them. Support local brands and dress your other half in them. Leave the international imports to her Boss and coach her in the right admiring phrases to murmur.

Seventhly, ever seen the TV series Entour­age? That’s what you need, an entourage. Surround yourself with all sorts of folks who can be given menial jobs dressed up as important ones by putting them in the right clothes. No Big Man is without his entourage to carry bags, check him in at airports, that sort of thing. Never ever have to do a single thing yourself again.

Eighthly, be part of an entourage yourself. It is highly important that you keep yourself within your Boss’ line of sight at all times because you don’t want him to forget you exist or overlook you the next time he wants to clear out his cupboard. So follow him everywhere; after all, that is your main job.

It’s also your spouse’s job to be a handmaiden in her Boss’ entourage so if she gets called upon to serve, give her your blessing. It will be rewarding.

There you have it – eight tips for succeeding in life in our dear country. The folks out there who have to actually work to survive each day wish you lots of luck. Drop some crumbs some time.

17 July 2015

It’s great to meet youths who want to change things. 

I’VE been told that recently I’ve become strident and fierce in my columns. This was a bit of a surprise; I thought I’ve always been fierce and strident. But I suppose my readers see a noticeable uptick in the tone of my columns these days, hence the comments.

Is it surprising though? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s holding my head in despair at the endless drama that our country is experiencing daily these days.

It would be one thing if it were a drama where everyone goes home happy at the end of it. But here we seem to slide from bad to worse, on a greasy slope with no brakes.

I’m not going to comment on the “high-level” goings-on since that is well covered everywhere. Except to say thank God for the alleged “whistleblowers” and “leakers” whoever they might be because if it were not for them, we would still be in the dark, not realising that our entire carpet is being pulled from under us. There must be some people with a conscience after all who can no longer tolerate the blatant disregard for our people anymore.

I was talking to some young people recently who want to spread the “virus” of positivity among our people because there is so much negativity around that it cannot be good for anyone. It’s wonderful to meet young people who are not yet jaded and disillusioned and who have the energy to want to change things.

They are right; there is too much negativity around, coupled with apathy that is unproductive. We complain endlessly but forget that complaining by itself does nothing except make others complain, too.

Indeed, while it is certainly part of the Malaysian make-up to constantly grouse about something or other, of late it’s taken a mean-spirited tone as well. There is undoubtedly much to complain about these days but at the same time there are many Malaysians, mostly ordinary people, who are doing many things to change our social landscape, to make it more open and accepting, to build peace and create harmony in our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious mix.

Some of these efforts may be one-off, some may take a while to bear fruit, and some may not work at all. But far more important than the immediate results is the process of engagement with one another towards a common goal through an event, shared interests or anything else that brings people together.

We’ve seen ordinary people step up so many times over the years, to help one another, to show that Malaysian citizens are so much better than their failing and flailing leaders. We’ve banded together to help those affected by the floods in Kelantan, we feed the homeless, we’ve demanded a humanitarian response to the boat people floating about in the Indian Ocean. Always a step or two ahead of our Government.

Yet I see people being unkind and mean spirited about these efforts for unexplained purposes. If people are doing good, why put them down? What are those who are willing to roll their sleeves up and help others doing that might affect those who do nothing, except perhaps make them feel some shame for their own inertia?

Is the cynicism about everything so bad that we can’t even differentiate between sincere and insincere efforts? Or is it just our addiction to putting down everything others do as simply a craving for publicity?

I don’t blame our cynics entirely. After all we look to our leaders to set the example of good behaviour. When they completely fail us, how can we complain when our people do the same? How can we excoriate anyone for thinking wombats and pigs are the same when we don’t have leaders who display any higher level of knowledge anyway? How can we check those who pass on unfounded rumours of racial riots when some of our leaders are often quick to do the same? When our leaders are silent on these issues, how can anyone feel optimistic that reason will prevail?

