09 September 2016

ONE of the things I like to tell young people is that if they do well at school, they will have more choices in life. Having choices is one of the great privileges in a human being’s life and many of us are working to ensure the greatest number of people have the ability to make the most choices for themselves as they see best.

Hence, for example, we work so that parents have a choice of where they can send their kids to school.

If their choices are limited because of poverty, then we have to address that, by either ensuring that their few options are nevertheless good ones or that they can earn enough to be able to have a wider selection to choose from.

The days are long gone when we did not have choices in our life partners. Nowadays, for better or for worse, we make our own choices.

We choose to better our lives or sometimes we do not, but it is still our choice and we live with the consequences of either one.

We also choose every few years who gets to rule us, and we live with the consequences of that too.

Although we don’t always have to put up with bad choices, we are certainly free to let our choices know that we disapprove of what they say and do. We didn’t hand over our right to have a say once we voted them in.

So choice is really the ultimate privilege and all of us should be working towards a situation where the gap between those who have the most choices and those who have the least is as narrow as possible.

Having a just and equitable society is also a choice. Steering a nation towards such a society, or not, is also a choice for our leaders and it’s amazing how they sometimes fail to exercise that choice, usually by saying that they had no choice.

However, like many things these days, the meaning of the word “choice” can be different to different people. For most of us, it means the freedom to decide something based on an array of options.

If I decide I need to get fitter, I have many different types of exercise regimes I can try and I just have to choose the one that best suits me.

But for some people, the right choice is the one that they, and only they choose, and everyone else’s choice is wrong.

For example, in a country that prides itself on freedom and equality, France is incredibly adamant that some of its female population, specifically Muslims, may not have the choice of what to wear on the beach. And it will actually enforce this limit on choice by law.

Or even against the law, since some mayors have decided to disobey the court order to overturn the ban on burqinis.

Here is a funny situation; normally court orders give you no choice but to obey. Yet here we are with municipal authorities exercising their “choice” to disobey the law.

The ostensible excuse for the burqini ban is apparently security, although how a woman in a figure-hugging swimsuit much like a diving suit may be a security threat is a question nobody wants to answer.

Someone commented that it’s the mindset, not the dress. Well that’s correct, although why would we suppose that every woman who wants to be modestly dressed for the beach is also thinking of bombing some place? And since when has modesty been a crime?

The sexism in this ban is so obvious. Any man can go to the beach in an outfit that would betray nothing about him, yet statistically he is just as capable, if not more so, of endangering others.

How can you tell what’s in his head when he’s lying there in surf shorts like anyone else? Or is the next step simply banning any Muslim from Europe’s beaches?

At home we may protest these bans by calling out the hypocrisy of countries that purport to uphold human rights. But we are no better at choice either.

We too believe that the best choice is what we think it is and not what an individual thinks is best for him or her. So if a woman makes the choice to put on the tudung, she is applauded. But if she makes the choice to take it off, hell on earth descends.

It seems there is no greater betrayal than by people who make their own choices in life, rather than bending to the choice of the self-righteous masses.

Worse still if they actually dare to be happy afterwards. And heaven forbid if it’s women exercising their right to choice!

26 August 2016

With the exception of the spoilsports, the rest of us came together to cheer as one.

THE Rio Olympics finally arrived and this time we had the best medal haul ever, four silvers and one bronze.

We may not have heard Negaraku being played at the victory ceremonies but we did see the Jalur Gemilang being raised five times, more than ever before. Tell me your heart didn’t burst with pride when you saw that!

The hours put in by our athletes, the hard work, the pain, the sweat, the sacrifice, all of these culminated in these medals.

Of course we are disappointed that we didn’t get a gold but we did come very, very close.

Whatever it is we have world-class Olympians and we should rightly be proud of that. Congratulations to our badminton players, our two synchronised divers and our keirin cyclist!

The Olympics may come only once in four years but for everyone in the world, it’s an opportunity to watch the fittest and strongest compete for sports glory for their countries.

It’s amazing to see the most famous and the least known compete together and sometimes deliver a few surprises.

There seems to be a big difference between competing for individual glory and for your country. Winning for your country seems to be more moving and easily brings out the tears.

And while everyone roots for their own countrypersons, we can all be inspired by the stories of athletes from other countries, especially those who had overcome all odds to come and compete.

This year there was a special team of refugees and although none of them won anything, understandably given their circumstances, watching them participate highlighted their humanity and reminded us that refugees have abilities just like anyone else.

