29 January 2016

If we keep treating our children as infants throughout their school life, we should not be surprised at the consequences.

I HAD another of those moments when my mouth simply gaped recently. A friend told me the text that was used in his daughter’s school for her SPM English Literature paper was the Grimm fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin.

I was shocked. For one thing, the Brothers Grimm were German, not English. For another, Rumpelstiltskin is a story for little children, not 17-year-olds and definitely not worthy of an exam.

In comparison, the equivalent British school exams in English Literature look at authors like Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, George Eliot and, of course, William Shakespeare. How does anyone study English Literature without studying Shakespeare who was so influential in the English language? Do our students even know of the many common phrases we use daily which originated from Shakespeare?

Some might say that English Literature is not important to us since English is not our native language. But a look through the Bahasa Malaysia literature texts doesn’t impress either. I haven’t done Malay Literature since my own school days so I might not know who are the great Malay writers these days. But surely it cannot be someone who writes about the adventures of a girl during her school holidays?

Our school literature syllabus seems to suggest that our students cannot handle any form of sophisticated writing at all. I looked through an exam tips website on Rumpelstiltskin and the values our students are supposed to derive from the story are absurdly childish – don’t boast, don’t tell lies, don’t be greedy. There is no nuance or ambiguity to any of it. Students are simply told what to think about these stories with no room for opinions of their own.

Is this the state of our education today, one that treats our children as infants throughout their school life? How are they meant to handle the complex world we live in?

I was in London not so long ago when I went to view an exhibition of the works of Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese artist known for having been kept in solitary confinement for eight months and then banned from travelling because of his critical views on what was happening in China. His works are beautiful, thought-provoking and often moving. There were reconstructed trees, marble grass and straightened steel rods made from wreckage of buildings destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The stories behind these works tell about censorship, groupthink and cover-ups of the true costs of natural and manmade disasters.

People form long queues to view this exhibition. But what I really found astounding were the groups of schoolchildren being taken around the exhibition by their teachers. Surely this was too sophisticated for them? But apparently it was not.

Children can surely learn about art and beauty from a young age, as well as what messages artists want to convey through their work. What child doesn’t understand unfairness, or not being able to give an opinion? Which child would not be moved by the long lists of names of the schoolchildren lost in the earthquake, killed by the shoddy workmanship of their schools?

If we keep treating our children as infants throughout their school life, why should we be surprised at the consequences? We see adults with embarrassingly shallow capacity for analysing the information they get, who are easily provoked to react to gossip and false stories, who constantly harp on the least important points of any piece of news and who refuse to read anything in-depth because it contains too many long words and therefore is too difficult. And who will vilify anyone with more knowledge and maturity than them and call them names as a way of distracting from their own ignorance?

The infantilising of our people doesn’t only occur in schools but all the way to the top where we’re often expected to accept the most ludicrous explanations for all sorts of things, from missing funds to polluted waters to what constitutes terrorism. To be sure, there are many of us who do not accept these explanations but the very audacity of the people offering them is what is insulting and unacceptable. (Maybe when we get rid of them some day, we can just say it’s because they smell bad and they cannot complain about that.)

I listened to Turkish author Mustafa Akyol recently who said that the intelligent response to Islamophobia is not to ban people or books but rather by countering it intellectually. While I agree with that idea, it does presume that Muslims in our country have the intellectual capacity to do that.

But how do people still reading Rumpelstiltskin at age 17 counter the views of much more intellectually sophisticated people like Richard Dawkins and the like?

15 January 2016

Common sense has slowly been taking a back seat over the last few years, as people get hysterical over the most ridiculous things.

FOR a country that loves having laws to govern everyone’s beha­viour, we are very peculiar about ensuring that people follow them.

For some people, we bring the full force of the law to not only pu­nish them but to also set as an “example” to others.

For others, we sometimes wilfully ignore the law and let them do what they want.

Then there are the people who ignore court orders because they say it conflicts with some other law. Why they don’t get charged with contempt of court, I don’t know, but I don’t have to be a lawyer to think this is weird.

Then there are people who stretch laws to mean and do other things.

Like assuming that fathers are the only parents of a child and therefore what they say goes. (To the students to whom I was explaining what gender discrimination means today, there’s your example.)

Additionally there are people who make things up because it’s a law that only exists in their head.

A Muslim parent whose child goes to a Chinese school talked about how it was not enough for the religious studies teacher that there is halal food available in the canteen, but that the Muslim kids had to sit apart from their non-Muslim friends as well.

Does she think that non-halal food can be breathed in?