We’re all looking for positive inspiration these days and yet it’s so hard to find any. Our leadership is too lazy even to remind us of the need for restraint during Ramadan, and has nothing to say when people go overboard. In its absence, we have to inspire ourselves.

Perhaps we need this holiday weekend to come up with some inspiration. Perhaps if we take a break from the news and focus on family and the joys of celebration, we can recover our reasonable centre.

With that, I’d like to wish everyone a Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir batin. May the advent of Syawal bring an end to the current madness and instead usher in new light and new hope, God willing.

03 July 2015

I’M usually quite unshockable but occasionally I see something that really knocks my socks off. That was my reaction upon seeing a video recently. It was not pornography or anything mildly like it but it was still horri­fying.

In the video, two Caucasian men found that their car had been blocked by a pasar Ramadan stall.

Understandably they asked the stall owner how they might get the car back.

Less understandably, the stall owner started screaming and shoving at them.

Others joined them and all were shouting and manhandling these two men.

Some even yelled at them to “balik lah ...” (go home), although it is unclear where to.

What was shocking to me, besides the fact that this was obviously during Ramadan when we are meant to exercise restraint, was the sheer over-reaction to something which could have been resolved so easily.

Surely it is reasonable to ask someone who is blocking your car what to do about it?

Surely the response should have been an apology, followed by an explanation of when the stall would pack up for the night, thereby releasing the car.

What was the need for all the shouting, screaming and shoving?

I don’t think any civilised person watching this video could have felt anything but embarrassed, as I did.

What has happened to the sopan santun (manners) that we are known for, more so during Ramadan?

I grew up having manners drilled into me and if there’s one thing I am old-fashioned about, that would be it.

So I find it hard to understand when people are rude for no apparent reason.

Those who follow me on social media will recall a recent episode when I had to give a little lesson in courtesy to a young man.

He has since apologised and I’m sure it wasn’t normal behaviour for him.

But where would young people learn about manners but from adults?

When we have parliamentarians saying the rudest things to fellow Members of Parliament and mostly getting away with it, when we have adult men who think it’s funny to go shake their posteriors at a woman’s house, when we have people flying off the handle over the simplest things, why would not our young also devalue courtesy and politeness?

If you’re polite, it is not news and you don’t become famous.

But if you’re crass and crude, you get headlines and everyone remembers your name.

There may be reasons for rage but what I don’t get is the infantile way it gets expressed.

Name-calling, jeering and shoving is the way of juvenile hooligans, not mature adults.

Have we regressed to such a childlike state that those are the only ways we can express rage?

What next, mass foot-stomping?

Everything today points towards a society that is encouraged to express itself in mob-like behaviour.

One person needs to just say that they are offended by something and for no rhyme or reason, entire hordes of people decide that they should be offended, too.

Indeed they even look at ways to be offended.

And when you have leaders who say that the onus is on minorities to behave a certain way so as not to offend the majority, what else could you expect in response?

Are we all supposed to live in such a way that we constantly have to look out for offen­ces imagined in other people’s heads?

Every time we go out, are we supposed to be always on the lookout for ways to avoid offending total strangers?

We might go to a government department where, as taxpayers, we may reasonably expect fast and efficient service.

Instead we are treated as if we are offensive creatures because of our choice of clothes.

How does the sight of anyone’s legs affect the efficiency of the service?

If such a sight was too distracting, even through an opaque desk, then there is something wrong with the person serving the customer, not the customer herself.

Why do people whose salaries depend on us paying our taxes get to play both fashion and moral police?

All this could so easily be solved if we had the type of leadership who would come out and say that we should all stop this nonsense about petty things and focus instead on more important issues.

For example, how to get our currency to rise again, or how to manage the high cost of living, or how we can work on bringing people together, rather than tearing them apart.

But obviously, with a leadership so silent they might as well not exist, the anarchy of bad manners continues unabated. Is it a symptom of something?

Do people get ruder because they feel rudderless?

Doesn’t anyone want to know?