25 June 2018

Sunday, 24 Jun 2018
By Marina Mahathir

WELL here we are in the New Malaysia. It’s still hard to believe that all this is true: that on May 9, we came out in great numbers to finally make the change we thought would never come. I still think of those depressing days just a few months ago when everything seemed against us, when we all felt full of angst because nothing seemed to go right.
I still catch my breath when I think of the narrow escape that we had, with each passing day and each new revelation of the mismanagement, corruption and abuse of power that used to be the norm. How could so many of those who could have said or done something kept quiet? Yet some of them are still in denial, still believing the lies despite the evidence that people were simply not going to buy them.
My head still spins when I think of the dizzying days of April when as the previous government made mistake after mistake, Malaysians became more and more determined to change. I have never known a time when Malaysians became more aware of their voting rights than during GE14. Every barrier to voting imposed by the previous government was viewed as an attempt to deny Malaysians their right to vote.
First it was the redelineation exercise which the Election Commission Chairman said was so that each ethnic community could live with only each other. He seemed to think that apartheid was what we wanted. Malaysians rightly found this abominable and insulting. They responded by not only refusing to vote by stereotype but giving greater majorities to Pakatan Harapan candidates than before. Despite having 10,000 voters delineated out of his constituency, Khalid Samad of Shah Alam won by a majority three times greater than the last elections. Fahmi Fadzil also had a bigger majority over his opponent, despite having new voters, mostly from the police, included into his constituency of Lembah Pantai.
Then it was the Wednesday polling day. I am curious to know the explanation given by the previous government to their own party members for this unusual decision, given that it affected their voters as much as it did Pakatan voters. The people saw this as yet another attempt to deny them their right and they rose to defend it.
Those outside the country decided to come home to vote, even from as far away as London if they could afford it. Those at home found sponsors and benefactors who were willing to help fund their air, train and bus tickets home or to share rides to their home states to vote. Meanwhile those who were eligible for postal voting overseas were incensed that their ballots arrived late but somehow, through the sheer power of determination and social media, managed to find fellow citizens willing to carry their ballots home for them. Who can watch that documentary The Amazing Malaysian Race without crying?

But here’s the most amazing thing of all: in all the efforts to get people home to vote, nobody asked who they were going to vote for. #PulangMengundi was about respecting our right to vote for whoever we wanted. But I am certain that the sheer generosity of the benefactors made a strong impression on the many young voters who benefitted from the programme and was a factor on who they eventually voted for. Why vote for anyone who’s trying to deny you your right?
Next were the unbelievably crass missteps that the previous government kept making during the campaign. From the attempt at banning Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia just before the dissolution of Parliament to the disqualification of Tian Chua on Nomination Day, they misjudged how clearly the rakyat could see injustice and the attempts to load the election against any opponents, and they didn’t like it.
Instead of pulling back on these mistakes, more were piled on. Rulings about whose faces could be on posters and billboards, already ridiculous, went into the sublime when local authorities actually cut out or blackened these faces. The people’s responses were not only outraged but witty. Cartoons and funny comebacks abounded on social media. People changed their Facebook profile photographs into photos of the banned faces. Like I always say, if you can’t decide who to vote for, always vote for the wittier side. Evil is never funny.
Indeed I don’t know what we could have done without social media. Without access to mainstream media, we had to rely on Facebook and Whatsapp to get news and information about party platforms and candidates, which whirled around at dizzying encrypted speed. To be sure there was also a lot of rubbish but most of it was educational about both sides. Facebook live streaming was a boon; nobody needed to go to rallies to see and hear candidates. Even then people flocked, in rain and mud, to see their candidates, to chant slogans with them, to cheer them on. Nobody paid them to attend, their own will pushed them to go.
On polling day, voters heeded the call to come out in great numbers. There they were in the heat, queuing for hours to dip their fingers in ink and carefully mark their ballots. Again there were attempts to deny some people their right to vote, especially those who had queued but weren’t allowed to vote after 5pm. By then most people had already voted and these last few would not have made much difference to the count. But the sheer inconsiderateness of disallowing them to vote did the EC no favours.
Here I have to give a shoutout to the unsung heroes of the day: the PACAs or polling agents and counting agents. Most people, like me, had little awareness of how important PACAs are to elections. But this time, because of the fear of cheating, thousands of volunteers signed up for PACA training and duty. It turned out that their training was far more thorough than those of the opponent candidates, and this kept the whole process of the elections on the straight and narrow. Pakatan PACAs stood resolute in the face of obstinate polling station heads who refused to sign off on the number of votes. And the rakyat came out to support them whenever there were signs of trouble.
I shall forever remember the crazy crowds on the night of May 10, after the swearing in of the Prime Minister and the new government, at the gates of Istana Negara, on Jalan Duta and in front of the Sheraton PJ hotel where Pakatan had their election night headquarters. Flags waving, singing and cheering as if we were in a Brazilian carnival, it was a sight to behold. Most heartwarming of all was the sheer diversity of the crowd. All Malaysians were represented, regardless of race, religion, gender and age. This was truly a Malaysian victory.
It’s been almost two months now and people still can’t stop beaming. Friends noted how suddenly people seem nicer to one another. We’ve become addicted to TV news again because the media has suddenly become unfettered. New faces are on TV giving intelligent responses to smart questions. Everyone gets excited when yet another live press conference is announced. The very sight of the new Finance Minister and new Attorney-General has us all pinching ourselves to make sure that this change is real.
It is real. We made the change and we did it in an extraordinary way, just by voting, without shedding a single drop of blood. People all over the world are congratulating us for being this bright hope of democracy.
But as we know, a democracy is not to be taken for granted. It is far from just about voting in elections. Like a comfortable house, maintenance takes vigilance and work. And the work has to be done in a new way, one that is inclusive, respectful and just. The test of a real democracy is how we check our mindset every time we treat another human being as unequal to us, regardless of whether they are fellow citizens or not. Whether we give those who had no space or voice the opportunity to be seen and heard. When we consciously make an effort to listen to the smallest voices.
If we are able to change ourselves in this way, that would be the real victory of May 9.