We watched athletes who never gave up, no matter how badly things turned out for them.

Sandra Perkovic, the defending champion and discus-thrower from Croatia had two fouls (disqualified throws), which put her at risk of elimination before she threw one so good that she won the gold.

If you’re a champion, you don’t let failure discourage you, you give your all one last time.

For us in Malaysia, once again the Olympics is the opportunity to come together to root for our national athletes.

We forget our differences, settle ourselves in front of our TVs preferably with friends and family, and yell encouragement to our fellow Malaysians competing at the highest level.

We laugh together, we smack our foreheads in frustration together, we cry together and we cheer together. For a short while we are united.

But there are always spoilsports. Apparently some people think that commenting on the most inane matters is more likely to get them to heaven than compliments for sporting achievement.

There was the newspaper which described a silver medal as disappointing while celebrating a bronze medal in another event. Unsurprisingly, these mean-spirited headlines caused much consternation.

As expected, the crotch-watchers and tut-tutters were out in force, ready to police what our female athletes wore rather than how they performed.

Someone actually described Pandelela Rinong’s outfit as ‘incomplete’ although it is unclear what sport it was incomplete for.

It was certainly correct for her sport, diving.

Interestingly enough, there was no excessive praise for the female athletes who wore ‘religiously correct’ outfits, perhaps because they didn’t get very far in their events.

Ultimately, you just have to watch the female team events such as synchronised diving or gymnastics to realise that the hundreds of hours of practice it takes to get their routines perfect matter so much more than their costumes.

These armchair critics can make mean comments all they want but how many of them can say that they have stood on the world stage, competed with the best in the world and actually beat some of them?

How many of them can one day tell their grandchildren that they were Olympians, and even medallists, members of a very exclusive club?

I watched the athletes at the victory ceremonies and had to recognise that that is an experience I will never have.

It’s a truly humbling realisation.

Indeed humility, with a few exceptions, seems to be the stock character of top athletes.

Joseph Schooling, Singapore’s first ever gold medallist, could hardly believe he had beat his hero Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly event.

Mo Farah, the British distance runner, has dedicated every gold medal he has won to each of his four children.

We watched so many winners thank God first for their win before showing their joy.

Every four years we watch the ultimate sporting event with all their triumphs and heartbreaks and learn a few things about dedication and passion.

And for a few weeks we take a tiny break from the negativity, bloodymindedness and dishonesty we have to face around us every day.

14 July 2016

Preachers can have a tremendous influence on desperate souls looking for answers to their troubles, and the latter may take everything literally.

IT seems as if the last month has been marked by nothing but violence. Beginning with Orlando, Istanbul, then Dhaka and then the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by those of several police officers in Dallas, everywhere you looked, there was bloodshed, as if the whole world had gone to war with one another.

And we weren’t spared either. First an apparent first attack by Islamic State at the Movida club and then what seemed like a spate of gunshot killings in Kuala Lumpur’s suburbs.

The Inspector-General of Police became concerned enough about the killings to set up a special taskforce to investigate them.

Meanwhile, reams of articles are written about the profiles and motivations of the perpetrators in Orlando and Dhaka particularly. It turns out that these perpetrators were far more complicated people than any stereotype could predict. Which just goes to show the limitations of profiling anyone.

Indeed, stereotypes were very much defied in the Dhaka attack. Rather than being poor, disaffected youth who might have been led astray by men wearing robes and bearing money, the attackers were in fact young men from upper middle class families, who went to good schools and even studied abroad at private universities in Malaysia.

These were young men who were thought to have everything going for them. Until they started disappearing, only to re-appear carrying out an extremely vicious attack, even killing young people of the same background.

In the investigations into their backgrounds, much has been made about who could have influenced them. Perhaps theirs is an abject lesson in what all human beings need: spiritual succour.

Could it have been that while these kids had every material comfort, what they did not have was comfort for the soul? And so they went looking, and as fate would have it, found the ones that were easiest to understand, where blame could be laid on others, rather than on showing compassion and kindness in order to nurture the soul?

There have been suggestions that some of us have made too much of the influence of particular religious personalities and politicians in creating the sort of climate in which young people get attracted to IS ideologies. This is disingenuous, to say the least.

For one thing, nobody sets out to become a politician or a religious preacher without the aim of influencing people. That is the whole point of these jobs.

