20 November 2015

Governments should go after those who committed the bloody violence, but individuals should not blame whole groups of people for this latest tragedy.

THE nightmare is upon us again. More violence and bloodshed, more hate and more tears.

I spent Saturday morning searching for news of friends and family in Paris. A look at the locations of the incidents on a map showed that some of them were very near where an aunt of my daughter’s lives, so we had some anxious hours waiting to hear from her.

Thankfully, all our friends and relatives are safe.

Relief gave way to sadness and depression. Grief at the many lives lost, of young people who decided to go out and enjoy themselves that night.

This is every parent’s nightmare, that you let your children out because they are grown up enough and know how to take care of themselves. But then how could we have protected them from this?

How can we tell them that a football ­stadium, a concert hall and restaurants are unsafe places to be?

Or how to escape from a bomb or a gun-toting madman?

I wonder what mothers in the United States tell their children in the wake of all those shootings at schools? Surely not “don’t go to school”?

The most depressing thought is that the blame and recriminations will begin immediately.

Violence begets more violence, in the form of actual warfare most obviously but also more subtly in the form of words spoken or written, or actions taken, to corral certain people supposedly in the interest of “security”.

There is nothing new in this.

After the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the Pacific Coast were forced to relocate and incarcerated in camps in the interior, despite there being no evidence that they were at all disloyal to the country that most of them had been born in.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.

The Commission’s report, titled Personal Justice Denied, found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and, concluding the incarceration had been the product of racism, recommended that the Government pay reparations to the survivors.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which apologised for the internment on behalf of the US Government and authorised a payment of US$20,000 (RM87,665) to each individual camp survivor.

The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”.

History, however, tends to be ignored, especially in the heat of anger.

The aftermath of Sept 11 ignored the lessons of World War II and undoubtedly they will be ignored again now.

The most favoured response is more violence, although this has never been proven to work, unless we count the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the results of which are still debatable.

Far more insidiously depressing is the discovery that individuals are quick to blame whole groups of people for this latest tragedy, based on nothing more than speculation. Despite the fact that only a few people directly caused these murders, some are quite happy to take exceedingly discriminatory action against an entire community so that they may be “safe”. I wonder what assumptions lie beneath these?

Were the dead uniformly of one race and religion, when the population of France is as diverse as any country these days?

Yet there are some who don’t hesitate to suggest that every Muslim everywhere should be considered suspect.

Given that some live in a Muslim-majority country, how do they expect to even leave their house every day if they are going to worry that every Muslim they meet is waiting to kill them?

And since when have discriminatory acts against whole groups of people ever tamed them?

The black population of South Africa never took apartheid lying down.

African Americans fought against racial discrimination with the civil rights movement.

In our country, more and more people are opposed to race-based policies.

In all cases, the initial lack of response from governments has meant a withdrawal of support for that government and sometimes open rebellion.

Why therefore do we think that any discriminatory act against a particular faith community is going to elicit a different reaction?

What examples do we have of people willingly accepting humiliating discriminatory measures against them?

By all means, governments should go after the perpetrators of such bloody violence for the sake of the security of their people. But governments are no more rational than the human beings who lead them.

Between January 2012 and November 2015, there were almost 40 cases of fatal shootings at schools, colleges and universities in the US but the government has done nothing to stop access to guns.

Why should we expect rational responses by governments to cases of mass murders in even more public places?

Their only response to mass murder has been more mass murder, preferably far from their shores.

Meanwhile, we should examine our own attitudes towards others to see if we consider ourselves peacemakers, bridge builders or warmongers.

It starts in our own neighbourhoods, communities, villages, towns, cities and countries. And we should reflect whether what the Japanese-Americans in their internment camps suffered was just.

05 November 2015

Malaysians have a tendency to not appreciate something until we’ve lost it.

IN an effort to lose some weight recently, I went on a diet which required me to eat smaller portions of healthy food.

When food suddenly became a precious commodity, I found myself eating more slowly and savouring each bite. The same thing happens during Ramadan when you find yourself appreciating food more because you haven’t had any all day.

Similarly, after months of unheal­thy haze, the return of blue skies and sunshine last week prompted everyone to take out their cameras to record something that we had never really noticed or appreciated before.

I found myself letting the sun beat down on my face and enjoying the warmth, as if I lived in a temperate climate unused to such an abundance of Vitamin D.

And yet, before we lost those rays all these months, we would complain about how hot it was and how our air-conditioners, already turned down to freezing temperatures, just couldn’t cope.