Some people will undoubtedly say that children have a habit of sharing food and utensils so some may inadvertently eat some non-halal food.

But of course sharing even all-halal food isn’t very hygienic either and is something parents should teach their children not to do.

Thinking about this story, I rea­lise how common sense has slowly been taking a back seat over the last few years.

Some people can really get hysterical over the most ridiculous things.

The unnecessary hoo-ha over the eventually false story of pig DNA in chocolate comes to mind.

Then of course there is the obsession with the cross appearing everywhere.

Apparently if you live in a house where there is something that looks like a crucifix on the roof, you will change your faith as easily as you change your underwear.

It never ceases to amuse me how, while Muslims find it so difficult to convert anyone else, all it takes to convert a Muslim to some other religion is the sight of a crucifix, a statue, hearing a song, drinking some water and even, as I was once privileged to be told, looking into the eyes of the Pope.

Our faith is a delicate thing, which we hang on to by the thinnest wisp of a thread, vulnerable to whatever “infidel” breeze might blow our way.

As it happens, I spent 12 years in a Convent school where there were crucifixes everywhere inclu­ding a giant one on the roof of the school.

Not a single one of the Muslim girls who studied there has left the faith. But maybe our generation are stronger than the people today.

I don’t understand why we are not ashamed to admit our faith is weak, and that we should constantly protect it.

Other people don’t seem to have the same problem.

I talk to young foreigners about the practice of Islam in Malaysia very often and, as far as I know, none have converted yet.

I may have dispelled some stereotypes about Muslims however, particularly the one about us having no sense of humour.

Logic is not our strong point either.

I saw a video where a uniformed man was briefing some academics on how to spot terrorists.

He talked about their distorted beliefs about religion and their lite­ral reading of the Quran.

I thought he was doing a fair job until he decided to give some examples of people to be wary of.

All of a sudden, he cited some of the most progressive people in the country as those most dangerous.

The sheer illogicality was breathtaking. I think even the terrorists would be puzzled, because the very people he mentioned in the same breath as terrorist ideology are not exactly popular with the angry, head-chopping, bearded crowd either.

The people wreaking havoc in Syria these days don’t believe much in women’s rights, for example.

So does it make sense to label women’s rights advocates as terrorists?

But maybe the illogicality and nonsense are deliberate. Our people tend to look up to those in authority so perhaps when they say that black is now actually white, and good is now bad, we will simply believe it.

That approach assumes that our people are all mildly intelligent, of course, and have shaky values to begin with. But it seems to work.

Maybe ultimately that’s the only thing about how we are governed that makes sense.

31 December 2015

Instead of waiting for others to make improvements, maybe we should start by changing ourselves first.

It is finally the end of a very long year. As I meet with friends and others at various gatherings over the holidays, the mood is sober and pessimistic.

A year ago, we all wished for a better year in 2015 after the disastrous year that was 2014. But sadly, 2015 has not proven to be uplifting.

The hole we find ourselves in has been dug even deeper and we cannot see how we are to get out of it. Despite the seemingly bright outlook our leaders would have us believe, ordinary people everywhere, especially the young, know that things are tough.

Life in the city is expensive, more so if your salary barely keeps your head above water. Your hopes of living close to your job are slim, so you are forced to live further out, which means having to pay more for transport. Each month ends with very little spare change.

That is, if you have a job. For our graduates coming out of university, real life is a shock. Nothing they learnt in our public universities has prepared them for workplaces that value soft skills that they have not been taught.

The good jobs are the ones that require working fluency in English. Yet they are being told that they are a superior community that does not need it. Such a disconnect with the realities of life leads to frustration.

To divert attention from these frustrations, they are told that it’s someone else’s fault and the only way to ease the pain is to turn to God.

Other less devout people may annoyingly have better jobs and lives but they are at least not going to heaven, while you are assured.

It is this type of thinking that leads to even more resentment, which perhaps makes people unable to think clearly and see what is truly the problem. That those who keep telling you that you are unjustly suffering are actually the ones who are causing it. And that they can provide you with few answers beyond that redemption will come in the afterlife. Meanwhile, you have to feed your family.

This is the real dilemma we are in today –those we rely on to lead us into the future are in fact dragging us backwards and justifying it as salvation.

The more insecure our futures, the more they try to secure theirs by telling us that we are constantly in danger from outside forces and only they can protect us.

Foolishly, we believe them and hand over even more of our lives.

Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic. Perhaps things can be better. I hope so and I pray the following wishes for 2016 will come true:

1. That ordinary people will finally wake up from their stupor and realise that if we do nothing to save our country now, we’ll be looking at decades of misery.