30 May 2017

Thursday, 18 May 2017
Recent acts of violence against the less powerful are symptoms of an even bigger problem.

AN assistant warden beats an 11-year-old boy so badly, his legs need to be amputated, his suffering so great that he eventually dies.

Some men beat up another man who honks while they are praying.

A 12-year-old girl pulls out of a chess tournament after the director deems her clothes too provocative.

We are rightly outraged by all these events, which range from the ridiculous to the outright cruel and criminal. We write letters to the papers, sign petitions and rage all over social media about these people. Yet we are not remarking on the underlying thread among them all.

And that is anger. What all these incidents have in common is a seething anger in the perpetrators that lies just below the surface, waiting for something to bring it out into the open. What could possibly cause a grown man to abuse a child so badly, if not for some deep seated anger about something that may or may not be related to the child? And yet our outrage is not universal, with various parties willing to defend him and bail him out.

Similarly with the beating up of a man who had the apparent temerity to interrupt people at prayers with honking. If you’re concentrating on communing with God at Friday prayers, you would notice nothing externally at all. Secondly, one should come out of prayers feeling serene and calm, not angered and violent.

And thirdly, anyone who has had the misfortune to park in the wrong place on a Friday knows very well the frustration of not being able to move their car. This I blame on town planners and architects who routinely build mosques and other houses of worship without adequate parking space.

I have just started reading a book by the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra called Age of Anger. His book agrees with me that many people, as individuals, are very angry these days.

His theory, however, is based on his vast reading of history. That people often react with anger when they feel left out of the grand sweep of history, and are vulnerable to having these feelings exploited by various autocrats and demagogues to a very unsatisfactory end.

When a person feels left out from what he sees makes the elites of a society happy – wealth and power mostly – but he feels powerless to gain any entry into that elite, then he reacts in the one way that makes him feel powerful, with violence.

It is no coincidence that these acts of seemingly irrational violence are carried out by very ordinary people. Feeling insignificant can be humiliating, especially in a society where men of a specific race and religion, are constantly told they are superior. Why therefore, do these superior beings have to constantly struggle in such anonymous humiliation?