Whatever they say is lapped up by many people because it is assumed by the public that what they say must be important simply because of who they are. Politicians can turn what they say into laws and policies which will affect people’s behaviour. For example, if they pass a law that says you must wear seatbelts in the car, you have to do it or face censure.

Religious personalities may not always be able to pass laws but their influence can be even more powerful, because often people assume that what they say is the word of God.

Certainly those who do not have much religious knowledge (and thus far studies have suggested that IS members know very little about religion) are particularly susceptible to whatever they say because they have no other point of reference. They do not see these pronouncements as mere opinion or only one out of many interpretations, only that these words come directly from God’s vessel, the preacher.

It is even more disingenuous to say that those words were misunderstood. A person who does not allow for different interpretations of God’s words in the Quran cannot claim that he can’t help it if people understand his words differently from what was intended. Unless you’re unequivocal about what you mean, you can’t blame others for supposedly misinterpreting what you said.

Supporters of such people claim that they can’t be that influential anyway. Again, this is disingenuous.

If these preachers have only marginal effect on people’s lives, they would not be able to fill arenas with ticket-buying devotees. For sure, some people may go for the halal entertainment value but you never know what desperate soul might go to find answers to his or her own troubles and then take everything literally. After all, these preachers preach certainty. If you follow me, you WILL go to heaven. A potent message, which isn’t limited to Muslims only.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the ones who always call for the banning of Western performers because they might influence our young are also the ones who don’t believe that consevative preachers have any influence at all? At least Beyonce has never told her audience to go out and terrorise anyone.



30 June 2016

WELL, it’s been some week! To the shock of everyone, Britain voted to leave the European Union. I was in Britain not too long ago and nobody I knew believed they would leave. But by a whisker, they did. And the consequences are still rolling out all over the world.

All this can be put on the shoulders of one man, David Cameron. What started as an internal party issue was allowed to spin so much out of control that the shockwaves are still being felt.

The pound sterling has dropped, stock markets everywhere are falling and Brits are suddenly waking up to a world vastly different from just last week. A passport that is almost the equivalent of a world passport is no longer theirs.

Along the way people’s emotions got worked up into the nastiest form. Xenophobia suddenly became the norm. People became so divided; one young woman MP even got killed presumably for her views, a tragedy so rare in Britain that it shocked both sides of the divide.

It did not help that the right-wing media whipped emotions up for the Leave campaign with sensational headlines and very few reasoned arguments. In fact there was very little in the way of sensible and factual arguments.

The PM lost his gamble so he stepped down.

History will probably remember him as not only the man who broke up the EU but possibly also Britain because now Scotland is talking about another independence referendum. Perhaps Northern Ire­land too. Who wants to stay with a bunch of insular provincial people when there’s a whole world out there?

Which brings us back to our little country here, which seems to be getting ever more insular every day.

In this holy month, a religious leader, for unfathomable reasons, decided to declare non-Muslims not only infidels but the type of infidels that should be killed. Uncon­ditionally, only because they are not Muslims.

Naturally all right-thinking people, Muslim and non-Muslim, are reacting badly to this. Shockingly, he is not getting admonished by his superiors for such uncharitable talk about fellow citizens in the month of restraint.

At least in Britain when pro-Brexit people start talking about taking back the country for citizens of the white persuasion only, there will be people in high positions who will criticise them sharply.

But as usual in this country, when a man of the turban and long gown says anything nasty, nobody in a position of authority will protest.

They seem to think that God speaks through him so his word cannot be challenged. Someone should send him on a study tour to post-Brexit Britain where they would take one look at him, look up what he just said and promptly deport him for incitement.

Then there was the case of the Ipoh City Council that issued an invitation to an event for its staff and felt the need to detail what people should wear.

Instead of trusting that people would have the common sense to know what would be suitable to wear to such an event, some pea-brained person decided that they needed to underscore what could not be worn, the elegant and graceful saree.

Forgetting that they now live in the age of camera phones and social media, the council got caught out and added insult to injury by giving the lame excuse that the word kecuali does not actually mean “except” but means what you should not wear when you’re out in the field, even though this is presumably an indoor event with food.

In my childhood, my Mum’s friends Dr Sundra and Dr Ranjit wore sarees to work in the hospital and absolutely nobody freaked out about it. When she got married, my mother even wore a saree at one of her nuptial events because her friends had given her a beautiful one.

What I wish most, really, is that one of our leaders has enough of a conscience to step up and say “Enough!” and tell everyone to stop this nonsense.