2. That while some people’s ideas of how things will be better may sound fine in theory, real life may not pan out quite that way. History has shown that when you buy too much into politicians’ promises and give up any checks and balances, it will be really difficult to undo these later.

3. That greed and hypocrisy, the hallmarks of 2015, will finally be recognised and called out on, regardless of who it is. When people blithely insist that there is nothing wrong with taking money meant for orphans to pay for their trips abroad, or use people’s savings to pay dubious loans, then you know that honesty has become extinct.

4. That we return to the values that used to be considered good. Values such as honesty, trustworthiness, integrity and even courtesy and respect are now no longer considered values to be upheld. Instead, we see blatant dishonesty being exalted while those who dare to speak the truth are punished.

5. That we realise this constant need to prohibit and punish those who give alternative opinions and perspectives will eventually bite us back. Not just because the world is watching but because there are so many examples of countries that do this and are totally miserable places to live in.

Unless, of course, our leaders truly don’t care whether we are happy or not.

6. That we stop believing the constant lies and fantastical stories that we are being told. Our leaders live in parallel universes from us, where agencies that have done their utmost to divide people are praised for bringing “unity and peace”, where the greatest danger to us are liberals rather than the greedy and dishonest politicians.

7. That we start being a more considerate and thoughtful society, rather than one that is quick to condemn anyone who is different.

I hope we become a kinder society where we empathise more with those who have less and are proud of those who do well, rather than finding fault with them. I would love to see our society become more big-hearted rather than be so judgmental.

I don’t know if any of these are too much to ask. Perhaps change can only happen when we change ourselves, when we stop waiting for others to make the change for us.

Today our beloved Malaysia needs us, the people, more than ever. Let us not let her down.

Try and have a happy new year, folks!

17 December 2015

Many think it means the right to absolute freedom rather than basic rights such as the right to life, to dignity, to a nationality, to education and to work.

OCCASIONALLY you get a request from someone from a country so new to you that you can’t resist agreeing to a meeting. That was how I sat down today with a young PhD candidate from Estonia to chat about our two countries.

Admittedly I had to begin by asking him where Estonia was. It is a tiny country neighbouring Finland and Latvia in eastern Europe with only about 1.3 million people, less than the population of KL.

We are both interested in the issue of human rights in our countries and noted many similarities, particularly in misunderstandings of what human rights means.

In Estonia, much as in Malaysia, people think that human rights means the right to absolute freedom rather than the very basic rights that all human beings should enjoy, such as the right to life, to dignity, to a nationality, to education and to work, among others.

Those who argue against human rights think that it means people have the right to walk naked in public or to take drugs or some other anti-social behaviour.

Without proper education on what human rights actually is, both Estonians and Malaysians have the same negative perceptions about it.

Estonians and Malaysians also seem to have similar attitudes towards migrant workers and refugees. Being part of the European Union, Estonians are able to work without much difficulty anywhere in Europe.

At the same time there is a huge debate there on whether to let Syrian refugees in based on as yet unfounded fears such as that they will take jobs away from Estonians. Given that Estonia is only slated to take in 300 refugees out of the hundreds of thousands washing up on European shores, the fears seem to be exaggerated, possibly by politicians out to make a quick vote.

What is more, Estonia is hardly the first choice of any migrant worker from other parts of the world.

Indeed, research showed that people who leave the country for jobs elsewhere outnumber those who come into the country for any reason by some 25,000.

Equally puzzling is the proposed ban of the hijab and niqab (face-covering) by the Estonian government.

Considering that their Muslim population is only about 1000-strong, most of whose women wear neither the hijab nor the niqab, one has to wonder about the logic of this proposed ban.

Some of the advocates of the ban said that while there is no need for it now, it was necessary to have it to prevent the so-called future influx of hijabed and niqabed women, presumably among the 300 refugees they are taking in.

Isn’t it wondrous that politicians everywhere practise the same kind of logic?

If one were a student of the illogicality of politicians, one would have had a wealth of material last weekend.

There was the fellow who, obviously thinking himself very original, declared that the uniforms our national airline’s female flight attendants have worn for the last 30 years are in fact “Jewish” designs and therefore should be abolished.

Considering that these uniforms were designed by the UiTM School of Fashion, this seems a rather awkward accusation to make. Besides, I don’t know many Jewish women who wear the sarong kebaya.

Then there was the fellow who said our leader is appointed by God. And since God makes no mistakes, our leader cannot be bad or wrong.