Thus an anger begins within a person when he realises that all the aspirations he is told he should have by sheer virtue of his race and religion – that God-given entitlement – are simply not going to come true.

Not unless he knows someone, not unless he toadies to someone just a bit more important than him, who toadies to another slightly more important person, all the way up that hierarchy.

All this does is point out how low down the food chain he is and this only makes him feel hopeless. And angry. So he looks around for someone even less powerful than him. A little boy. A little girl. A member of what he believes is an inferior race and religion. And takes it out on them in varying degrees of violence, including fatally.

I’m not saying that we should excuse this behaviour at all. But when you see this ever-growing list of acts of violence – against women, children, people of other faiths, sexual minorities – any reasonable person has to wonder what is going on.

I doubt our leaders haven’t noticed these incidents but they appear to have kept silent. They know very well that these incidents are symptoms of rage ... against them. For not fulfilling promises, not of a smooth path to heaven, but of a decent and dignified life on Earth. Where every single person feels that he has an equal chance in life. As Mishra points out, this rage isn’t limited to certain people only. Nor is it a new phenomenon.

“Then (in the early 20th century) as now, the sense of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites was widespread, cutting across national, religious and racial lines.”

He continues, “The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realise the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty. ...Their isolation has also been intensified by the decline or loss of post-colonial nation-building ideologies, and the junking of social democracy by globalised technocratic elites.”

The angry young man justifying his racist or violent acts in Malaysia with religion is not much different from the supporters of far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen or even Donald Trump.

They are suspicious of the elites who seem to have everything while they have nothing, yet they cannot help but allow the very same elites to lead them by the nose to a promised land that they delude themselves will materialise someday.

But ultimately it doesn’t, at least not in the way they expect it to. They do not fathom that while their job is supposedly to ensure a heavenly future, their secular rivals are being rewarded for preparing their charges for a comfortable life on earth.

How could they be subjected to such injustice when they’re fulfilling, so they’ve been told, God’s wishes? This is a rage we need to pay attention to. Because history has shown that unless this rage is properly dealt with, the results can be catastrophic.

We are not like France, a country with enough sensible people not to allow a demagogue like Le Pen to gain ultimate power. Nor are we even like the United States where despite Trump, there is an active and vocal resistance and the institutions that can keep him in check.

We are not listening to warnings. That is a recipe for tragedy.

18 November 2016

Those who equate the anti-Trump protests with local protests against our Government are ignoring some key differences.

WELL that was a shocker, wasn’t it? The Unthinkable won against the Unpalatable! Who would have thought!

It turns out that if some people had actually thought properly, they would have seen it coming. They would have seen the despair in parts of the country where people have felt left behind and left out. They might not have so easily dismissed all the bad behaviour and attitudes, to see that what actually fuelled them was fear (racism and misogyny also comes from fear). They might have not taken him literally but more seriously, as the voters did.

But there you have it, the most unthinkable President of the United States ever, a former bankrupt, reality TV show star and self-confessed groper. Someone that all of us have to live with for at least the next four years.

The ever-opportunistic social media propagandists in our midst spared no time in trying to equate the anti-Trump protests with our local protests against our own Government. They ignored a few things.

The losing candidate herself has not disputed the results, affirming the credibility of the US election system, despite winning the popular vote. And since the US still is a democracy, it is the right of its citizens to protest against their new President-elect. They are not necessarily disputing the election results and saying that the election is rigged, just that they don’t like the new President.

That is what is known as freedom of speech and expression, and is well established as the First Amendment in the US Constitution, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

On the other hand, some of us have doubts about our election system, especially with the recent proposed redelineation exercise. And despite Article 10 in our Federal Constitution which grants us freedom of speech, the freedom to assemble peaceably and the right to form associations, these rights are restricted by other clauses and laws.

So to compare the anti-Trump protests with our local protests is comparing apples with durians. Even Republican politicians there, despite now having a very strong government, are not complaining about these protests. Whereas ours, who are perhaps not feeling as secure as the Republicans, whine at every single contradictory opinion.

But this much is true; minorities in the US are not going to have a good time with a Trump administration. Already there are reports of hate speech and actions against Muslims, African-Americans and gays, indeed anyone who is not white and heterosexual.