Is it a particularly Malaysian trait to appreciate things only after we’ve lost them? Or do we simply not think of that possibility, so we fritter them away as if there were no tomorrow?

We don’t appreciate our trees and forests until they are gone and we finally make the link between their disappearance, the heat and flooding. We even demand that trees in housing estates are cut down because we hate sweeping up fallen leaves, and then find ourselves keeping our air-conditioners on all day. Then we complain about electricity rate hikes.

We are eager to buy cars for ourselves but then complain about traffic jams – caused by other motorists, of course. The building of public transport facilities such as the LRT is meant to ease the congestion but meanwhile, we complain about the inconvenience their construction causes.

It’s not as if those of us currently in cars are going to use public transport much anyway when it is ready. No, we’ll stay in our cars and continue complaining, thank you very much.

The only way to get people to use public transport is to have incentives to use it and disincentives to drive cars, but what would some people do without their chauffeur-driven Mercedes?

Maybe we need a tipping point when traffic jams become so frustratingly bad that it becomes a major incentive to use public transport. Then we might see our politicians using the LRT like everyone else.

The point, really, is that we have a tendency to not appreciate something until we have lost it. Take our wonderful multi-ethnic, multireligious society. The way things are going, one day we may look back with nostalgia at a time when we all got along without any problems.

Despite some assurances by our politicians that they value our diversity, we find ourselves unable to trust their words when we know that often, they aren’t matched by their actions.

Harmony to some of them means accepting things “in the Malaysian way”, even though we are increasingly finding that the long-term effects are injustices that fewer people are willing to put up with.

I read with barely controlled nausea one speech which talked about the need for democracy, good governance and human rights as the way to fight extremists and terrorists, as if extremists are the only reason to have democracy in our country. The majority of us who aren’t extremists don’t deserve it somehow.

But perhaps we deserve to lose some of the things that we have always enjoyed due to our own laxity and penchant for taking things for granted. We don’t seem to appreciate how quickly we are losing so many of our freedoms, for example.

Every day, through one law or other, our freedom to say what we feel about anything is being curtailed. Some of us may think that the way to avoid trouble is to simply not say anything. But then we become complicit in the curtailing of our own freedoms, which are guaranteed by our own Constitution.

We think none of these will matter to the majority of us – only troublemakers need worry. But given the almost random nature of the current persecutions of people who speak their minds, how do we know we won’t be next?

We might think that only “famous” people need to watch themselves, yet there are many previously unknown people who have been caught for one thing or another. We might not care too much about them now, until one day it’s us cooling our heels in a lockup.

There would be no point in being nostalgic then, to finally appreciate our right to speak once we’ve lost it. Once it’s out of the gate, it’s hard to bring it back. Better to do all that we can to protect it now.

23 October 2015

THERE are few things more dispiriting than returning from a holiday where you had unexpected blue skies to a homeland where you can hardly see anything outside the plane window.

What quirk of climatic times do we live in when I was travelling in a temperate country which had more sunshine than the tropical one which I was born and raised in?

Looking at the grey sky, you can’t help thinking that the haze is a perfectly apt metaphor for the state of our country, where everything is blurred, opaque, difficult to fathom, unresolvable and ultimately bad for one’s health.

But let’s talk about the physical impact of the haze first. In all the years since we’ve had this big smoke floating over and around us – and I can remember it as far back as 1990 – this year’s seems exceptionally bad. I don’t recall the haze lasting as long as this, and being as thick as this. We can actually smell the smoke and clearly see ash flying about. It’s like breathing in the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag.

What must this do to our lungs? Is anyone monitoring the health of those most vulnerable to breathing difficulties like young children, old people, asthmatics, people with HIV? I’m fairly fit and yet I feel sometimes as if my chest is congested.

I know of at least one asthmatic who passed away recently, possibly because her condition was aggravated by the haze. Are there any studies at all on what this haze does to our health?

Has there been a time when schools had to be closed as much as they have been? What happens to our children’s education, such as it is? What about those who have exams coming up? How do they cope without guidance at school?

And for some parents, having kids at home means having to take leave in order to watch over them. Which employer is going to be cold-hearted enough to refuse to let them take the days off? In which case, how many workplaces are going to be shorthanded because of this?

When the air finally clears, is anyone going to count the cost of this haze, in terms of lost productivity, in healthcare costs, in school hours lost? Or as usual, do we not worry about things we can’t see as yet? Years from now, will we look back to these lost times and wish we had been more attuned to what all this really means?