It makes you wonder why they even have elections for their leaders. Why not just wait for a giant arrow from above to point out the Right Guy, preferably accompanied by a bright light and some Arabic music?

I am just waiting for the day when the Arrow suddenly alights on the head of the Right Girl. Then all hell will break loose and they will decide that elections are still the best way because then you can fix it to pick the Right Guy.

After a whole convention baying for race and religion, one of our leaders then asks Muslims to show that Islam is a religion of peace in order to counter Islamophobia. He must have gone to the same school as right-wing Estonian politicians.

Apparently, when you say nasty things about other people and faiths, that is a peaceful act. It is only when you take up arms against them, that you’re not being peaceful and should be arrested and incarcerated.

In the former act, you are merely exercising your human rights while in the latter, you’re just being unsociable and even crazy.

Meanwhile in the real world, Jews in the United States are protesting against Islamophobia, Muslim Palestinians are donning Santa Claus outfits and singing carols along with their Christian friends and Germany is taking in 300,000 Syrian refugees.

I am looking forward to roast turkey, mince pies, peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind.

Merry Christmas everyone!

07 December 2015

DRIVING along in the middle of George Town last weekend, I spied a Malay couple in full wedding finery taking photographs in front of one of the restored old buildings. I couldn’t stop to take photos of them but I was intrigued because you rarely see this in Kuala Lumpur.

According to my friends in Penang, these days you see all sorts of marrying couples taking their pre-wedding photos in the heri­tage district of George Town.

“There was even a Malay couple taking photos in the Khoo Kongsi!”

I suppose young couples getting married simply want memorable photos of themselves in scenic settings and George Town obviously offers many such places.

I was in Penang for the Georgetown Literary Festival, an annual event showcasing literary works by Malaysian and foreign wri­ters.

My hosts put me up in a boutique hotel in the heart of Little India, a beautiful old building renovated into an upmarket version of a backpacker’s hotel.

The ground floor coffeeshop opens up into the street and you can sit there and watch the hustle and bustle of the predominantly Indian section of town.

The street life was lively and diverse. On one side was what looked like a rather dilapidated coffee shop selling the usual Penang specialities like char kuey teow and laksa.

One afternoon my host got me puttu with brown sugar and coconut, a treat I haven’t had since childhood. Dinner one night was thosai with dhal curry round the corner at a well-known nasi kandar restaurant.

I was speaking at several sessions at the festival and the venues were all within walking distance, which gave me the opportunity to look closely at the shops and other activity going on along the streets. It’s the sort of thing I would do in Europe but rarely get a chance to do in KL.

What is abundantly clear is that the awarding of the Unesco heritage city status to George Town has revived the city like nothing else, with beautiful old buildings being restored and turned into interesting shops, cafes and galleries while the life of the original denizens of the areas goes on uninterrupted.

Walking the streets becomes a cultural experience because you can see so many things, so much colour and so much life. There is an organic feel about it, as if a nice clean splash of water has been poured over these areas so that people woke up and felt okay to be themselves again.

And culture is a good way to do it. George Town has the advantage of being small enough that you can walk everywhere, unlike KL.

And what’s good is that the cultural festivals that go on are organised by people who know and understand culture and what makes a good festival.

The state mostly gives the go-ahead and then stays out of it. This means that you can have a vibrant event with performances and talks that are a bit more edgy and different. This is what attracts people to them.

KL of course has its share of cultural events too and there have been many good ones recently, the KataKatha festival being one. But our disadvantage is that KL is so big and venues are far apart and necessitates driving to them.

Also the venues are often in malls, which dampens the atmosphere somewhat. Going to events becomes a major effort and some days you just can’t muster the energy to go to them.

Even then, sometimes you don’t even hear about what’s going on. I may be more tapped in than most to arts and cultural events in KL but I always find it puzzling when people think that nothing is happening in the city at all.

There is a lot going on but unfortunately we are so bad about publicising these events. For example, recently there was a month-long arts festival in KL but there was a woeful lack of publicity about it.

It’s as if the entire budget went to the productions with nothing left over for marketing. So people don’t know and don’t go, and the entire festival is deemed a failure. Then we stop it altogether or cut the budgets even more, without considering that all such festivals take time to build up their reputation.

Arts and culture give us a respite from the incessant ugly politics that we are subject to every day these days.

They give us beautiful experiences which all human beings need in order to feel human. They also get us to think about the times we live in, in a different way.

In Penang I listened as young people asked extremely intelligent questions about the fairly esoteric subject of translation. And suddenly I felt hope. Not everybody is like what we see on our TV news.