Not saying anything is like David Cameron letting the Brexit ghouls out of Pandora’s box. Once such hate speech (and there is no other word for it) is allowed out, there is no pulling it back.

But looking at the calibre of our Cabinet in its latest iteration, there is no hope of that ever happening.

There is simply no moral leadership in this country, no one in Govern­ment who has the courage to point out what is patently wrong in our society today.

The tragedy is that nobody does anything that is not self-serving.

If this continues, then they may find they are ruling a country with no people. Sooner or later, (more) Malaysians may decide that it’s time for Mexit.

Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir batin.

16 June 2016

Instead of looking into how a man with a record could easily get a gun, some have focused on his religion and the alleged sins of the victims.

IS it too much these days to expect Ramadan to be the month of restraint, reflection and rest? In the past few years it has been anything but, both domestically and internationally. This year, sadly, is no exception.

This week in Florida a gunman allegedly shot and killed 49 people in a club and wounded another 53. That alone is tragedy enough.

After sending condolences to the families of the victims, the conversation should then turn to dealing with what is an obvious crime. Isn’t murder a crime in every country in the world?

Yet the conversation about a crime and its motives has been diverted towards other things. The fact that the gunman was allegedly Muslim. The fact that the victims were presumably gay.

Not the fact that an American citizen with an assault rifle massacred and wounded a lot of other American citizens. When it boils down to it, those are the bare facts.

But as things are these days, everyone wants to make a meal of it. The presumptive Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump basically used the tragedy to praise himself for having “warned” Americans about this danger. Never mind that the shooter is a United States-born citizen who, despite a record of being a wife-beater and being questioned by the FBI, had purchased his guns legally.

Various Republican politicians tweeted their sympathies to the victims, blamed Muslims and said nothing about the ease with which people can get guns in America. But then many of them had received money from the National Rifle Association to not vote for any legislation that would make it tougher to buy guns. Basically they helped put in place an environment which made it easier for these massacres to happen.

Most also ignored the specific targets of the shooter who were LGBT people, not the Republicans’ favourite people. The same people whom they have condemned and discriminated against for a long time.

In this, they may have been more aligned with the views of the shooter. But alas, he happens to belong to a faith that some of them, especially current and past presidential candidates, are also prejudiced against. What a dilemma!

It is a dilemma for American Muslims as well. On the one hand, here was another incident where the predictable reaction would be more general condemnation of all Muslims as if all are responsible for the murders. As has happened with past violence, a rise in Islamophobic incidents will no doubt occur.

On the other hand, many Muslims are uncomfortable with the LGBT community, believing that they are sinful aberrations of God’s creations. Still, discomfort does not mean that Muslims believe that they should be killed, hence for many American Muslim organisations, their position is clear.

The largest Muslim organisation in North America, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), immediately issued a statement expressing sympathy with the victims’ families and calling on Muslims to donate blood to the injured survivors.

The Executive Director of CAIR, Nihad Awad, was quoted as saying that the attack was “a hate crime, plain and simple”. 

He said CAIR’s sympathies lie with the LGBT community, and that the goal of extremism is to create divisions among as many social groups as possible.

Meanwhile thousands of miles away, Muslims living in a Muslim country where they should be fasting and doing charitable things are instead taking to applauding the shooter for killing those 50 people and hoping that the other 53 will die too. Easy for people who live in their own little bubble to say things like this when it isn’t their own family and when they have never felt the fear such violence evokes.

How many Malaysian Muslims have truly experienced what it means to be in extreme danger? And how many Malaysian Muslims have ever experienced out-and-out Islamophobia?

So easy to express outrage at people marching against Muslims in Europe, yet even easier to hypothetically tweet that even a gay sibling should be killed. What is all this murderous talk in this holy month?

Our ignoramuses in Malaysia should take heed of what Nihad Awad, at the frontline of so much hate, said: “ Homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia are interlocked systems of oppression. We cannot fight one and accept another.”

They need to understand that all Muslims are being unjustly blamed once again for the act of one man. By applauding his act, they are agreeing with the Islamophobes that we are inherently a violent people.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the police have caught another heavily-armed man who was hoping to “harm” the gay pride parade there. He is neither coloured nor Muslim.

Perhaps the most pertinent comment comes from the activist filmmaker Michael Moore: “This is the 163rd day of a year in which there have already been 173 mass shootings in the US.”