Meanwhile, as if there isn’t enough to depress us already, we hear that the haze may last all the way until March. Not only do we have to put up with ever murky wheelings and dealings by those whom we are supposed to trust, a ringgit which may soon be worth more lining bookshelves, ever-increasing prices, the constant need to force the public to swallow fantastic explanations for obviously dubious financial manoeuvrings, but we literally are having our oxygen cut off day by day.

Surely even our esteemed politicians are breathing the same air? Or do they live under some bubble into which fresh air is pumped? I’m not sure how that accounts for the inanities that come out of their mouths though.

It doesn’t help that along with the deficit in clean breathable air, we also have a major trust deficit in what the authorities would have us believe. API readings remain unconvincingly low when you can hardly see anything outside. Since they are presumably breathing the same air, are our authorities also happy with lying to themselves?

And if they are happy fudging the truth about things which affect them, what about things that only affect us the people?

It’s getting more difficult these days to present a good face to the world about what my country is like. It would be nice to be able to boast about more than just our food and our multicultural make-up.

But when you read about countries like Nigeria which elected a president who is fervently going after those who have been stealing their country blind, or that Canada rejected a racist and Islamophobic prime minister in their most recent elections, then you start to feel as if you’re being left behind. It’s a very sinking feeling.

What we need are leaders who inspire us to be better than we are, who tell us the truth about things so that we can deal with them realistically but at the same time give us hope that they will all get better. We need them to not just talk about the future but also take action to make that brighter future happen. Instead we get what sounds suspiciously like false cheer and empty promises, among much murkiness.

Much like our skies.

25 September 2015

Last week was pretty groundbreaking when it came to getting rid of old taboos, even though they came from unexpected quarters.

IN the past week we’ve seen many taboos being broken.

The taboo on assembling in public to demonstrate was of course already broken some time ago, but until last week it was taboo for any pro-government people to do the same.

Then there was the taboo on laying hands on the police.

That was broken too when red-shirted demonstrators last week injured some policemen because they were stopped from going into a certain area of Kuala Lumpur.

Of course some people immediately disassociated themselves from these unruly demonstrators.

This was a privilege they didn’t allow anyone from Bersih to do.

Then there was the taboo against calling people names.

When I was little, the Malay word for pig was considered something nobody well brought-up ever mentioned in polite company.

This has stood for so long that someone decided to substitute it with the Arabic word “khinzir”, just so you could talk about the same animal without offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Last week that taboo was broken when some two-bit BBQ fish seller called a whole community pigs.

Obviously with the intention of insulting them and then disingenuously explaining that it can’t be offensive since the target community loves eating it.

What would be the point of insulting people with supposedly non-insulting words?

Then some genius broke yet another taboo, by associating his religion with something not just negative but despicably so.

These would be the same people who insist that Islam is a religion of peace while threatening other people and then claiming that racism is OK in Islam.

Has there ever been a peaceful but racist society anywhere in the world?

Does this person realise which infamous figures he’s keeping company with?

He might as well have said “I’m a totally nasty person and proud of it.”

So yes, last week was pretty ground breaking when it came to getting rid of old taboos, even though they came from unexpected quarters.

I suppose the old Malay pride in being well-mannered, soft-spoken and dignified is now dead and gone too.

Which is rather ironic considering that this undignified show of force was meant to uphold Malay ‘dignity’.

The interesting thing was that all of this may be for nought.

Before the red rally, a survey showed that a majority of Malays didn’t support it.

Last week’s shenanigans probably converted no one to the cause.

Few people were clear what it was about apart from some vague idea about protecting Malay dignity.

I’m quite sure if someone in the middle of the crowd had started chanting “Tolak GST”, the entire Padang Merbok would have joined in too.

After all, they are the ones most affected by rising prices.

Not much dignity if you have to cut back on essentials for your family.

Meanwhile more sensible Malaysians decided to celebrate Malaysia Day for what it really is: a day of togetherness and unity in diversity.

Some of us had a picnic in KLCC park complete with balloons and cake for Malaysia’s 52nd birthday.

Total strangers dropped by and sat under the trees, made friends with one another and chatted about anything and everything under the sun.

It was clear that we all had no problems with one another despite differences in background and that we all truly loved our country.

We ended our picnic by singing the national anthem.

Something that was missing at Padang Merbok.

In another part of town, a whole day of festivities showcasing every culture in Malaysia was met with great enthusiasm.

People tried different foods, watched cultural performances, witnessed a full Peranakan wedding, listened to music and basically spent time with one another in a warm togetherness.

Our hearts burst with pride when Sean Ghazi sang a beautiful rendition of Tanah Pusaka.