Much like post-Brexit, the election of Trump seems to have given licence to all those who have resented being “politically correct” all these years to let it all out. It’s not pretty.

It is particularly not pretty to see the lack of sympathy of some of those who are a minority in our nation for those very vulnerable minorities in the US. Apparently human rights is not as universal as one might think.

In the US, minority groups have realised that they have to stand in solidarity with one other – whether religious, social, racial or gender minorities – in order to protect the human rights of all. They have understood that the US Constitution protects everyone, not just some people. This is something which we Malaysians have yet to understand. It is hypocritical to insist on our own human rights while ignoring the fact that others have rights too.

Perhaps one thing that is similar between the American electorate and the Malaysian one is our propensity to believe fantastic stories, especially if they confirm our own biases. Many fake news sites, mostly originating in Eastern Europe, have been publishing news stories which sound true but are in fact not. But many people have spread these news stories, mostly because they sound like something they want to believe. These types of things can make a difference in elections, if people believe them.

The encouraging news is that, according to a Reuters survey, most Malaysians do not believe the news, especially in the mainstream media. But that doesn’t mean they won’t believe news from other sites without checking whether it is true or not. We have a tendency to take these stories both literally and seriously, although a sceptic would have easily punched holes in them. And we are very prone to reacting to certain trigger words, without really knowing why.

The new Trump world has up-ended everything Americans have ever thought they knew. They should consult us on how to deal with it, since we’ve been trumped for a while now.

07 November 2016

THREE old friends, an American, a Filipina and a Malaysian, recently sat down to have coffee.

After a long session of catching up on family news, the talk turned to current issues.

Naturally the issue of national leadership came up. One bemoaned the fact that an orange-skinned self-confessed groper was actually running for president, another complained about her uncouth and seemingly deranged leader while the last could only blush with embarrassment when asked by her friends why her own leader was still there.

All three agreed that there must be some strange cloud hanging over our countries that we should all be saddled with men who are as imperfect as leaders as we have.

Of course, for one of us, there was still a good possibility that another leader might be elected, someone less imperfect.

For another, she only has to put up with him for six years although during that time he can inflict severe damage on her country.

But for the final one of the three, the possibility of the country going down the tubes because of an avaricious leader was all too real, with no end in sight.

It was interesting that when discussing our individual national situations, the one most familiar with dictatorship immediately recognised the signs of impending danger.

The creating of internal and external enemies, the getting rid of all those who know too much, the silencing of critics, the demonising of unsupportive former allies, the use of state enforcement agencies against citizens.

All these have been used before by other authoritarian leaders, and my friend’s eyes widened with alarm when I described what was happening back home.

In our country, there is a large number of us who are willing to overlook major faults such as kleptocracy as long as our elected leaders make laws that basically reduce us to infants with brains too undeveloped to know what’s good for us.

I read an article about our neighbouring leader’s assertion that nobody need fear if they hadn’t done anything wrong. He was referring, of course, to the killing of thousands of alleged drug sellers and users but I still shuddered with the familiarity of it.

The trouble is, when there is no standard process of judging who has committed a crime or not, how does anyone know if they have done something wrong?

The rule of law as determined by a Constitution that everyone respects is the only true protection for the innocent.

But in our case, when people can be arrested for wearing t-shirts, throwing balloons, drawing cartoons, making private comments or making public comments in their professional capacity, when labels are used to demonise people and there is little opportunity for them to clarify what they stand for, just about anyone can be considered to have done something “wrong”.

The only “right” people are those who say that yes, the emperor’s clothes are beautiful. Are we living in North Korea?

How come, my friends ask, we don’t say anything about all these injustices? Some of us do, I say, but not enough. Most people are busy trying to make a decent living and putting food on the table for their kids.

But, they also said, there will be no decent living if your leadership gets it wrong and you have no idea how long it will take to get back on track.

I know, I said, but we Malaysians are submissive people who’ve had it pretty good for so long that we can’t imagine having a different life. And it may well be too late for us already.

It got awkward when my friends asked if all the weird things that happened in my country – such as the banning of the words “hot dog” – were normal.

No, I said, it’s not normal at all. Once we were a sensible and calm people, not quick to take offence at shadows invented by our masters. But perhaps these are but distractions from the many real crimes taking place, for the media to have something to talk about since they cannot talk about really important stuff.

Or perhaps the real crime is the infantilisation of our people, so much so that we have to be constantly told that we are confused.

To be protected from being offended by a sausage is apparently more important than to be protected from those who would steal from us. Such is the upside down world we live in today.

Perhaps the only thing we can cling to is that in this gloomy world, what doesn’t change are friendships amongst people, across communities and nations. I at least take comfort in knowing that despite decades of separation and political winds and whimsies, friendships can and do last.

21 October 2016

DON’T we all have moments when we dream of being led by inspiring leaders, rather than the dim wet blankets we currently have? Don’t we wish we could listen to them and feel our hearts soar with hope, rather than having to figure out what is the latest mumbo jumbo nonsense they are dishing out?

Like many Malaysians bored with the clowns we see in our media, I have turned to watching the American elections. It is an activity I do with horrified fascination.

On the one hand, the long complicated process of electing a president and Congress gives us an opportunity to really get to know the candidates, rather than the hurried two-week dash we call our elections.

From a list of several candidates at the beginning all aiming to get into the White House, it gets whittled down quite brutally to only two, which is a relief given the jaw-dropping awfulness of some of the candidates.

Then every bit of detail about the final two contenders is examined with journalistic microscopes. It is their stated policies that come under the closest scrutiny, not just their looks. Unlike in our beloved land where lacklustre political parties openly state that they want to field young, pretty and sexy candidates. Female ones, of course.

In some cases in the US election, there is no need to have a microscope because they themselves lay out all their flaws for the world to see, albeit unintentionally.

I’m sure there was a significant number of Malaysians who watched the presidential debates, a totally novel idea in our so-called democracy. And we watched not just the words but the tics and quirks that sometimes tell you more about a person than what they say.

I personally don’t think much of either candidate and I’m very glad I don’t have to vote. It’s a choice between the not-great and the even-worse. And the even-worse is so grotesque, you have to sometimes wonder if this is real or a movie. Except that movies would not also have the enormous impact on the lives of those of us who can’t vote.

But one thing good about the US: nobody truly awful gets away with it. When a video came out that the candidate with the testosterone had said some pretty despicable things about women, he was pilloried by all but the most diehard supporters.

He is reeling from the onslaught and bleeding potential voters.

Whereas if the same thing happened here, supporters would actually outnumber critics.

We’ve seen it happen before where our supposed elected representatives felt free to insult women and then only had their wrists slapped while they issued a half-hearted apology.

Not that the said US presidential candidate is contrite at all.

In fact, he is behaving in the way we are familiar with: blame the victim, blame the opponent, blame the media, blame the world. Should we check his birth certificate in case he was born here?

But no less than the First Lady of the United States decisively took him down in a speech so impassioned it had me wondering if the wrong woman candidate was standing for election.

Michelle Obama’s speech was the sort that many women dream of listening to because it made the insult to women a mainstream issue. Indeed it was a speech many of us, regardless of sex, dream of listening to: full of conviction, focused, articulate and inspiring.

Instead, we live in a country where even women politicians will not convincingly defend women and where we have to put up with the sort of schoolboy politicians who think tearing down tall buildings is a legitimate way to deal with opponents. This is now the final stretch towards electing the new US president and nobody knows what will happen.

The polls say one thing but as Brexit showed us, reality can be something else.

The key is motivation to vote. The Republican candidate may be floundering but his supporters are extremely motivated and will turn out to vote.

His opponent’s supporters don’t seem as galvanised, except perhaps women voters who cannot stomach a boorish groper as their leader.

Whether they, as well as other minority groups summarily dismissed by him, will be enough is the mystery question.

Over here, on social media at least, people seem to be motivated towards change. Which means nothing unless it turns into action.

Over four million eligible voters have not even registered to vote.

If they don’t register in good time before our own elections, they cannot participate. So let’s not talk about change unless we’re motivated enough to register as voters.

Meanwhile, I’m going to ignore our local horror show for a while in favour of the one happening thousands of miles away. Popcorn!