This followed once again by the whole crowd singing NegaraKu.

Like midnight last August, everyone there owned the anthem, regardless of which Malaysian community they came from.

All of us were determined that Malaysia Day was a day of joy, fun and happiness and not one of anger and violence.

We wanted our photos to be of people genuinely enjoying themselves and at peace with one another.

We went home feeling good about ourselves.

I don’t know if the other crowd felt the same but I do hope that ‘fun’ would at least be one of words they would describe their event with.

One major difference between the red rally and previous yellow ones was easy to discern.

If you don’t mass-produce placards and banners and you make your own because you believe in a cause, the chances are you’ll come up with some truly witty ones.

Amidst anger about current issues, we could still laugh at such creativity.

Instead of laughing at people.

11 September 2015

On Malaysia Day, let’s leave the Red Shirts to do their business.

ON Aug 29, Malaysians proved something very important – that it is possible to come together in common cause and do it peacefully. No more can we believe anyone who says that any gathering of more than five people is bound to be disorderly and violent.

Bersih 4 proved that people can be disciplined and orderly in big crowds. They obeyed instructions not to breach the barriers at Dataran Merdeka and they cleaned up afterwards.

In between they marched, they put up posters to express their feelings about current issues, they made and listened to speeches, they sang, they camped out and they ate. And they did all this peacefully, in great camaraderie with one another.

This time, I could not be in the country to join my fellow citizens in protest. Instead, I joined some 1,000 Malaysians in London on the same day to demonstrate for the same cause.

We started off in front of our High Commission where people held up banners and posters and listened to a few speeches, waved at High Commission officials and then walked to Whitehall where we stopped near Downing Street, before ending up at Trafalgar Square where we sang NegaraKu in the rain.

There were only two policemen watching over us, which again proved that we don’t need a big police presence to ensure that we behaved.

In some 40 cities all over the world, Malaysians gathered for Bersih, all without incident. It just goes to show that violence at protests are not caused by protesters but by the use of tear gas and water cannons. We have to commend the police for realising this simple fact this time.

Now, there is talk of a counter-rally, which has already been declared illegal but which insists, like Bersih, to carry on anyway. I am all for freedom of speech so generally, no matter how despicable, I would not stop anyone from expressing their opinions.

The trouble is I have a problem trying to figure out what the so-called Red Shirts stand for. They seem to want to protest for the sake of protesting against protesters, specifically Bersih protesters. But while we are clear about the issues that Bersih espouses, we don’t really know what the Red Shirts are spoiling for a fight for.

I suppose it’s fair to assume that since the Red Shirt rally is anti-Bersih, then they must want all the opposite of whatever Bersih’s 200,000 participants want. Let’s look at what these are:

Bersih wants free and fair elections. I suppose the Red Shirts must therefore want unfree and unfair elections, possibly the only way any of them can hold any public position. If they were fluent in English, I would recommend their slogan be “Stack the Deck”.

Secondly, Bersih 4 is demanding for a clean government. It must therefore mean that the Red Shirts are demanding for a dirty government, one in which money decides everything from whoever gets to govern to what policies and laws are made. I wonder how many Reds actually think they will have a say in any government policies, given that few of them are likely to be millionaires. Millionaires don’t need BR1M.

Speaking of which, Bersih 4’s third demand is for action to save our economy. As our ringgit plummets to depths never seen before and everything becomes extremely expensive for us, obviously we need to see concrete moves being taken to ensure that we don’t become relegated to “least developed country” status.

But since the Red Shirts are taking issue with Bersih, I must assume that they won’t mind if our country descends to a level at par with some of the poorest countries in the world. Maybe they hope to go abroad to find work like some of our neighbours.

Fourthly, Bersih 4 is demanding for the right to dissent. This means the right to disagree, respectfully, with anyone, including the Government. Since the Red Shirts are already exercising their right to disagree with Bersih, they really should not have any problems with this demand. However, I do think that the right to dissent means having a vocabulary that contains more than one word – “stupid” – to describe those you don’t like.

So, on Sept 16, the Red Shirts would like to emulate Bersih by having their own “illegal” rally on a day meant to celebrate our unity in diversity. I don’t know how the Reds intend to express diversity since thus far they have looked monoracial and monogendered. And unity with yourself doesn’t really count for much.

Perhaps on Malaysia Day, we should all just stay home and watch the breaking-bricks-with-your-head display from afar. Or attend other fun events elsewhere. They can bring their own food and drink from home. And let’s see if they’ll clean up afterwards.